Schick Hydro Preview: Roosters v Bulldogs
With 10 weeks to go until the start of the finals, the equation is simple for the Roosters; win nine matches or they start preparing for 2017.
Their only problem; nine of those matches are against teams currently in the top eight.
Their first task is a date with the Bulldogs, and despite boasting an impressive recent record against the men from Belmore, the Roosters will head into this one as heavy underdogs.
The Tricolours have won just one of their past five matches – including a 32-20 defeat at the hands of the Dogs in Round 11 – while the Bulldogs are fresh from an emphatic 26-point win over the Broncos on Saturday night.
Having traded wins for losses for the first two months of the season, the Bulldogs have snuck under the radar to sit on 20 competition points in equal-fifth position on the NRL Telstra Premiership ladder.
A win on Thursday wouldn't just consolidate their position inside the top eight; it would confirm their status as a genuine premiership threat in 2016.
The Roosters have received a huge boost with star halfback Mitchell Pearce returning from injury for the first time since these sides last met. His inclusion sees Ryan Matterson drop back to an extended bench.
Origin players Blake Ferguson and Aidan Guerra slot straight back into the starting side forcing Sam Moa back to the interchange bench while Joseph Manu and Chris Smith drop out of the side altogether.
The Bulldogs welcome back Greg Eastwood in the back row with Asipeli Fine and Raymond Faitala-Mariner joining an extended bench of six.
Watch out Roosters: The Bulldogs forwards were virtually unstoppable last weekend against a star-studded Broncos pack, outrunning them by more than 500 metres. Props Aiden Tolman and James Graham both made over 200 metres, while fellow big men Sam Kasiano (two tries), David Klemmer and Tony Williams all scored. Greg Eastwood returns this week to turn an already daunting bunch of forwards into the most formidable front six in the competition.
Watch out Bulldogs: There's something about playing the Roosters at Allianz Stadium that doesn't sit well with the blue and whites. Moore Park holds bad memories for a Bulldogs side that has lost three of its past four at the venue against Easts, conceding 38 points in all of those defeats including last year's meeting in week two of the finals. Thankfully for them, Sonny Bill Williams won't be there to haunt them like he did in the 38-0 thrashing in 2013.
Key match-up: Dylan Napa v James Graham. The bigger stage, the better Dylan Napa tends to perform. We've already seen in 2016 what the Roosters front-rower can do when he single-handedly took down the Rabbitohs pack back in Round 6. His main target that night was Sam Burgess, but he'll have to be even better if he wants to contain fellow Englishman James Graham. The Bulldogs skipper has been in imperious form this year and leads the NRL for most runs (332) and most metres (2,729) and has made over 200 metres in his last three starts.
The history: Played 168; Roosters 84, Bulldogs 79, Drawn 5. The Roosters have won four of the past five meetings between the sides, including the last two at Allianz. They have scored 152 points over that stretch, but were humbled back in Round 11 with Tyrone Phillips crossing for a hat-trick and David Klemmer running for a staggering 243 metres.
What are the odds: The $1.70 that was originally on offer for the Bulldogs disappeared quickly, with six times the amount of money placed on the Doggies to defeat the Roosters. Sportsbet has received more bets on the Bulldogs 13+ than all of the other winning margin options combined. Latest odds at Sportsbet
Match officials: Referee: Grant Atkins. Assistant referee: Alan Shortall. Sideline officials: Jason Walsh and Chris Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 7:30pm. Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7:30pm.
The way we see it: The return of Mitchell Pearce will make a huge difference to a Roosters side desperately in need of an attacking spark, but he will need plenty of help from the supporting cast if the three-time defending minor premiers want to knock off the Bulldogs. Anyone who watched Canterbury methodically take down the Broncos will be hard pressed to tip anything but a big win for the blue and whites. Bulldogs by 13.