What a difference 11 weeks makes.
James Maloney and Mitchell Pearce were the reining halves for NSW. Sonny Bill was the toast of the rugby league world, and the Roosters pack — led by Jared Waerea-Hargreaves — was seen as the best in the comp: a defensive juggernaut that could also roll over the top with ease. There was no way this club could not back up a Grand Final win with at least a thereabouts display.
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, were a rabble. They were predicted to struggle after losing Ben Barba; their five-eighth was nothing but a grub; and their halfback was in reserve grade just a year earlier.
And Tony Williams was as extinct a threat as his nickname.
But three months in and it’s the Roosters who have been largely disappointing with barely a flagship win to their name. Sonny Bill Williams hasn’t quite been SBW, and their forward pack has been repeatedly steamrolled up the middle like one of Dr Evil’s henchmen:
Meanwhile, the Dogs have somehow gone to the top of the table through no-nonsense football and composure under pressure. They’ve amazingly lost their halves to Origin, and someone flogged the DNA from a mosquito and revived T-Rex back into an Origin player.
Reynolds is still a grub though.
That trio, along with Josh Morris, is missing in this one, and both Roosters and Dogs fans are predicting a flogging in favour of the Tricolours based on that alone.
I don’t see how that’s possible.
Team for Round 11: Anthony Minichiello, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Mitchell Aubusson, Samisoni Langi, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, James Maloney, Mitchell Pearce, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jake Friend, Sam Moa, Dylan Napa, Sonny Bill Williams, Frank Paul Nuuasala. Interchange: Daniel Mortimer, Isaac Liu, Kane Evans, Remi Casty.
Mitchell Pearce will return after not being selected for NSW, and James Maloney also failed to secure a Blues jersey, meaning the Roosters will unexpectedly have their halves together during a tough Origin period. Aidan Guerra, Michael Jennings and Daniel Tupou, however, have been selected for their respective states while Boyd Cordner is expected to miss 6-8 weeks with syndesmosis.
Therefore, the Roosters will shift SKD to Tupou’s wing, Aubo to his centre spot and Samisoni Langi has been named to start at the the open centre spot. Dylan Napa and Frank Paul Nuuasala will start in the back row, while Remi Casty has been named once again to make his belated debut off the bench alongside the recalled Kane Evans.
This is a huge game for Pearce. It’s the first game he’ll play without Origin hanging over his head, and he’ll be keen to silence those who think his Cross kerfuffle was a convenient excuse to drop him and Maloney from the Blues squad.
It reminds us here at 26 Rounds of the game just after Origin III. Anyone would have put their hard-earned on Mitchell crumbling in that game after another Origin disappointment, yet he put on a halfback masterclass in leading the Roosters to a 40-0 win by laying on four line break assists and three tries to immediately shut everyone the fuck up.
They again play a decimated squad, unexpectedly, with the Bulldogs missing their halves, but it won’t be as easy as everyone believes it will. The Bulldogs still have all the forwards that really matter, and the Roosters haven’t exactly laid a consistent platform this year for Pearcey and Jimmy to work behind.
Don’t believe me? Check out the stats in the prediction at the bottom of this article.
How they’ll play
But if there’s one game the forwards need to fire, it’s this one. They were absolutely monstered up the middle against the Cowboys and they failed to get back to help the backs cart it out almost on every occasion. They lost the metres battle by nearly 700 metres — and it was the fourth time this year they’ve been flogged by at least 400.
Against James Graham, Aidan Tolman, David Klemmer and Sam Kasiano, that cannot happen, even if the Dogs don’t have their halves to lay many tries on. So expect a big game from JWH and Moa — because if they are as quiet as they were last week (10 hit-ups and 89 metres — combined) the Roosters will simply not have a shot.
If they manage to get near the line, a couple of double decoy plays could bear some fruit. They are missing Boyd Cordner but Napa can run at a gap out left as the wide runner while Aubo could slide in one from centre on select occasions.
For those who have forgotten what a frikkin’ double decoy play looks like (I can’t blame you after the past few weeks) it looks like this:
For all their strength the Dogs’ front rowers clearly aren’t that agile, and Kasiano is effectively playing on one leg while supporting a keg for a midriff. Set the play up right, then spread it left — it is the play that will give Pearce and Maloney the confidence they need if it can come off.
Failing that, let Friendy do something similar with his front-rowers on the line:
The backs for the Roosters have seen a reshuffle, with Aubo and Langi slotting in. They aren’t flashy, but they can make the metres off runs. Langi, especially, could make some highlights happen — in attack at least.
In two games last year he ran it 15 times for 169 metres. He has great leg drive and could find easy metres coming up against Chase Stanley, who is always a risk of falling over himself and getting injured. In addition, Langi has the ball skills to draw and pass either way, and could put Mini/RTS away for a run.
The Roosters also need to target Moses Mbye. The youngster is a real talent, but it’s just his second game and his first starting at halfback. Sonny Bill needs to put the blinkers on and hammer away at the kid until he’s gasping for breath — not only for easy metres but also to tire the neophyte out. Apart from Ennis, he’s the only real playmaker they have as Reni is more a running five-eighth.
Oh, and bomb it to Inu and just hope he’s in a rocks mood rather than diamonds.
CANTERBURY BANKSTOWN BULLDOGS
Team for Round 11: Sam Perrett, Mitch Brown, Chase Stanley, Tim Lafai, Krisnan Inu, Reni Maitua, Moses Mbye, Aiden Tolman, Michael Ennis, James Graham, Josh Jackson, Dale Finucane, Greg Eastwood. Interchange: Pat O’Hanlon, Tim Browne, David Klemmer, Sam Kasiano, Corey Thompson, Lachlan Burr.
Trent Hodkinson, Josh Reynolds, Josh Morris and Tony Williams have all been selected for the NSW squad, unexpectedly leaving the Bulldogs short heading into this game. Replacing those four are Reni Maitua and Moses Mbye in the halves, with Chase Stanley shifting to Morris’ centre spot and Krisnan Inu coming in on the wing. Dale Finucane comes into the run on squad with Pat O’Hanlon named in the 17.
The Dogs beat the Roosters by a field goal earlier in the year after the Roosters sensationally waived off a chance at a penalty goal with the scored locked up in the 72nd minute, but the game was truly lost in the forwards. the Roosters were missing JWH then, and the Roosters relied on their backs to do the majority of the hit-ups — and it didn’t work. They lost the metres-per-run 8.14 metres to 7.36 metres, and the total metres battle by more than 200 metres.
- Of the 182 runs from the Bulldogs, (excluding hookers) 105 came from forwards — or 61 per cent of their runs.
- Of the 171 runs the Roosters made, (excluding hookers) just 74 came from forwards — or 43 per cent.
There’s a reason they lost by a point, and it’s because the Bulldogs know how to use their damn forwards. They’ve lost as many forwards to Origin duty as the Roosters and one less to injury, and it is a strength they will rely on if they are any hope of overcoming the loss of their generals.
How they’ll play
They could do worse than repeating the dose of what the Cowboys dished up last week: concentrate on field position and pin the Roosters into the corners. It worked in round five when the Roosters lost by that point, it worked last week and it could work again.
Mini cannot handle grubbers, and is prone to either fluffing the kicks or trying to run it out and getting dragged back in goal from that position. The Dogs treated him like a ragdoll back then and the tactic worked — what remains to be seen is whether Mbye has the composure to be able to execute the play monotonously.
They will also likely target Langi in defence. In two games last year the youngster was found out with eight missed tackles, and the Sharks scored three tries right in his radius in an upset round 24 win. He’s not a centre, after all: he’s a five-eighth and potentially a great lock, so he can become a little lost in the defensive line when he’s forced to make decisions, especially with a faster-paced first grade attack coming at him.
The Roosters, more than anything, need to roll up their sleeves against this forward pack. If they get a roll-on, they’ve shown they only need a try to beat the Roosters.
Everyone is predicting a flogging here, and while the Roosters should win I don’t see where the alleged pumping will come from. The Roosters do have both their halves, but their forwards have not laid a consistent platform all year while the Dogs have continually provided a heckuva foundation to work from — and they’re missing just one of them.
Per Nrl.com, the Bulldogs lead the NRL runs (1,834, Roosters are last with 1,621) and metres gained (16,986, Roosters 12th with 14,511), fourth in offloads with 112 (Roosters are last with just 77), second-last in missed tackles (224, Roosters sixth with 299), and second-last in errors with just 89 (Roosters fifth with 119).
These are critical, faultless baseline stats that prove the Bulldogs can simply hammer away until they can grind out a win. They will not beat themselves, while the Roosters have proven already this season they are remarkably adept at it.
Regardless, the Roosters should win, because they cannot afford to lose. They have a forward pack that needs to return to its intimidating best, two halves that are smarting from snubs and a back-rower that was criticised (perhaps unfairly) for a perceived no-show while playing out of position at five-eighth last week.
It will be a close game though; closer than many people actually care to believe. If I were a betting man, I’d say it’s a 1-12 scoreline. Many people will disagree, but I can’t shake the feeling that this will be closer than we all think, if it’s a win at all.
Man of the Match will be either Sonny Bill Williams against his old club or Pearce after a fortnight from hell.