Sydney Roosters v Canterbury Bulldogs
An unexpected hiccup for the minor premiers and a scratchy win for Des's Dogs: that is the equation that led us to a tantalising semi final clash at Allianz Stadium this Friday.
Melbourne brought the game plan to edge out the minor premiers this week, and it leaves Trent Robinson with the unappetising prospect of rushing co-captain Mitchell Pearce back from a hamstring injury for a must-win clash against a side that seems to bring their best in the finals.
They'd have much preferred a week off to rest up and get everything right but they're left with having to do things the hard way. Pearce has been named at halfback and will need to pass a fitness test on his hamstring later in the week. It pushes Jackson Hastings – who was one of his side's best last week – to the bench, and Suaia Matagi to an extended bench. If Pearce is ruled out expect Hastings to start and Matagi to play.
Bulldogs coach Des Hasler is something of a September specialist – sides coached by him have never failed to progress to a grand final appearance after winning in the first week of the finals. It's happened five times so far (with Manly in 2007-8 and 2011, and with Canterbury in 2012 and 2014) for a 2/5 strike rate on the big day.
Hasler has named an unchanged side; Lloyd Perrett was added to an extended bench, presumably as cover for Frank Pritchard, but with Pritchard successful at arguing his case against a dangerous contact charge at the judiciary on Tuesday night expect an unchanged side on Friday night.
Watch out Roosters: As much as we think of the Bulldogs as playing a power game through the middle they actually play a significantly more adventurous style than the Roosters. They run far more from dummy half (14.8 per game, compared to 8.2 for the Roosters who scoot from dummy half less than any other side) and use far more second-man plays (as testified by their 39 decoy runs per game compared to 30 for the Tricolours). Their total shifts (moving the ball laterally more than half the field in one play) and shortsides (any short side movement) make up around 120 more plays this year compared to the Roosters (929-807).
Watch out Bulldogs: The Dogs will need to be careful when the ball goes up in the air because when it comes to tries scored and conceded from kicks the Roosters have it all over them. The Tricolours have scored 29 tries from kicks while conceding just 12 while the Dogs are almost the exact opposite – they've scored just 12 tries from kicks and conceded 28. The fact lanky Roosters winger Daniel Tupou is one of the tallest men in the NRL is no doubt a factor, as is the fact halves James Maloney and Mitch Pearce have two of the most accurate boots in the competition.
Key Match-Up: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck v Brett Morris. Both these men have made a successful transition from wing to fullback in 2015, and have done so with vastly contrasting styles. Perhaps surprisingly it is the Roosters custodian who has emerged as the elite ball-player, with 13 try assists against Morris's three. Bearing in mind Morris missed 10 more games than Tuivasa-Sheck through rep duty and injury, the stats still show the Kiwi as the far more involved ball runner, with 22 runs per game against 12 per Morris. Morris however, as he has shown over a decade spent as one of if not the best wingers on the planet, remains an elite finisher and support player. Despite the disparity in games played he is only just behind in total tries (11-9) and line breaks (14-12) at a better strike rate. He also has more support runs (11 per game against 9.8). No-one, however, could possibly compete with Tuivasa-Sheck's overall figures of 22.3 runs per game (Morris 12.8) and 238.8 metres per game (Morris 145 metres).
The History: Played 166; Roosters 83, Bulldogs 78, Drawn 5. Recent history favours the Roosters, with wins in both previous fixtures this year and in five of the past six meetings.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm
The Way We See It: The Roosters will start favourites but no way is this a gimme against a dangerous side that loves this time of year. This is more than a danger game for the minor premiers – this is anyone's game. There's no doubt about the finals intensity we'll see come Friday night but based on what they showed in their 12-match winning run we'll tip the Roosters to hit back – but only just – and secure a spot in the third week of the finals with a four-point win.
This article first appeared on NRL.com