Schick Hydro Preview: Wests Tigers v Canterbury Bulldogs
The absences of star fullbacks James Tedesco and Will Hopoate could have a big impact on what shapes as a highly intriguing NRL Telstra Premiership battle between two of western Sydney's biggest clubs.
Wests Tigers will be without their star No.1 after he fractured a shoulder blade in Round 9, while this weekend's game will mark the first of three consecutive matches Hopoate misses on religious grounds.
The Bulldogs have traded wins for losses in the past seven weeks to present tipsters with absolutely no form line to go off when trying to pick this one, while the Tigers ended a six-game slide with a crucial win over South Sydney in their last start.
The Tigers have named a virtually unrecognisable squad to the one that beat the Rabbitohs. Skipper Aaron Woods returns a week earlier than expected and will be joined by Mitch Moses, Tim Grant and Justin Hunt in the starting side, while Dene Halatau, Kyle Lovett and Ava Seumanufagai all return on the bench. New recruit Elijah Taylor has been named 18th man.
Sam Perrett returns at fullback in place of Hopoate with Tyrone Phillips retaining his spot on the wing. Lloyd Perrett and Craig Garvey have been added to an extended bench for the Bulldogs.
Watch out Wests Tigers: No forward in the game makes more metres than Bulldogs skipper James Graham. The Englishman has 1,543 metres – only bettered by Dragons fullback Josh Dugan – and leads the league with 155 hit ups. Graham ran for 188 metres when the sides met in Round 4 last year but didn't play when the blue and whites were beaten four weeks later. The Bulldogs prop has won five of his six games against the Tigers and will relish his duel with Aaron Woods.
Watch out Bulldogs: 'Consistency' has been the buzz word in Belmore for most of 2016. After starting the year with back-to-back wins, the Bulldogs have gone LWLWLWL. They were expected to win their last start against Parramatta but were outplayed in all key areas. The good news is the last time they lost to the Eels on a Friday night, they bounced back the following week with an afternoon win at ANZ Stadium. Will history repeat on Sunday?
Key match-up: Justin Hunt v Sam Perrett. The battle of the replacement fullbacks could very well dictate how this one plays out. Injury and religion forced regular custodians Tedesco and Hopoate out, with the pair leading their respective sides in most of the key statistics.
Sunday's game will be Hunt's first for the Tigers and his first with the No.1 on his back since Round 18 last year. He has played five games at fullback throughout his career, but has lost the past four. The switch to fullback won't be as foreign to Perrett who has had to don the No.1 jersey 66 times in his NRL career. Injuries to Brett Morris in 2015 saw him play nine games at the back where he scored two tries. He has played fullback four times against the Tigers, splitting the results with two wins and a couple of defeats.
The history: Played 29; Wests Tigers 11, Bulldogs 18. The Bulldogs have won seven of the past 10 meetings but the ledger was split one apiece in 2015. The Tigers blew a 24-6 lead with 20 minutes to go to eventually fall in golden point to a Moses Mbye field goal, but responded a month later with a clinical 38-14 win inspired by doubles to Luke Brooks and James Tedesco.
Match officials: Referee: Grant Atkins. Assistant referee: Alan Shortall. Sideline officials: Brett Suttor, Kasey Badger. Review officials: Jarred Maxwell and Bryan Norrie.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live coverage from 3:30pm. Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 4pm.
The way we see it: It might be 6th v 14th this weekend, but there is very little to suggest the Bulldogs should be favourites. They will head into this clash with a stronger side on paper, but rugby league is a sport played on grass. James Tedesco will be a huge loss, but the Tigers appear to still have plenty of points in them. We're tipping the Tigers to get up by eight on the back of Luke Brooks's left boot.