Beware the wounded Bulldog.
While the first two rounds of the competition give weight to Penrith’s heavy favouritism for this match, I find myself with a few concerns heading into the twilight kick-off at ANZ Stadium on Friday.
The concerns certainly aren’t based on form, moreso the reality that the Bulldogs have to win eventually and that sides with their backs to the wall so often find a way to rise above the adversity.
The Bulldogs have been disappointing in their first two games, leaking 36 and 30 points respectively against the Storm and Roosters, but they certainly won’t be the only team on the wrong side of a thrashing to those two powerhouse clubs this season.
Canterbury were always likely to start slow with new coach Dean Pay finding his feet and Kieran Foran needing some time to adjust to leading a new side around the park. Don’t underestimate the loss of James Graham either – he provided the leadership and spark that drove the Bulldogs’ aggressive style and the side needs someone to step up and fill that void. At some point it’ll start to click and I can see the Dogs going on a solid mid-season run that very much puts them in Finals contention.
That said, coach Pay has hit the panic button very early, dropping five-eighth Matt Frawley in favour of Jeremy Marshall-King for this clash. It is an intriguing decision given the Frawley / Foran combination had little time to gel.
As for Penrith, round three provides circumstances that couldn’t be further away from what they faced in the opening rounds.
The obvious one is there will be no vocal home crowd to spur them on.
And after two games in searing heat, this week Penrith will find themselves playing in much cooler conditions after a week of rain in Sydney. It means that while superior fitness got the side home against the Eels and Rabbitohs, it’ll be ball control, improved discipline and possession that wins this one.
With Sam McKendry ruled out through another heartbreaking ACL injury, Moses Leota returns to the top side and simply must step up if he’s going to stay there. He has been a ‘thereabouts’ player for a couple of seasons now – it’s time to prove he’s worthy of a permanent first grade spot.
Coach Anthony Griffin will also have some re-shuffling to do in the backs with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak out for the next six weeks after suffering a broken jaw.
The momentum is unlikely to shift in this clash as much as it did in the opening games, which means those slow starts really need to be addressed. We can all praise the character of the side to come back from 14-0 down in two consecutive games, but pleased as he may be with the wins there’s no way coach Griffin would be happy with the way his side is coming out of the blocks.
The partnership between James Maloney and Nathan Cleary is improving quickly and once that has settled, the starts may improve as a result.
I’m sticking with Penrith in this one but I admit, I’m frightened. I sense something is cooking at Canterbury to turn things around – they will win very soon.
Tip: Panthers by 6.
Penrith and Canterbury play at ANZ Stadium on Friday, March 23 from 6pm.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor. He has more than 15 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.