Round 20: Bulldogs v Wests Tigers preview
Tigers look to show their teeth against barkless Bulldogs
Barely firing a shot in a performance devoid of confidence against the Eels last Thursday, the Bulldogs will be desperate to improve their fortunes over the remaining six matches in an effort to avoid the wooden spoon. Currently locked in a three-way battle for the dreaded utensil alongside the Cowboys and Eels, the Bulldogs' marginally superior statistics has them positioned in 14th, but with so few attacking threats at their disposal the likelihood of grinding out victories over current top eight occupants will require the Blue and White's to demonstrate significantly improved attacking performances if they are to avoid rugby league's ultimate humiliation. Making a single change from the team that slumped to a 14-8 defeat at the hands of Parramatta, rookie forward Ofahiki Ogden has been preferred ahead of Clay Priest on the bench, while mid-season pick-up Chris Smith could come into calculations for a club debut after being included on the extended bench for the first time. In a rare highlight for the Canterbury club to celebrate in a season of diminishing returns, hard-working second rower Adam Elliott will make his 50th appearance in the NRL after debuting under Des Hasler two years ago.
Currently two wins outside the top eight, the Tigers have shown tremendous improvement in the weeks following Origin to account for the Dragons and Rabbitohs in style. Appearing to squander a promising opening to 2018 with a dismal run of losses during the middle third of the season, the improved defensive showings coupled with the recruitment of Moses Mbye and Robbie Farah have breathed new life into the joint venture much to the delight of coach Ivan Cleary. With a favourable draw pitting the 2005 premiers against four teams below them on the competition table along with return fixtures against St. George Illawarra and South Sydney, the prospect of returning to the finals for the first time since 2011 appears to be gaining traction based off of recent performances. Making minimal changes to the side that triumphed 22-6 last Saturday, former Manly Under 20's forward Luke Garner will start in place of injured Samoan representative Josh Aloiai allowing journeyman Robbie Rochow to come into the squad for just his second match in first grade since May. In a night of milestones for two of the club's best servants in recent years, winger David Nofoaluma and lock Elijah Taylor will play their 100th and 50th matches for the Wests Tigers respectively.
Last meeting: Round 12 2018 - Wests Tigers 14 Bulldogs 10
Who to watch: In a side that has lacked the flair to score points for much of 2018, utility Fa'amanu Brown has been used sparingly to the Bulldogs' detriment. Signed from Cronulla as a means of securing more game time in the top grade, the 23-year-old Samoan international has provided glimpses of spark to the club's struggling attack, but has largely been left to languish in reserve grade for much of the year. Preferred by coach Dean Pay as an impact dummy half working in tandem with Michael Lichaa, Brown looms as one of the only Canterbury players coming off the bench capable of challenging the Tigers' attacking strength in an otherwise mediocre interchange rotation. Known for backing himself close to the try line with burrowing runs, the result will likely be over by the time he is injected into the match, but in the event the Bulldogs aim up in attack, the crafty utility could prove decisive in the end result.
Lining up for Canterbury when the two sides clashed earlier in the season, Moses Mbye will be out to make the Bulldogs pay on Friday night as he opposes his former club for the first time. Departing Belmore as part of the Blue and White's mid-year fire sale to help lessen the burden of woefully mismanaged finances from previous administrations, the 24-year-old has provided strong service to the Tigers with his speed and playmaking skills providing the joint venture with an additional attacking threat at the back of the field. Having stared down the prospect of finishing the season with the wooden spoon, the fortuitous timing of Mbye's switch could see the versatile Queenslander lead the Tigers to the play-offs as part of a formidable attacking spine encompassing the experience of club legends and emerging potential of young guns.
My tip: Seemingly turning a corner following the introduction of Moses Mbye and Robbie Farah into their ranks, the rejuvenated Tigers should prove too strong for the Bulldogs to contend with. Wests Tigers by 22.