Round 3: Wests Tigers v Bulldogs preview
Ladder leaders face cellar dwellers in Western Sydney.
For the first time in 20 seasons the Wests Tigers sit on top of the NRL ladder.
Recording wins against Manly and New Zealand over the first two rounds, the arrival of former South Sydney premiership winning coach Michael Maguire has provided the joint venture with an early sense of optimism; but having won their first two matches on five occasions previously only to miss the finals altogether, the Western Sydney outfit will be reluctant to embrace any premature claims of September football.
Returning to Campbelltown in consecutive weeks for the first time since 2002 and only the third time in the club's history, the Tigers will be hoping last week's win stands them in good stead to overcome a poor record at the venue that has seen them manage four wins from 12 appearances since 2016.
Improving upon last season's strong early defensive record by conceding six points against the Sea Eagles and Warriors respectively, the attacking form shown has been equally impressive with veteran hooker Robbie Farah gaining plenty of accolades with performances not seen since his days as an elite representative player.
Every time a side begins a new season in underwhelming fashion the chorus of critics can be heard in full force - in 2019 it happens to be the Bulldogs turn to be on the receiving end.
Conceding 76 points and hitting back with 22 of their own against New Zealand and Parramatta combined, the Bulldogs have left much to be desired as they stare down their worst start to a year since 1971 where they opened with four losses.
Getting the better of Wests Tigers with five wins from nine clashes over the past five years, along with boasting an undefeated record at Campbelltown from five previous visits, the blue and whites be hoping to replicate that form on Sunday afternoon in order to pave the way to become just fourth Bulldogs team to qualify for the finals after losing their first two matches (1939, 1946, 2007).
Responding to on-field results and media scrutiny, coach Dean Pay has wielded the axe in naming five new faces from the side selected for the opening fortnight. Relegating Marcelo Montoya, Christian Crichton, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Danny Fualalo and Sauaso Sue to reserve grade, Will Hopoate will shift to centre allowing Nick Meaney to make his club debut at fullback, Ofahiki Ogden, Chris Smith and Rhyse Martin come onto the bench, while 22-year-old winger Jayden Okunbor will make his first grade debut after graduating from the victorious State Championship team last year.
Last meeting: Round 20 2018 - Bulldogs 16 Wests Tigers 4
Who to watch: Enjoying a strong start to life under Michael Maguire, one of the Tigers best performers over the opening fortnight has been Josh Aloiai. Averaging over 100 metres in 40 minutes of game time coming off the bench, the 23-year-old Samoan international will be eager to maintain his form as part of potent forward rotation alongside the likes of Russell Packer, Ben Matulino and Alex Twal. Coming up against a Bulldogs pack struggling to assert any authority in their first two matches, Aloiai will be an integral contributor in the joint venture's quest to open a season with three straight wins for the first time in history.
Among the new faces in Dean Pay's much-publicised shake up, former Newcastle fullback Nick Meaney will be out to make the number one jersey his own on Sunday afternoon. Managing five matches for the Knights last year, the 21-year-old's omission over the opening fortnight surprised many given his credentials as a former NSW Under 20's representative, along with gaining plenty of plaudits as Newcastle's NYC (2016) and ISP (2017) Player of the Year in recent times. Signed by Canterbury to a three-year deal before he had even made his first grade debut, the Bulldogs have high hopes for the Ballina junior with his strong support play, lethal pace and goal kicking ability set to prove invaluable for the rebuilding club.
My tip: While general consensus has been quick to decry the Bulldogs after two losses to start the year, the changes made by Dean Pay should bring about a performance capable of momentarily relieving pressure on the besieged club. Bulldogs by 4.