If there has been a single match this pre-season that has been marred by injuries, then it would have to be the trial between the Dogs and the Storm at Belmore Sports Ground Saturday before last. On the face of it, Canterbury-Bankstown put in the most decisive performance in the trial round, only scoring for the first time thirty minutes into the first half but ratcheting it up from there to a stunning 30-0 victory over the Storm. Once upon a time, nobody could have enjoyed that kind of victory over Melbourne, and while the Storm may be without some of their key player – more on that in a moment – it still felt as if we were starting to glimpse a new fallibility to the time, giving us a bit of a taste of what might lie around the corner as we come to the end of the Smith-Slater-Cronk era. On top of that, it seemed to usher in an increasingly empowered Canterbury outfit, a team that may not have quite regrouped in the wake of the 2014 Grand Final, and might have some way to go following the departure of Trent Hodkinson, but is still shaping up to be one of the very best in the competition under Des Hasler’s guidance and vision.
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs’ victory came at the cost of what has to be the worst injury roster of any team this pre-season, with the possible exception of the Tigers. Not only was James Graham taken off in the twelfth minute with a leg injury, but David Klemmer was put on report for a scuffle in the second half, with the result that neither is likely to appear in Round 1 against the Sea Eagles. It’s difficult to underestimate the importance of these two figures in team, and not just because they’re amongst the most brutal props in the game, and a much-needed counterpoint to some of the big men, like Luke Burgess and Marty Taupau, that make up Manly’s forwards. As the two most aggressive and antagonistic of the Bulldogs players, they’ve played a big role, over the last year, in rallying the team’s spirit from a Grand Final that nobody wanted them to win, as well as the greatest amount of media bias that has ever attended an NRL Grand Final. While 2014 may have cemented Souths as popular heroes in the NRL consciousness, it also cemented the Dogs as underdogs as well, and Graham and Klemmer’s attitude has had a lot to do with fighting back from that, even if they occasionally take it too far.
At the same time, Graham is one of the most aggressive and assertive captains of the competition, while his star has soared even further over the last couple of weeks by being named Man of the Match in the Indigenous v All Stars clash, which is about the highest honour you can receive during the pre-season, at least in matches that are played within Australia. Seeing him carted off the field so early, then, was a bit of a blow for Canterbury-Bankstown fans, not least because the Dogs are also missing their star fullback in Brett Morris. Add to that injuries to Tony Williams, Will Hopoate and even Moses Mbye (although Hoppa and Mbye are expected to be back in shape within the week) and it was a bit of a sorry situation for Canterbury-Bankstown. Ideally, the pre-season should end with your team seeming fit and fighting to take on the first big match of the competition, but it’s hard to see how the Dogs are going to take on a forward pack that includes Luke Burgess and Marty Taupau, as well as a fullback with the expertise of Brett Stewart, with such a depleted team. Given the challenge facing the Bulldogs’ halves, there was also something a bit demoralising about seeing Mbye taken off, if only for one match, especially since replacement Brad Abbey was concussed in the 65th minute, although it also forced Josh Reynolds to step up and take control of the game, yet another opportunity for him to demonstrate how he’s growing into the kind of maturity that will surely make him a captaincy contender in years to come.
It’s hard to know, then, whether the Dogs really won in any real sense, since perhaps the injury roster is simply the price you pay for bringing in such a definitive defeat for the Storm. Throughout the game, Melbourne’s defence was good, but their handling of the ball with messy, with no steady control and lots of fumbled passes, something that was even clearer when contrasted against Reynolds’ increasing transition into a more free-flowing style of footy. Whereas the Storm had the most completions last year, here they only completed about 50%, which obviously had a lot to do with the fact that both their first and second fullback options were out, forcing Curtis Scott to put in what could only be described as a third-rate performance. Without either their fullback veteran or their most promising young gun, Melbourne felt curiously devoid of character as a team, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the Dogs were able to maintain their determination and aggression even after Graham was taken off the field. While the Storm still are Smith, Slater and Cronk, then, there was a sense of the team starting to lose something of their superhuman status, as well as something quite enjoyable in seeing a less prestigious outfit give them a run for their money – and here’s hoping that those kinds of surprises play a role in the upcoming season as well, which may end up challenging some of our assumptions about both these charismatic teams.