Published on theroar.com.au 22/3/13
They might be without a number of their stars, but last night at AAMI Park the Canterbury Bulldogs bumbled their way through a performance that still almost saw them snatch victory from a tiring Melbourne Storm.
Despite a promising start, the visitors failed to dent the Storm line. Time and time again kicks went askew, set plays misfired and players were continually out of position.
It was not the worst display we have seen so far this year, but for a team seemingly destined for September, the first half was a stanza of missed opportunities.
Execution is everything in the National Rugby League. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, their halves struggled to put the Storm under any kind of pressure.
In 2012, star fullback Ben Barba was so influential he covered up the flaws in his team’s attack. Halfback Kris Keating could go about his business and Josh Reynolds had time to develop his game.
But without Barba, they seem to go through the same motions and expect things to happen. Without the Dally M Medallist, everything is a whole lot slower and they look a whole lot more beatable.
In this modern age, a dangerous fullback is like a prop. Now I know that sounds outrageous and a little silly, but think about it. Every set of six is determined by what the fullback does with the ball first. He lays the foundation.
When Barba made a move, that turned the switch on for the Bulldogs attack. Their pack rolled forward and their playmakers had the easiest job in the world because more times than not, the little fullback was there to finish the set too.
Reynolds played a lone hand in the first 40 minutes and continually slotted himself into dummy half to try and spark his side.
And then half-time happened.
The Bulldogs scrambled their way through the second half against a tiring Storm side feeling the effects of a brutal month of rugby league. But you can’t take the comeback away from Canterbury.
All of a sudden there was some line speed, a bit of intent through the middle and almost an unlikely victory.
But how long does Keating stay at halfback?
Too many kicks went dead, too many plays went rotten and too much of the burden offensively sits on Reynolds’ shoulders.
The Bulldogs weren’t that bad in the second half. But there is no guarantee Barba will return with the form that saw him take the NRL by storm last year.
What happens if the Mackay-native can’t reinvent himself after a stint out of the game?
There has always been a question mark looming over Keating’s head. Even when the side was winning and winning often in 2012, fans still questioned when and where Trent Hodkinson would be brought in.
When times got tough, and they have, the cracks always appear.
Last night in Melbourne, a defining 60 seconds showcased what the Bulldogs lack.
In the 47th minute, Keating kicked the ball into the back of a Storm defender. Moments later and almost on the same blade of grass, Keating had another crack and kicked this one dead.
The top playmakers in the game don’t screw up two kicks in a row. They learn and adapt in a matter of moments.
If Barba comes good and the Bulldogs engine room get that roll, Canterbury’s kicking game will fade back into the background. They can get away with it when everything is clicking.
But when it’s not, Keating stands out like a sore thumb.