Bulldogs playing to strengths, covering weaknesses
Anyone watching the Bulldogs playing style this year under Des Hasler would immediately notice they have been playing through the forwards in a far from conventional way.
Moving the ball with short passes across the face of the opposition through the forwards, the Bulldogs have been able to avoid being gang tackled by keeping the opposition guessing as to who is running the ball.
This has two main flow on effects.
The first is that they are able to create numerous line breaks, in which they are 4th in the competition on 62. These are won often through through the middle of the park from offloads (Canterbury lead by 22 with 182), or from backline plays resulting from the created overlaps.
Many of these offloads are only possible as when hitting the line, it is only one or two defenders able to make a play at the ball carrier. This style reduces the reliance on a conventional halves pairing, benefitting Canterbury especially due to their lack of a true marquee in the 6 or 7.
The second is that with the defensive line being forced to spread, rather than contract and shuffle, when faced with the traditional drive up the middle of the field.
When the forwards hit the line, they are brought down (or attempted to be brought down), rather than held for the resulting wrestle to slow the play the ball down. The resulting tackle breaks put them in second in this statistic with 445, and a noticeable increase in the number of roll on plays and metres gained from these, all this on top of the second phase play caused by the inability of defenders to wrap the ball up.
It’s clearly working for the Bulldogs, and with the addition of the halfback trapped in a props body James Graham, means that the Bulldogs have a forward pack with the combined capability to produce all the line engagements and linebreak assists of a top quality playmaker, and managing to avoid the wrestle to post good metres up the middle to boot.
Is this new tactic down to a lack of quality halves, a skilful forward pack, or to outmanoeuvre the wrestle that has become the norm for NRL teams? Des Hasler is quiet on the approach, apart from mentioning “playing to your strengths”, perhaps due to not wanting to give away his information to rival coaches, perhaps a natural reaction to being asked a question by a journalist.
For all the rule changes that rugby league brings in to keep the game good to watch for the fans, staying the trigger finger on rule changes to combat wrestling as a whole (rather than reacting to dangerous moves) may have just given birth to a new style of play, and I for one hope that it becomes the style of play that in future, coaches try to emulate.
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