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NRL Thursday Night Forecast: Broncos vs Bulldogs

The Doggies head north to take on the resurgent Broncos in Thursday night action. (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Charles Knight)
Roar Guru
17th August, 2016
26

Tonight the Broncos host the Bulldogs, two teams we will preview once more each in the remaining two rounds.

We will see Canterbury again next week, for their third consecutive Thursday night game, this time hosting the Cowboys.

Meanwhile, Brisbane will kick off the final round of the regular season with an intriguing game against the Roosters.

With so much left to decide with respect to final finishing positions, it is terrific that that we will be forecasting these two teams in these crucial games.

Recent form
Round 23 marked a welcome return to form for the Broncos after an inconsistent run in recent weeks.

While they hung on for victory against the Dragons in Round 22, before that they experienced two comprehensive losses at the hands of the Roosters and Panthers.

As such, the substantial win over the Eels was a huge relief for a team that could have been forgiven for having a few nervous looks at the bottom of the eight.

A huge part of the reason for the turnaround is, of course, the end of the representative period, as the team begins to get players not simply back on the deck, but back to full speed after the gruelling Origin period. The big question now will be whether the team’s poor showing during the representative rounds has inflicted too much damage to recover in time for the finals.

Last weekend also saw a win for the Bulldogs, but a much less confident one. After a humbling loss in Townsville in Round 21, and a scratchy win over NSW Cup side the Newcastle Knights in Round 22, the Bulldogs were again unconvincing against the Sea Eagles, who predictably lifted for a cross-Harbour match-up.

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In the end, it was only a rotten piece of luck for Tom Trbojevic that allowed Josh Reynolds to poach the golden try, after the five-eighth was denied a match winner in the early stages of extra time.

Team sheet

Broncos Position Bulldogs
Darius Boyd Fullback Will Hopoate
Corey Oates Left winger Brett Morris
Tom Opacic Left centre Josh Morris
James Roberts Right centre Curtis Rona
Jordan Kahu Right winger Sam Perrett
Anthony Milford Left half Moses Mbye
Ben Hunt Right half Josh Reynolds
Josh McGuire Prop James Graham
Andrew McCulloch Hooker Michael Lichaa
Adam Blair Prop Aidan Tolman
Sam Thaiday Left second row Greg Eastwood
Matt Gillett Right second row Josh Jackson
Corey Parker Lock David Klemmer
Jarrod Wallace Interchange Sam Kasiano
Tevita Pangai Jr Interchange Tim Browne
Jai Arrow Interchange Tony Williams
Alex Glenn Interchange Raymond Faitala-Mariner

Brisbane have only one listed change to report, with winger Jordan Kahu returning in place of Jonas Pearson, who was a late call-up for the game against Parramatta.

Pearson made the most of his first match, continuing the curious trend that has pervaded the competition this season of debutants scoring in their first game.

However, while Pearson has not been named for tonight, there remains the possibility that he will return nonetheless, with James Roberts’ participation in the game under threat at the time of writing.

Roberts has been mostly a disappointment in his first (and now possibly, only) season at Red Hill, but he remains a threat and the Broncos are worse off if he is ruled out.

The Dogs also have only the one change, Greg Eastwood returning at the left second-row spot at the expense of Rayomnd Faitala-Mariner, who shifts to the bench.

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Danny Fualalo is the unfortunate player to miss out, however coach Des Hasler had not been giving Fualalo much game time anyway, averaging only 15 minutes per game over the last three contests, after playing a little more than that earlier in the season.

What to watch for
In a lot of ways, Ben Hunt and especially Anthony Milford are key barometers for their team, after both impressed in Brisbane’s electric start to this season. In the early part of the season, Milford in particular looked every bit the million-dollar man the Raiders tried to make him three years ago.

He scored ten tries in the first ten games and was developing a neat kicking and passing game to go with it, recording five try assists and eight linebreak assists.

However, he has since come off the boil.

While he continued to rack up try assists, with a further nine over the next 11 games, and his line breaks assists dropped only slightly, he didn’t record a single line break of his own, during that period he scored only one try.

Hunt shows a similar pattern, though rather than tries his loss of form is better demonstrated by the drop off in try assists. After recording 11 in the first ten games, Hunt recorded only eight in the next 11. While it is not a huge downturn it was enough, when combined with the Origin and injury-related absences, to hamstring the team.

The pair also started making more errors and while neither were in the Jack Wighton class, in total they went from an average of 1.7 errors combined in the first ten games to nearly 2.4 per game over the next 11.

The following table shows the combined contribution from the two halves over the first ten games compared to the next 11 last Firday night’s match.

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Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford combined statistics
Tries Try Assists Line breaks Line break assists Errors
First Ten Games 14 16 18 12 17
Next Eleven Games 3 15 0 15 25

The key thing to notice from this table is that while the two continued to maintain a consistent record at creating opportunities for other players, the chances dried up almost entirely for the players themselves.

Both tries and line breaks evaporated, which suggests either they stopped running the ball, or that they were simply no longer making the inroads of earlier in the season.

The numbers don’t really help us determine which of those was the case, because while Milford’s average runs dropped from 13 per game in the first ten games to 10.8 over the next 11, Hunt actually ran the ball slightly more over, up to a little over eight per game from 6.1.

Regardless, whether because they were out of form themselves (probably), or they were simply struggling behind an undermanned forward pack (definitely), Milford and Hunt both suffered from a poor middle portion of the year.

But this is where the good news starts for fans, and where we get to what to watch for this evening, because the signs were there last Friday that both may be finding better form.

Milford’s running and improvisation game was most pleasing, as he racked up 170 metres on ten carries, including one try, plus three line breaks. Hunt also recorded a line break and a try, while showing a more composed kicking game.

There is no doubt that that the injuries, suspensions and absences through the representative period have hurt Wayne Bennet’s side. Whether or not they can extricate themselves will depend heavily on whether Hunt and Milford have returned.

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First try scorer – Corey Oates
Another player who showed a lot more spark last week was left winger Corey Oates.

After starting the season in sparkling form, Oates was rightfully selected for Queensland for all three Origin games. Unsurprisingly, the added demands caused Oates’ form to fluctuate, with only three tries in eight games between Round 10 and his return to form against Parra.

It is a timely return to form for a team that desperately needs both Oates’ try scoring and his powerful early-set running out of their own end.

Plus, even if he wasn’t performing better, regular readers will remember I pledged to pick Oates for first try in every Broncos game I previewed, so I’m pretty much obliged to pick him again here.

Prediction – Broncos
With Canberra’s win over the Storm on Monday night, this game takes on even more significance for the Bulldogs.

The Green Machine are one point ahead and hosting the listless Eels on Sunday afternoon, meaning Canterbury face the prospect of falling three points behind the Raiders. A loss here will also bring the Broncos within two points (and potentially the Cowboys, should they win the Warriors) of a final top-four spot and the all-important double chance.

For that very same reason though, the game is arguably more important for Brisbane. They are currently four points adrift of the top four, despite their wonderful start to the season, and only a win ahead of the seventh-placed Penrith.

That means that if the Broncos slip up, they could easily be level with the Mountain Men on points by the end of tomorrow night given. This is especially the case given the Panthers, who just got a tune-up by playing the Knights, will be at home to a James Tedesco-less Tigers team in Friday Night football this week.

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Brisbane will also be looking to avenge the humiliating loss from Round 16 at Stadium Australia, a game in which the Bulldogs ran all over them to the tune of 40 points to 14.

With that in mind, and considering the stronger form line of the Broncos in edging past the Dragons and then crushing the Eels, I will take the home side.

Season record: 16 – 5

You can read the NRL Forecast here every week or check it out along with more great rugby league analysis on Lachlan’s website Back the Ten. You can also follow Lachlan on Twitter @backtheten