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3 hours ago | Tim Costello
New-look Bulldogs look to rediscover bite
Surprising many by qualifying for the finals in 2018, the New Zealand Warriors will be out to make a strong early impression as they look to record back-to-back top eight finishes for the first time in eight years.
Squandering an early lead to bow out against Penrith in the First Elimination Final last September, the Auckland-based club will need to overcome a poor opening round record if they are to come away with two competition points, having won just two Round 1 fixtures throughout the 2010s.
With long-serving halfback Shaun Johnson departing over the off-season, former Penrith lower grader Adam Keighran has won out over Chanel Harris-Tavita and Hayze Perham for the opportunity to partner Blake Green in the halves.
Fielding the majority of players from last year's squad, incumbent New Zealand international Leeson Ah Mau headlines the new recruits after a successful stint with the Dragons, former Bulldogs and Titans forward Lachlan Burr replaces the suspended Isaiah Papali'i at lock, while Nate Roache and Blake Ayshford return to the NRL after sitting out the entirety of 2018 through injury and reserve grade.
Getting the better of Melbourne in a low-scoring affair, before flexing their attacking muscles against Wests Tigers in the trials, newly re-signed coach Stephen Kearney will enjoy a personal milestone on Saturday afternoon as he notches up his 50th match as coach of the New Zealand outfit.
Entering 2019 with plenty of confidence following an unsettled start to life under new coach Dean Pay, the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs will have high hopes for the new campaign after rejuvenating their roster.
Handing four players club debuts, including Roosters premiership winner Dylan Napa, coach Pay has gone against expectations preferring Will Hopoate ahead of Newcastle recruit Nick Meaney at fullback. With Hopoate playing an instrumental role in revitalising the Bulldogs over the final third of last season, the decision to start the former Manly premiership winner in the number one jersey is sure to be a prominent talking point over the opening rounds.
Winning half of all matches played against the Warriors at Mt. Smart Stadium, the Bulldogs have dominated recent clashes between the two sides with seven wins from nine meetings dating back to 2012.
Beaten at the death by the Raiders in an entertaining 28-22 trial in Bega, the Bulldogs will be hoping to translate the strong attacking form shown in their only pre-season hit-out into an 80-minute performance at NRL intensity.
Last meeting: Round 23 2018 - Bulldogs 27 Warriors 26
Who to watch: With the Warriors opting against singing an established replacement for Shaun Johnson, Blake Green will need to produce his finest season in first grade for the Warriors to be successful. Garnering plenty of plaudits as a quality foil to Cooper Cronk, Daly Cherry-Evans and Shaun Johnson upon returning to the NRL, the 32-year-old playmaker is set to enter uncharted territory by serving as the side's new halfback. Held in high esteem for his ability to manage matches while enabling his halves partner to flourish, Green can expect plenty of attention from Canterbury's big men on Saturday afternoon, but given his years of experience, the Wigan premiership winner will see the challenge ahead of him as a chance to further his case as one of the best halves in the game today.
Experiencing an off-season to forget for his role in the Bulldogs infamous Mad Monday antics, Adam Elliott will be out to make headlines for the right reasons through his on-field efforts. Playing two seasons without missing a match for the blue and whites, the 24-year-old Indigenous All Stars representative will be eyeing off higher honours in 2019 having established a reputation as one of the club's most consistent performers. Enjoying stiff competition from new signing Corey Harawira-Naera and Kiwi international Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Elliott will be under pressure to keep his spot in the starting side, but rather than seeing the challenge as a threat to his own personal place in the team, the hard-working forward will thrive in pursuit of taking the Bulldogs back to the finals.
The favourite: While both sides have experienced dismal records in the opening round of the season during the 2010s, winning 5 of 18 matches, the Warriors are expected to prove too strong at home.
My tip: Making a number of smart investments over the off-season, the Bulldogs loom as a dark horse contender to finish in the top eight in 2019. Showing plenty of attacking potential despite going down in their only pre-season hit-out, look for the blue and whites to hold on against a fast-finishing Warriors outfit. Bulldogs by 4.
1. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck 2. David Fusitua 3. Peta Hiku 4. Solomone Kata 5. Ken Maumalo 6. Adam Keighran 7. Blake Green 8. Agnatius Paasi 9. Nathaniel Roache 10. Bunty Afoa 11. Adam Blair 12. Tohu Harris 13. Lachlan Burr 14. Jazz Tevaga 15. Sam Lisone 16. Leeson Ah Mau 17. Blake Ayshford
1. Will Hopoate 2. Christian Crichton 3. Kerrod Holland 4. Marcelo Montoya 5. Reimis Smith 6. Kieran Foran 7. Lachlan Lewis 8. Aiden Tolman 9. Michael Lichaa 10. Dylan Napa 11. Josh Jackson 12. Raymond Faitala-Mariner 13. Adam Elliot 14. Jeremy Marshall-King 15. Danny Fualalo 16. Corey Harawira-Naera 17. Sauaso Sue
Referees: Jon Stone, Tim Roby; Sideline Officials: Chris McMillan, Clayton Sharpe; Video Referees: Jared Maxwell, Bryan Norrie;