NRL Round 4: Sunday Match Previews & Betting Tips
Eyeing off a 4-0 season start, the Storm go up against suddenly confident Bulldogs while the Knights and Dragons go head-to-head.
Melbourne Storm v Canterbury Bulldogs – AAMI Park - 4:05pm
Melbourne put in a complete performance in their 32-2 win against Penrith in the bitter cold Bathurst conditions. Penrith had 60% possession in the first half with 30 play the balls inside Melbourne’s 20 and all they had to show for it was an early penalty goal. Melbourne’s defence beat the Panthers into submission. The Panthers did everything except throwing the kitchen sink at the Storm’s defensive line but couldn’t find a way through.
When the possession and territory tides turned – as they inevitably do in modern-day NRL – the Storm unleashed their attacking arsenal, highlighted by a masterful Cameron Munster performance. Munster controlled the second half expertly, including a pinpoint kicking game directed at Panthers fullback Dylan Edwards. Edwards normally is reliable at the back but he had a night to forget and Munster ensured both ball and traffic would be targeting the suddenly shaken Edwards, culminating in six errors from him. Josh Addo-Carr got into the act by scoring his first try of the year, ending a – by the Fox’s lofty standards – a try drought of two games.
Melbourne’s pack took advantage of Penrith’s second-half capitulation, with Jesse Bromwich having his best game of 2019 so far while Dale Finucane showed why he’s arguably the NRL’s most under-rated lock. Finucane’s tackle count was topped only by Cameron Smith while his running game through the middle complimented the likes of Bromwich, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Christian Welch perfectly. Coach Craig Bellamy noted post-game his side’s handling wasn’t ideal – it was 65% - but when the Storm are so ruthless in their defence and so well-balanced in attack, they showed they don’t need to be completing set after set to pose a threat.
The Storm is looking every bit the Premiership contender they aim to be. In a way, the Bulldogs’ stunning win over the Tigers may indeed be a blessing in disguise for the Storm this week. The Storm saw first-hand in Bathurst how quickly a side can implode if their heads drop, and when reviewing the Canterbury ambush they’ll also see how quickly a side can regain its confidence. The Storm will be heavy favourites to go 4-0 in 2019 but will be wary of a Bulldogs side suddenly showing attacking prowess and with nothing to lose.
Canterbury entered their round three match against the table-topping Wests Tigers in apparent disarray. They had lost their first two matches to a combined score of 76-22, coach Dean Pay was given a 12 month contract extension despite the disappointing results and decided to completely revamp his selections this early into the season. Pay however repaid the faith in his board with his side delivering an excellent 22-8 win, taking huge pressure off his club. Pay deserves credit – he gave his under-performing round 1 side a second chance and when that failed he acted decisively on it.
Nick Meaney enjoyed an impressive club debut at fullback, William Hopoate’s shift back to centre means a tighter defensive edge, while Rhyse Martin’s return was celebrated by fans and fantasy players alike. It’s important to recognise though another coaching adjustment Pay made and the impact it had on his side. In the first two rounds, the Bulldogs particularly collapsed when their starting props Dylan Napa and Aiden Tolman were interchanged. This isn’t a sole reason for the opening two losses of course – but it does show how important these two big men are for the Dogs. So Pay instead altered both his bench and his in-game interchange strategy to leave Napa and Tolman able to squeeze out more involvements and game time. The result was Napa – now a relative try-scoring machine with two tries in his last two matches – had his best club game in recent memory, even setting up Adam Elliott’s try, while Tolman relished his increased responsibility as his forward pack’s most experienced member.
Kieran Foran- despite not being at full fitness throughout the game – also looked a different man to the first two weeks. Unfortunately, it became apparent why Foran was physically limited late on – a serious ankle sprain will require surgery and potentially sideline him for three months. Jack Cogger will replace him at five-eighth and while making his Bulldogs debut, Cogger has NRL experience from his Newcastle days and will look to take pressure off halfback Lachlan Lewis.
What the Tigers result means is the Bulldogs make the daunting trip to Melbourne with their heads up and pressure off. Melbourne is arguably the NRL’s most ruthless side, and hosting a winless side whilst enjoying an eight-day turnaround would have been a brutal spot for the Dogs to be in. Instead, the Doggies will play without expectations and with confidence. It will be the upset of the year if they were to beat Melbourne but they’re in a far better position to think “what if?” than they were a round ago.
Key stat: The Bulldogs have won their last three matches against the Storm in Melbourne. Josh Addo-Carr overall has three tries in three games against the Bulldogs. Cameron Smith needs nine points to become the NRL’s highest ever points scorer (Hazem El-Masri holds the record at 2,418 points)
Best bet: Josh Addo-Carr to score anytime - $1.50* (TAB)
Value bet: Race to 30 points – Storm - $1.98* (Sportsbet)
Newcastle Knights v St George-Illawarra Dragons – McDonald Jones Stadium– 6:10pm
The Kalyn Ponga Experiment is over. While this out of context may sound like a rock group disbanding, in NRL’s context it represents a bold move from Newcastle coach Nathan Brown. The Knights spent their off-season changing their structure to accommodate a move for their precocious young fullback to move into five-eighth. This shift meant a change in their attacking philosophy- where halfback Mitchell Pearce would no longer be the undisputed sole key playmaker – and also defensively, with Ponga now in the front line and Connor Watson needing to take over organising the defensive line from the back.
The move had high potential to pay off but during the Knights’ 17-10 loss to Canberra, Brown decided to go back to square one with Ponga reverting to his more familiar fullback position as Newcastle chased the game. Ponga’s time in the six wasn’t a failure, but with Newcastle’s attack faltering in 2019, something had to give. Ponga’s first involvement after his mid-game positional change was a knock on from a Canberra kick, however, the Knights did look more threatening in attack once the change settled in.
Kurt Mann – maybe NRL’s most versatile player – filled in for the injured Watson last week and when moved into pivot he did create a try from nothing. Mann will return to the bench this week but it does show the flexibility Brown has with his attacking options, with Mason Lino named to make his club debut as this week's five-eighth. Their forwards- the most impressive part of Newcastle’s list on paper- were outgunned by Canberra’s grunt.
David Klemmer had his quietest Knights game so far, making his fewest runs and gaining his fewest metres since joining Newcastle. Newcastle’s 2019 situation is unique. In past seasons a 1-2 record wouldn’t have been a concern for the rebuilding club. This season though the Knights’ roster isn’t rebuilding – it's built for a top-eight finish. The Dragons loom as a danger game for Newcastle. They may be without inspirational captain Gareth Widdop due to shoulder surgery but their 10-day turnaround gives the Dragons time to adjust to Matt Dufty returning to fullback. If Newcastle wants to make the finals for the first time since 2013 this is the type of game that becomes must-win.
St George-Illawarra earned a rousing 25-24 upset against the Broncos at Suncorp but losing Widdop made the win a bittersweet night. The Dragons were a final minute Jamayne Isaako field-goal attempt away from heartbreak but on the back of Corey Norman’s best individual performance in the Red V and Korbin Sims bringing the aggression off the bench, they found a way to win against the odds.
Widdop’s absence could be a decisive moment for the Dragons’ 2019 dreams but it may not be the disaster it first appeared to be. It does take away the spine selection dilemma seemingly facing Paul McGregor since pre-season. Matt Dufty – who was awkwardly used as a bench player in the opening fortnight before being dropped entirely- is now the undisputed fullback. Playmaking responsibility now belongs primarily to Norman and Ben Hunt.
There won’t be any external chatter on whether Norman is best served in a fullback role. And though Dufty doesn’t have Widdop’s leadership, experience or ball-playing ability, he does have explosive speed and line-breaking ability the Englishman does not and so will add his own unique dimension to the Dragons attack. Paul Vaughan delivered an impressive performance against the Broncos, completely outshining a potential NSW Origin rival in Tevita Pangai Junior. This week he’ll face a Blues Origin teammate in Klemmer, and no doubt he’ll look to take him – and in turn, the Knights pack itself – on early on.
Key Stats: The Dragons have won seven of their last eight matches against the Knights. This includes three wins when they’ve trailed at half-time, including their most recent match at McDonald Jones Stadium. Shaun Kenny-Dowall has scored two tries in his past three matches against the Dragons, and nine tries against them overall in his career.
Best bet: Shaun Kenny-Dowall anytime try scorer - $2.30* (Bet365)Value bet: Knights half time/ Dragons full time - $9.50* (Sportsbet)