Canterbury-Bankstown will offer the Vodafone Junior Warriors their sternest challenge so far in tonights NYC preliminary final at ANZ Stadium (5.15pm kick-off local time; 7.15pm NZT).
While the Vodafone Junior Warriors have impressed in the first two weeks of the finals with a grinding win against South Sydney and a dominant display against the Sydney Roosters, the Bulldogs have been consistently outstanding throughout the second half of the season.
After boasting a modest 6-6 record in the first 12 rounds of the campaign they roared through their next 12 matches by winning 10 of them, drawing another and losing just once (22-46 to Penrith on August 31).
It was a run of form which enabled the Bulldogs to finish the regular season in fourth spot, standing out as the competitions hottest attacking unit with a total of 862 points in 24 matches.
They opened the finals by stunning Canberra 27-26 in a golden point thriller to make it through to tonights preliminary final.
The Vodafone Junior Warriors, who head into the contest with the same line-up used last week, had an unconvincing run during their last 12 games of the regular season with six wins, a draw and five losses but, fortified by the return of some of their more seasoned performers, they have found their best form in the finals.
If the win against the Rabbitohs was the ultimate warm wrestle, last Friday nights 58-6 triumph was a statement of intent. After finishing the season in sixth place, the second finals display could scarcely have been more emphatic against a side which had finished the season in third place.
The Bulldogs, though, have been outstanding over a long period. In fullback Patrick Templeman they have the NYCs top point-scorer with 297 points and winger John Sila has 22 tries; he scored five of them in the Bulldogs 24-34 loss to the Vodafone Junior Warriors in Wellington in May (all of his sides tries that night).
The injection of experienced players returning from the New South Wales Cup has predictably benefited the Vodafone Junior Warriors. Against the Rabbitohs, captain David Bhana, Albert Vete and Raymond Faitala-Mariner returned to the fold while last week Siliva Havili and Viliami Lolohea were back in the squad.
Hooker Havili was among the most influential players against the Roosters coming up with a try (and very nearly a second), 98 metres from nine runs, four tackle breaks, two off loads, one line break and one line break assist.
The most experienced player in the side, hell make his 55th NYC appearance tonight; for a hooker, he has an impressive strike rate of 25 tries.
While Havili is the only player in the side with 50 NYC appearances another eight have played 30-plus matches while nine of them are involved in NYC finals for the second time. Eko Malu was in the grand final-winning side in 2011 and Havili, David Fusitua, Ngataua Hukatai, Viliami Lolohea, Mason Lino, Albert Vete, James Taylor and David Bhana all featured in last years play-offs.
Rookie Tuimoala Lolohea, last week named the clubs TNT NYC Young Player of the Year, ranks third equal among all try scorers in the competition, his four tries against the Roosters lifting his tally to 22. Hes also one of only three players who have appeared in all 26 games so far this year, the others being hooker-second rower Michael Sio and interchange prop Sam Lisone.
While Lolohea boosted his points total for the season to 134, halfback Lino kicked nine out of 10 attempts at goal to bring up 100 points and break through 250 points in 39 NYC games.
VODAFONE JUNIOR WARRIORS v CANTERBURY-BANKSTOWN BULLDOGS
ANZ Stadium, Homebush
5.15pm, Friday, September 27
Referees: David Munro and Adam Gee
VODAFONE JUNIOR WARRIORS
13DAVID BHANA (c)
HEAD COACH: JOHN ACKLAND