As the Bulldogs head into one of their most pivotal games in the last few weeks of football before the finals, it’s worth looking back over the way they’ve rounded out their last three matches. While they haven’t won every game, they’ve shown plenty of spirit in the last ten minutes – and it’s that spirit that’s going to be more important than anything else tonight. While the Cowboys are undoubtedly the dominant team, if there was ever a venue to break a dominant team it’s Belmore Sports Ground at the tail end of the season. More galvanising even than 1300SMILES when the team is connecting with the crowd, it’s a place that seems to bring Bulldogs memories to life, and to store up all the attitude that they build over a season.
In the buildup to this week’s match, Josh Reynolds offered an emotional tribute to Belmore, and there’s probably no player – with the exception of Sam Perrett – who has a more organic connection to the ground. Not only did Reynolds grow up as a Bulldogs supporter, but he has the team and the ground in his very bones, and it’s his brand of brassy, ballsy, irreverent play that most suits the spirit of Belmore as well. Nowhere was that clearer in the last couple of weeks than in his spectacular finale against Manly in Round 23, in which he managed to break golden point with not one but two tries, after the first was disallowed.
In many ways, that spectacular finish epitomised what makes Reynolds so entertaining to watch as a player and such a great asset to the Dogs all round. While his impulsiveness can sometimes be a hindrance, he’s one of the most gracious players in the NRL in recognising when he’s made the wrong decision and atoning for it. In fact, his “make-up” moments have provided some of the most entertaining stories in the 2016 NRL season, especially his Instagram selfie with Michael Lichaa in the aftermath of their heated exchange on the field in the 24-20 loss to the Warriors earlier in the year.
Above all, that’s because Reynolds doesn’t take himself too seriously. While he may be known as Grub, it’s ultimately a term of endearment, since he’s refreshingly free from the kinds of self-serious machismo typical of players of his stature. It’s that willingness to revise and move on that has turned him into such a flexible, mature and good-spirited player, and it was epitomised by his double try against the Sea Eagles a couple of weeks ago. Determined not to let his team go down to an anticlimactic two-point finish, Reynolds barged through the Manly defence in a typically impulsive fashion but immediately made good on his first instincts through another, more judicious four-pointer a couple of minutes later. It was the perfect symbol for a player whose genius lies in his continual ability and willingness to tame, revise and refine his more impulsive tendencies.
If Reynolds was the centrepiece of the Dogs’ last three finishes, then Sam Kasiano was the bookend. Between his words of wisdom to Moses Mbye at the right hand of the field against the Knights and his already infamous kick to Corey Parker’s chin during the dying minutes of last week’s game against the Broncos, Big Sam made a great case for why he’s just as much a part of Canterbury-Bankstown’s spirit as Reynolds.
Jumping back to Round 22, Kasiano’s pep talk to Mbye as he lined up a crucial conversion was one of the best pieces of NRL footage this season and still sends shivers down my spine when I rewatch it. While Kasiano tends to be stereotyped as one of the roughest, biggest and most brutal pummelling-machines in the competition, there’s also a quiet introspection and assurance to his game that makes him an incredible psychological asset to the Bulldogs. Sure, we couldn’t hear what Kasiano was saying to Mbye, that wasn’t really the point – his body language and facial expressions said it all. On the one hand, his advice seemed to be dead serious, but there was a profoundly comic sparkle to his eyes that seemed to capture the knockabout spirit of Bulldogs football – and of the Bulldogs forwards in particular – and by the time Mbye had guided the Steeden through the posts it felt like we were watching a brilliant lost outtake from Rocky more than your regular Saturday night footy at Hunter Stadium.
While we hear a lot about mentoring and camaraderie in the NRL, we rarely see it illustrated as poetically and poignantly as in this brief exchange between the big bopper and the five-eighth. It didn’t hurt, either, that Kasiano was more or less responsible for the try that preceded the conversion, slamming down on Jarod Mullen to shake the Steeden loose for Mbye to do his magic. Watching Kasiano help Mbye turn four points into six, I was reminded of how little the list of tries and conversions released during and after every game reflects the amount of unsung work that the big men do at the front, and Kasiano’s modesty, his willingness to just stand in the background and help Mbye do his thing, was a big part of what made the footage so special.
Of course, Kasiano isn’t always that quiet and last week’s game against the Broncos was an example of what Big Sam can do under a different kind of pressure. At this point, nobody really knows whether Kasiano meant to kick Corey Parker in the face or not, but, to me, it doesn’t really matter. For years now, Parker has represented a certain kind of NRL aristocracy – as a Broncos player, as a Queenslander and as a veteran Kangaroos representative, he’s the kind of guy who has happened to be in all the right places at all the right times. Sure, he’s massively talented, but he’s also got an attitude that exceeds his talent, and has been particularly entitled in the wake of the last wave of Maroons Origin victories.
None of that means that he deserves to be kicked in the face, even if he has pulled some pretty dirty moves in his own time. What I personally liked, however, was the fact that Kasinao didn’t go out of his way to apologise – or, rather, didn’t go out of his way to apologise too profusely – in the aftermath of the incident. Treating Parker much as he might treat any other player, he apologised once or twice, fairly straightforwardly, and was then on his way. It reminded me of Paul Gallen’s refusal to apologise too extravagantly to Johnathan Thurston and the Maroons onThe Footy Show in the wake of his supposedly outrageous decision to thank the New South Wales footy fans instead of standing to attention for Cameron Smith’s acceptance speech.
In the case of both Kasiano and Gallen, I sense a refusal to cowtow to the celebrity status of the players that they’ve injured or insulted. To some people, that might seem abrasive, but I personally think we live in an age in which the gap between elite and regular NRL players is growing at a massive rate. Some players, like Jarryd Hayne, are all but untouchable, while even a player as brilliant as James Tedesco can be considered relatively expendable by the media if he happens to be eclipsed by a greater celebrity profile. More than nearly any other team, the Dogs are excluded from that NRL aristocracy – something that was particuarly clear in the buildup to the 2014 Grand Final. Sure, a Bunnies win was a fairytale finish, but any discerning spectator would have seen that it was the Dogs who were the true underdogs, with pretty much every major media outlet betting against them.
In his refusal to apologise too profusely, then, there’s something classy about Kasiano, something true to the spirit of Rugby League and its disdain for extravagant and aristocratic displays of status and celebrity. Between his introspection and focus against the Knights and his pride and irreverence against the Broncos – along with the Chooks, the aristocratic team par excellence – there’s a spirit and energy that’s distinctive to the Bulldogs. Combined with Reynolds’ can-do impulsiveness, no other NRL outfit this season has managed to finish off their games with quite the same spirit as Canterbury-Bankstown over the last three weeks and, whatever happens against the Cows tonight, let’s hope they manage to leave their signature on the end of the game in the same way.