There’s a particularly intense atmosphere that enters some of the bigger match-ups in the weeks before Origin, as the key playmakers put through their final arguments for representing their state. Sunday afternoon’s clash between the Bulldogs and the Roosters at ANZ Stadium was one of those matches, with both teams surging hard from the very first minute to make it feel as if we were halfway through the game before it had even started.
Add to that the fact that it was Will Hopoate’s first Sunday appearance in some time and the Dogs were raring to beat the odds, putting in some of their most fluid, free-floating footy all season and coming up with some dangerously rapid play-the-balls over the first half. In the second stanza, the Roosters managed to dominate possession, but even then it remained a two-point game for the back twenty minutes, until Mitchell Pearce brought home the match-winning try just before the end and cemented himself as Blues halfback in the process.
As fate would have it, the Dogs put the first points on the board, with Josh Morris notching up a line break on the back of a rapid, clinical pass from Michael Lichaa. Still, the Chooks responded in kind, with a beautiful cascade of passes from Luke Keary, Latrell Mitchell and Michael Gordon setting Daniel Tupou up for one of his most elegant tries of the season, and the jewel in the crown for his own Origin contention – not something many pundits would have been able to predict from his spotty form in 2016.
Over the next twenty minutes the Roosters managed to get two more converted tries on the board, both of which showcased the synergy between their halves and backline that has proven so powerful this season. In a terrific set piece, Keary drew in Brenko Lee and then passed to Latrell Mitchell, who managed to offload just as he hit the turf, only for Jake Friend to scoop it up and crash over the line. Shortly after, in a great split-second stealth try, Pearce dashed across from the ruck and made as if to pass, only to morph it into an oblique grubber that Mitchell found just in time, with Tupou hot on his heels.
The rest of the game was pretty quiet point-wise, as each side amped up the defence, with Kerrod Holland putting the final points on the board for the Dogs ten minutes after half time. Following an inspired harbour bridge pass from Hopoate, the Canterbury centre busted through a massive tackle to drag several Chooks defenders over the line with him, proving that he has what it takes to become one of the bravest and most brutal backliners in the game if he continues to evolve at the same rate over the next few years.
Two key turning points in the last ten minutes made things even more exciting. Nine minutes out, Gerard Sutton offered the Dogs six again only for the decision to be overturned. Eight minutes out, an error in the play-the-ball from Elliot gifted possession to the Roosters, only for Elliot to make good on his mistake with a punishing tackle on JWH, forcing the big prop to cough up the ball for the final changeover of the game.
During those critical ten minutes, however, Pearce also managed to put down the final try, running a great, straight, hard line to the in-goal after a deft pass from Fergo. It was even more disappointing for the Dogs in that their last try was their best, with runs from Josh Jackson and Brenko Lee having put Matt Frawley in open space to outpace Tupou and bring Canterbury within two points of Sydney City.
Still, you’d have to concede that the Roosters weren’t firing at full capacity for Frawley’s four-pointer, with the Bulldogs taking advantage of Mitchell’s sudden injury to throw a spanner in the defensive line. Not unlike the Storm try after Jarryd Hayne’s leg spasm at Suncorp last week, it wasn’t a true reflection of the balance of power throughout the game, and sure enough the Roosters came good in the last fifteen minutes to bring home one of their most decisive and closely contested matches of the year.
All eyes will be on Pearce and Tupou, then, to see whether they can channel this magic when they don the New South Wales jersey at Suncorp next week, while the Bulldogs desperately need to somehow wrangle a win against the Sharks to regain a bit of their confidence this season. Eventually, getting Josh Reynolds back will help with team morale, but that obviously can’t be a long-term solution any more, with Frawley playing more and more like a resident five-eighth – and here’s hoping that he manages to put in another impressive performance against Cronulla next week.