ROUND 3: Wests Tigers v. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (Campbelltown Stadium, 31/3/19)

Given that the Tigers have never started their season with three successive wins, they had to chance to make history at Campbelltown when they hosted the Bulldogs for the first really cold Sunday afternoon game of the year so far. On the other side of the Steeden, the Dogs were keen to win their first game of 2019, taking advantage of the breeze in the opening minutes to execute a series of rampaging sets that put the Tigers on the defensive immediately.

For the most part, Kieran Foran took on the kicking duties in these opening minutes, giving the Tigers their first opportunity when one of his last-tackle efforts only just landed in the field of play. It was the chink in the Canterbury armour that the home team needed to consolidate their confidence, and they got a further boost with a penalty on the third tackle of the next set after Jeremy Marshall-King stripped the Steeden from Ryan Matterson’s grasp.

Foran corrected things pretty quickly, however, slamming Luke Garner to ground with the biggest tackle of the first stanza, halfway through the following set. It was to be the first of several big gestures of leadership from Foran, culminating with his try half an hour in, and disheveled the Tigers enough to ensure that they weren’t able to take advantage of a grubber from Robbie Farah at the end of this set. Moments before Benji could get there, Meaney patted down the tip of the Steeden – not a bad effort from the Mitch Moses lookalike for his first game in Canterbury colours.

The Dogs felt just as confident on the dropout, as Lachlan Lewis booted through a soaring eighty-metre kick that sailed over Benji Marshall’s head before Alex Twal collected it at the Wests Tigers’ twenty. As if trying to counter that mammoth effort, Benji kicked midway through the tackle count, leading to a penalty for Mahe Fonua after he tackled Jayden Okunbor in the air on the right edge of the Tigers’ attack.

This was an opportunity for the Bulldogs, but some miscommunication between JMK and the halves meant that the next set didn’t really come to anything. Worse, Lewis lost the footy midway through the following Canterbury set, thanks to some pressure from Matterson. With Fonua off for an HIA, and Luke Garner off with an early shoulder injury, the Tigers only had Russell Packer on the bench, meaning that they had to take advantage of this slight shift of the momentum in their direction.

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More generally, it was becoming clear that a veteran player needed to step up from one of the two sides, ideally at the expense of a veteran play from the other side, for the first points to be put on the scoreboard. Moments later, Farah did just that, milking a penalty from Hopoate by catching him out of position at marker. The Tigers crashed over at the end of the next set,on the back of a signature turnaround, but with Taylor obstructing the defender they were still stuck on zero as the ball changed hands.

In low scoring games, changes in micro-momentum are as important as bigger changes in momentum, and the Dogs took advantage of this momentary disappointment for the Tigers with some quick movement up the left edge, facilitated by another sterling run from Okunbur. Only a terrific catch from Esan Marsters under the high ball, right on the try line, prevented what seemed set to be a tryscoring surge from the visiting team.

Nineteen mintutes in, Farah went for a short-range intercept, but the call went the Bulldogs’ way. Second later, a pass from Dylan Napa gave Canterbury their best tryscoring chance in some time, as Josh Jackson twisted and spun over the line, and was only just held up by a scrambling Wests Tigers’ defence. On the next set, Lewis went for a 40/20, but underestimated the enormous strength of his boot, which sent the Steeden skidding over the line to gift the home team a seven tackle set.

Half the Tigers got a touch to the football on the last tackle, which ended with them gaining another dropout after a Marsters kick trapped Corey Harawira-Naera in goal. This was their last big chance of the first stanza, and it ended with an offload from Brooks that was fumbled by Chee Kam. Seizing the moment, Meaney scooped up the footy, scooted between Benji and Mbye, and made his way to the Tigers’ forty, where he sent the ball across to Hopoate, who popped it out to Reimis Smith to put down the first points in the Dogs’ right corner.

With Rhyse Martin adding the extras as reliably as ever, the visitors now had six on the board, and they made it six more on the restart. At first, they seemed sure to cross over early in the tackle count, as Okunbor made another magnificent run up the left edge, but failed to throw the key pass back to Meaney on his inside. While he did eventually manage to send it across to Kerrod Holland, the Tigers had managed to get in position by this point, leading to a terrific trysaver from Fonua.

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The try wouldn’t be saved for long, however, as Foran slammed through a sea of black and gold defenders on the other side of the field for another four points, a tackle later. It was an apt conclusion to forty minutes of football that had been largely driven by Foran’s organisation and vision from the halves, and a worrying sign for the Tigers, who had only conceded two tries in their matches against the Sea Eagles and Warriors combined.

By this stage, the Bulldogs were on a roll, as all the frustration of failing to score in the opening minutes of the game fueled them to make the most of this momentum while it lasted. Two minutes out from the end, JMK twisted around out of dummy half and laid the foundation for Lewis to send a wide ball across to Foran. From there, Foran popped the footy out to Corey Harawira-Naera, who executed his third offload of the game to send it back in to his five-eighth a moment later.

Foran now went from tryscorer to try assister, capping his organizational prowess over this opening stanza by popping a short ball across to Dylan Napa to cross over for his first four points in Bulldogs colours. Full credit has to go to CHN as well, who paused once he’d gathered the footy into his chest to wait for Brooks to overrun his line, before waiting once again for Chee Kam to come in for a low tackle before he lobbed the ball back inside over the West Tigers’ second-rower’s head.

The siren couldn’t come soon enough for the Tigers, since another run from Okunbor suggested that the Dogs might have scored again then and there if they’d been permitted just one more tackle, or another ten seconds of play. The break didn’t do much good, however, as the visitors returned from the sheds as if they’d regrouped immediately after Napa’s try, settling into a sweeping and confident passage of football that seemed to put their first two games behind them with each fresh play.

No surprise, then, that they were the next to score, thanks to a deft linkup between Napa and Elliott. It started with some sweeping movement to the left edge of the attack, where Napa brought the footy right into the line, before offloading to Elliott about ten metres out. While the Tathra product was brought to ground by a low tackle from Matterson three metres from the chalk, his strength and wingspan was too great, and he reached out an arm to slam the Steeden to turf.

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This spectacle of Elliott getting the footy down with one hand has recurred throughout his time at the Bulldogs, and has always been a key moment in galvanising the team during tryscoring droughts or difficult periods. Seeing him score in this way now thus felt like the apex of Canterbury’s climb back from their first two weeks of football, meaning that the Tigers really had to be the next to score if they had any chance of remaining in the game.

Luckily, Fonua provided a much-needed try at the fifty-forth minute, thanks to some runaround play from Taylor to Farah, followed by a backwards flick pass from Marsters on the right edge of the field. From there, Fonua took advantage of his girth, bulk and compact frame to muscle his way through Okunbur, using the new Canterbury winger for leverage while avoiding being pummeled into touch in the process. With Marsters’ fading away at the last minute, the Tigers were now three converted tries behind, and needed to mount their comeback immediately.

With twenty minutes to go, Marsters almost crossed over, but was held up at the last minute by a scrambling Bulldogs defence. Three unusual kicks now ensued, the first of which came from Brooks at the end of the next Tigers set – a short effort that ricocheted off Josh Jackson and so came to nothing. At the end of the following Canterbury set, Lewis responded with a banana effort that ended up heading over the sideline on the full.

Finally, Matterson flexed his muscles at five-eighth, having slotted into the role after Benji was taken off with a hamstring injury – a pretty sobering prospect for the Tigers as they prepare to take on the Panthers for their first away game next week. Matterson’s effort found Garner in goal, who slammed it down for a triumphant return after his AC issue earlier in the play. The Tigers were almost back in the game, but Marsters turned out to be a little too keen, rushing the conversion for the fastest kick of the night, and consequently missing the two points from close range.

Marsters tried to make up for it with a big offload to Fonua at the start of the next set, but the Tigers lost their momentum with his botched kick. None of Matterson’s subsequent kicks were able to find their target in the same way, while the Bulldogs just seemed to get braver and braver, epitomised by a courageous effort from Meaney under the high ball that saw the ex-Knight reach both hands above his head, while staring into the sun, to take the full brunt of a high speed tackle from Josh Aloiai.

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The scoreline remained set at 8-22 when the final siren blew out – a resounding win for a Bulldogs outfit who had suffered 76 points being scored against them during the first two rounds of footy alone. They’ll need that confidence and momentum when they take on the Storm at AAMI Park next week, while the Tigers will have to dig deep after such an unexpected and deflating loss, and with the possibility of Benji off the field, when they take on Penrith at Panthers Stadium on Friday night.

About Billy Stevenson (751 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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