ROUND 20: Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs v. Penrith Panthers (Bankwest Stadium, 3/8/19)

In a weekend of big footy upsets, the Bulldogs’ win over the Panthers was one of the most dramatic. The match was bookended by Dallin Watene Zelezniak’s best game for Canterbury yet, starting with the first blue and white set, where he got the first penalty of the night after Mitch Kenny crowded in on the play. The Dogs got some more field position after a handling error from James Maloney, and while Liam Martin following a great opening run with a bit hit on Adam Elliott, Canterbury crashed over a couple of tackles later, on the back of a silky sweep to their right.

The play started with a superb cut-out pass from Jack Cogger that set up Will Hopoate to send Reimis Smith across in the corner, in a terrific sequel to his double against the Roosters last week. While Nick Meaney’s kick looked good off the tee, it faded away as it approached the uprights, keeping the Bulldogs four on the board. Both teams now went set for set for a couple of minutes, ferrying the footy up and down the field as DWZ and Brian To’o both did a good job of cleaning up bombs.

A break in the rhythm came when Josh Mansour made up for Hopoate smashing through him for his earlier try assist by managing to get an offside penalty from Elliott early in the tackle count. To’o broke through the line a couple of tackles later, but the Panthers weren’t able to score on this particular set, thanks to a clutch play from Meaney, who managed to scoop up a Nathan Cleary grubber, dodge away from a Maloney tackle, and bring his team out of the danger zone.

Canterbury doubled down on defence on the next set, but a penalty from Corey Harawira-Naera for verbal dissent – uncharacteristic behavior from the big second-rower – got Penrith down the other end of the park pretty quickly. Once there, they shifted from side to side, approaching the line from several angles, before Isaah Yeo started a passage of play to the left that mirrored the Bulldogs’ try-scoring right sweep ten minutes before.

Cleary got the footy to Martin, who continued a brilliant opening by stopping in the line, twisting around and sending it across to Maloney, who offloaded to Brent Naden just before he hit the deck. After such a deft pair of passes, the defence were no match for the Penrith centre, who crossed over to make himself the Panthers’ highest tryscorer of 2019, before Cleary nailed a difficult sideline conversion to put the mountain men two points ahead.

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A linebreak from Hopoate and a great run up the right side of the field from Smith now recaptured the rhythm of the Bulldogs’ start, especially since Mansour was the next casualty, making an error that was followed by Naden being called offside. Yet instead of continuing to accelerate, the Dogs elected to take the two – a wasted opportunity after Meaney missed his second kick of the night, resulting in Kerrod Holland taking over boot duties for the remainder of the match.

Holland got a chance to prove himself almost immediately, taking the two after a frustrated James Tamou was pinged for crowding after Martin had secured the high ball. The Penrith captain would have been happier with the pair of penalties that followed – a slow peel from Harawira-Naera, a leg pull from Elliott – which culminated with Naden chasing down a Maloney grubber at the end of the set, for what looked sure to be a double in regular speed.

In slow motion, however, the Bunker could see that Naden had made the bizarre decision to try and scoop up the Steeden, instead of exerting the slight downward pressure that would have made this a certain try. In the process, he’d fumbled the footy, but the Panthers quickly got a chance to rebound when Smith made a handling error at the start of the next set. This time Cleary took the kick, securing a dropout after Holland was forced to take the football into touch.

This marked the start of a sustained period of field position for the mountain men, who got six again at the end of the next set, following a touch from Cogger, and then a second dropout after Hoppa was caught in goal by an early kick from Kenny. To make matters worse for the Dogs, Aiden Tolman was then awarded a professional foul and sent to the bin in his 200th game for Canterbury Bankstown, after running Reagan Campbell-Gillard off the ball.

Amazingly, after such an accumulation of field position, and with a twelve-man opposition, the Panthers elected to take the two, putting them only two points ahead after expending all the manpower and energy of the last three sets. It didn’t help that the kick took a good minute out of their ten minutes with Tolman off the field, and as the clock wound down to half time, they struggled to build any real acceleration, despite getting some good chances after mistakes from both Holland and Chris Smith.

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Despite the two point lead, then, this was a pretty dispiriting way for Penrith to head into the sheds. If anything, the Bulldogs had been building momentum over these final minutes. Holland had come very close to crossing over on their left edge, only to be held up by a scrambling defensive formation, while Naden had a near-miss after the high ball went backwards through his hands under pressure from Hopoate and Reimis Smith, only for Mansour to scoot in and regather it safely behind him.

In the final minutes, Harawira-Naera had also shown some quick thinking to clean up the football after Dean Whare failed to make the most of a broken Bulldogs line, while Tolman returned a minute into the second stanza without Penrith having put down a try in his absence. DWZ expressed the Dogs’ renewed conviction with a huge run to start the second Canterbury set, smashing his way into James Fisher-Harris like he was the smallest man on the park.

Admittedly, DWZ was not so great when he allowed Naden to cleanly collect a Maloney kick shortly after, but Lachlan Lewis stepped up with a crushing trysaver on Cleary after the Panthers moved the footy back towards the middle of the field. Still, this was Dallin’s best game in the blue and white jersey so far – a reminder, along with Harawira-Naera, of some of the speed and strength that the mountain men have lost in the last couple of years.

Penrith glimpsed a fresh chance when Edwards got a clean catch and a good run a couple of minutes later, but an obstruction on Reimis Smith from Naden reversed the momentum, allowing the Bulldogs to finally break the stalemate and score the first try since the thirteenth minute. This was the deftest and most spectacular try of the game – a soaring cut-out ball from Cogger, and then the slightest and silkiest of catch-and-passes from DWZ to send Meaney across in the corner.

The ease and elegance of it all culminated a period of growing confidence for the Dogs that had started – ironically – in the minutes after Tolman had been removed from the field. Yet with Holland missing the extras it was still a two-point game, while Holland didn’t help the Canterbury cause by losing the footy two tackles into the restart while trying to offload to Jeremy Marshall-King. Still, despite strong runs from Yeoh and Maloney and some superb second-phase play, the Dogs survived, as Cleary’s last-tackle kick sat up perfectly for DWZ to collect it and restart the restart.

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Given the infrequency of tries and the closeness of the game, it started to feel like the next try would be the match-winner. The Bulldogs have only won from behind twice in 2019, but they didn’t let the stats bother them here, holding their own as the Panthers started to get stuck in. Hoppa caught a Cleary kick brilliantly, only to offload it straight to Fisher-Harris, before DWZ executed the trysaver of the night on Martin, slamming to ground in front of the wiry second-rower a millisecond before he could get the Steeden down.

Still, the Dogs had a slight upper hand, despite their position on the ladder, and settled into their final try-scoring groove when Hoppa got some closure by forcing a slow peel from Kenny, which was quickly followed by an error from Naden. At the end of the next set, Cleary launched himself at a Cogger grubber, but ended up knocking it on, gifting the Dogs the scrum feed as the last twenty minutes of the match started to wind down.

The next passage of play was the quickest of the night, as Cogger collected the footy out of the scrum, ran at the line, twisted around under Edwards and then came to ground with Martin on his back. This was one of the most controversial groundings of Round 20, since you could have made a good case that the Canterbury five-eighth had lost the football and failed to regather it, despite the fact that the Bunker deemed it to have been a clean carry and putdown.

The precarity of this try was an apt ending to the game as a whole, which had remained poised on a knife’s-edge, with two points the difference, for most of its duration. While Holland’s conversion put Canterbury a more comfortable eight points ahead, they wouldn’t score again, making this most unexpected of wins feel even more hard won. They’ll be hosting the Tigers with renewed confidence at ANZ next Saturday night, while the Panthers will be desperate for a win over the Sharks at Penrith after having dropped out of the eight by the time Round 20 was done.

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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