The third match of the Nines featured a few more familiar faces from first grade, and was a bit more evenly paced than Knights-Panthers and Roosters-Warriors, as the Bulldogs came away with a three point win over Parramatta as the afternoon waned over HBF Park. Blake Ferguson started with a sterling catch off the kickoff, and Junior Paulo almost made it to the forty on the second play, but the Dogs were just as confident, with Christian Crichton putting in the first kick, and forcing Maika Sivo to pick up the Steeden right on the Canterbury line. Still, Sivo stepped up, making a massive fend on Jack Cogger and putting some big metres behind him after that.
Sivo’s energy fuelled the entire set, which ended with Clint Gutherson finding Mitchell Moses out of dummy half, who then shifted the footy across to Fergo to put down the first four points for Parramatta this year. It remained four when Moses sliced the kick across the uprights, before the Dogs put in a decent following set, but Mitch stepped back into the spotlight at the end, wrapping up Bailey Biondi-Odo before Paulo made a massive hit on Dean Britt to shut down the momentum of the final play. Canterbury didn’t have to wait too long for their next chance, though, as Gutho soon sent a 40/20 attempt out on the full, and Morgan Harper responded with the Bulldogs’ best run so far in the right corner
The Dogs stayed on the right edge, and it paid dividends, as Harper collected the footy on the fourth and then stormed over to put Canterbury two ahead after he converted his own try. They didn’t stay ahead for long, however, as Jaemon Salmon pivoted off the left boot and sped past Jack Cogger on the next set for the first long-range try of the match, before Brad Takairangi took over kicking duties to put Parramatta four points in front. Britt now made a hard effort to try and break through three men on the third tackle of the next set, only for George Jennings to catch Cogger’s final kick on the full, and so neutralize Canterbury just when they seemed to be accelerating once again.
For a moment it looked like Sivo might score right on the siren after he found some open space on the left edge, but he was brought down by a superb trysaver from Brandon Wakeham. When they returned to the park, the Dogs started with a pretty stark contrast to Fergo’s superb take at the start of the first stanza, as Ben Marschke knocked on off the kickoff, but then breathed a sigh of relief when a deft trysaver from Britt prevented Rhys Davies from crashing over a second later. A terrific kick chase between Meaney and Fergo drew even more attention from Canterbury’s frustrating moment, even if Fergo got the upper hand, and the Eels had the football once again.
Moses now put in one of his best kicks of the match, forcing Jake Averillo to start working back right from the Bulldogs’ line. Parra got an extra tackle a moment later, and Ferguson made his cleverest play of the game so far – kicking for himself and then speeding down the sideline. It didn’t land a try, but still got the Eels a dropout, only for Wakeham to get the ball back, in what was probably the turning-point of the game, since Parra looked good to score if they’d got the extra set. The last two minutes of this match were the most suspenseful of the Nines so far, as a lost ball from Salmon, and then a touch from Jennings, set up Canterbury for a late stage comeback.Embed from Getty Images
The key play was a superb run from Marschke, who get an arm free beside the right post, and popped the Steeden back to Corey Harawira-Naera, who put down the only bonus try this match, rapidly converted by Harper to put the Dogs three ahead. This was exactly the upset win that can make Nines so exciting – especially since the Eels were picked as the tournament favourites, and were showcasing many of their best players to start their 2020 drive for the premiership as early as possible. Not to mention, either, that the Bulldogs have never made it to quarter finals during Nines football, meaning their early win here exuded a real exuberance, starting with the forward pass from Takairangi that decided the game five seconds from the end.
In some ways, though, the second match was even more of an upset, since Shaun Johnson’s record as one of the best Nines competitors couldn’t prevent the Dragons storming away with a 27-5 win over Cronulla in the next part of Pool Two. The Sharkies actualy started strong, getting a dropout on the first set, before Matt Dufty tried to intercept a Johnson pass but put it down instead, giving Cronulla possession for the first three minutes – the first third – of the opening half. Ben Hunt followed with the first ever 20/40 attempt in the NRL – unsuccessfully – and Johnson almost broke through a tackle later, offloading on the ground to Aaron Woods.
A rapid sweep now ensued, as the footy moved through Woods, Blayke Brailey and Briton Nikora, who headed to the wing before shifting it back to Sione Katoa, changing the direction of play so quickly that the Dragons were unable to reform their defensive line in time to prevent Katoa weaving through for a bonus try. As it turned out, however, these were the first and last points Cronulla would score, as Chad Townsend missed the conversion, and St. George put down their first points on the next set, when Tristan Sailor stepped into the spotlight on the last play. Running deep into the defence, Sailor sent the Steeden spinning off his boot for Josh Kerr to chase down, before missing the conversion to keep the Red V one point behind.
It didn’t take them long to resume the lead, as a superb offload from Tyson Frizell commenced a compressed left sweep that ended with Tyrell Fuimaono crashing over in the corner, before Hunt missed the conversion just as Sailor and Townsend had before him. Kerr and Wiliame made a superb combined tackle on Jesse Ramien at the start of the next set, while Mikaele Ravalwa popped the footy into touch without much effort at the end of it all – and without needing to worry about the outcome of a dropout with only five seconds left until half time. An error from Jack Williams ten seconds into the second half got St. George their next chance, and Hunt finished with a terrific kick that trapped Connor Tracey in goal.
The Dragons had now mirrored Cronulla by getting a dropout at the start of the second stanza, but they did considerably more with this early burst of field position, as Ravalawa almost muscled his way through on the first play, and Dufty skittered across the ruck to the left, where he succeeded in tempting Tracey into a dangerous tackle – a rapid implosion of Cronulla’s defensive intensity that seemed destined to gift St. George a try on the repeat set. Sure enough, Cameron McInnes followed with the cleanest try of the Nines so far, barging through beneath the posts for the bonus point – and a ten point lead once Hunt booted through the first conversion.Embed from Getty Images
It was paramount that the Sharks score on the next set, but they didn’t do much with their last play, so the Dragons simply got rolling down the park again. Three tackles later, Sailor sailed through the line on the right edge, following the cleanest try of the Nines so far with the most elegant try, as he curved away from Katoa to accelerate into the bonus zone. More than any other young gun so far in the Perth Nines, Sailor’s performance was an argument for 2020 as his year in first grade football – especially when he capped off his splendid run with a kick that brought the Red V to an astonishing 22-5 over the Nines experts, whose star sunk even lower on the next set, when Ramien lost the footy into touch, early in the tackle count.
Tyson Frizell barely had to work for metres on the second tackle when the Dragons got the ball back, while a brilliant kick from Hunt – his best of the game – got his men their second dropout of the second stanza. It all came down to a battle of the halfbacks, as Johnson went short on the kick, and Hunt drew in the defence, before kicking on the first tackle for Kerr to surge forward, ground the footy and bookend the game with his second try. Combined with Parra’s shock loss to the Bulldogs, this standoff cemented Pool Two as a bit of a game-changer for Nines football in 2020, so it’s be fascinating to see how these teams cope when they reshuffle tomorrow, as well as the ramifications of these two unexpected wins over the rest of the tournament.