The Bulldogs were aggressive in the first set of the 2020 NRL season at Bankwest Stadium, but the Eels were even stauncher in defence, only conceding 28 metres before getting their first touch of football for the year. They got their first chance at scoring early, when Dallin Watene-Zelezniak spilled Mitchell Moses’ opening kick, and Blake Ferguson scooped up the footy and shifted it out to Maika Sivo, who opted to head back in field, only to lose it under severe pressure from DWZ. Still, Parra got the ball back immediately, and then a fresh burst of field position, after a slow peel from Brandon Wakeham – the first penalty of the season. Shaun Lane took the next tackle, and Sivo tried to make good on the right edge again, before Moses sent Ferguson a cut-out pass that would have resulted in the first try if Fergo hadn’t put his right boot on the line.
Fergo wasted a backwards somersault, but the Eels were still pumped, while their star no. 5 came up with the high ball at the end of the next Bulldogs set. Adam Elliott now made his first big statement of the night with an enormous tackle on Nathan Brown, before DWZ did better competing with Clint Gutherson under the high ball this time around, gathering the Steeden into his chest and holding tight as the Parramatta fullback slammed him to ground. Lachlan Lewis went for a 20/40 kick next time he had ball in hand, but it didn’t come off, and Michael Jennings took advantage of the disappointment to almost break through the line on the next tackle, only for Elliott to once again contribute a big hit on the second play, before Brown coughed up the Steeden on the third – the first of many handling errors that would gradually decelerate the completion rate in the first half.
This was the biggest chance so far for the Dogs, and Will Hopoate stepped into the spotlight, making a superb tip-on during the third play to shift the ball across to Christian Crichton on the right edge. Everything seemed to come together with Lewis’ final kick, which targeted Fergo in goal, where he was cornered by Nick Meaney and Reimis Smith, and would probably have conceded a dropout at the very least, had Smith not briefly taken his eyes of his target, and tumbled into Ferguson ahead of time, conceding a penalty for an early tackle. Parra now got a letoff of their own, and history seemed to repeat itself a few sets later, when Fergo was tackled in the air under the high ball, suggesting that the Eels might get another penalty for an illegal hit on their winger. Yet the call ended up going Canterbury’s way, since Reed Mahoney had put pressure on Lewis during the preceding kick.
It had already been an evening of looming, challenging, extremely high kicks, so it felt right that the first two points were put on the board on the back of this sequence, with Wakeham slotting through the first penalty goal of the year. Dylan Napa took down Ryan Matterson on the next play, and the Dogs got a penalty late in the tackle count – a flop from Brown – commencing a sustained period of field position that nevertheless wouldn’t result in any further points. Three tackles in, Lewis went for a quick play-the-ball on the left edge, and managed to tempt a leg pull from Moses, but Wakeham’s kick swerved away to the right of the posts, keeping it a two-point game. In the strangest decision so far, Gutho leapt up to catch this kick on the full in goal, conceding a dropout instead of a twenty metre restart.
Wakeham ended the next set with his first kick of the match, threading through the footy from about twenty metres out, and forcing Sivo to pop it into touch under pressure from an impressive Hopoate kick chase. With so much field position and possession, this was crunch time for the Dogs, so it was a massive letoff for Parra when Joe Stimson lost the Steeden on the second play, and DWZ followed up with a panicky second effort, getting the Eels back down the Canterbury end before the visitors knew what had hit them. This rapid shift in momentum often produces points, so it was a bit surprising when Reagan Campbell-Gillard lost the Steeden in turn, on the fourth play, while trying to twist and spin his way out of a big tackle from Napa and Jeremy Marshall-King, paving the way for the first unsuccessful Captain’s Challenge of the 2020 NRL season.Embed from Getty Images
Parra now sent the play upstairs to see whether RCG had actually made the mistake – and the replay showed that he had, compounding this blow to their momentum. The blue and gold showed their frustration with a big push in the ensuing scrum, before RCG got his own back by putting a hand on Smith’s head when he mucked up the play-the-ball a couple of tackles later. With Lane losing the ball a moment after, the completion rate was taking a pretty big hit, and a series of penalties and errors for both teams ensued over the next ten minutes, before a mistake from DWZ gave the Eels their best chance in some time. Still, the Canterbury defence stayed strong, only conceding two points from this sequence after Moses booted through Parra’s first penalty kick of the year, following a dangerous tackle from Dean Britt, before Stimson made a fairly foolish early hit on Gutho with two minutes on the clock.
Sivo responded by showcasing his signature fend for the first time in the match – first on Crichton, then on JMK, before Crichton responded with some shoulder action on Sivo’s head that got him put on report. With a minute and a half left, the Eels chose to tap and go, but they hadn’t planned for a huge tackle from Renouf To’omaga, who made such epic contact with Kane Evans that he knocked the Steeden clean out of his arms. Canterbury continued this momentum after the break, gaining the first penalty of the second stanza after a good strong run from DWZ on the back of the high ball, followed by a quick play-the-ball that caught Moses with a hand in the ruck. However, the next set ended with a knock-on against Hoppa – and the second unsuccessful Captain’s Challenge of the night, as the Dogs sent the decision upstairs to see if it was justified, which it was.
Neither team had really nailed the Captain’s Challenge, using it for decisions that weren’t obviously a mistake, or even likely to be a mistake, despite RCG and Hopoate’s claims that they’d been hardly done by. If anything, the two Captain’s Challenges had ended up benefiting the opposing team, as occurred now, when the Eels were galvanised into one of their fastest sets of the second stanza so far. One set later, Jennings and Evans made a big pair of runs, and Marata Niukore broke his nose through the line, before Sivo lunged forward to rekick a mistimed kick from Gutherson. While DWZ collected the ball, this was a good sign for the Eels – proof they had the flexibility and dynamism to compensate for a tryless first half if they just managed to consolidate at the right moment and in the right manner here.
Still, the Dogs’ defence was also pretty impressive, bringing back memories of the tail end of their 2019 season, when they belatedly got rolling. Parra didn’t put much pressure on Meaney under the next high ball, and DWZ took advantage of this reticence by collecting the footy and breaking through the line for one of the most promising runs of the night. Smith followed up with a far less impressive run, and Hoppa was then almost dragged into touch on the right edge, getting the footy back in field, before Lewis’ kick ricocheted off the defence. This produced a chaotic scramble right on the line, as Aiden Tolman mirrored Sivo by making a second kick, but probably should have taken a shot at getting the ball to ground, despite Gutherson knocking the footy on and getting Canterbury another bout of field position, and one of the best tryscoring opportunities of the second stanza.
Raymond Faitala-Mariner was now held up to the right of the posts, before Britt lost some of their focus on the left edge. The set ended with Hoppa gathering Lewis’ kick on the other side of the park and then shifting it out to Crichton, who tried to dodge and weave his way through a sea of blue and gold jerseys, but was eventually contained by the Parramatta defence. This was a big letdown for the Dogs, but they got back on their feet almost immediately after a second knock-on from Gutho, midway through the next set, and Smith responded with a big run up the left edge, getting in place to lay the foundation for an immense pair of passes from Meaney and DWZ that centred the play. Nevertheless, the Bulldogs were struggling to structure their attack, no doubt due in part to the absence of Jayden Okunbor and Corey Harawira-Naera, and eventually conceded possession back to the home team.Embed from Getty Images
Brown now came very close to breaking through the line on the fourth, before Meaney coughed up another enormous bomb from Lewis, knocking it back into the hands of DWZ, who gathered it securely, only to hit the deck after tripping over Ferguson’s left knee. In retrospect, it didn’t look like Fergo had necessarily intended to trip the Canterbury fullback, despite leaving his leg in the same position while he was twisting his body to change the direction of play, but a shoulder charge from RCG on the very next tackle boosted the Bulldogs back down the park anyway, where JMK lost the footy into Dylan Brown. The Eels now got another aborted celebration, following Fergo’s backwards somersault, when Jennings scooped up the Steeden and careened fifty metres downfield, but the try was called back since Brown had knocked on following the JMK error.
The Dogs now had ball in hand once again, but still struggled to strategise their way through this burst of field position. They remained in the middle of field for the first three plays, before Wakeham sent a short ball to Elliott that resulted in perhaps their most characteristic play of the second half. Choosing impulse over strategy, the big second-rower tried to barge his way to the line instead of taking the tackle, but came up short, losing the Steeden as Gutherson slammed on top of him in an effort to tempt a double movement. The game paused briefly while Napa got his head bandaged, and Moses ended the next set with a huge kick that initially looked set to trap Crichton in goal for a dropout, before Lewis lifted him clean in the air and brought him down with the same unflappable calm that normally precedes his kicks.
Meanwhile, Crichton made it back into the field of play, before Jennings was pinged for an offside penalty, and the Bulldogs got rolling once again. This was a bit of a strange outcome, since you could make a good case that Lewis had technically made a dangerous tackle, but it didn’t end up making much of a difference, since the Canterbury halfback made an unforced error in the next play, gifting the scrum feed to Parra. The Eels didn’t score then and there, but this reversal of fortune surely helped propel them towards their first and only try, which started with one of Moses’ best kicks of the night – a low, dangerous grubber to the right edge of the park, where Meaney failed to clean it up, and Brown tried to clean it up, but was unable to get a hand to it, ricocheting it further in goal with his knee. Reed Mahoney was offside for the kick, but kept ten metres away for this second play, before runing forward and putting down the footy with both hands for the first try of 2020.
With so much anticipation behind it, this would have been an emotional and visceral try even if it wasn’t so impressive on its own terms, putting the Eels six points ahead once Moses had booted the extras through the uprights. Both teams settled back into the error-laden rhythm of the first half over the next ten minutes, as the Dogs started to contend with the possibility of their first tryless season opener since 2000. They blew their last chance one minute out from the end when Reimis Smith made a dangerous tackle on Ferguson, keeping it to a six point game as the final siren rang out. Despite the narrow win margin, this was a strong start for the Eels, especially when Moses started to really shine in the second stanza, but a sobering effort for the Bulldogs, especially with Okunbor and CHN off the field, so they’ll be looking to come back big when they host the Cowboys for the first match of Round 2 next Thursday night, while the Eels will be looking for more points when they meet the Titans at Cbus.