ROUND 6: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (Bankwest Stadium, 21/6/20)

Bryson Goodwin was back from Super League when the Sharks hosted Canterbury on Sunday night, while John Morris had brought Andrew Fifita onto the bench and started with Braden Hamlin-Uele, who made the first error with a rare loose carry, gifting the Bulldogs an early burst of field position, which was compounded by their first six again call. Renouf To’omaga took a couple of big hit-ups through the middle, before a rapid play-the-ball set up Jeremy Marshall-King to plunge over beside the right post, where it took a triple effort from Aaron Woods, Chad Townsend and Wade Graham to hold him up. The Sharkies now got a restart of their own, and another on the next play, thanks to a pair of ruck infringements from the Dogs that got Hamlin-Uele in place for a tough carry at the forty metre line. A sustained period of Cronulla dominance now ensued, as Goodwin stood in the tackle on the left edge, and Graham looked for an offload, only to twist and spin through Will Hopoate, Dallin Watene Zelezniak and Brandon Wakeham on the wing, leading the Bunker to check the grounding despite Graham himself clamouring that it hadn’t been a try.

If anything, this Bunker sequence thwarted some of the Sharkies’ momentum in the left corner, so they rapidly headed right, and Shaun Johnson grubbered in goal, where Hoppa was caught with the Steeden to concede the first dropout of the night. Cronulla got back into first gear on the restart, and headed left again, but this time Matt Moylan’s outside pass was collected by DWZ after ricocheting off Dugan, who responded with a rollicking run next time he had ball in hand, helping the Sharks to make one of their biggest pushes up through the ruck once Woods compounded his metres with a strong carry on the fourth. The Bulldogs were ready for them, as Christian Crichton made a superb take in the air under Johnson’s kick, but Cronulla made an equally slamming set next time they recovered the football. This time Johnson produced a bit more pressure, almost trapping Hoppa for another dropout, but still the Doggies’ most consistent player – he hasn’t missed a game since 2017 – got back in the field of play.

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Adam Elliott was galvanised by this effort, making big metres up the middle before colliding with Townsend, but he didn’t find any support players for an offload, while Josh Jackson lost the footy a play later. This aborted Canterbury sequence was the perfect platform for Cronulla to continue the escalating momentum of their last two sets, especially since they got their own restart a play later, which Moylan used to make a massive run up the left edge, almost breaking through the line before Johnson executed his first offload of the night out to Briton Nikora on the right. Finally, all this splendid Cronulla energy came together when Sione Katoa collected an elegant harbour bridge from Townsend, leaping in the air, and sailing above the corner post to get the footy down with his right hand before Kieran Foran could bump him into touch. This was easily one of the most gymnastic tries of the year – Katoa’s 11th in 22 games for the Sharks – putting the home team six ahead once Johnson made his best kick off the right edge all season, slotting the Steeden through the posts from a difficult sideline angle.

Hamlin-Uele got them rolling with a big run on the restart, and Woodsy followed suit, before Jack Williams drew in Elliott and Raymond Faitala-Mariner, clearing space for Woods to take another run and pop an offload out the back for good measure. Townsend followed Johnson by kicking to Hoppa, and then made a fantastic kick chase to trap the Canterbury fullback in his own ten as the Sharks tightened the screws, forcing Brandon Wakeham into an awkward torpedo that Goodwin caught with no troubles. Dugan now stood in the tackle like a frontrower, and the Sharkies got their third call of six again, before Townsend made a catch-and-pass to Johnson that set up Jesse Ramien for a sublime one-handed offload to Katoa that would have ended in another try if a sea of Bulldogs hadn’t piled on for their biggest pack effort so far. Cronulla had all the speed and momentum here, and Moylan tried to capitalise on it with a risky one-handed pass to Ramien that was picked up by Katoa, before Johnson swept left and Townsend grubbered into the left corner, trapping Hoppa over the line for the next dropout – one of the many rapid changes in direction and attack that had distinguished the Sharks’ game tonight.

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This was crunch time for Canterbury, who could recover the rhythm of the game if they just cleaned up Cronulla here – and they did a pretty good job for the first couple of tackles, getting a lucky break when Ramien put down a fast flat pass from Johnson. Something about the mood of the first half shifted after that, as Cronulla stayed fast and strong, but failed to build quite the same cumulative strength that they’d showcased in the first quarter. They got their next chance when a Woods offload sent Townsend through the line, in what seemed destined to be a tryscoring sequence, only for JMK to run up on the Cronulla’s halfback inside and bark for the ball before receiving it on the chest. Hopoate took the biggest hit of the game a few minutes later, but stayed on the field to collect the footy fifteen metres out from the line as the half hour mark approached, bouncing through Moylan to slam down four points on the right side of the posts. This was Hoppa’s first try of 2020, in the part of the park where the current Bulldogs squad have traditionally struggled to cross, making it feel like a decisive comeback when Averillo levelled the score by booting through his first two-pointer.

Five minutes out form the siren, Nikora was sent to the bin for a slow peel, and Elliott made his biggest run since his earlier linebreak, only for his vision and energy to be thwarted once again when Wakeham sent a catch-and-pass forward to DWZ on the wing. Andrew Fifita took the first hit-up after subbing on for Woods ten minutes before, and Sioisifa Talakai dragged three Dogs into a strong carry before offloading to Toby Rudolf for another five metres. Fifita found himself with the footy again on the third, offloading in turn for Ramien, only for the ex-Knight to lose it into Crichton, defied by the sudden slipperiness of the Steeden as the rain started to stream down on Bankwest. Dean Britt now nearly sent Elliott through the line with a deft short pass, and then muscled his way through a couple of defenders to get the Dogs within the twenty by the third play, but Canterbury were frustrated when Foran put down a tricky offload from Elliott, who’d been brilliant with all kinds of assists during the game, but hadn’t quite found the rest of team matching him. With a minute and a half left on the lock, Johnson tried to cause chaos with a soaring end-over-end bomb, but Crichton was safe as he had been all night.

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DWZ took the kickoff after half time, and Fifita the first carry, as the game was effectively restarted, with both teams returning from the sheds with a converted try under their belt. Admittedly, Nikora was still binned for the first four minutes, but Johnson used up some time with a kick over the sideline at the end of the first Sharks set, while his team mates made a good defensive show of it when the Bulldogs got the ball back. Once again, Elliott was visionary, almost putting Britt through the line, before Moylan allowed a Wakeham banana kick to drift over the sideline, cementing a pretty slow start to the second stanza, and a remarkably relaxed period for the Sharkies with only twelve men on the park. Sure enough, Cronulla played it safe on the next set, when Fifita, Ramien, Talakai, Rudolf and then Fifita made pretty standard carries, avoiding risky second-phase play before Johnson opted for the same kick as the last set – low, direct, and over the sideline, getting the Dogs another scrum feed as Nikora trotted back onto the field. DWZ responded by bursting out of an early tackle to make a 25-metre run – the biggest acceleration since the break – and the game started to speed up from here for both sides.

Dugan responded to DWZ by withstanding a big kick chase at the end of the first high ball in some time, and Ramien almost broke through the line three tackles later, before the Sharks got back-to-back calls of six again after a pair of ruck infringements from Canterbury. Moylan dummied and almost slid past Jackson on the second, Blakye Brailey nearly sent Rudolf across on the third, and Townsend headed right on the fourth, where Johnson continued the sweep by sending the footy out to Katoa on the wing. The ball was heading for the ground rather than for the chest, but Katoa managed to scoop it up, at speed, in the wet, just before it hit the turf, and then ground it for a double, off the back of one of the best pickups I’ve ever seen. Not only had the Sharks survived with twelve men on the field, but they’d capitalised on poor ruck decision from the Dogs to score one of their most spectacular tries this year, recovering their six point lead once Johnson added another impressive conversion from the right edge. Hoppa recovered some focus for his team mates by catching a Townsend floater on the full, but this was still a big dent for the Dogs, who struggled to get out of their own end next time they had ball in hand.

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Conversely, Dugan made a barnstorming run after collecting the high ball from Wakeham, who responded by barging in on Reimis Smith as he tried to drag Duges over the sideline on the same play. Despite Jackson’s insistence that Wakeham had been trying to contribute to the tackle, and the fracas that ensued in the middle of the field, Wakeham was put on report and sent to the bin as punishment for the accumulation of Canterbury errors over the last ten minutes. Meanwhile, Cronulla continued to accelerate with their next set, moving up the left edge before Johnson grubbered to the right corner on the third, where Katoa ran a hard line to catch the footy on the full, thereby transforming his third career double into his first career hat trick. After a series of conservative efforts in the first five minutes back from the break, this was superb organisation and leadership from Johnson, who drew in Averillo and Foran before sending the Steeden off his boot at an oblique angle, banking on the bounce to find his winger on the chest, which it did with aplomb. Johnson didn’t make his third conversion, but this was still a sterling effort from the Sharks, so it was pretty  dramatic when the Bulldogs scored only five minutes later.

The try itself was even more eccentric than the timing – a kick on the last from Adam Elliott, who sent the Steeden off the right boot as Rudolf closed in for a hit-up, pitching it perfectly for Foran to scoop into his chest and score beneath the posts. If Katoa’s hat trick was galvanising for the Sharks, this combination of second-rower and five-eighth was just as improbable and just as motivating, putting the Bulldogs back into the contest in an instant. That said, Elliott had enjoyed a particularly visionary game from the second row, organizing and leading play with the tenor of a five-eighth, so this was a poetic way for him to cap off all that assistance, especially since some of his earlier efforts hadn’t been greeted in kind by his support players. Still, the Sharks came back pretty quickly, taking advantage of yet another restart to send the footy through Foran and Woods to Townsend, who kicked to the left corner for Goodwin to catch it on the full, without a Bulldog in sight, and then slam it down for his 71st NRL try, and his first four-pointer since playing for the Rabbitohs. Despite the shift to the left sideline, Johnson missed his second consecutive kick, but there could be no question that Cronulla had all the momentum now.

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Nevertheless, there were ten minutes left on the clock – ample time for the Bulldogs to win if they could notch up a pair of converted tries. Averillo got them rolling with a big run up the left edge, and Elliott responded with a good carry up the middle, but this brief burst of momentum came to an end when the big second-rower lost the footy into Fifita and Woods while trying to execute an offload out the back. Woods and Johnson ferried the footy up through the ruck on the next set, but Cronulla lost the ball a moment later, leaving it open for Foran to scoop up and send out to Averillo, who now made good on his left side raid a set before, shooting his way down the sideline before curving around to ground the Steeden behind the posts. This would have been a terrific try for Canterbury, but the replay showed that Raymond Faitala-Mariner had made contact offside – a big letoff for the Sharkies, who got Moylan back for their next set after he passed his HIA. You had to credit Averillo’s showmanship, though, since he’d made sure to put down the Steeden precisely beneath the crossbar – just the flex needed to come back after a game with so many spectacular or eccentric tries.

Woods followed by dragging four defenders over the line with him on the fourth tackle, and then Brailey started a right sweep to take advantage of the Dogs’ focus on the middle of the field, setting up Johnson for an outside ball to Katoa. For a moment, it looked like Sione might get a fourth try, but instead Crichton intercepted the Steeden, outrunning Townsend and travelling a hundred metres to put down the next four points. This was a pretty poor sequence for the Sharks, since Crichton had split the halves down the middle, bringing us to a two-point game when Averillo booted through the conversion for his first stint as goalkicker. Still, Katoa made up for it by saving the next high ball, in a match-winning play for Cronulla, who came away with their second win of the year, capping off a night where Johnson’s own goalkicking turned out to be much more critical than might initially have been expected. They’ll be looking for a bigger win margin when they take on the Sea Eagles in Round 7, while the Bulldogs should also feel proud of their performance, and galvanised to front up to the Tigers for a western derby in exactly a week’s time.

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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