Four of the bottom sides in the top eight had won over the Round 14 weekend, putting additional pressure on the Tigers to beat the Bulldogs when they hosted them at Bankwest on Sunday afternoon. Both teams had come off bad losses – the Tigers 44-4 to Newcastle, the Dogs their worst game in a month against Melbourne – perhaps explaining why this became the third close match of Round 14, and the second one-point win, in a brilliant sequel to South Sydney’s nail-biter against the Cowboys the night before.
There were a few changes to the line-up, too, with Jacob Liddle playing his first game since Round 22 last year, Jack Cogger partnering Kieran Foran in the halves with Lachlan Lewis suspended, Dallin Watene Zelezniak dropped following a few weeks of relatively poor form, and Matt Doorey making his debut off the bench. Cogger got rolling two minutes in, forcing the first error of the game with a tricky kick to Tommy Talau, and while Luke Thompson came close to crashing over to the left of the posts, Nick Meaney ended with a no-look pass to Reimis Smith that crashed over the sideline rather than finding the winger unmarked on the right edge.
This was a testament to the strength and pressure of the Tigers’ defence, which bunched in to prevent the Canterbury fullback getting time for even a sideways glance. Nevertheless, the Bulldogs got the first restart early in their next set, and once again Cogger was brilliant with the boot, executing a pinpoint kick that Smith somehow bungled in the air while contesting it with Adam Doueihi.Embed from Getty Images
These two botched plays – one to Smith, one by Smith – galvanised the Tigers into their best set so far, despite an early bobble from Doueihi. David Nofoaluma broke through a couple of tackles up the middle of the park, before a left shift saw Luciano Leilua received an extremely wide ball from Benji Marshall, dummy right, fend off Cogger, and offload out of a low tackle from Kerrod Holland for Moses Mbye to crash over the line. Mbye converted his own try a moment later – a good start given his record with the boot – and Matt Eisenhuth got his team some extra metres with a deft offload early in the restart.
They headed left again on the fourth play, where Luciano Leilua made another barnstorming carry, but couldn’t get to the kick after Talau was cleaned up in the corner. Sione Katoa now recovered some field position with his best kick so far in Bulldogs colours – a seventy-metre effort from within his forty, with a bounce that Doueihi had to wait to collect, giving his men that little bit more time to consolidate the kick chase.
The Tigers returned the favour on the next set, as both teams now spent a few sets trying to work the footy out of their own end, waiting for an error or a big individual effort to break the growing deadlock. Eisenhuth continued to shine in the middle of the park, finding a fifteen metre gap up through the Bulldogs’ defence, but the game returned to the same regular rhythm when Marcelo Montoya caught Luke Brooks’ next bomb on the last.Embed from Getty Images
Finally, fifteen minutes in, the Dogs broke it open, starting with a strong take from Meaney, who corrected his run to accommodate a tricky bounce from Brooks, and then got Canterbury outside their own twenty for the first time in a few first tackles. They got six again a play later, and Cogger responded with the first of two great long-range efforts over the night, breaking through a big hole between Eisenhuth and Russell Packer, dancing over a low tackle from Liddle, and drawing in Doueihi before popping the footy across for Meaney to careen over for their first try beneath the posts.
Holland added the extras from right in front, and the stage was set for an arm wrestle that would be every bit as close as Souths-Cowboys the night before, despite an early surge for the home team. For a few minutes, the game settled back into the same set-for-set rhythm, until a dangerous tackle from Josh Jackson ushered in one of the most compressed sequences of Wests Tigers points all year.
They started on the very next set, thanks to two brilliant crossfield runs – the first from Brooks, who collected the ball on the second, dashing from left to centre before offloading to Liddle; the second from Nofoaluma, who collected a wide ball from Doueihi on the wing and then pivoted back inside, leaving four Canterbury defenders sliding in his wake before he finally offloaded on the ground for the first of two Luke Garner tries. Nofa’s try assist had been every bit as good as the try, but the cult winger didn’t have to wait long for his own four-pointer, scoring off the restart at the tail end of a brilliant Benji 40/20.Embed from Getty Images
This was great stuff from Benji, who remained inside the 40 by half a boot, and then got the ball over the twenty with two tricky bounces. His passing game was just as good, as he once again opted for a rapid right sweep, popping the footy out to Joey Leilua for a catch-and-pass to put Nofoaluma over untouched. Mbye missed the conversion for the first time, but this was still a big moment for the Tigers, cementing Nofa’s 2020 comeback as he rocketed ahead of Robbie Farah as the third all-time tryscorer for the Tiges, as well as becoming the equal second tryscorer of the season, along with Alex Johnston and Stephen Crichton.
Josh Aloiai followed Eisenhuth with a good offload to Luciano Leilua early in the restart, Benji forced Montoya to bring the footy back from the Bulldogs’ ten, Katoa knocked on a midfield offload from Smith, and Cogger conceded a ruck infringement, setting up Garner to crash over for a double as the half hour mark approached. Aloiai now laid the platform by carrying three defenders over the line, Doueihi straightened the play, and Sam McIntyre further exhausted the Bulldogs’ big men, but the set started to wane when Brooks was wrapped up on the left edge, and looked worse when Benji booted the Steeden strong enough for it to go dead.
Yet the Steeden now ricocheted off Foran perfectly for Garner to scoop it up and smash it down, for what would have been the luckiest moment in any regular game, but was upstaged here by a truly extraordinary combination between Jeremy Marshall-King and Aiden Tolman during the second stanza. Mbye now added his third conversion as the black and gold entered the huddle – their last points before a great Canterbury comeback that brought them to 22-22 by the final quarter.Embed from Getty Images
Meanwhile, Dylan Napa was put on report for leading with the head during backplay, as Aloiai added another run to an already brilliant game – 11 runs, 115 metres, 45 post-contact metres, and an offload so far – but the Bulldogs got their mojo back when McIntyre was called offside, moments after Mbye almost made the clutch play of the game with a kick just as Meaney bumped him into touch. The next five minutes for Canterbury were every bit as clinical and compressed as the Tigers’ tryscoring surge, starting with a harbour bridge pass from Foran through Benji, over Lafai, to Montoya, who was unmarked on the left wing.
Holland missed the sideline kick as Benji got treatment for the ankle issue that had perhaps prevented him getting to Foran in time, but the Dogs didn’t have to wait long for their next points, as Foran broke through the line three tackles into the restart and then shifted the footy back inside for Dorey to score on debut, narrowing the deficit to a converted try when Holland booted the extras through the posts. This marked the end of this first great tryscoring surge, with both teams moving through a series of small errors and interchanges for the first fifteen minutes back from the break – most notably Josh Reynolds, who came on for Liddle ten minutes in, but took a while to really make an impact after a few weeks on the bench.
The next try came out of nowhere, and was one of the most incredible all year, starting with a good run from Foran on the fourth, which was met by an equally strong tackle from Jacob Liddle, but established the speed and focus for JMK to receive a quick play-the-ball and break out of the line from dummy half, dancing over low tackles from both Seyfarth and Doueihi to make it all the way to the chalk.Embed from Getty Images
Yet in the single weirdest brainsnap of the year – perhaps the weirdest of the decade – JMK now sent the footy across to Aiden Tolman despite being right on the line himself, an even more surreal decision in that the only defender in sight was brother Benji. Tolman came in low on Benji, Garner came in for support, and the big prop landed on his right elbow, letting the footy shift down his left hand, but just pinning it to his chest with the base of his palm to get it down.
This would have been the biggest bomb of all time if it didn’t work, but as it was the try felt kind of miraculous, steeling the Dogs as they got some bad luck sixteen minutes out, when Foran pivoted awkwardly off his ankle while coming into a Nofoaluma-Montoya tackle, and had to be replace with Katoa. The Tigers now got one of their best sets in a while, and looked set to score their first try in 36 minutes, as Nofoaluma made good metres on the first carry, Mbye came close to breaking through the line, Nofoaluma took another carry, and the play headed left, where Doueihi finally shifted the footy back to Brooks for a kick that Cogger tapped back just enough for Benji to get a boot to the dead ball line when he got it down, while forcing a knock-on from Benji in the air anyway.
This shift in momentum was enough to galvanise the Doggies into their next try, despite the Tiges only conceding eight metres over the first three tackles of the subsequent seven tackle set. Cogger steadied the ship with a bomb that Talau knocked back, and Katoa booted crossfield, where Joey Leilua stormed in for the third kick into touch, saving the try but conceding the dropout.Embed from Getty Images
No Bulldog on the park had kicked a field goal in their first-grade career, so the blue and white army now took a shot at the line – and it paid off, thanks to a terrific play from JMK, who dummied right, twisted through Garner and offloaded to Holland to both score and convert his own try a minute later. Not only had JMK proved he could think clearly right on the chalk, but Garner had conceded the exact try he’d scored off Nofloaluma during the first stanza – a dispiriting reminder that the Tigers now hadn’t score a single point in over forty minutes of football, deep into the second-stanza slump that has plagued so much of their game this year.
The fact that they bounced back makes this a pivotal match in their 2020 season, both emotionally and strategically, especially since they bounced back so quickly now, capitalizing on a missed field goal from Cogger to score their final try next time they had ball in hand. Joey Leilua bookended the play, barging into Ogden and Katoa on the first play and offloading right on the ground, before receiving a Benji ball on the third, storming up the right side, pivoting away from Montoya, and accruing enough speed from twenty-five metres out to simply slam through Meaney on the sideline.
It was rousing to see Mbye make one of his best ever sideline kicks to level the score, although golden point was still a worrying option for the Tigers, given that they have the second worst record in extra time, while the Bulldogs have the best. It must have roused Brooks, too, who iced the game two minutes out after a pair of missed drop kicks from Benji and Cogger, when he booted through the fifth and hardest-struck field goal of his career – a brilliant final image for the Tiges to draw upon when they take on the Roosters at Leichhardt next week.