ROUND 15: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v. New Zealand Warriors (ANZ Stadium, 23/8/20)

The wind was stronger outside ANZ Stadium when Nick Meaney kicked off for Sunday afternoon’s game against the Warriors, but he still sent it six metres too far, gifting New Zealand the first penalty five seconds into this toughly contested match. The visitors got even more field position following a hand in the ruck from Aiden Tolman, although the Dogs got to their first set pretty quickly, thanks to an early error from Hayze Perham.

Josh Jackson took a big run up the middle of the field on play four, Jack Cogger took the first kick, and the game settled into a set-for-set rhythm, with Meaney making up for his early gaffe with a good take under the next high ball, and George Jennings proving pretty safe in the face of Canterbury’s last-tackle options. New Zealand built a bit of momentum with a deft pair of offloads – the first from Peta Hiku, the next from Jazz Tevaga – but Kodi Nikorima wasn’t so lucky with the third attempt, lobbing the footy back to Kieran Foran right on the Canterbury line.

Cogger then broke the deadlock with the most dangerous kick so far – a chip off the right boot that bounced awkwardly for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, leaving time for Foran to chase him down and trap him in goal. Ofahiki Ogden took a strong run on the first tackle, and Aiden Tolman suit, before Foran dummied and almost broke through the line, setting up Tolman to take his second hit-up of the set.

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All that field position seemed set to pay dividends when Will Hopoate almost fended off a couple of defenders on the right side, but he was eventually contained, while the bounce didn’t work so well this time around for Cogger, sitting up perfectly for Adam Pompey to scoop it into his chest and get New Zealand off the hook. Nikorima was luckier at the end of the set, when he kick was charged down and deemed played at by the Bulldogs defence, getting the Warriors a fresh set of six.

This time Nikorima got the offload away, popping it back to Hiku to grubber for himself, but Hoppa was reading, collecting the footy on the sideline and shifting it back inside for the Dogs to start rolling down the middle of the park once again. Nevertheless, a Foran error gave New Zealand another shot, and Paul Turner opted to kick early on debut, chipping the Steeden in goal where Reimis Smith came up with the biggest brainsnap of his career.

Smith collected the ball a metre out from the chalk, and saw three defenders converging on him, but instead of taking the tackle and risking a dropout, he chose to pass the footy fifteen metres to Hopoate, who was a couple of metres behind the line. This was a risky enough play in theory, but the pass was awful, bouncing off the grass in goal and only just eluding Turner, who slid into to ground it but instead bounced it into touch, while Hoppa never had a chance of controlling or containing it.

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The Warriors seemed galvanised by this clumsiness, as Pompey and RTS accelerated them into their fastest set so far, and yet while some more second phase play from Tevaga seemed sure to propel them further, Lachlan Burr offloaded to Ogden a tackle later. You could tell the speed of the wind by the shifting patterns of light and shadow over ANZ, but it didn’t seem to both the kickers, nor the defence, as Hopoate caught the next one clean and brought it back to the thirty for the Doggies’ best start so far.

No surprise, then, that this ushered in their major tryscoring sequence, as Jeremy Marshall-King commenced a left side pay that ended with Meaney storming up the sideline and sending the ball back inside to Tim Lafai, who looked set to score himself, only to flick the footy back for Meaney to crash over in his place. This was the deception try of the year – so deceptive, in fact, that Meaney himself didn’t seem to be expecting it, removing himself to a try spectator only to find himself pulled back into the action.

His incredulity at Lafai’s pass, and his incredulity at himself for catching it, was contagious, as he pointed a finger back at his no. 3 and cradled the Steeden on the ground, amazed at the invisible synergy that had enabled this no-look effort to come good. His delight seemed to percolate through the entire Canterbury side, as Ogden contributed yet another massive run on the restart, laying the platform for JMK to break through the middle and reprise Meaney’s splendid run at a more languorous, leisurely pace.

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For a moment he seemed to be considering whether to cross over himself, but he took the safe option, and sent the Steeden back inside for Foran to smash over untouched beside the left post. This time Meaney added the extras, bringing the Dogs to a ten point lead as the second quarter of the match grew near, although their next restart wasn’t as successful, ending quite abruptly with a botched offload from Jackson on play three.

They lost more momentum with a dangerous tackle from Foran, who was put on report 25 minutes in, and then wasted their Captain’s Challenge to contest a lost ball from Raymond Faitala-Mariner, since the replay showed that this was a genuine loose carry, rather than a strip from Nikorima or Hiku. All the pieces were in place for the Warriors to score, so it made sense that it came off a relatively simple sequence – a superb kick to the right side from Nikorima, and a terrific take in the air from Jack Murchie, who leaped above a sea of Canterbury and New Zealand jerseys to catch the ball clean and get it to ground in one fluid motion.

Both teams tried to take control of the last ten minutes, as Reimis Smith broke into space on the right edge, and Hiku spectacularly upstaged Meaney beneath the high ball – a pair of plays that together seemed to bring the entire game up a notch. Sure enough, Nikorima dummied and almost broke through the line on the next New Zealand ebb, but this brief period of adrenalin ebbed when the whistle blew for Kerrod Holland to get back in position after taking a big hit from Jennings under the ribs.

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Both sides would have to wait to get back from the sheds to continue this groove – the Dogs with a try two minutes in, the Warriors with back-to-back tries eight and ten minutes in. Cogger got his men some breathing-space by sending the Steeden over the sideline at the end of their first set, and it sustained them through the next New Zealand attack, which ended with Turner sending the Steeden over the sideline on the full.

Cogger capitalised immediately, dummying slightly and then making a superb linebreak assist for Hopoate, who stormed into the corner, planted his left palm in RTS’ face, and placed the footy down with his right. This was good clinical football from the Bulldogs, and yet these would be the last points they scored all afternoon, as the Warriors responded with an equally clinical comeback in which they mirrored the home team’s brilliant pair of tries during the first forty.

Meaney extended both arms above his head to catch the next Nikorima kick, but this was the last real elegance from the Dogs in some time, since the next New Zealand try came as simply and seamlessly as the last – a sublime flick pass from Murchie that drew in Foran and Lafai, opening up space for Hiku to pop the footy across for Pompey, who sailed down the sideline and put down the footy untouched. Nikorima sent the conversion attempt across the front of the posts, keeping it a four-point game, although not for long, as the Warriors scored on the restart, which began with a pummeling trio of runs from Daniel Alvaro, George Jennings and Adam Blair.

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Once more they found space on the left edge, as Murchie went from try assister to tryscorer, slamming down a double after collecting a short pass off another Nikorima linebreak. Full credit has to go to the New Zealand five-eighth too, since he showed real dexterity in dummying to the big no. 17 early in his run, and then holding tight to the footy until Murchie had surged up on his inside for a shorter pass. This time Kodi added the extras and the Warriors were ahead for the first time all afternoon, as two frustrated tries now ensued for Paul Turner on debut.

First he received the footy from Nikorima, and then dummied, found a space in the line that would have been sufficient if he hadn’t slipped a metre out, giving Hoppa time to apply enough pressure to force a double movement. The second time, Turner’s aim was true, but the try was denied due to an obstruction from Isaiah Papali’i on Cogger. Yet this just made the fourth and last try from New Zealand all the more climactic and cathartic – another beautifully simple play, this time when RTS collected a short ball at speed from Nikorima, who offloaded out of a Foran tackle for his fullback to curve away from the defence and smash over untouched, despite an ocean of Bulldogs jerseys in his path.

Nikorima couldn’t bend his kick into the wind, but it didn’t really matter, since the Warriors maintained this converted try lead for the last fifteen minutes of the match, surviving a Meaney linebreak and a Canterbury restart before making a successful Captain’s Challenge to contest a Karl Lawton knock-on four minutes out from the siren.

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Even if Nikorima missed the final field goal attempt, this was still a gutsy game from a New Zealand outfit who have been digging deep in 2020 to compensate for their own peculiar and particular challenges in the wake of COVID-19. They’ll be looking to draw on the same momentum, then, when they host the Knights in Tamworth next week, while on the other side of the Steeden the Bulldogs will be keen for a stronger finish when they rock up to play the Raiders at GIO on Sunday afternoon.

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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