ROUND 16: Canberra Raiders v. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (GIO Stadium, 30/8/20)

The Raiders got a bit of a scare when they hosted the Bulldogs at GIO for the last game of Round 13, conceding a first half advantage but gradually rallying their forces to come away with a fourteen point lead by the time the final siren blew out. Will Hopoate was safe beneath Jack Wighton’s first kick, while Kieran Foran’s first kick trapped Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad right in the corner, where he got to ground just in time to withstand the chase from Nick Meaney, and so avoid an early dropout.

Nevertheless, the Bulldogs bunched them in, forcing Tom Starling to kick from within the thirty, although Canberra recovered some field position when Hoppa lost the footy into a combined tackle from John Bateman and Ryan Sutton. For some reason he went for a Captain’s Challenge – three minutes into the match – and lost, giving Canberra even more pep as they settled into the first real attacking opportunity for either team.

The big men made good metres up the middle, and George Williams kicked to the right corner, where CNK appeared to have put down the first four points after a terrific series of clutch plays – Curtis Scott tapping the ball back, CNK himself collected it and offloading to the wing, and Nick Cotric managing to pop it back into play before being bundled into touch. As luck would have it, however, CNK knocked on into Bateman with his first contact, denying himself the try at the other end of it all, as the Dogs got the ball back earlier than expected.

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Dallin Watene Zelezniak now made a good offload to Aiden Tolman on the second play, Elliott Whitehead stripped Ofahiki Ogden on the third – the first penalty of the night – and the Dogs accelerated at the other end of the park, so it must have been frustrating for the away crowd when Raymond Faitala-Mariner was cleaned up after choosing to run the ball on the last. DWZ started the next Canterbury set strong again, this time with a twenty-metre carry straight into the face of the Canberra forwards, as Cotric followed CNK by just avoiding a dropout on his right wing.

Scott couldn’t do the same on play two, ground the footy in goal after an enormous tackle from Dylan Napa, Jeremy Marshall-King and Ogden, who took the first hit-up on the restart as well. Faitala-Mariner made terrific post-contact metres on the left edge, Ogden burst through Starling and arrived one metre out, and DWZ ended it all by collecting a rainbow pass from Lachlan Lewis. Everything now came together as the ex-Panther took advantage of the jamming Canberra defence to smash through Jarrod Croker in the right corner, bringing the Bulldogs to a six point lead when Lewis added the extras.

The Raiders did pretty well to hold up the forward pack on the restart, allowing CNK to collect Foran’s kick with no threat of a dropout this time around. Joe Tapine followed with a nice offload for George Williams to add to his run metres on the right edge, and Bateman put big pressure on Hoppa beneath a Wighton kick, forcing Lewis to boot the ball over the sideline to give his men a breather.

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Croker nearly broke through the line on the next set, and Wighton’s boot produced the first dropout for Canberra, as a trajectory that initially looked destined to land on the full in goal turned into a horrible bounce for Hoppa, who had no choice but to contain it as Jordan Rapana descended on him. The Raiders built on the dropout as clinically as the Bulldogs – more clinically actually, since all it took was an offload from Dunamis Lui on play two for Starling to shift the footy across to Tapine, who wrong-footed Ogden and Jackson to score beneath the posts from twenty metres out, brushing off Hoppa and Tolman too when they stormed in as last line of defence.

Lui took the first run of the restart, and Jackson got a bit of joy by combining with Kerrod Holland to drag him back about five metres. This set the scene for a fairly average Canberra set, but as it turned out they didn’t need to do any special with these tackles, since they consolidated immediately when Hoppa spilled Wighton’s bomb straight back into their hands. The Canterbury fullback might as well have been a delivery chute for Starling, who remained just onside as he collected the footy from Williams and sped up the middle to cross over beneath the crossbar untouched.

Canterbury might have drawn first blood, but the Raiders had now scored two tries in two minutes, both beneath the posts, putting them twelve ahead after Croker added his second conversion. Josh Papalii trotted on for Lui a set later – their first interchange of the night – just in time to help defend a fresh surge of Bulldogs field position that started with a Sutton error.

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This was the worst five minutes of the game for Canberra – a pair of ruck infringements from CNK and Wighton, interspersed with a mistake for Croker and an offside penalty for Scott. While they restored some momentum off an offside penalty for Matt Doorey and a subsequent dropout, the Dogs established enough of a foothold during these critical minutes to dominate the rest of the first half, as two tries from the big men accelerated them into one of their best quarters of football in 2020.

Faitala-Mariner was the next to cross over, making up for his aborted last tackle run earlier in the match by receiving a short ball from Foran, getting low and muscling his way through Cotric and Scott, getting the green light after the Bunker scrutinized Marcelo Montoya for what looked like a pretty clear cut obstruction on Curtis Scott. Jackson made a cold drop off a JMK pass a minute later, but got some joy pretty quickly, just after Rapana just lost control of the footy right on the dead ball line.

This was another quick tough try, as Holland knocked back a Foran kick for Lewis to pop it over to his captain, who pivoted off the right foot and got around Croker to put down his first try of the season. Jackson hasn’t gone a year in his Bulldogs career without a try, so this was a big boost, propelling his men towards their greatest four-pointer of the season – a team effort after the siren, on the last tackle, that started with Lewis tapping the high ball back, gathering it himself, and then shooting it across to Kerrod Holland.

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Holland responded with a spiralling harbor bridge ball for DWZ, who came back in field and found his no. 4 once again, who curved back around him to collect it and then grubbered, ricocheted the footy off CNK, and then got a second boot to it, before managing to chase it down and ground it after Croker failed to clean it up. This was magnificent stuff from Holland, and would surely have produced more tries if it occurred with more time on the clock, but as it was the break seemed to work against the Bulldogs, as these were the last points they would score all night.

That’s not to say that Canberra recovered immediately after they returned from the sheds, since despite only completing 12/20 sets in the first half, they permitted another horror period like the once preceding Faitala-Mariner’s try. It started with Croker lobbing the Steeden over the sideline, as the Raiders conceded three successive ruck infringements and Starling was sent to the bin for a slow peel, only for Matthew Timoko to make good on debut by forcing an offside penalty from Jeremy Marshall-King after Scott subbed off with an ankle injury.

The letoff turned into a sudden shift in momentum when Foran was pinged for an escort on CNK – and was lucky not to get sent to the bin for a professional foul, since it was clear from the Bunker footage that he had deliberately turned into the path of the Canberra fullback.

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This marked the start of the Canberra comeback, as Young took the first hit in front of the posts, Papalii dummied and slammed into Hoppa and Tolman on the right, Havilii sent it left for Williams, and Wighton finally barged and burrowed through a quartet of big men on the left edge – Jackson, Tolman, Doorey, To’omago – to reach out his left hand and plant the footy down. This was a big play from Wighton – testament to his capacity to play like a forward when the occasion demands it – big enough to propel him into a double five minutes later.

Wighton actually almost lost the footy at the start of this sequence, when receiving it from Timoko on the second play, but he was more secure on the fourth, when he started a rapid right sweep after Rapana made fifteen metres off a near-linebreak. He was even better on the last, chasing down a pinpoint kick from Williams to trap Lewis behind the chalk for the next goal line dropout. The green machine now kicked into consolidation mode, as Young, Papalii and Whitehead brought the ball to the ten, Williams made a surge at the line, and Wighton effectively intercepted his own man, reaching out his right hand to collect a wide ball from Havilii that seemed destined to find its way to the wing.

From there, he put in the biggest right hand fend of his career to skittle Sione Katoa right on the try line, slamming the Steeden down a few seconds before Starling returned to the park. Croker’s kick might have bounced off the posts, but the Raiders had still put down two tries with only twelve men on the park, racking up 249 to 74 run metres over the last ten minutes.

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They added to that tally on the restart, forced Foran to kick from his own end on the next set, and tempted an escort from DWZ on Croker next time they had ball in hand. This was a bit of an unlucky call for Dallin, who’d simply held his ground at arriving at the footy early, but the Bulldogs didn’t have any more challenges up their sleeve, or any time to reflect on the call, since the Raiders now had their quickest tryscoring sequence yet – a bullocking run from Young, who received a short ball from Papalii and brushed off a Katoa tackle to burrow beneath Hoppa and score under the uprights.

The Dogs got a get out of jail free card shortly after, when Lewis lost the footy twice – once backwards, once ricocheted into the air – and his men regrouped around him, only for Holland to attempt a miracle flick pass out to DWZ and send it sailing over the sideline instead. This was a good invitation for the Raiders, but they lost a bit of speed when Bateman hesitated so long between an offload and linebreak that he didn’t quite nail either, leaving time for the Bulldogs to get their defensive house in order, as Jackson cleaned up the ball a play later.

Canberra lost more momentum when Young was put on report for late contact on Lewis, but Rapana got them rolling again by dragging Dallin into touch from five metres out just as they were setting up to score. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as Papalii made another barnstorming run up the middle three tackles later, and while the Dogs stopped Sutton in his tracks on the fourth, it took a high hit from Dean Britt to do it, getting Canberra in place for their sixth and final try.

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Once again Papalii was the key ingredient, making good metres on the first carry and clearing up space for Starling to dash over out of dummy half. The young hooker slid so slyly past Hopoate that he effectively scored untouched, making up for his sin bin with the first double of his career. With Croker adding the extras the Raiders reached a 20-34 lead, as Papalii left the park to a standing ovation.

Over the next eight minutes the Dogs tried to put down a consolation try, but Canberra kept them out until the bitter end, meaning they’ll be especially hungry for points when they host the Titans at ANZ Stadium next weekend. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a strong finish but a bit of a worrying start from the Raiders, so they’ll be looking for eighty minutes of top four football when they meet Sonny Bill Williams for the first time since 2013 at GIO next Saturday night.

About Billy Stevenson (488 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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