After a trio of great underdog performances from the Sea Eagles, Tigers and Broncos last week, we were treated to an even more dramatic pair of upsets on Saturday night – the Cowboys over the Raiders and the Bulldogs over the Sharks. Both matches were equally thrilling, although the Canterbury win arguably carried more emotional weight, given it was the first time that the blue and white army have come away with the victory this year – a nice way for Nick Cotric to celebrate his 100th match in the NRL.
The Sharks had Shaun Johnson back on the bench after his Achilles injury against the Roosters in Round 19 last year, but he came on from the start, as did Josh Dugan, who was back in the centres after a head knock ruled him out of last week’s clash in Newcastle. Aiden Tolman was out after taking an early plea for his crusher tackle, Nick Meaney was replacing Dallin Watene Zelezniak in the fullback jersey, and Dylan Napa and Luke Thompson were the starting props with Jack Hetherington suspended.
Napa took the first and fourth runs to get the game rolling, and Canterbury made terrific metres, forcing the Sharks to start their first set within their own ten. Four Bulldogs came in to hold up Sione Katoa on the third tackle, but he got the offload away to Blayke Brailey, before Johnson showcased his first right-foot step to poke his nose through the line. The Dogs got even more field position on their second set, thanks to an illegal strip from Toby Rudolf, and Napa took his third massive charge.
Thompson glimpsed a hole in the line, but instead of taking the tackle he offloaded back towards Johnson. The footy ricocheted off the Cronulla half’s jersey, and then sat up perfectly for him to regain possession, although the Dogs made up for it at the end of their next set, when they opted for a right sweep that concluded with Will Hopoate seven metres in field. Hoppa palmed off Dugan with a big left fend, slammed into Will Kennedy, and kept the footy secure under his right elbow as he got it on the chalk.
Kyle Flanagan added a spectacular sideline conversion, shooting it straight through the posts, to put the Bulldogs more than a point per minute. Napa took another big run on the restart, building on a strong effort from Adam Elliott, and the Sharks got the first six again early in their next set. Teig Wilton made up for not getting to Hopoate on time with three post-contact metres and a second restart, before Briton Nikora elasticized the right edge with some dazzling footwork midway through the tackle count.
The Sharks briefly headed left, but eventually returned to Nikora’s slipstream, focusing their attention on the right, where Jesse Ramien crossed over, but with a double movement. Canterbury started halfway up the field, where Thompson lost the footy immediately – and he immediately clamoured for it to be sent upstairs, where the Bunker footage proved that Aaron Woods had stripped the ball while Braden Hamlin-Uele was still well and truly in on the tackle.
Canterbury now had a second penalty to further piggy-back them up field, and Thompson rode high on his decision, taking a massive run up the middle after a strong effort from Corey Waddell. Jake Averillo’s kick was a little long for Hoppa, but perfect for Cotric, who celebrated his 100th game in the NRL with his first try in Canterbury colours. Dugan leaped up above Hopoate to touch it first, but ended up tapping it on at just the right angle for the ex-Raider to collect it on the full and smash it to ground.
Averillo’s kick had been beautifully poised – a crossfield chip from the left edge – and Flanagan’s was just as good, a cautious punch through the uprights that put the Dogs twelve points at twelve minutes. This was the first time that Canterbury had scored double figures in the first half of a game since Round 15 against the Warriors last year. They had a terrific restart too, carving up the middle third of the park, as Averillo ended with the biggest bomb so far, forcing Mawene Hiroti to ground to avoid a dropout.
The Sharkies got a much-needed dropout early in their next set, and Cotric caught Johnson’s kick, only to lose it into a Chad Townsend tackle, leading to a bizarre cascade of plays that very nearly garnered Cronulla the freakiest try of the round. Siosifa Talakai scooped it up, then offloaded to Dugan, who rolled it back along the ground for him to shift inside to Toby Rudolf. Rudolf flicked it out to Townsend, who sent a harbour bridge ball out for Nikora to feed it across to Johnson on the right edge of the park.
Finally, Johnson pumped it out to Hiroti on the wing, but Corey Allan came in fast and low enough to dislodge the footy just as he was putting it down. Allan almost assisted a try at the end of the next set too, grubbering the footy five metres out, and watching on as Connor Tracey knocked it on, and Tui Kaota got it down. The on-field call was try, and Flanagan was waiting for the conversion when news came down that the Bunker had decided that Elliott, who’d piled in on top, had got a hand to the footy as well.
This put a dent in the momentum the Dogs should have built after Cronulla’s missed try, although Hiroti would have a second disappointment on the wing on the cusp of the second quarter. This time Hiroti received the footy from Tracey, as Napa surged across from the middle of the park to get him down, while Meaney came in on top. Even so, Hiroti still managed to get his hand free and the Steeden to ground behind his head, but the Canterbury defenders had arrived just in time, and he was just short.
There had now been three near-tries, all of them off clutch plays within the ten metre zone. Two minutes later, Johnson clamoured for a Captain’s Challenge to prove that he hadn’t knocked on a Flanagan grubber, and must have regretted his decision. Not only was the Challenge rejected, but Meaney bounced through him two tackles later for the third Canterbury try, off a short ball from Waddell, before Flanagan converted from the left side of the park to bring Canterbury to eighteen unanswered points.
Renouf Atoni started the restart with a monster run, but in a sudden twist Flanagan was pinged for an obstruction. The Dogs immediately sent it upstairs, but the replay clearly showed him coming off his line to obstruct Jack Williams – a fair but purely technical call. Cronulla now had their first decent field position in some time. Yet Flanagan embodied all the Canterbury passion when he came in low and hard on Wilton, making the most of a slightly mistimed pass from Johnson to force a knock-on.
Talakai responded with an enormous hit on Matt Doorey early in the next set, slamming his shoulder into the no. 17’s neck, and getting himself put on report and sent to the bin for his troubles. Meaney nearly broke through on the right a set later, and the Dogs got second chance when Katoa’s kick ricocheted off Rudolf and back into their hands, sweeping the footy left until Elliott made a poor decision, opting to grubber the footy deep beyond the corner instead of attempting to pass or offload.
The Sharks made some headway during the next set, when Ramien glimpsed space on the right edge, and Katoa got too eager with the hit-up and stripped the footy with another man in the tackle. For a third time Hiroti was held up on the wing, this time with a scrambling pack of Canterbury defenders, and the Sharks headed right on the final play, where Kennedy grubbered five metres out, sending the Steeden ricocheting at crazy angles towards the dead ball line, where Meaney knocked it backwards.
There was still ten centimetres of space for Kennedy to put it down, but he was running too fast to slow it down, as a try with twelve on the park went begging, and the Bulldogs got another bout of field position. Cotric had his fastest run of the night, and Thompson was even faster – so fast that he lost the ball, giving Cronulla the scrum feed as Talakai counted down his last few seconds on the sideline. At the same time, Tracey had passed his HIA, and took his place behind Talakai to return to the field of play.
The Sharks also got a restart out of the scrum, moving through a series of quite strong plays until Townsend spun an elegant harbour bridge ball out to the right wing, where Dugan probably would have caught it clean if Cotric hadn’t leaped up to deflect its trajectory. Ramien took another strong run on the right next time the Sharkies were down Canterbury’s end, tempting a crowding penalty from Ava Seumanufagai, and Cronulla swept from side to side until Hiroti got his fourth and nearest miss.
His night on the wing had come full circle, since Allan now came in again to bump him into touch. For a second, it looked like Hiroti might have twisted his arm around to ground the Steeden just in time, but the replay showed that Allan had definitely done his job. The Dogs ended the first stanza 18-0 – their biggest half-time lead since Round 3 2019, when they were 18-0 against the Tigers and went on to win 22-8, and their first lead of 2021 – while the Sharks had lost 17/18 games when trailing at the break.
Talakai took the first hit-up of the second half, and then the third, as if determined to make as many metres as possible before a likely sideline over the next couple of weeks. The Sharks made some more headway when Waddell was pinged for a high shot on Tracey, but didn’t get a chance to expand, since Talakai knocked on a few plays after. They did better a set later, when Ramien opened up space with a superb flick to Hiroti, Talakai rolled it back to Brailey, who chased down his own grubber two tackles later.
This was the great deception play of the game, as Brailey received the play-the-ball right on the line, shaped to start a left sweep, but instead dabbed it off his left foot, aiming it at the right post, and timing the angle of inflection perfectly to ensure that he came down with it at the very same moment as Meaney, who was covering him in defence. Townsend got his first kick of the night from right in front, and booted it through to narrow the deficit to two converted tries.
Talakai was enormous on tackle two of the restart, making a good ten metres after contact, so it was pretty anticlimactic when Nikora lost the footy as he tumbled to ground under a low hit from Allan a play later. The Dogs were completing at 83%, the Sharks at 68% – a big drop from their season average of 80% – although Cronulla got another shot one tackle later, when Waddell lost the ball into an aggressive and committed tackle from Williams, who twisted him round and then slammed him down.
Hamlin-Uele followed Talakai with five post-contact metres, and the Sharks shifted right on the fourth play, where Dugan managed to pop the footy inside just before Hoppa and Cotric combined to drag him over the sideline. Flanagan was penalised for being offside, and the Sharks settled into their first sustained field position of the second stanza, as Tracey came up millimetres short on the left edge, and Ramien required three waves of defenders to hold him up on the other side of the park.
Elasticising more than any set so far, the Sharkies swept left, where Tracey received a wide bullet ball from Townsend, but this time Allan read the play better, dragging his man over the sideline before he could shift the Steeden back inside. Townsend was pinged for an illegal strip a moment later, and the Dogs finally seemed to have the wind at their feet, only for Flanno to drop the ball cold on tackle two, giving the Sharks another chance to set up camp within Canterbury territory.
Talakai continued to rack up the post-contact metres, bringing his men over the thirty, and Williams became the next player to lose the footy, thanks to a well-timed low shot from Atoni. The match was getting messy, as Nikora conceded the next six again, and both teams got stuck in to grind it out. No surprise, then, that both also chose this moment, on the cusp of the final quarter, to bring men off the bench – Rudolf and Magoulias for Hamlin-Uele and Talakai, and Thompson for Atoni.
Thompson, who had the biggest run tally of the night, had only been off for six and a half minutes, joining the field as Cronulla experienced the most agonising near-try so far. At first this looked like it might be their consolidator – a linebreak from Ramien, who passed to Johnson, who in turn passed to Townsend, who in turn pivoted away from Meaney to put it down right beside the posts. These three passes were all perfect in their timing, looking like a training run as all three players got into peak flow.
Yet that just made it all the more deflating when the try was denied due to an obstruction from Nikora, who’d hit the outside shoulder of Flanagan in backplay. Things got even worse a set later, when the Sharks got some additional field position off a dangerous shot from Flanno, who seemed especially aggressive after Nikora’s effort. Townsend shot out a brilliant harbour bridge ball to Tracey, who somersaulted over the tip of the footy behind the line, only to put a boot on the sideline beforehand.
In a game of near-tries, especially near-tries for Cronulla, these last two had been the most dramatic, so it felt like the Dogs might have it in the bag if they could just score once more here. Accordingly, they grew even more courageous in defence, as Katoa gave everything to prevent Rudolf breaking up the middle, and Flanagan collected Townsend’s grubber on the full, leaving himself open to a big hit as he tumbled to ground. The real test came a set later, though, when the Sharks got two restarts.
Shark after Shark charged at the line from close range, and Cronulla got a third restart right on the line, as the Dogs steeled themselves for their biggest defensive challenge of the year. Braydon Trindall took his second shot on the right edge, Williams attempted a twist-and-spin beneath the crossbars, and everything came apart when Trindall sent out a forward pass to Ramien a tackle later. Three plays into the next set Kennedy passed over left the sideline, and frustrations fueled a full-blown fracas.
This was a foolish moment for the Bulldogs, since they sacrificed precious field position, with only a little under eight minutes on the clock, after Flanagan was penalised for his part in the collective squabble. Luckily for the Dogs, the Sharks didn’t do much with this set, ending with an awkward pass from Townsend that Dugan couldn’t quite scoop up. He was forced to boot it forward instead, and while he made a valiant effort to chase it down, by this stage he’d already knocked it on.
In another twist, Seumanufagai lost the Steeden cold early in the next Canterbury set, in his first touch after replacing Napa in the forward pack. As Brandon Wakeham got ready to come in as eighteenth man, Brad Deitz’s leg was twisted beneath a big Talakai tackle, leading to the first real pause in play, four and a half minutes out from the end, as the trainer attended to it. This had to be one of the most suspenseful stoppages all year, as both teams steeled themselves for their last sequence of sets.
The Sharkies had one more play left – and made the most of it, as Hiroti finally got his try, concluding a set piece down the right side that trapped Allan too far in field to prevent him as he curved around to get the Steeden down. He now had the second most Cronulla tries of 2021 at four – two behind Kennedy and one more than Dugan – bringing his men to a mere converted try deficit as Townsend slotted his second conversion through the uprights.
This restart was a critical set for Canterbury. Talakai took the first run, and Ramien made fantastic headway up the middle on the third, before Kennedy accelerated up the right, and Trindall booted at speed from the right. Waddell was great beneath it, collecting it on the full, and immediately getting to ground to prevent a dropout. Even so, the Dogs were reaching the bottom of the tank, and spent the entire set in their own twenty, while even Flanagan’s kick barely made it halfway back up the park.
With only a minute on the clock, the Dogs just had to defend this set to win, and they did well to hold up Ramien on the right, and then even better to contain a team set that saw the Steeden move from side to side after Hiroti tapped a loose ball back in field on his wing. Hearts in their mouths, they kept Trindall down at the end of the penultimate tackle, preventing him rising to his feet before the siren ring, to nail down their first taste of victory since Round 19 last year.
Words can’t express how cathartic this must have been for the Dogs – the joy, relief and (in some cases) disbelief was written large on every player’s face, both on the park and on the sideline. Whatever happens in next week’s battle of the West against the Eels, this will surely come to be seen as one of the pivotal moments in Canterbury’s rebuild under Trent Barrett, while, on the other side of the Steeden, Cronulla will be looking for a big win when they take on the Storm in Melbourne next Friday night.