ROUND 14: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (Stadium Australia, 14/6/21, 28-6)
Last time the Dragons met Canterbury they comfortably piled on twenty points, but it was a very different story when the Dogs hosted at Homebush on Sunday night. They’d only won a single game in 2021, against Cronulla, and even then they hadn’t scored beyond the first quarter, and nearly succumbed to a comeback in the back forty. By contrast, this was their first decisive match of the year, a 22-point drubbing that saw them keep St. George to a solitary try at the twentieth minute.
From there, the next hour was all Bulldogs football, a natural sequel to their game against Penrith two weeks ago, when they took advantage of the Origin absences to put in sixty of their best minutes all year. Add a sixteen day break for the bye, and the return of Jeremy Marshall-King from the foot injury that had kept him out since Round 3, and the Dogs were primed for points here, which they put down as easily as other teams have scored against them in 2021, including a double for Jake Averillo and a four-pointer for JMK himself.
All three of these tries melted the defence like butter, while Adam Elliott capped them off with one of his hardest runs and most mercurial putdowns – a perfect summary of the speed and strength that made Canterbury such a force to be reckoned with here. Sure, the Dragons have had organisational issues of their own in recent weeks, but they also failed to score when Josh Jackson was sent to the bin after conceding one too many restarts, and were probably lucky not get a man down themselves, in a game with some dense periods of six again calls.
Luke Thompson took the first carry of the afternoon, and Jackson followed with a strong charge up the middle, before Averillo opted for a kick on the third, and Matt Dufty contented himself with allowing it to bounce into touch. St. George started their first set at their thirty, as Paul Vaughan spearheaded a series of a strong runs into a staunch Canterbury defence, and Corey Norman started his fiftieth game for the Dragons with a high kick on the last. Next time around, Brandon Wakeham got a shot at the kick, from deep within his own end.
While Averillo’s early kick had probably been a ploy to defuse Dufty, Averillo sent it straight to the St. George fullback, but depended on the Canterbury chase to prevent him making too much headway. Even so, the Red V made it all the way to the ten by the final tackle, where Dufty didn’t quite thread the grubber through the line, ushering in a chaotic period of play where the Steeden changed hands a few times before Norman finally knocked it on and then got pinged for an offside to grant the Bulldogs the first restart of the game.
Like the Dragons before them, they reached the ten by tackle five, where we were treated to another volatile period of play. Once again, the Dogs came off the victors, as Jack Hetherington opted to run it on the last, taking Tariq Sims totally by surprise as he offloaded back to the halves, before the Dragons got a hand to the footy in the interim. Averillo built on that energy immediately, charging over the line on the very next play, where only a massive three-man tackle, spearheaded by Jack Bird, prevented him scoring then and there.
This felt like a consolidation set for the Bulldogs, but their acceleration got the best of them a few players later, when Wakeham sent a harbour bridge ball out to Sione Katoa that was too high, too wide and forward. Still, they had money in the bank here, and drew on the same adrenalin a minute later, when Sims lost the footy, Jackson Ford was called offside, and Andrew McCullough was pinged for a hand in the ruck. It would have been the fastest accumulation of field position so far if the Dogs tapped, but instead Averillo booted the two.
It was a good conservative decision, steadying the blue and white, and preparing them for the torrent of points to come. Thompson took a mammoth run to commence the restart, and was met by the full brunt of Gerald Beale’s body in return, while JMK efficiently set up Hetherington and Jackson for more big carries, the last of which was especially good for metres, before preventing Ford getting an offload away early in the next set. Still, Norman sent it end-over-end, Bird was staunch with the chase, and Meaney couldn’t make any return.
With Averillo forced to kick in his own forty, and Cody Ramsey taking it on the full a mere twenty metres downfield, the Dragons had started to bounce back from the Bulldogs surge that had culminated with their penalty kick. Ramsey made almost as much distance on the run as Averillo had with the kick, bringing it back over the halfway line to grant St. George their first full set in Canterbury territory, which was augmented when Thompson found himself offside in the ten, ushering in the Red V’s best acceleration of field position so far.
As with the Bulldogs before them, however, this consolidation dissipated with a poor harbour bridge ball – this time from Hunt, who lobbed it out haphazardly to the right wing, where Mikaele Ravalawa never had a chance at taking it on the bounce. Adam Elliott built on that shift in momentum with the latest and clutchiest offload of the game, losing more than passing it back to Wakeham and raising questions from the away crowd, who were assuaged just as quickly when Beale and Ravalawa dragged the Canterbury five-eighth over the side.
Averillo was galvanised on behalf of his halves partner, conceding the first blue and white penalty of the afternoon with an illegal strip, but for the second time St. George failed to capitalise with a wide pass out to their right edge – a Beale ball that would have been beautiful if it hadn’t drifted forward on its way to Ravalawa. With this second successive error on the wing, the Bulldogs had started to recover some of their early flow, especially since Averillo consolidated well with a deep kick from the forty that gave the chase time to contain Dufty.
Hunt showed Averillo that he could boot it just as high at the end of the next set, but he ended up conceding a twenty-metre tap, when Meaney caught it on the full in goal, even though the replay showed that the Canterbury fullback had actually left the ground from the field of play. In either case, the Dogs got a restart midway through the set, when Ford infringed the ruck, and would have broken the ten on the penultimate play if Jack Bird hadn’t stormed in for the last critical tackle of the first quarter to shut down a Matt Doorey charge up the right edge.
The Dragons came up with an even better save on the final play, when Katoa took a pinpoint perfect Averillo kick in the ten, and lunged himself over the line in the same movement, where he would have scored if Hunt and Sims had been one iota less committed in their scrambling combined tackle. It was the kind of defence that wins games, or at least produces points, so it was no surprise that Ramsey busted into space up the left midway through the next set, nor that Brayden Williame chased an early Norman grubber to ground St. George’s first try.
Norman had also set up this set with the wide ball that pushed Ramsey into space – a good corrective to the two botched harbour bridge passes out to Ravalawa – bookending it all with a neat sideline kick to bring the Red V to a four point lead. Yet these would be the last points that the visitors would score all afternoon, as the Bulldogs now mounted a steady comeback, moving from a try deficit to a 22-point lead by the time the final siren rang out. In the short term, Vaughan made good metres on the restart, and Sims took his first run of the match.
Even so, Norman had to kick just inside the halfway line, but this set still had a relaxed confidence we hadn’t seen from the Dragons before this point in the game. The onus was now on Canterbury to play catch-up, and Averillo got them going with a chip-like kick from his forty, as Jackson Ford left the park and Jack De Belin came on to add energy to the St. George forward pack. A moment later, Jackson conceded the sixth restart, for being offside within the ten, and was relegated to the bin to send a message to his team mates.
By all accounts, the Dragons should have scored here – twelve men in the opposition, and Canterbury without their captain for the next ten minutes – especially since they had their first sustained bout of goal line attack at the end of this very same set. Yet it all came apart on the last, when Hunt followed the overlong bomb that had set up Meaney’s twenty-metre tap with an overlong grubber that gave Canterbury seven tackles to absorb Jackson’s time in the bin. Elliott got them rolling with staunch post-contacts, and Averillo kicked 25 metres out.
Ramsey did well to take it on the full, but he got some help with a Wiliame escort, as the Dogs now matched and exceeded St. George’s last bout of goal line attack. Not only did they start the set inside the twenty, but they received two successive six agains, off a pair of ruck errors from Daniel Alvaro that eventually dissolved the Dragons defence entirely, leaving Averillo with clear sailing all the way to line – a dummy right, a dance over a half-hearted ankle tap from De Belin and a curve around behind the posts to set himself up for an easy two-pointer.
The Dragons had paid a big price for Hunt’s botched grubber, since they could have conceivably camped down Canterbury’s end for the majority of Jackson’s time in the bin, where they were likely to have scored a try with twelve men on the park. Instead, Averillo had galvanised his men with what would be his easiest and most elegant try of the night, while St. George got their own warning on the back of Averillo’s two infringements on the ruck. Even better, all of this had happened with a man down – the ultimate confidence play.
Dylan Napa wasn’t taking any prisoners with the first run of the restart, and Ava Seumanufagai followed with the Dogs’ staunchest post-contacts so far. Napa took another charge on the third, Meaney elasticised up the right, and Averillo booted it from the forty. It had been the perfect steadying set, right down to the bullocking run from Will Hopoate that continued to keep Dufty quiet under the high ball. Meanwhile, Hunt tried to make up for his grubber by busting through Elliott and offloading to Dufty, only to bobble it into the big second-rower.
Napa steered the ship again on the next set, twisting back to his feet at an awkward angle before Doorey garnered another restart, begging the question of when a St. George ruck infringer was going to join Jackson in the bin. The Dogs now drove it deep into the left corner, where Elliott followed his best defence of the night with his best attack, dragging Beale five metres before flicking the footy back to Aaron Schoupp, who started a rapid swing all the way back to the other wing, where Meaney ended up following Hunt with an overlong grubber.
Nevertheless, Meaney’s error didn’t feel as deflating as Hunt’s, since the Dogs were still ahead with a man in the bin, and prevented St. George capitalising on the following set, their last before Jackson returned to the fray. Even better, Meaney was the man who brought it all together again, taking a dangerous Norman chip in goal and plunging his way back in field to withstand a dropout at the very moment Jackson made it a thirteen man side again. Josh Kerr now made it six restarts, the number that felled Jackson, and Wiliame was put on report.
All of this suggested we might be in for another Canterbury try, especially when Norman booted through the first dropout of the game, but the Dragons survived the rest of the first half, meaning the Dogs had to wait until the first two minutes back from the break to build on all the belief they’d generated here. The Red V got through a decent first set, including a pair of runs from Alvaro, who started to make up for his pair of ruck errors, but Meaney’s comeback from his overlong grubber was even more complete midway through the next set.
Speeding up the middle, the Mitch Moses lookalike got on the outside of Hunt and offloaded through a Norman legs tackle for another scintillating Averillo try – this time from longer range, off a single dummy that defied Ramsey, Bird and Dufty in one mercurial motion. Dufty was turned inside out, Bird couldn’t get to the ankle tap soon enough, and by the time that Ramsey regathered and launched himself onto Meaney the footy was on its way to the ground. Averillo capped it all off with a kick from right in front, and the Dogs shot to 14-6.
This was the consolidation try of the night, not just because it occurred right after half time, and set the stage for a scoreless second stanza for St. George, but because of how efficiently and crisply the Canterbury spine had disposed of the Dragons defence. Elliott absorbed the brunt of three red and white defenders to begin the restart, and the big men followed in his wake, tiring out the Dragons before Averillo booted it from the forty, as the chase got in place to shut down Ramsey before he could even glimpse a convincing return.
Nick Cotric got one of the harder bounces of the night at the back of Norman’s next kick, forcing the Dogs to work it back from their own ten, as Schoupp only hit the thirty by play three, where Seumanufagai drew deep for his eleventh run to recoup some precious position. De Belin steadied the Dragons further with his hardest run of the match, and Hunt almost put Kerr through the line a few plays later. Even then, Kerr got a good offload away to Norman, but that brief momentum dissipated when Meaney took the kick without any real pressure.
The Dogs continued to work their way back from this short St. George surge with a pair of neat dummy half runs, first from JMK and then from Meaney, as the game lulled into a set-for-set rhythm, begging one team to break it open with a big individual play, as both sides looked for the error or penalty that might give them the advantage. At this point, the Dogs had 1012 run metres to the Dragons’ 793, so you had to sense they’d find space first, as kicker after kicker booted it from their forty, and attempted offload after offload was contained.
Last time Canterbury played the Red V they missed 44 tackles, but they’d only missed 9 here, and got a fresh set now when Schoupp forced a ruck infringement from De Belin. This was now eight restarts from the Dragons, as Doorey took it to the twenty on tackle four, Elliott brought it deep into the red zone and Averillo chipped to the left edge, where Cotric took it on the full, offloaded it back to Hoppa, and garnered a knock-on from Wiliame. Just like that, on the back of a single restart, the Bulldogs had gelled into another bout of goal line attack.
Three tackles later, JMK celebrated his return by making it a trilogy of effortless Canterbury tries and exposed the direst defence for the Dragons all game. Receiving a quick play-the-ball from Thompson beside the left post, he only had to glance briefly to the left to defy the sea of St. George players that were all around him, skipping over the lightest of Alvaro ankle taps to score what felt like a deception try, so quickly and easily did he get the Steeden down. The Dogs now had a double digit lead, and Averillo had his easiest conversion angle of the game.
Thommo got the restart rolling, Hetheringon continued his momentum, and JMK acted like a third forward, barging into the defence and making a couple of post-contact metres like he was the biggest man on the park. Doorey was almost at the halfway line by tackle three, Thompson crossed over on tackle four, and so the Dogs had well and truly ruptured the set-for-set rhythm by the time Averillo booted it in St. George territory, which is where the Dragons were consigned to remain for most of the next set, until a Norman floater to Ramsey.
In another game, this might have produced some momentum up the right edge, but the Bulldogs were now in clinical defence mode, cleaning up this play and breaking the halfway line midway through their next set, which Averillo concluded with a soaring bomb that Ramsey had to leap up to collect, putting his body on the line as Hoppa slammed in for punishing contact. Even Vaughan was contained on tackle two, as the Red V sunk to 36% of possession since the break, and only 226 metres to 438 from Canterbury in the third quarter.
That said, both sides had also completed perfectly since the sheds, suggesting that the Dogs would unleash another torrent of points as soon as St. George let their guard down. For a brief beat, however, the Dragons delivered, as Ramsey stormed in for his best tackle of the night, targeting Meaney under the high ball to force the blue and white to work it back from their own try line. Add to that a shallow kick from Averillo and a swinging arm from Hoppa on Dufty, and it felt like the Red V might just hit back as the sixty minute mark approached.
Lawrie had them at the twenty by the end of the first carry, but Wakeham responded with a tough legs tackle to prevent Sims making much more position, while the whole set came apart on the fourth, when Dufty lobbed out a cut-out to Ramsey but instead ricocheted it off Bird’s chest and over the dead ball line. Lawrie bookended this brief surge with a swinging arm on Corey Waddell, and this fleeting glimpse of St. George acceleration was over as quickly as it had begun. Hetherington was inside the ten by tackle four, but struggled up from the ground.
There was definitely some milking from Hetherington here, but it did the job, as McCullough copped a penalty for a high shot, and Averillo booted through his second two-pointer of the game. At this point, it was an especially conservative decision, but once again it worked to steady a Canterbury outfit that have struggled so much with consistency this year – and probably played a major role in their 6-0 scoreline over the last seventeen minutes. The same went for Averillo’s next kick, a long one over the sideline to get his men a brief breather.
The reprieve also worked for the Dragons, and especially for Ford, who made some decent post-contacts midway through the next set. Still, there was no doubt that the Bulldogs had the momentum now, despite an awkward Waddell pass and Averillo tip-on a minute later. Wakeham now followed Averillo by booting it over the other sideline, as Canterbury started to glimpse something they’ve struggled for all year – consolidation – although they got a bit too eager when they sent it upstairs to try and prove Dufty or Ravalawa had got a hand to it.
You had to forgive Canterbury this brief lapse in judgement though, since it was part and parcel of a newfound flow that was scintillating to see after their stop-and-start losses throughout the 2021 season. In any case, Wakeham got the better of Dufty on the next set, stunning him with the hardest tackle of the night, to the point where Thommo and Jackson were barely needed to keep the St. George fullback on the ground, so rocked had he been by the contact – low and hard from the side, and lifting him a good metre off the ground.
Wakeham continued to shine with a chargedown at the back of Hunt’s next kick, stepping up here, in a game where Averillo’s organisation had been so critical, to single-handedly galvanise Canterbury towards their last big burst of field position. Hetherington followed with a beautiful offload, low and late, right in front of the posts, and while JMK couldn’t take it over the line, and Thompson was also held up, Elliott parlayed all that adrenalin, and his own highlight reel of terrific charges in this particular game, for one of the best tries of his career.
Like JMK before him, Elliott was surrounded by a sea of Dragons defenders, and he defied them all. First he twisted away from Hunt, then he muscled through Kerr, and finally he dragged Beale in goal, hanging in the tackle, and cantilevering it to his advantage, as he reached out to ground the tip of the Steeden with a delicacy that belied the brute strength of this play. Averillo missed his first kick, but the Bulldogs were still sitting on a twenty-point lead – a pretty cathartic moment, and hard not to get behind, given their 2021 woes.
With Beale knocking on the kickoff, the Dragons reached their nadir for the night, so it felt like we might be in for another Bulldogs show off the subsequent scrum, especially when Ravalawa put down Averillo’s next bomb. Instead, they had to content themselves with a third penalty kick from Averillo, off a dangerous hit from Vaughan – an apt end for the game, since it had been Canterbury’s willingness to take the two, and play it conservative, that had bloomed into their most consistent and consolidating stint of the season so far.
In its own way, that’s as much an achievement as anything the Storm, Roosters or Panthers have delivered in the last few weeks – and arguably as momentous, for Bulldogs supporters, as the outcome of Origin. Canterbury will relish this victory, then, and use it as a critical rallying-point in their culture rebuild, regardless of whether or not they get the chocolates against a depleted Chooks outfit next week, while the Dragons need to bounce back big and quick when they rock up to meet the Sea Eagles at Cbus after the bye.
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