ROUND 17: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v. Sydney Roosters (Bankwest Stadium, 10/7/21, 16-22)

It had been raining for hours by the time Sydney City and Canterbury rocked up to Bankwest, adding to the eeriness of a spectator-free stadium. Both teams failed to post points last week, against the Storm and Manly, and both teams had a big player returning – Victor Radley back from a four-game suspension and Lachlan Lewis back for his third first-grade game of the year, his first appearance since Round 9. Billy Smith was also back after an even longer stint on the sidelines, and scored the first Tricolored try in his first match since Round 25 2019.

Over the next eighty minutes, the Dogs came close to the upset win of the season, never permitting the Roosters to take more than a ten-point lead, and cruising ahead themselves for a brief stretch. After conceding so many points this year, they knuckled down for their most courageous goal line defence of the season in the final 25 minutes, when they stopped the slow trickle of tries, and actually made the Roosters doubt themselves – a pretty incredible achievement, even with the key Origin playmakers off the park.

Jared Waerea-Hargreaves took the first run of the game, and Joey Manu made seven post-contact metres as fullback on the fourth, before Nick Meaney took Drew Hutchison’s opening kick on the full. Radley made his mark immediately in defence, with a crunching tackle on Falakiko Manu early in the next set, and the other Manu got the Roosters rolling upfield with the first offload of the night, although Corey Allan responded with an equally dexterous play, leaping off the ground to secure the subsequent high ball in the face of a Sam Walker jump.

The Dogs built more momentum with a strong chase to conclude their next set, but Matt Ikuvalu stole that rhythm right back with a linebreak, laying the foundation for a second break out the left that started with some great vision from Radley out of dummy half, followed by some quick thinking from Walker, who popped it out to Hutchison at the very moment that Jake Averillo slammed in for a tackle, splitting the difference between an offload and a regular pass. From there, Hutchison ended with a pass for Billy Smith to crash over in the corner.

Seeing Smith score a try in his first five minutes of footy since Round 25 2019 was a booster for the Chooks, and easily eclipsed Walker’s missed conversion. In any case, Walker made an even more important kick at the end of the restart – a beautiful grubber that ricocheted straight past Averillo (who had also conceded six again earlier in the set) and deep into the left corner. Outpacing Nick Meaney and Manu, Sitili Tupouniua chased it down and grounded it, nabbing more than half of his career tries (13) in 2021 with his seventh of the season.

Walker was close enough to the posts to boot through the two, putting the Roosters at ten unanswered points – more than a point per minute – and a ton of early field position. Finally, at the end of another restart, the Dogs got the ball back, with only 24% of possession, so completing this set was paramount. Jack Hetherington took a shot at the line midway through, drawing in Radley and Isaac Liu to hold him up, and while he didn’t make that much headway, his post-contacts were an important gesture of defiance in rallying his men.

Luke Thompson continued that aggro with a superb one-on-one tackle on Radley midway through the next set – the first tackle that the Bulldogs had decisively won – before charging into Radley and Sam Verrills in the same part of the park as Hetheringon’s run. Daniel Tupou collected the high ball, but just on the goal line, thanks to a Canterbury chase that crowded in to culminate the best blue and white set so far. Smith tried to match that energy with a charge into Hetheringon, Will Hopoate and Renouf Atoni, only to lose the footy in the contact.

This was the first Roosters error of the night, and the first real attacking chances for the Dogs, although it was slightly soured by Atoni leaving the park, one hit-up in, for an HIA – and totally soured when Hetherington fumbled the play-the-ball at the start of the set. Nevertheless, the hosts got the footy back soon enough, off the second Roosters error – Tupouniua dropping a Walker pass – and were back in the twenty by tackle four, where Sitili made up for his mistake by only just clearing up a gap as Averillo shaped to break into open space.

Sione Katoa and Josh Jackson saved the day – Katoa with a great grubber on the last, confirming him as an unofficial member of the halves during these clutchy short-range plays, and Jackson with a tough run to slam Manu back into touch for the first dropout of the night. Things got worse for Joey on the repeat set, when Lewis celebrated his comeback in style, eschewing his typically languorous kicking mode with a manic chip-and-chase before the last that saw him slam past the stand-in Roosters fullback and score right on the dead ball line.

Averillo booted through the extras and we were back to a four-point game on the cusp of the second quarter. Thompson took the first tackle of the restart, as he had for the dropout, while word came down from the sheds that Canterbury had mucked up their team announcement, which had stipulated that Atoni, rather than Joe Stimson (who had come on in Atoni’s place) would be starting. Back on the park, the Roosters survived the restart, but had to deal with a pumped-up Doggies’ defence, epitomised by Katoa and Thompson’s tackle on JWH.

Coming midway through the set, this should have been a pivotal play for the Roosters in regaining their momentum, but Jared was unable to make any post-contact metres or shape for an offload – and as a result the next three tackles fizzled into nothing, while the Bulldogs got a restart on their next carry off a ruck error from Radley, and Hetherington showed JWH how it was done with a very late offload through Radley to Katoa. There was no doubt the game was swinging Canterbury’s way – until Victor the Inflictor made his first big statement.

We’d seen a few good plays from the cult hooker, but he delivered on all fronts now, slamming in to skittle Hetherington in revenge for the offload, and single-handedly reclaiming the rhythm for the Roosters, who got six off a Corey Waddell offside at the start of the next set. Yet his men couldn’t match his energy, at least not at this point, as Verrills coughed up the footy a play later, and the Dogs packed the scrum at the thirty. Thompson targeted JWH again, Jackson brought it five metres out, and Katoa sent a poor pass bouncing to the left.

The Dogs didn’t recover until Thompson reprised his opening run on the fourth, but it wasn’t enough. Meaney kicked on the last, Hutchison reached out a boot to deflect it, and both men tumbled on it, with the Canterbury fullback eventually making the first knock-on. Now the Chooks had the scrum feed, and then a restart on tackle one, off a Katoa offside. They needed to reach back to Radley’s hit-up, and inject that adrenalin into this set, but it didn’t really come off, and the Bulldogs got the ball back without too much trouble.

Meanwhile, the big men came off for a break – Hetherington for Atoni (who had passed his HIA), Thompson for Dylan Napa, and JWH for Nat Butcher. The Roosters had won the last fifteen games against Canterbury when they led at halftime, so it was important that the Bulldogs get some more points on the board now, especially since the Tricolors had settled into a lull – not playing poorly by any means, but not pulling off any of the prodigious plays that you’d expect to see against a bottom four team either.

Sydney City got their next chance with a restart off the messiest ruck error of the night from Stimson – and the defence was just as poor, wilting at the twenty as Manu received a wide ball from Walker. Dummying to dispose of Schoupp, pivoting away from Meaney, and dancing over an ankle tap from Stimson, he was so surprised to break through the line that he relaxed into a slow jog as he curved around behind the posts despite a final tackle from Napa. The last surprise was the depth of water he slid across, since the field was well drained.

Walker was always going to convert from right in front, bringing the Chooks to a ten point lead, although the Dogs hit back quickly on their next set, thanks to a big pair of plays from Meaney, who dishevelled the defence with a late offload to Bailey Biondi-Odo, and Averillo, who kicked for himself and got the ball back. With a repeat set five metres out, the Dogs shifted left, where Lewis popped out a wide ball to Schoupp, who was held up by a superb Ikuvalu tackle, before getting the first try double of his career to celebrate his NRL return.

Lewis made the kick on the left, where Manu scooped it up and slammed the full weight of his body into the Bulldogs pack, determined not to let himself get dragged over the line for a second time. Stimson might have missed Manu on his way to the try line a set before, but the spin of his tackle did the trick now, wresting the footy free for Lewis to scoop it up and put down another four points. If Manu had been surprised by his last try, Lewis was astonished – and this was the last note of the first stanza, as a missed Averillo kick kept it a six point game.

Schoupp took the first run back, Napa bolstered his advance on the second, and the big men took control of the rest of the set, before Jackson poured in to prevent Manu making any metres off the kick. Sio Siua Taukeiaho levelled the balance with some big post-contacts on the next set, as the match settled into the kind of arm wrestle you often see after half time in a close contest. Lewis tried to break the deadlock by following his self-assisting kick with another unusual play here – dummy out the left, then a rapid pass to Stimson on the right.

It didn’t come off, leading to a Stimson knock-on, a Roosters scrum, and more post-contact metres from Taukeiaho, who ended up losing the footy into a big Waddell hit. At the very moment when the visitors should have consolidated and taken control of this second half, they faltered, while Napa got the Dogs rolling again with a deft offload to Biondi-Odo. Radley came up with another terrific tackle late in the count, this time on Jackson, but once again the Roosters failed to draw on his strength, as Ikuvalu knocked on the high ball a tackle later.

Canterbury now had the first attacking chance of the second stanza, with a scrum at the ten, and were unlucky not to get a restart on play one. Nevertheless, it only took them four plays to post their next points, in a sequence that started with Averillo charging at the line on the left, before his team mates shifted back to the right, where Ogden sent a wide ball out for Meaney to slice his way through the line, in a Nicho Hynes-like run as prologue for his move to Melbourne next year, where he’ll replace the Umina local as he moves up to the Sharkies.

To make matters worse for the Roosters, there were three players who should have taken this – Smith, who found himself out of position, Hutchison, who slipped and careened into Smith, and Verrills, who was caught napping, and didn’t play any real part in the defence. Averillo added the extras to level the score at 16-16, and while the Dogs wouldn’t score another point, they’d also only concede a single try to the Roosters, who got a big boost when Ikuvalu made up for his knock-on under the last high ball with one of the takes of the season.

Putting his body on the line, Ikuvalu climbed a full metre and a half above Manu, caught the footy in both hands, and maintained position as he landed hard on his back. He took a brief beat to return to his feet, but there was a no question of an injury at the other end of the park, a set restart later, when he collected a beautiful wide ball from Walker and got the better of Manu a second time. Dodging away from the Canterbury winger on the right edge, he pivoted back inside and slammed to ground through a last-ditch tackle from Schoupp.

While Walker didn’t get the conversion, he deserved credit for the subliminal silkiness of this assist – possibly his best pass of the game, as he drew in Atoni and cleared up space for Ikuvalu in the same instant. In one sequence, Ikuvalu had taken the Roosters from end to end, cementing their dominance at both try lines, so this was a pretty emphatic closing statement for the visitors, even if they didn’t score another four-pointer over the next 26 minutes.

They came very close to back-to-back tries at the end of the restart, when Thompson was pinged for some fairly soft contact as Walker was making the kick. Walker responded with another wide pass, this time out to the left, where Tupou batted off a string of players, headed back inside, fended off a few more, culminating with a big palm on Atoni, and offloaded through two Bulldogs to Verrills, who made the first of two poor plays during this set – an early grubber that ricocheted off the defence and almost brought it all to a halt right now.

Nevertheless, Radley scooped it up, Manu added a second offload to Josh Morris, and things seemed to be building on the right edge, only for the other Manu to slam in for a bone-shattering hit when Verrills opted to run the footy on the last. After conceding so many points in 2021, this was courageous goal-line defence from Canterbury, and felt like it might be a turning-point in the match – and in a way it was, since another Sydney City try here might well have unleashed a torrent of Tricoloured points in the final quarter.

On the other side of the Steeden, the Roosters seemed exhausted by this aborted set, and started to succumb to the confidence issues that had plagued them since the Bulldogs made it clear they weren’t going to be a walkover. They’ve won every set this year when they hit 26 points, so they really needed to get one more converted try, although that stat just appeared to make their game more precarious, as Butcher conceded a ruck error to give the Doggies a bump up field, while the rain grew torrential over Parramatta.

Manu now had two awkward moments under the high ball – the first at Canterbury’s end of the field, where he tried to reprise Ikuvalu’s sublime take, but ended up falling onto Ikuvalu, and almost losing the footy in the process; the second at Sydney’s end of the park, where he took a Walker ball clean, but was called offside in the process. To regain their mojo, the Chooks needed a big one-man effort – and Tupouniua provided it two tackles into their next set, when he trampled over Lewis and busted into space up the right sideline.

All of the Roosters’ precarity was now condensed into two fumbles and a let-off. First, Tupounoia shifted the Steeden out to Morris, who juggled it from hand to hand, coming as close as possible to a cough-up before regathering control for the split second he needed to flick it back in to Tupouniua. Sitili’s contact was even more chaotic – a tap-on that looked forward, but was deemed legitimate as Walker caught it on the ricochet and started a sweep to the other side of the park, where Manu took the tackle with four plays to go.

In one play, we’d witnessed both the vulnerability and the genius of the Roosters – their inability to make their best combos quite gel in this game, along with their capacity to self-correct in the face of a Bulldogs outfit that were now asking serious questions. That made it particularly devastating when Walker, who had taken the Steeden so quickly from Tupouniua that he’d probably distracted the refs from the possibility of a forward pass, now made a forward pass of his own, on the short side, a mere tackle after Manu took it to ground.

All of a sudden, the game had entered chaos mode, peak volatility, the adrenalin rush that flows over the field when an underdog are on the cusp of an upset win. Tupouniua drew on the residual rhythm of his run up the right sideline with an absolute monster tackle on Jackson, who was slammed onto his back midway up the park, and yet Egan Butcher undid all that momentum a set later, when he didn’t hear the six again count, and booted through the first grubber of his career just when the Tricolors should have been building to their next try.

The Roosters got a brief burst with a Waddell ruck error, only for Manu to shut it down with a superb legs tackle on Morris, the young gun downing the veteran much as the cellar-dwellers were holding their own against a top four team. A minute later, Sydney City got their last surge, and their final points, when Hetherington knocked on, Walker secured a dropout with a deft grubber that Meaney was forced to bump into touch, and Hetherington took out his frustration with a high shot on Radley, setting up Walker for a final penalty kick.

Hetherington’s tackle was less aggressive than it initially appeared, but the final note of the night was still Canterbury’s superb game management. To come away with a near-win here was a massive achievement, even against a Roosters side depleted by Origin, so the blue and white will be looking to parlay that courage into another big challenge when they take on South Sydney next week. Meanwhile, the Chooks will be looking to hit back big against the Cowboys to restore their self-belief after the shock of almost losing to Canterbury tonight.

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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