In its own way, Sunday’s game between the Bulldogs and the Wests Tigers was every bit as eventful as finals footy – a good segue between the regular season and the qualifying and elimination finals that start next week. Despite the worst defensive record in the NRL this year, and despite conceding an average of thirty points per game, the Dogs put down 38 unanswered points here, running rings around a Tigers outfit that have never looked worse.
The Dogs made history too, scoring the best margin for last-placed team in the last game of the regular season after the Knights beat the Bears in 1988 by 32. Against a rain-soaked Redcliffe, and in the face of mounting storm clouds, Josh Jackson celebrated becoming the equal ninth most-capped Bulldog by rousing his men to achieve the footy flow they’d been searching for all season, while David Nofoaluma didn’t have much to show for becoming the ninth-capped Tiger, effectively assisting Jack Hetherington’s first NRL try in the second stanza.
Stefano Utoikamanu took the first run and hit-up of the afternoon, and Alex Twal brought it over the halfway line on tackle three, before Thomas Mikaele made great post-contact metres for Madden to take his first kick on the cusp of Canterbury’s thirty. Nick Meaney caught it spectacularly in the air, especially since David Nofoaluma came in beneath him for aerial contact, undoing this opening surge of Wests Tigers field position. He breathed easy at the end of the set, though, when Napa succumbed to the slippery surface and put the footy down.
The Tigers continued to roll down the park again on their second set, as Brooks tried to open up some space on the left, before bombing from the same distance as Madden, but from the other side of the park. Meaney took it clean, and with six again off an Utoikamanu offside, the Bulldogs seemed to have put that opening Tigers set behind them – until Jake Averillo got too eager with a Jackson pass, reaching his arms out so fast that he knocked it ahead of him.
The hosts now had a scrum in the middle of the park, and another shot to add to their field position, especially when Luciano Leilua got them six again with a strong charge to the forty, where Aaron Schoupp infringed the ruck. Utoikamanu entered the red zone on tackle three, and Mikaele dragged three defenders into the ten, before Jacob Liddle tried a dummy and run right beside the posts, getting his men another restart in the process. With such a rapid burst of position, the Tigers had to score here or concede some momentum back to the Dogs.
Shawn Blore came close, but ironically it was because of the pressure of the Canterbury defence, which very nearly caused him to fall over the line. Tommy Talau almost tumbled over on the right, the Tigers got a third restart, Brooksy was held up in goal, and Chris Sutton sent it upstairs just to make sure the tip of the Steeden hadn’t grazed the ground as Meaney scrambled underneath. In slow motion, you could see just how long the contest had gone on, but in the end the Canterbury fullback got it down, leaving the Tigers with three more tackles.
Nearly everything had happened around the posts, and it was a bad sign that the Tigers couldn’t elasticise on their last play, shifting it out to Zac Cini on the right, and then sending it back inside, where Ava Seumanufagai leaned his big frame forward to take a Nofoaluma grubber on the full. Even worse, Brooksy took out his frustration with a high shot on Jackson, and the Dogs scored their first of seven unanswered tries a moment later, when Meaney dummied, broke through on the right, and fended off Brooksy and Chee Kam to get it down.
Canterbury had scored the first try in seventeen weeks, and even if Meaney slotted the conversion away to the right, this was still an emphatic four-pointer. Not only had Meaney broken through Brooks after holding him up at the other end of the field, but the Bulldogs had followed an aborted right sweep from the Tigers by showing how fluidly they could reach their own corner. It didn’t hurt that the Wests defence looked desperate here – a chaotic maelstrom as Chee Kam failed to complete the low tackle and Brooksy was flung into space.
The Dogs were just as good on the restart, carving up the middle of the park and clearing space for a terrific Brandon Wakeham kick. Meaney leaped for it, missed it clean, and left it open for his opposing fullback, who wasn’t expecting this much scope with the catch, and so allowed it to ricochet off his knee and back into the Canterbury chase. Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Averillo stormed in, scooped it up with his right hand, and plunged over with Brooks on his back, as Meaney kicked through the first conversion to make it ten points.
Averillo only got to the halfway line for his next bomb, and Cini took it clean, before losing it into a nasty head clash from Joe Stimson. He should have left the park, but he stayed on, as the Dogs packed the scrum, and had their turn to get a restart in the red zone, with an offside from Chee Kam. For the first time in the game we had some sweeping football, as Canterbury moved it from left to right, building the speed they needed for their most flamboyant try attempt so far – an Averillo grubber that Schoupp almost turned into a sublime four points.
He reached it right on the dead line, bent his legs awkwardly, and almost mirrored Haumole Olakau’atu’s try the night before, but ended up bouncing the Steeden at the putdown. Still, this was a galvanising moment for the Bulldogs – proof they had the potential to really break this game open if they stayed strong. Conversely, Ken Maumalo looked grim as he started the next set, determined to make this near-try a turning-point on the cusp of the second quarter.
Yet the Tigers didn’t even get to the end of their set, as Schoupp and Corey Allan converged to drag Talau over the sideline just when he glimpsed space up the right edge, tumbling over him so awkwardly that he injured his right knee in the process. The spectacle of these three bodies in motion recalled Meaney’s movement through Brooks and Chee Kam for the openng try. While there were two Tigers there and two Bulldogs here, the spiralling speed of both plays spoke to a Wests outfit that were desperately trying to keep up with the sixteenth team.
In the end, Talau came from the park, limping slowly to the dressing room as Joe Ofahengaue came on in his place. Yet the Bulldogs didn’t do much better with their next stint up the right side, where Stimson mistimed a pass to Will Hopoate that sailed in front of Jayden Okunbor, careening over the sideline. The Tigers now had a full set in Canterbury’s half of the park, as Joffa stood in the tackle to bring them to the red zone, before play paused once again for the minicab to drive across the park so Talau didn’t have to limp all the way round the perimeter.
This was a justified player welfare move, but it probably could have waited a couple of tackles, since it put a serious dent in this Tigers set. Seumanufagai came off at the same time, for an HIA, as Chris Patolo left the bench, and the hosts finally got the second half of this set, which ended abruptly with a cough-up from Blore as Brooksy was sweeping it out to the left. The game fragmented further when Mikaele left the park for an HIA, or perhaps a jaw issue, meaning the second quarter felt like a fresh match as Kelma Tuilaga headed out to the fray.
Even so, the Tigers were still ten down, and had to use all these reshuffles to their advantage, as Sione Katoa got the Dogs rolling with a long kick that forced the hosts to work it out of their own twenty – until they got a much-needed restart, early in the count, with a Jackson offside. Joffa mirrored Mikaele’s post-contact metres earlier in the game, Nofa offloaded to Leilua at the ten, and Maumalo got the kick back. He was smothered by a big Bulldogs pack, but the Tiges mustered a pack of their own, behind Brooks, to drag Hoppa back in goal on tackle one.
Meaney came up with one of the biggest dropouts this year, but the Tigers were still back at the twenty with two tackles up their sleeve, as Brooks followed Nofoaluma with an offload at the ten to Maumalo. For the second time, Liddle tried to plunge out of dummy half beside the left post, only for Madden to show his inexperience with an overlong kick on the last, as a potential second dropout turned into seven tackles for Canterbury, with the help of a strong defensive run from Meaney. Three plays later, the Bulldogs were back at the Tigers’ twenty.
Averillo now showed Madden how it was done, going dropout-for-dropout with a deft grubber into the left corner that Nofa had no choice but to scoop up in both hands and take into touch with Stimson on his heels. Ofahiki Ofgden took a strong opening run, and Wakeham continued his momentum up the middle, losing the footy ahead of him as Jack Hetherington regathered it, and put it down over the line just in case. The Dogs thought it was close enough to send it up for a Captain’s Challenge – and the replay did indeed show Broosky stripping it.
This was a frustrating victory for the Dogs, who got the penalty kick but not the try. Even so, they were two converted tries ahead once Meaney sailed it through the uprights, while Katoa continued to flex his kicking game with an attempted 40/20. He didn’t quite get the angle he was looking for, but he compensated with the best chase of the night, forcing Nofa right back to the try line. All of a sudden, the Tiges were fighting for field position, as Hetherington took out the frustration of his near-try with a barnstorming linebreak and run up the middle third.
He was brought down twenty out, but the Dogs still got a restart, as Jackson reached the line by the fourth, where he was just held up beside the posts, and his men followed with their most dangerous sweep to the left thanks to some deft footwork from Schoupp. Nofoaluma knocked on the kick, and Canterbury had a scrum at the ten after their fastest acceleration of the afternoon so far, back-to-back tries included. They should have got a penalty at the scrum base, but instead Meaney scored a double, in the same part of the park where he got his first.
We’d seen a few sweeps so far in the game, but this was the first that really felt like a full-blown edge attack – an enormous ball from Jackson, and a great follow-up from Schoupp that in combination felt like the Bulldogs elasticising, expanding, finally finding their full flow. Meaney drew on that momentum, dummying to get on the outside of Maumolo, who was fooled by the pace, and assumed it must lead Canterbury all the way to the corner, leaving just enough space for the blue and white fullback to plunge through and put down four more.
Once again, Meaney missed the conversion, but sixteen unanswered points, with five minutes on the clock, was a serious momentum-builder for a Bulldogs outfit that have struggled so much at the bottom of the ladder in 2021. The weather seemed to mirror the Tigers’ mood, as the storm clouds that had been gathering in the distance now turned the light lurid and gloomy over Redcliffe, suddenly seeming to shift us from afternoon footy to an evening game. It was critical, then, that the hosts put down an opening try before they headed to the sheds.
Brooks’ next kick was decent, but none of his men could get in place to collect it, while the Dogs got a restart as soon as they had the ball back, thanks to an offside from Alex Twal. They made good metres on this set, and Averillo’s bomb was decent, but Nofa put his body on the line to collect it, leaping into space above the dead ball line and getting a taste of his own medicine when Meaney came in for an inadvertent aerial tackle. The first stanza had been bookended by these Meaney-Nofa collisions, so it felt like the pointscoring was over for now.
It was, as a pair of errors from Nofoaluma and Twal closed out the first stanza at 0-16, but the Dogs didn’t take long to continue their groove after the break, rolling through their opening set before Hetherington got his first NRL try after all, off a Nofoaluma fumble beneath the high ball. The kick came from Wakeham, and Nofa collided into Cini as he hit it at speed, leaving it free for Schoupp to scoop it up, get on the outside of the Tigers’ defence, and then shift it back inside for Allan to assist a one-handed Hetherington putdown behind the posts.
Meaney was always going to convert from this angle, booting it right over the grandstand to bring the Bulldogs to 22 unanswered points. They didn’t get beyond the forty on the restart, and Nofa took the kick clean this time, but he still had a rousing chase to contend with, as did Cini on the second carry. Leilua elasticised the set with a big run up the middle, and Twal stood in the subsequent tackle for a good five seconds, but Brooks couldn’t execute the linebreak on the fourth, while Madden’s bomb didn’t pose any serious challenges for Allan.
The Tigers mustered a big pack to hold up Okunbor early in the next set, and Nofa made better meters after taking the kick, regaining some swagger with an early pass to Maumalo. Yet just as the Tiges were building some tentative momentum, they lost it, when Jake Simpkin fell awkwardly into a combined tackle from Jackson and Odgen, injuring his shoulder so badly he had to be escorted from the park, as Liddle came back for another stint. After one of the longest pauses in a stoppage-heavy game, the Tigers only had one play left – a Madden bomb.
Meaney leaped up a metre to take it, and Liddle made an immediate impact, combining with Mikaele to force a loose carry from Schoupp on the very next tackle. All of a sudden, the Tigers had a scrum in the Canterbury twenty, and Brooks tried to start a left sweep immediately. Okunbor slammed in to prevent Madden continuing it, but conceded six again in the process, and the Tigers halves now opted to stick around the middle, as Brooks fed the footy for Utoikamanu to barge into four Bulldogs at the right post, then took his own charge at the left.
Madden stayed in the same part of the park, opting to grubber early – the wrong decision, since Meaney took it as if he was always the target. The Tigers were up against the worst defensive outfit in the league, and hadn’t made a single linebreak in fifty minutes, although Madden came close on the next set, building on a series of strong opening runs to bring it into the red with one tackle left. Liddle continued his momentum, showing and running the footy, but ultimately leaving it too late to shape for a kick as the Dogs came in low and hard.
With his legs wrapped up, all Liddle could do was lift up both hands to try (and fail) to get the offload away. Yet the Tiges got a second let-off a moment later, when Wakeham became the next Bulldog to knock on early in the tackle count, while trying to contain a messy late offload from Ogden. This time the Tiges chose to take it up the middle from the get-go, bypassing the aborted left sweep of their last scrum, and reaching the five metre mark by the third tackle.
Brooks consolidated that forward pack energy with an early chip to the right, where Schoupp tried to take it on the full in goal, but ended up collecting it just in the field of play, leaping so high that he couldn’t quite regain his balance enough to prevent the defence driving him back over the chalk. Wakeham almost booted the dropout to the halfway line, Murray Taulagi was inside the twenty by play two, and the Dogs steeled themselves for the Tigers’ best chance since the break. The first half of the set was pretty decent, but two bounces tore it all apart.
The first came on tackle four, when Liddle bounced a bludger of a ball across the middle of the park to his halfback. While Brooksy recovered with a good offload, Madden came up with an even worse bouncer on the wing. Even if the pass hadn’t been forward, Cini was always going to be dragged over the sideline after gathering it into his chest, as the Tigers’ best shot of the second half transformed into the lowest point of their season. To his credit, Nofa stirred them with his best take since the break, putting his unofficial Hetherington assist behind him.
Yet the Dogs had too much flow to be dishevelled by a single decent play, and sure enough they congealed again a minute later, with the best right sweep of the entire game – the flattest of passes from Katoa to Meaney, who timed the next one well for Hoppa to celebrate his last game as a Bulldog with a super catch-and-pass for Okunbor to stroll over in the corner. Wakeham fumbled the footy on the kickoff, making this the third let-off for the Tigers after Schoupp and Wakeham’s handling errors, and for a third time they failed to capitalise on it.
In fact, Wakeham himself came back beautifully with an oblique crossfield dropout that Chee Kam knocked on as he tried to pull it back from the sideline. Wakeham’s ability to self-correct so seamlessly embodied a Canterbury outfit who were determined to use this game to correct their horror season, but it was more than that – the angle and direction of the kick inevitably conjured up spectacles of Brooksy’s fatally short dropout against the Warriors. This time, the Tigers were on the receiving end of a similarly weighted kick, and again they came off worst.
Over the last fifteen minutes, all the Tigers’ agonies of the last year, the last few years, and the last decade reached a crisis point with two successive sin bins, each of which gave way to a Bulldogs try. First, Leilua left the park, and the Dogs mirrored their previous right sweep with a very different but equally spectacular left edge effort – a well-timed ball from Katoa followed by a beautiful harbour bridge assist from Wakeham, who lofted it so artfully over the Tigers’ right side defence that Allan only had to take it on the chest to slam over for four.
This was becoming a pretty spirited end to the season for the Bulldogs, who had conceded thirty points a game this year but were now holding the Tiges thirty-nil. Jackson was barking orders at his men, clearly determined to end the season with panache, and to prevent the Tigers from scoring a single point. His passion worked well for Meaney, who booted through his most confident sideline conversion of the game to get the Dogs to 32 unanswered points.
Blore was the next player to leave the park, for more marginal reasons, and by now Canterbury seemed to be playing for fun, exuding a footy flow and joy in the game we haven’t seen in the kennel that often in 2021. They immediately executed an elasticised and expanded version of their last right edge try, moving through a Katoa start, a Jackson pass, a no-look ball from Averillo, and a catch-and-pass from Hoppa to Meaney, who only just took it in his right hand, fumbling it for a moment before sending it back through Hoppa for an Averillo try.
While Averillo’s putdown was galvanising, the enduring image of this sequence was that moment, at the very outermost limit of the sweep, when Meaney reached out his palm to take the Steeden. In that moment of precarity, everything could have come apart, but instead Meaney used it as the fulcrum to reverse the sweep, and take control of the sequence again, much as the Bulldogs used this game to change the momentum of their entire 2021 season. In that gesture lies the self-belief and grace under pressure they need to rebuild for next year.
Hoppa took the conversion to mark his last ten minutes in blue and white, and while the kick was ugly, it cleared the crossbar – the last insult for a Wests Tigers outfit who have never looked so vulnerable. Hopoate very nearly assisted a final Jackson try too, but the pass was called forward. Nevertheless, this was a historic win for the Bulldogs, and may be good enough to propel them into a new era when they return to the park next year, while you have to wonder what the Tigers need to do to generate momentum after yet another heartbreak.