ROUND 16: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (CommBank Stadium, 2/7/22, 6-18)

Saturday night’s game at CommBank wasn’t the most hostile weather conditions of the East Coast’s rain-bombed weekend – that would be Dragons-Canberra on the Wollongong coast – but it was certainly the wettest. The rain was already plummeting down when the Bulldogs and Sharks took the park, and only intensified during the second half, producing the sludgefest of 2022 – a morass of mud that was as gritty as it was otherworldly, reflecting back the fluorescent lights in great pools of silver up the middle third of the turf.

After a prolific pair of games against Parra and the Tigs, the Dogs only put down a single try here, but it was a pivotal six-pointer, right on the siren, testament to their ongoing courage as they continue to fight for their season. They might have missed out on nabbing their first three wins in a row since 2019, but they had a different kind of challenge against a top four team, and with Matt Burton coming off one of the great NSW Blues debuts, and the Jake Averillo fullback experiment working a treat, they managed to keep Cronulla to three tries.

Royce Hunt set the tone with a huge charge into Paul Vaughan, as the Sharkies made their way up a quagmire that was already full of muddy puddles, before Nicho Hynes slotted it all the way to the Canterbury line, as wave after wave of Cronulla packs surged in to prevent the Dogs breaking the twenty until tackle three. Burton only got to the thirty for his first kick, and in the midst of such a swarm of defenders, had to opt for a conventional effort, before Jeremy Marshall-King tried to reset the balance with a massive hit on Blayke Brailey.

The Dogs had finished their first set at the thirty, and started their second in the same spot, thanks to an opening grapple from Jesse Ramien, although they made even less headway this time, barely breaking halfway before Kyle Flanagan took the kick into a wall of water. By contrast, Wade Graham elasticised the next set with a break up the left, and Ramien mirrored his initiative on the right, where Ado-Carr delivered the best tackle so far to hold him up, but not good enough to prevent the Sharks parlaying this flow back to the left one more time.

With so much side-to-side momentum behind them, Cronulla seemed to have absorbed and embodied the slippery surface as their own special asset, settling into a silky sweep that felt like a training run, as the footy moved through Hynes, Moylan, Kennedy and then Talakai, who held up the line just long enough for Ronaldo Mulitalo to draw on the high of his Kiwis debut with an ecstatic leap into the air and gymnastic grounding that put him one off his season record of twelve tries.

Hynes booted through a beautiful kick from the sideline, and the Sharks seemed to have wrestled flow from these extreme wet weather conditions, so it was a big turnaround when Ramien forced the offload to Katoa early in the restart. Canterbury had their first close-range set, as Hynes shut down a Burton run on the left, Finucane and Hunt held up a Vaughan charge in front of the posts, and another pack did the same for Tevita Pangai Jr. beside the left post, meaning it all came down to Averillo’s kick to the right edge.

He booted it hard, expecting some friction from all the muddly puddles it had to clear on the way to the dead ball line, but must have got one of the clearer trajectories on the park, since it tumbled into touch like it was the driest field in the NRL, giving the Sharkies seven tackles to play with. Mulitalo came close to a second try a few plays later, collecting a very late offload from Graham, and withstanding an Averillo-led pack that tried to drag him into touch, getting a second effort from the Canterbury fullback in the process.

Now it was the Sharkies’ turn to attack from close-range, as Hunt again targeted Vaughan, Hynes took on the line, was brought down by Burton and King, before the Dogs conceded another set, and Katoa almost broke through on the right, only to bring it back inside, search for options, and shift it across to Brailey, who grubbered it off the defence, and lost it in the process. Finally, JMK provided the big play Canterbury needed, dummying and breaking through the line, fending off Mulitalo and flicking it out for Averillo to continue his speed.

Mulitalo was quick enough to take down Averillo, but the Dogs had enough speed behind them now for Burton to make a signature drop onto the left boot, spinning it so hard that Katoa could only get a brief bump to it in goal, ricocheting it over the back line before any of the visitors could get to it. This was Canterbury’s peak flow so far, so it was agonising for Declan Casey to cough up the dropout as it tumbled around his ankles, and worse when the Foxx got put on report for dumping Ramien on his back a tackle later.

In the space of thirty seconds, the Dogs had gone from their first repeat set to defending their twenty, which Briton Nikora broke on the very next play, laying the platform for Hynes to set up Toby Rudolf’s first big charge from close range. Moylan did well to scoop up an aimless pass in the muddy middle third of the park, before Hynes targeted Mulitalo, but sent it too heavy off the boot, such that even Ronaldo’s massive wingspan wasn’t enough for him to tap it back in field as he launched himself over the sideline.

Canterbury now had a workmanlike set, anchored in some good captain’s work from Josh Jackson, to recover themselves, ending, as they needed to, with a big bomb from Burton. Kennedy was up to it though, making a good ten or fifteen metres off the return, while the Sharkies didn’t waste any time spreading it up the right, only for Burton to come and shut down the short side as Hynes was preparing to capitalise on it, in a superb half-on-half effort that dishevelled Nicho enough for him to mistime the kick on the last as well.

Averillo took it on the full in goal to get the Dogs seven tackles, but the to-and-fro rhythm between Hynes and Burton continued when the Canterbury no. 7 booted it too hard on the last too, giving those seven tackles straight back to Cronulla. The Dogs survived this next assault on their line, but were back defending from close range when Casey made his second mistake on debut, cold dropping a Burton pass inside the opposition ten. It was a rough way to enter the NRL, although in his defence he was playing under extraordinary conditions.

No surprise, then, that the Sharkies were restless to get this next scrum from the ten underway, spreading it immediatedly to the right, where they got six again with a Burton offside, as the Bulldogs settled into their staunchest goal line defence yet, until the hosts botched the sweep to the left for the second time. This was almost the most prodigious wet weather play of the year, as a pair of precarious tap-ons from Moylan and Talakai nearly got Mulitalo the bounce he needed to put it down untouched on the wing.

Burton got one of his most comprensive kicks at the end of the next set, parabolising it all the way to the Cronulla ten, and giving his men enough time to mount a decent wall, as the hosts struggled to break halfway for the first time, forcing Hynes to take the kick inside his own forty. The turf was really unpredictable now, smooth enough for Averillo’s earlier grubber to have skidded into touch, but so sodden where the Steeden landed that it stopped dead a couple of plays later, gifting Casey the easiest pickup of the night.

That just made it all the more agonising when Casey coughed it up for the third time – and all the more cathartic when the error gave way to a Moylan offside. This was such an emotional turnaround, for both Casey and the Dogs at large, that it had the potential to be a real tipping-point if they could only capitalise now, especially since the Sharkies only had six points on the board after 25 minutes of football. They got six again in the twenty, off a Brailey ruck error, and had their best attacking shot so far, as Vaughan took the first charge at the line.

That’s all they got, however, as Raymond Faitala-Mariner lost the footy a play later, and King was put on report for a dangerous shot on Katoa a play after that. As rapidly as Canterbury had got the ball back, they’d given it back, so the delayed frustration of Casey’s third mistake seemed to percolate over the park now – and the delayed catharsis came back when Finucane flicked it forward to Graham a play later. Canterbury packed it ten metres from their own end, but a scrum’s a scrum, so they had to make the most of this opportunity.

They got another restart soon enough, off a ruck error from Aiden Tolman, and some fresh blood when Joe Stimson came off the bench, while Flanno stepped up with a sharp kick early in the count, dropping ball to boot in the muddiest and wettest part of the field but still managing to put it on a dime to trap Kennedy behind the line. The lights were now reflecting eerily off the sodden stadium as Flanagan reached the ten on tackle two, King took a charge at the crossbar, Corey Waddell hit up the right edge, and Averillo grubbered on the last.

Not only did Mulitalo take it on the full, a few centimetres off the turf, but he busted all the way to halfway before Burton got him to ground. In these slippery conditions, flow was starting to become mercurial, however, and so it was here, as Flanno, who was having a terrific period, reabsorbed all this momentum with a strip on Talakai a play later. Burton might have ended with a wobblier kick than normal, but the Doggies kept the upper hand when Hynes got done for an obstruction, and took the courageous option to tap and go.

For the second time in five minutes, the Sharks were defending a close-range assault on their line, as the Dogs experimented with the left edge this time, most flamboyantly with a Flanno-Foxx harbour bridge combo that tempted high contact from Katoa. Canterbury now had their most sustained accumulation of position all night, and Cronulla their biggest defensive challenge, so it was curious that Burton chose to kick on the second. Kennedy got one of the easiest bounces to contain so far, and just like that the Sharks were back on the attack.

Graham kicked early this time, trying to restore the balance of field position, but shanking it awkwardly off the side of his boot, and only just finding touch before the Bulldogs got to it. So brief had this Cronulla set been that it felt like we were back to Canterbury’s unbroken acquisition of position, especially when they got another restart off a Talakai ruck error. With five minutes on the clock, the first forty was condensing to one question: would the visitors manage to level the score with all this possession, or would the Sharkies stay ahead?

Moylan may have made the difference, coming in low and hard for a classic tackle on Flanno, and holding him up for a few seconds before finally forcing him to ground. He forced a fumbled play-the-ball as well, as the Dogs sent it upstairs, but got no joy. For a moment, it felt like this period of blue and white dominance had come to an end, but Canterbury only needed one more shift in possession, and got it when Cameron McInnes coughed up the footy a play later.

Everything came together for the Bulldogs now, as Rudolf got pinged for crowding, and JMK drew on his scintillating break at the twelfth minute with a quick tap and twenty metre run, before grubbering on the fourth to force a knock-on from Brailey. Canterbury packed the scrum, and gradually drifted from the right to left sides of the post, where three defenders surged into to prevent Jackson crossing over, before shifting it out to the left wing, where Burton booted it inside just as quickly, getting a Teig Wilton knock-on beneath the crossbar.

With forty seconds on the clock, the spine congealed brilliantly, as Burton almost beat a couple of defenders on the left, clearing space for Flanno to reprise his last kick but from closer range, banging it straight towards the crossbar. For a brief beat it looked set to hit the right padding, but Averillo got a beauty of a bounce, and read it just as well, slamming it down five seconds out, and rising with a roar that has to go down as one of the most resonant Canterbury moments this year, the emotional apex of all the Dogs have done this month.

Burton added the extras on the siren, and the Bulldogs felt primed to take on a top four outfit when they returned from the break, especially since Averillo has scored a double in three of his last four games. Yet while they wouldn’t get any more points on the board, this try transcended the game, sparkled on its own terms, as a tribute to the Doggies’ newfound grit, as did the spectacle of Averillo doing what he was always mean to do at fullback, and the Burton leadership that set up and provided the blueprint for the Flanno kick.

Combined with the wet, that Canterbury spirit would keep the Sharkies to only two more tries too, which was itself a victory of sorts, since we were dealing with a top four and bottom four team here. The pools had only deepened when they returned to the park, as the Dogs took the first set, rolling their play-the-balls through centimetres of water during the opening runs, before Burton hurried a wobbly one down to Moylan, booting it extra hard, as if to compensate for the liquid it had accumulated after this slog of a set.

By this stage the centre of the park was a silver swamp, creating a soaking series of plays as both sides drove it down the middle third, each in search of the wing movement that would allow them to get out of this sodden morass. Hynes glimpsed it with a clutch pass that Nikora did well to take on the right edge, and Averillo glimpsed it with a terrific take under the next high ball, pivoting away from a couple of defenders before offloading out to Casey, but it took the first soaring Burton bomb to create space for the Dogs to elasticise their attack.

Roiling end-over-end like a spirit of the rain, the Steeden totally defied Katoa in goal, giving Averillo his second big chance to shine at fullback. Not only did he scoop up the footy, but he swung himself back in field in the face of a combined tackle from Tolman and Kennedy to give his men the first close-range onslaught since the break. Finally, five minutes in, we had a sustained sweeping play, as Burton tried to put Schoupp through a hole on the left, got six again off McInnes, and set up RFM for what should have been their next tryscoring charge.

Instead, the big second-rower dropped it cold, right on the chalk, giving Cronulla a shot at regaining the rhythm that Canterbury had glimpsed so mercurially here. They slipped and slid their way up the middle for most of the set, unable to break halfway before Hynes made the kick, landing it in a muddy enough portion for the bounce to barely clear the surface, giving Moylan time to toe it forward again as Rudolf dove onto it, followed by a Foxx-led pack that created the muddiest slipstream so far, in what was already the sludgefest of the season.

While Kennedy got the ball back clean at the end of the next set, he was driven back seven metres by Kurt Morrin, while even Andrew Fifita couldn’t manage more than a couple of post-contacts up the right. Talakai didn’t do any better on the left, despite glimpsing a break, so it was starting to feel like the Sharkies needed an error, and a repeat set, to show their full wingspan on the park. They got it early in the next count, when Casey’s nightmare first half returned to haunt him as he succumbed to the swamp in his play-the-ball.

Cronulla could have probably floated the footy back to Brailey through the scrum, as they finally got their first close-range assault since the break – and capitalised on their first sweep since the break, which came on the second play. Hynes set it up with one of the best balls of the night, a beautiful soaring effort that travelled just far enough across and back for Katoa to break over an Ado-Carr ankle tap, and elude the follow-up effort from Burton, who got both arms around his shoulders, but couldn’t retain his grip in the slippery conditions.

Even then, he seriously skittled Katoa, who did well, as he tumbled onto his back, to reach the Steeden around and ground it behind him before his torso hit touch. Hynes capped it off with a masterful sideline kick, one of the best boots of his career, which felt like wresting order from chaos in the hostile conditions, before Casey’s night came to a frustrating end when he was almost knocked out cold by hard contact with Fifita early in the restart. He left on the mini-cab, and Vaughan came on earlier than expected to try and add some grunt.

As captain, Jackson was particularly roused by losing one of his youngest men, coming in hard on Fifita a play later to force an error in the play-the-ball. It was turning into a game of scrums and knock-ons, as the Dogs packed it just outside their thirty, and Burton passed it out to Schoupp, who managed to stay in field as a Cronulla pack slid him towards the sideline, but then lost the footy to a daring strip from Nikora, who shifted it for Kennedy to hit five out from the Canterbury line by the time the blue and white had rallied their defence.

The Sharks had scored off their last bout of close-range attack, and got a chance to add points just as quickly here, thanks to a hand in the ruck from Flanno out on the left edge. After booting through two beauties from the side, however, Hynes couldn’t clear the posts now, keeping it a six point game as the Foxx took it on the full to get his men a dropout, only for Burton to chip it right to the sideline, where Teig Wilton got a touch to it – or so it seemed initially, since the replay suggested it had actually gone out on the full.

Cronulla still had a challenge, but didn’t opt to use it (or have time) as the Dogs packed yet another scrum, and the mud reached a new level, churning up the park so that there were fewer and fewer large patches of water to reflect back the stadium lights. As if galvanised by the good luck of that dropout, Canterbury really stepped up in defence now, keeping the Sharkies in their own twenty for the first few plays, before JMK pulled back from McInnes’ right leg just late enough to legally induce the next fumbled play-the-ball.

Again, we had a Canterbury scrum, so pressure was mounting for the visitors to do something with it, or else allow the Sharks to reabsorb all this momentum. One more mistake would be enough to do it, so the away fans must have breathed a sigh of relief when the Dogs got through their set safely, setting up Flanno for a deft grubber that bounced off the right padding and careened a metre in goal, where Hynes swung out a boot and clean missed it, as Kennedy tumbled over it to leave a live grounding for whichever Bulldog opted to take it.

For a brief moment, this looked certain to be a Canterbury try, so many Dogs were in place, but upon dissecting it, the Bunker showed that none of them had put it down, while Morrin had actually held Kennedy back, turning this almost-try into a penalty for Cronulla. This was a major tipping-point, at the cusp of the final quarter, as the Sharkies started rebuilding their attack up the right edge, with Kennedy sending it out to Ramien for seven post-contacts, before Hynes lobbed it back in the other direction, where Flanno knocked it on.

Between that shift up the right (also initiated by Hynes) and the kick infield, this had been Cronulla’s most dynamic long-range set since the break, good enough to sustain them through a brief doldrum in the middle of the repeat, when Fifita found himself with the footy before the crossbars, but without any plays opening up for him. Corey Waddell did brilliantly to come in low and hard on Kennedy a tackle later, but Moylan brought it all together again by reprising Hynes’ crossfield kick, this time with a well-lofted ball to the right edge.

Burton took it on the full, but he was brought to ground by Katoa, and then pinned by Fifita and Ramien, before he had any chance of traversing the half metre back in field. Clearly pumped by this contact, he booted it fast and short as possible, but with Canterbury failing to get the ball back, the Sharkies had their third and last try, in the same part of the park where Burto had conceded the dropout. All it took was a rapid sweep – Brailey, McInnes and a catch-and-pass from Kennedy – to give Nikora the space he needed to smash over.

This was a rallying run on its own terms too, as the second-rower got on the inside shoulder of Burton, slipped past swinging arms from RFM and Schoupp, tucked the footy under his right arm, and planted it down like he always knew he was going to get there. The rain reached its heaviest as Hynes lined up the tee, driving down so hard that it started to seriously impede visibility, although it didn’t prevent the (already) cult halfback from slotting through the last two points of the night here, while the restart was as wet at it gets on the footy field.

Still, the Sharkies got through it, Burton crashed onto the high ball after Ramien and Ado-Carr failed to contain it in the air, and the Dogs ploughed through the mud, copping so much combined friction from the weather and opposition that Burton only got to the thirty for his next kick. After such prolific games against Parra and the Tigers, they only had six points to their name here, so even if they didn’t look likely to win, they could do with a consolation effort, a second half try to propel them into their clash with the Bunnies after the bye.  

As the final ten minutes arrived, this was more like mud wrestling than rugby league. Conversely, regular footy only seemed to be occurring in the drier corners (as when Katoa made a brief burst up the right wing) or on the try line (as when Averillo stuck a boot over the line, beneath the crossbar, to get his men seven tackles). Everything else was pure wrestle, as the game cried out for a big individual play to take control of this final sequence – and for a brief beat, the Dogs glimpsed that greatness on their following set.

First, King popped out a late offload to Zach Dockar-Clay; then, RFM glimpsed some space up the middle. At this late stage, this was elastic play, but it all came apart on the last, when Dockar-Clay took the grubber, but didn’t even toe it a metre before the Sharkies cleaned it up. Averillo came up with his best pickup of the night a minute later, curving around to take the Steeden at speed before the crossbar, but chipped it over the sideline, giving Cronulla another close-range set that ended with Hunt losing it into a Burton tackle on play one.

By this stage, then, errors were escalating on both sides, although the Sharks had the last bout of possession, garnering two dropouts before a Mulitalo error two and a half minutes out ended the game. It had been a courageous effort, and a good motivator as they prepare to take on the Storm next Thursday night, while the Dogs can hold their heads high after keeping a top four outfit on their toes, and will be looking to restart their winning streak when they rock up to host the Bunnies on the Sunday after the bye.    

About Billy Stevenson (739 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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