ROUND 25: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (Accor Stadium, 2/9/22, 21-20)

The Bulldogs might have had some disappointments in 2022, but they’ve also had some absolutely inspiring moments, and they drew on the best of them to send out the season with a bang by bouncing back from a 16-0 deficit to beat Manly by one point in the final minutes tonight. It was the perfect way for Raymond Faitala-Mariner and Jeremy Marshall-King to celebrate their 100th, and Josh Ado-Carr his 150th, and a sorry end to Kieran Foran’s decorated career with the Sea Eagles, as he heads to the Dolphins after 196 games with the club.

Paul Vaughan charged into the defence for the first carry, four Sea Eagles held up Max King and almost dragged him back over the twenty, King took another run to bring it over the forty, and Josh Jackson hit Manly territory, setting up Matt Burton for a big bomb from halfway, as Kaeo Weekes did well for his first start in the fullback jersey with a clean collect. Raymond Tuiamalo Vaega took a heroic charge for his second NRL stint on tackle two, taking a good five seconds to succumb to a three-man pack, and the away team brought it to a decent finish.

Dylan Walker conceded the first position with a slow peel early in the next set as the rain started to pour down over Accor. The Bulldogs’ big men worked it to the thirty, JMK glimpsed space with a sharp dummy half run, and Braidon Burns flicked it out to Jacob Kiraz, who put a boot on the sideline to hand the ball back to Manly. They drifted left early in the next set, where Andrew Davey did well to avoid touch, before Walker made up for his error by flicking out a short one to Toa Sipley, who took it low on the chest in the best ball handling so far.

From there, Sipley carved a mammoth passage up the middle, building a big enough slipstream for Walker to continue his in wake, and cap it off with a brilliant shift in direction. Tucking the footy under his right arm to defy the slippery conditions, he twisted 180 degrees for a round-the-corner pass that was always going to put DCE across untouched. Daly added the extras, the rain reached monsoonal proportions, and Foran glimpsed a break up the left on the restart, only for RMF to plant his massive bulk in the way for a terrific individual tackle.

Foran seemed somewhat deflated by this play, conceding a crowding penalty a few tackles later, before Marty Taupau regathered Manly’s flow by taking a short-range kick from Burton behind the line, and curving back into touch to feed it onto his fullback. While Foran resumed his flow with a dangerous kick to the left sideline, Kiraz made up for his own mistake with even better handling than Sipley, reaching out his right arm to roll the footy into his chest, before Toa leaked the first ruck error of the game to give the Dogs a full set in Manly’s half.

They were on the line by tackle four, where Burton weighted the kick a little too hard, gifting the Sea Eagles seven plays after Burns just failed to pop the footy back over the dead ball line in time. Walker lobbed another short one out to Sipley midway through, but this time the defence was waiting, although Haumole Olakau’atu almost broke through on the next play, drawing in three Bulldogs to hold him up. With Josh Ado-Carr hitting DCE slightly off the ground, the Brooky boys had a close-range set of their own, and only took two plays to score.

Taupau set the scene with a barnstorming charge to the crossbar, before DCE shaped for a sweep, saw that nobody was defending the right edge, and looped out a harbour bridge ball for Christian Tuipulotu to smash over before Aaron Schoupp had any hope of stopping him. This time Daly missed the kick, but the Sea Eagles were still on ten unanswered points, and had completed six from six in the oceanic conditions, which in true monsoon fashion stopped as soon as they had begun, leaving Manly with a sudden reprive as they began the restart.

They were bumped up the park almost immediately, with a slow peel from RMF, receiving a restart off a Jackson ruck error a few plays later to garner themselves a full set inside the Bulldogs’ ten. Keen to tighten the screws, Foran chipped on play two, winning his men a dropout, and Burton went short, conceding another set in the red zone when Tuaimalo Vaega took it on the left edge. Tolu Koula made big inroads on the other wing a few plays later, gaining another restart off a Schoupp touch, and Foran set his sights on the line once again.

This time he ran the footy, tucking it under the arm and barraging at the defence, which he dishevelled enough for Taupau to smash over a play after, beside the right padding, straight through Corey Waddell, who was back after his five week suspension. DCE added the extras, the Sea Eagles were at 16-0, and had demonstrated their dominance from long range, from short range, and on the right wing. With the first quarter almost done, the Dogs had to strike back pretty quickly now to prevent this becoming a landslide of maroon and white points.

The first step was Averillo containing Foran’s next kick to get his men their first touch of the footy in about five minutes. In that time, Manly had enjoyed eight sets, so the Doggies needed a big play, which Burton almost provided with a soaring bomb that nearly nabbed a 40/20, but instead careened back in field for Weekes to rein it in and win himself a dangerous shot from JMK in the process. Yet with Davey losing the ball, in the Sea Eagles’ first error of the night, the visitors had a chance to lean back into Burton’s frustrated flash of genius.

Unfortunately, Averillo couldn’t match him with the boot, grubbering it too hard on the last for what would have been a twenty-metre restart if Davey hadn’t followed his error with an offside penalty. This was the best luck of the game, so it was no wonder that Foran was remonstrating with the ref, nor that the Dogs swept it left immediately, where Ado-Carr leaped off the turf to take an Averillo cut-out, and lost just enough time for Tuipulotu to scramble him into touch. Canterbury had come close, but the Foxx had failed to deliver.

True to their luck over the last few minutes, however, they got another shot from close range when James Roumanos was put on report for a crusher on JMK on debut. It was much rougher contact than Marshall-King had put on Weekes, bad enough for him to leave the park for an HIA as Zach Dockar-Clay to come on earlier than expected and Burton took over the next play-the-ball. Tevita Pangai Junior gave Jackson a rest at the same time, as the Bulldogs settled into a set inside the twenty with a refreshed forward pack, hungry for their first points.

Instead, the next mistake came from the forwards, as a Joe Stimson cough-up early in the count granted Manly a scrum from the ten, only for Foran to put it down one play later. The rain had abated, but that was just making the Steeden greasier and harder to handle, as the Dogs now got the scrum feed in almost exactly the same part of the park, a neat image for the to-and-fro momentum of the last few minutes. Pangai made his first statement with a big charge on the right, wading his way towards the right padding to win a Walker offside.

From there, Dockar-Clay made a mark off the bench, supercharging the set with some good dummy half vision. It all came together on the fourth, when RFM, who had been raring for a big play all night, received a bullet ball from Flanno, smashed into the right side defence, planted the fend of the round in Foran’s throat, and managed to twist a full 360-degrees before sending it out to his halfback, who curved around and was waiting for him on the wing, where he delivered a basketball-style popover that was as compressed as his bullet was wide.

Burns was the recipient, and with so much brilliance behind him there was more than enough room to slot over in the corner, while a pinpoint Burton boot narrowed the deficit to 16-6. Yet with a second error from Stimson, this time a fumbled play-the-ball while rising from an Olakau’atu hit, the Doggies couldn’t consolidate right now, making it doubly urgent they prevent Manly making any headway on their subsequent scrum from the thirty. Walker was a man on a mission as he hit the defence, before Foran started to enterprise on the left.

He was shaping to pass when RFM ricocheted him to ground in the biggest hit so far, rattling the footy free and injecting his men with the momentum they needed to resume the rhythm of Burns’ putdown. King backed into the defence two plays later, as if averse to even the slightest risk of a knock-on, and his conservatism played off, giving the Dogs enough space to tempt a ruck error from Ethan Bullemor that got them inside the twenty with four tackles to play with. It was agonising, then, when Pangai coughed it up a couple of seconds later.

On the other side of the Steeden, it was a tribute to one of the best combined hits so far, as Roumanos plunged in on top, and Croker curved in below. True to the back-and-forth spirit of this second quarter, however, Ben Trbojevic put it down, and the rain started to cloud Brooky once again. With five minutes to half time, the game was starting to descend into wet weather chaos, and Manly’s ten from ten opening felt like a distant memory as Flanno bombed into rain that was now so heavy that Weekes could barely see it on the bounce.

By the time he collected it in goal, RFM was in place to hold him up, and the Doggies had a dropout to finish off the first half. All of a sudden, the sodden turf felt like an asset, an invitation to the chalk, as RMF almost slid through a legs tackle from Foran, but still played the footy fast enough for Dockar-Clay to scoop it up, dummy left, secure it under his right arm, wrong-foot Bullemor and smash through before Weekes, who had experienced a baptism by fire (or by rain) over the last two minutes, had any chance of holding him up.

Roaring in triumph, the young hooker flicked the footy backwards over his head, in a vision of pure belief, rugby league ecstasy, that made it feel like the Bulldogs just might win this, especially since Burton booted through another two to narrow the deficit to four, and news came down from the sheds that JMK had been cleared to return after the break. With 37-25 tackles in the opposition end, they’d done well to narrow the game, even if they didn’t capitalise on a dangerous shot from Croker, the last event before they headed to the sheds.

A three-man pack smothered Walker three tackles back, and when Sipley copped the same treatment, DCE was forced to boot his first one within the forty. Sipley gave as good as he got, combining with Croker to drive Kiraz ten metres back, before Schoupp added some much-needed position with a near-vertical offload that required Ado-Carr to lean over him to take it. No sooner had Manly received seven tackles for their next set than Croker sent it forward to Bullemor, gifting Canterbury a scrum outside the thirty, and the first second half position.

They explored all parts of the park, but were unable to make much impact on the line, although they did manage to trap Manly in their red zone on the next set. Not only was Walker forced to boot his next one on the red line, but his 20/40 attempt went awry, as the Steeden sailed into touch to consolidate Canterbury’s last burst of position with a full set inside the twenty. Play paused for some miscommunication about whether King had to leave the field, giving the Sea Eagles a good minute to regather their composure for the next Dogs assault.

In the end, they didn’t have to fight too hard, since Pangai fumbled the play-the-ball on tackle three. Just like that, the Doggies had gone from the cusp of consolidation to a comedy of errors, while Manly got a further boost when they sent up a challenge to contest a supposed scrum error from Croker, and got the chocolates when the replay showed that he had indeed slid it, but slid it backwards, and somehow managed to scoop it up without knocking it on. The scrum was repacked, as the Dogs swarmed to contain Tuaimalo Vaega on tackle one.

A surge of Sea Eagles possession now ensued, as Waddell got done for an offside, and Schoupp stuck a hand in the ruck a play later, gifting the visitors their own set inside the twenty. They swept left immediately, where Weekes came to ground half a metre out, relied on the soaking grass to carry him over the line, and for a moment looked like he had a chance of his first NRL try, only for the replay to show that he’d fumbled the footy before hitting the chalk. It was the turnaround the Doggies needed to make good on their early field position.

They didn’t capitalise right away, since Waddell continued a spotty return by putting it down on play two, but Schoupp brought an end to the stop-and-start rhythm of these opening ten minutes, and put the Bulldogs level for the first time tonight, with the best individual play of the game so far. Much of Manly’s momentum had depended on how well Canterbury could contain Foran’s playmaking, and Schoupp shut down the veteran in his last game in Sea Eagles colours now, with a sharp enough intercept to set himself up to run the length of the park.

Ado-Carr burned up in support, but Schoupp didn’t need it, outpacing both Koula and Weekes, and flinging himself into the air to fly, superhero-style, over the chalk untouched. He still had time to rise to his feet, turn around to face his own try line, and reach out both arms to embrace the Foxx, and the Canterbury squad trotting behind him. It was a superb sequel to Dockar-Clay’s raucous flick over the head at the end of the first half, a gesture of belief that would sustain the Doggies deep into the off season no matter the result of tonight’s game.

With Burton missing the kick, the score was locked at 16-16, while a marker error from Sipley got the Dogs a brief burst of position that was soon contained by a fresh rotation off the Manly bench – Taupau for Bullemor, and De Luis for Sipley. Canterbury did the same, bringing Patolo on for King, and Vaughan on for Pangai, so both sides had a second wind as the third quarter came to an end. The Sea Eagles did well to clean up Vaughan for his first carry, but the ex-Dragon hadn’t reached first gear yet, strolling more than charging into the defence.

The fourth quarter arrived with a mercurial Burton bomb that hung higher, and split the defence more drastically, than any kick so far, although it ended up working to Manly’s advantage when De Luis took it on the bounce. Even better, Jackson found himself offside downtown, bumping them back up the park, and into the ten by the final few plays, where Waddell’s night reached its nadir with a knock-on under the high ball. The score was locked, the Sea Eagles had a scrum from the ten, and Waddell hit back with a massive shot on De Luis.

Waddell wasn’t fooled by DCE’s next dummy either, combining with Vaughan to hold up the Manly halfback, who got the result anyway with a grubber on the last that Flanno had to bang dead with Davey at his heels. Burton sent the dropout off the side of the boot, driving it towards the left sideline, but DCE absorbed that energy, and bettered his own last grubber, with an oblique trajectory of his own, angling the Steeden into the right corner for Olakau’atu to both outpace Ado-Carr and plant it down with two hands for the most mercurial try so far.

Even in dry conditions, this would have been an extraordinary achievement, but with a greasy football it was amazing to see Olakau’atu pop both hands on it, sandwiched between the Foxx and the dead ball line, to secure a clean grounding for the millisecond that it touched the turf. Daly might have missed the kick, like Burton before him, but a four-point lead was big now. Just as important, Manly had found their flow again, as Olakau’atu followed his putdown by busting through the line, and shifting it inside to DCE, who flicked it on to Weekes in turn.

It was a stunning sequel to the three-man cascade that had put Daly over the line to begin with, even more so in that DCE channelled it all into a chip kick on the fly that JMK only just cleaned up beside the left post. Manly were peaking, so it was a big letoff when Ben Turbo put it down on the dropout, although with Weekes taking Burton’s next kick easily enough, and Tuaimalo Vaega following big Haumole with a linebreak on tackle two, it didn’t seem to have dented the Sea Eagles’ newfound flow, which Koula capped with pressure on Averillo.

While he couldn’t rock the footy free, this was still enough to keep Canterbury trapped in their own end, as Burton struck his next one inside the thirty, giving Weekes enough space to make twenty on the return to play it from his own thirty. Restless after so little position, Burton tried to disrupt the rhythm by charging down Daly’s next kick, but it just granted the Sea Eagles another set in the Bulldogs’ end, and gave Weekes another stint in the spotlight, as he dummied, tucked the footy under his arm, beat Kiraz and set his eyes on the corner.

Burns responded with arguably the most committed tackle of the night, wrapping himself around the stand-in fullback ten metres from the sideline, and hanging on come hell or high water until the support finally arrived, for the key trysaver of this final quarter. With Taupau knocking on a minute later, this Manly flow had officially come to an end, as we started to glimpse the wet weather messiness that had closed out the final five minutes of the first stanza as well. The window was rapidly closing, then, for the Dogs to restore their own flow.

At their best tonight, they’d been truly inspiring, so it was amazing to see them draw on Dockar-Clay and Schoupp’s two big rallies for the crowd now. Flanno started by hoisting it high, Burton leaped up to bat it back, Croker rolled onto it but lost possession, and Pangai proved his mettle with his best single play at Canterbury – the latest and lowest possible offload out to Flanagan, who bookended this prodigious sequence by barging up the wing, stumbling along the sideline when he crossed the chalk, but still curving around a few metres.

Even so, he didn’t get close enough to the crossbar to guarantee the conversion for Burton, who shanked it past the left post to keep it 20-20 with four minutes on the clock. With golden point in the offing, Burton made up for his missed kick with one of his most artful bombs of the night, floating it high and low enough to utterly defy Weekes, and so setting himself up for total redemption with the one-point field goal that immediately cemented this game in Canterbury history and folklore, a finals footy-worthy effort for the heroic Bulldogs of 2022.

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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