ROUND 4: New Zealand Warriors v. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (Mt Smart Stadium, 26/6/23, 16-14)

Both sides had two from three to start the season, both sides had relatively new coaches, at least at head coach level, and both sides had enjoyed some impressive defensive form, when the Warriors hosted the Bulldogs for their first home game of 2023. New Zealand were sitting at fifth, compared to Canterbury at ninth, and were looking to make it five straight wins against the Doggies, who hadn’t come away with the competition points at Mt. Smart since 2012, when they were captained by Michael Ennis, and were sitting in the top spot.

The result was yet another visceral game for a bumper Round 4, as the Bulldogs dominated early field position, with a try, a penalty kick, and seven straight sets that meant the Warriors only got one touch of the footy during the first ten minutes. Yet New Zealand ground in to ensure that the Dogs only had a two point lead by the halftime siren, before working their way back from the deficit, and then finally achieving a two-point lead of their own, with the help of some Shaun Johnson magic that transported the home crowd back to his glory days.

Matt Burton took the kickoff, and Bunty Afoa the first carry, before Reed Mahoney and Max King combined to drive Jackson Ford back over the twenty on play two. Shaun Johnson took the kick at his forty, and Hayze Perham, the former Warrior, got the first Canterbury touch of the afternoon, while a hand in the ruck from Marata Niukore got the visitors their first penalty. Jacob Preston and Viliame Kikau laid the platform on the left and right edges, and a second run from Preston set up the Doggies for their first sweep out to Jacob Kiraz’s wing.

Their first set had ended with a penalty and their second set ended with a try, as Kyle Flanagan shaped to kick, but instead sent it out for Jake Averillo to bump off the defence and flick the footy around the corner for Kiraz to slam over and score. Kiraz couldn’t have asked for a better way to continue his recent run of form, or to cement himself as the new Canterbury icon, while Niukore had had a tough start to his 100th game in first grade. Burton was always going to add the extras, so the Dogs were over a point per minute as they stuck into the restart.

New Zealand had now conceded the first try in every game this season, while the visitors had scored the first try in their third successive game, having won over Melbourne and the Tigers over the last fortnight. Even better, they got six again off a Ford ruck error at the end of the restart, and swept right again on the last, where Perham mixed it up with a chip through the line that Viliami Vailea had no chance of bringing back in field. The dropout made this Canterbury’s fifth straight set, while New Zealand had only had a single touch of the footy.

It became six set a beat later, off a Johnson strip, and a failed Warriors challenge, and so Burton booted through the penalty shot to make it more than a point per minute once again. The Dogs launched into their seventh straight set, Viliame Kikau withstood a pack on the left edge, Burton bombed end-over-end from his forty, and finally New Zealand got some football when Edward Kosi leaped up to take it in the corner, following by a much-needed penalty, thanks to a Preston offside, and then six again when Averillo got done for a ruck error.

This was exactly the acceleration the Warriors needed to recoup the deficit in field position, especially once Addin Fonua-Blake put in a deft step to almost defy Perham up the middle, and Vailea kept it safe on the left edge. Mahoney cleaned up the kick on the last, but New Zealand had built some decent momentum, with 4/4 to 6/6 from Canterbury, who were now faced with their biggest positional challenge so far, as Warrior after Warrior piled in to force Burton to kick twenty-five metres out, for a trajectory that Marcelo Montoya took easily.

New Zealand were back where Burton had to put boot to ball by midway through the set, before Joey Lussick leaned into the flow with an early kick, and got his men a full stint in the opposition twenty when it ricocheted off Ryan Sutton. Johnson ended with a chip to the right, where Kosi collected and flicked it out to Vailea, but not without Josh Ado-Carr and Paul Alamoti combining to shove him into touch. The Warriors had hit back, but Canterbury still had 11-4 tackles in the twenty, and still hadn’t made an error as they drove it up the park.

Sunlight broke out over Mt. Smart as Niukore came in hard and low on Kikau, and then dimmed again as the Warriors permitted Flanagan’s next bomb to make a couple of precarious bounces, the Foxx circling around it, before Lussick finally managed to get it to ground. They got a beat to compose themselves with a Preston offside, and then again with a King strip, as field position started to shift back their way – 43% of the ball now, despite that opening surge from Canterbury, as Montoya tried to slam through Kiraz up the left edge.

Luckily, Averillo was waiting for support, while the Doggies got a letoff on their line when Johnston flicked it forward, and then a bump up the park when a frustrated Fonua-Blake threw the footy into Mahoney’s face. We were 3-3 penalties now, as big Addin made up for his error by wrapping himself around Preston and spearheading a pack to drive him into touch from ten metres in field. The ex-Eagle further composed himself with a confident charge up the middle on play four, before the Foxx took the kick to defuse this sudden Warriors surge.

Kiraz, the league leader in run metres, had set up Preston’s last run, and was way off his wing now in a search for more action, while Burton booted his next one long, hoping for a roll-on that didn’t happen, and a surprisingly easy pickup for Kosi, who made a good fifteen on the return. The sun was out again as Te Maire Martin chipped a brilliant one that sat up a few metres before the dead ball line, but Perham was up to it, curving around to bring it just over the chalk on the other side, a wing-to-wing move Kiraz mirrored with an Ado-Carr offload.

The sun was blazing now, as the Bulldogs followed by bunching in Johnson for a kick inside his forty, and Mahoney consolidated with his second 40/20 of the season at the end of the following set. After a fairly sustained end-to-end period, Canterbury now had a full set in the Warriors’ twenty, shifting it to the right, then to the left, where Kosi punched the final pass up in the air, absorbing all the escalating adrenalin of the Doggies into one of New Zealand’s fastest sets of the night, at least in its early tackles, culminating with a big Niukore run.

While Alamoti just managed to collect Johnson’s kick, Jazz Tevaga slammed in low for the best single tackle of the night, and Dylan Walker added the support on top, forcing the knock-on, and providing New Zealand with the final burst of adrenalin they needed to get on the board. It came off the scrum base, as Johnson fed the footy out for Vailea to take the best run of his career, in which he disposed of four waves of defence – shrugging off Averillo, breaking out of a Kiraz tackle, and eluding Perham and Preston at the death to make it six with the kick.

Even better, Ford won his men a Mahoney offside early in the penalty count, as the last residual adrenalin of that 40/20 dispersed, and Ford himself broke through the line up the left before Preston brought him down with a bootlace tackle. Fifteen out, the Warriors got six again, off a second Mahoney error, before the Dogs got another letoff right on their line when Walker coughed it up, the sole blemish in an otherwise strong stint off the bench. Burton ended with a classic end-over-ender, and Alamoti added the chase to trap Kosi on the wing.

It was the first Burton bomb of the afternoon, so Lussick countered it with a fourth-tackle kick to recover position, although it didn’t dent the Doggies’ momentum, as they marched up the park, swept it left, and got Flanno in place for an echo of Burton’s boot, as Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad now became the Warrior who failed to make metres. The home team looked more than a little precarious on their next set, with Johnson only just managing to get the kick out on his side of halfway, but no hint of a chase to prevent Perham clearing the red zone.

On the other side of the Steeden, Burton simply repeated his bomb to the left, as CNK took over from Kosi again, and New Zealand started to face a mini crisis in hitting opposition turf as the last five minutes before the break began to wind down. The game was getting into a Canterbury groove, as Perham fielded another Johnson clearing kick without any dramas, and Walker made another error, before it descended into a slog, with an Ado-Carr error ending the first stanza and bringing us to a two-point game, as would occur on the final siren as well.

For the moment, however, the Bulldogs had the advantage, and had the first touch after the break, keen to turn back-to-back wins into three straight wins for the first time since 2019. Only four tackles in, they received their biggest setback of the night, when Nu Brown was taken from the park with what appeared to be a broken arm, the latest injury for the most besieged player in the modern NRL. King came off the bench, having only made room for Jayden Okunbor seven minutes before the break, as the Doggies got ready to grind in,

The Foxx popped an offload out to Burton at the start of their second set, but it didn’t build much position, while Mahoney got done for a dubious forward ball a few plays later, in a stark contrast to their unbroken run of position over the first ten minutes of the match. Conversely, the Warriors settled into their best left sweep so far, culminating with Niukore requiring three Bulldogs to hold him up on the line, before parlaying that energy straight back to the other wing, where Pompey found himself sandwiched between Foxx and Kikau five metres out.  

In one of the biggest conundrums of Round 4, Pompey was fending off Ado-Carr with his right hand, and showing the footy wide out on the left, where Kikau’s contact seemed designed to rip it from his grasp, even though the call went Canterbury’s way, with a brief Bunker inspection determining that this had been a loose carry from the New Zealand backliner. Buoyed up by his part in this enormous letoff, the Foxx shfted into classic mode immediately, receiving the footy at the end of a left sweep off the scrum, and doing what he does best.

He got on the outside of Vailea right away, and skipped over a desperate ankle tap from CNK at the other end of the park, but apart from that he was miles away from any Warrior, running a marathon rather than contending with rugby league players as he curved around to ground the Steeden behind the crossbar, setting up Burton for an easy conversion. It was the bitterest possible pill for New Zealand to swallow following the call on Pompey, and yet the frustration would galvanise them, and these would turn out to be the Doggies’ last points of the game.

The hosts sped up straight away, as CNK accelerated on his next return, and Montoya charged so heedlessly into the defence that the sheer momentum of his passage produced an offload to his fullback without him even seeming to conscious plan it. Conversely, a four-man pack prevented Kiraz getting the second phase early in the next set, before Kosi hung on grimly to Burton’s next bomb, getting to ground straight away to prevent a Foxx-led pack from banging him into touch, before Walker supercharged the next set with a tough run up the middle.

Things now started to devolve for the Dogs, as Ford and Niukore combined for a mammoth hit on Kiraz that saw the cult winger dragged from twenty to ten, while the Burton formula came apart on the following kick, which he booted too far for the visitors to get an extra tackle. New Zealand were now sitting on 81% completion to Canterbury’s 80%, as Johnson dummied and took on the line, Ado-Carr left the field of play when he collected it in goal, and flicked it across for what would have been a Ford try if he hadn’t fumbled at the death.

In the last few minutes, Canterbury’s confidence after the Foxx try had dissolved into the closest fought period of the game, as Ford came close to breaking through on the left edge, and getting another shot at the chalk, only to be downed by a desperate Flanno legs tackle. Martin then forced his second straight dropout, this time on the other wing, with a grubber that Kiraz reached forward to slam down just over the chalk like he was on his own try line. This time Burton went short, and Lussick collected it, for a full set within the ten.

It became two sets in the ten with a ruck error from the Foxx, and this critical error, from the man who had just buoyed up the Doggies with the best individual display of the game, had to be the platform for New Zealand to narrow the margin. A third straight set made it even more urgent, and after Vailea and Burton had both almost crossed over on the left during this densest acceleration of position since the opening ten minutes, Montoya got a short assist from Vailea to follow his double and big runs last week with a try against his former club.

Agonisingly, Johnson missed the sideline kick, but the Warriors were still only four points behind, and had 18-0 tackles in the opposition half since the break. Perham got his men on the front foot by sticking his back foot over the try line at the end of Johnson’s next kick, but the hosts hit back by summoning a pack to lift Kiraz clean off the turf. Even so, he got the offload away, the Bulldogs survived, and Mahoney kicked it inside his forty, on the fourth, but couldn’t nab another 40/20, before Montoya made Flanno see stars on the return.

It was one of the toughest carries of the afternoon, and took the roar of the crowd up a level, allowing the Warriors to regain their flow after the brief to-and-fro of the last few minutes, especially when a questionable Lussick-AFB pass went unnoticed by the refs. Burton sailed his next one high above the Mt. Smart stands, and while Montoya lost the footy at the end of another huge charge, and Ford got done for infringing the subsequent ruck, a King slip on the fourth, a ball-and-all Johnson-Burton hit, and an overlong Mahoney kick brought it all apart.

Even better, the Warriors had waited right on the dead ball line, absorbing all of Canterbury’s brief burst of adrenalin into one of the best acts of brinksmanship of the game. It was a shame, then, that Johnson didn’t challenge the backline more with the kick, booting a fairly gettable bomb that Ado-Carr caught with twenty metres of open space before him. Still, his time to shine would come soon enough. The Dogs didn’t make much headway anyway, despite some hyperactive footwork from Kiraz early on that ended with the Warriors sandwiching him in.

No sooner did New Zealand get the ball again than they jumped back down the park, thanks to a Sutton slow peel, and Johnson ended this set with considerably more vision, after providing CNK with a strong charge two tackles in. Ten out from the line, the former and present Warrior received the footy for Lussick, shaped a big dummy for Fonua-Blake, who was quickly cleared of a possible obstruction on Mahoney, and slipped over beneath the upright like it was 2011, before Addin held him up like a king parading before the crowd.

Johnson added the kick from right in front, and for the final twelve minutes the Warriors ground in to defend this precious yet precarious two-point lead, after having had virtually no football for the first ten minutes of the match. Johnson launched his next one out to the Foxx, but this time the chase was there to support him, before the Doggies received a much-needed penalty when Walker failed to get square at marker. Mahoney was at the ten by tackle three, Walker and Ford held up Preston at close range, and Canterbury swept it out to the left.

There, Pompey and Kosi were able to contain Alamoti, so Burton ended with a deft grubber to the other wing that Martin was forced to clean up with Sutton right behind him. Canterbury were the only team yet to score in the final quarter of a match this season, so their pride as a club was partly on the line as they launched into what would be the final dropout of the game, and then the last great burst of position for either side when Ford infringed the ruck. Yet this became the platform for the most heroic goal line defence of the Warrriors’ year so far.

Ford may have infringed the ruck, but in the absence of Tohu Harris, the key tackler in the New Zealand lineup, he made a stunning 33 hits – and the 33rd was the best, a one-on-one trysaver on Sutton beneath the uprights. It was as artful as it was muscular, with Ford coming in around the torso while also scrupulously avoiding high contact, since the Warriors might not have survived another straight set on their chalk now, even if they made their biggest defensive statement of the game on the very next play, and only a few metres away.

This was also the climactic image of the night – Mahoney smashing in for all he was worth beside the right post, as half the New Zealand side piled on to prevent him getting beyond the padding. Combined with Johnson’s try, it was a statement of resilience, lingering over the park long after a pair of errors from Averillo and Burton trickled the game out. The Warriors have the belief they need to take on a Sharks outfit coming off possibly Nicho Hynes’ best game at halfback, while the Dogs have a full week to recover before taking on the Cowboys.

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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