ROUND 5: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v. North Queensland Cowboys (Accor Stadium, 2/4/23, 15-14)

Matt Burton might have provided the kicks, and Josh Ado-Carr might have offered the speed, but the belief of the Bulldogs on Sunday afternoon was all Josh Reynolds. You could feel his influence even when he was on the bench, while the blue and white lifted their dedication to a whole new level once he finally trotted onto the park in the back forty for his first stint in Canterbury colours since 2017. Even New Zealand’s miraculous comeback win over the Sharks the same afternoon couldn’t compare to the sight of Burton and Reynolds celebrating Burto’s field goal in golden point, in a game that instantly entered the realm of Dogs mythology.

Coen Hess led a five-man pack to drag Raymond Faitala-Mariner back a couple of metres on play two of the game, and some more powerful Cowboys defence meant that Burton was still in his forty by the time he booted his first one. A good Canterbury chase ensured Kyle Feldt was unable to deliver a return, and so the visitors had an early positional challenge on their hands too, with Chad Townsend kicking from about the same distance as the Bulldogs captain. Still, the blue and white were deep in the red zone on the next set, as the game opened up.

RMF had the ball on the last, and opted to run it up the right edge, where he inadvertently knocked heads with Valentine Holmes, who had come in with Tom Dearden on the tackle. The contact was sharp enough to end his night, and bring Jayden Okunbor off the bench much earlier than expected, before the Cowboys hit halfway for the first time, and Hayze Perham did well to take Townsend’s next kick just outside his own ten in the face of a tough combined chase from Dearden and Peta Hiku, who dragged him a few metres back for good measure.

Okunbor made an immediate impact by clearing space for Jacob Kiraz to make the first break of the game up the right, bringing Dearden in for a proportionately strong tackle, although the Canterbury advance meant that Townsend was only at his thirty by the time he put boot to ball. Jake Averillo tried to lean into the same right edge rhythm early in the next set, but couldn’t bust through. Neither could Kiraz on the following play, and so the Doggies shifted it back in field, where a clinical Kyle Flanagan chip had the Cows working it off their twenty.

Now it was the visitors’ turn to break up the right, and they did more with the position, even if the Hiku linebreak, facilitated by a deft Townsend ball, was brought to an end by a combined Perham-Burton tackle, the fullback down low and the five-eighth on top. Dearden had already had an impressive start, and stepped fully into the spotlight here by continuing the spirit of that break with some eyes-up footy on the other edge of the park, with a chip on the run that only Kiraz, fired up with Bulldogs pride and passion, tried to contest ten out from the line.

The oblique bounce favoured Dearden, however, who took it on the fly and banged over with the Canterbury winger on his back, while the hosts amped up the defence on the restart, keeping the Cows in their own end until Mitch Dunn dragged four defenders over halfway on the fourth, which was where Townsend took his kick as well. Perham poked his nose through the line three tackles later, and while he couldn’t quite get the offload, his initiative inspired an Averillo dummy half dart and then another terrific display from Kiraz beneath the high ball.

Not only did Jacob take it clean but he flicked it back for Okunbor to toe through the line, as Dearden chased it down and finally bumped it into touch with Flanno close behind. The Bulldogs had the first dropout of the game, and then six again early in the count off a Hess ruck error, before Flanno dummied and considered flicking it out for Perham, but instead chose to take the tackle, prompting a swing back to the left where Jacob Preston came to earth a metre out, downed by a Hiku legs tackle, leaving Josh Ado-Carr to finish the sweep.

Instead, the Foxx became the first casualty of the slippery Steeden, although a Feldt offside meant that the Doggies got another crack at the line, making this the best accumulation of field position for either side so far. Four plays later Reed Mahoney crashed over out of dummy half on the left, but between the legs of Okunbor, a big let-off for the Cowboys, since it felt like the hosts had the drive to score here with another tough play or two. With Mahoney offside on the next play, the visitors had a double penalty, and their first tackle at the forty.

Mahoney did well to bring down Jordan Maclean with a legs tackle on the third, and Jason Taumalolo came to ground in the red zone on the fourth, but he wouldn’t make North Queensland’s first play-the-ball in the opposition twenty, since he writhed on the park for a hip drop that saw Okunbor head to the bin, before leaving the park for Griffin Neame to get a crack off the bench. It was one of the nastiest tackles so far this year, putting the Cowboys at eight unanswered points as Holmes added the penalty kick right where he’d converted.

Dearden and Townsend might have been smothered at the start of the next set, Townsend as he was starting to shape for another right side raid, but the visitors were looking pretty confident as news came down from the sheds that RMF had failed his HIA, with the Bulldog who had replaced him off the park for the next ten minutes too. Under pressure from Neame, Burton couldn’t do much with the next kick, giving Chester a chance to flex his muscles at fullback with a fifteen-metre return, while the Cows ended their next set with two kicks.

The first came from Townsend, who chipped in the Canterbury thirty, and the second from Feldt, deep into the right corner, where Hiku came within a millimetre of scoring before Preston bundled him into touch. It was the best Bulldogs defence of the game, and not only galvanised the home team into one of their fastest passages up the park on the next set, but saw Burton get back on point with a pitch-perfect grubber that Preston himself downed on the left edge for the first blue and white points of the evening, with Burton making it six.

Canterbury had reversed the rhythm of the last few minutes in the most emphatic way, while scoring with a twelve-man outfit, so as the second quarter arrived we got a glimpse of the stunning manner in which they would eventually claim tonight’s game as their own. Meanwhile, Preston set his stamp on play two of the restart with a tough carry, Mahoney came close to a break with a dummy half probe up the right, and Burton towered it end-over-end, in his first real spiral bomb of the match, as Paul Alamoti led the chase towards Feldt.

To his credit, the wiry winger managed to take it clean, while some Holmes-Robson-Neame third phase play meant the Cowboys didn’t suffer positionally from this recent Bulldogs burst, before Holmes showed Burton he could go bomb for bomb with a wobbler that Perham had to reach both arms out to collect safely. The North Queensland chase had arrived in the interim, making it look like the Doggies might spend this set in their own end, until Alamoti executed a monster fend to tumble Hiku to ground, and then flicked it outside to Preston.

Preston continued that blue and white strength by rotating 360 degrees as Townsend and Feldt converged on him, and then withstanding their best efforts to bang him into touch when it became clear the offload wasn’t going to happen. Between these two plays, and with Okunbor’s return fifty seconds away, the Bulldogs had received a big shot of adrenalin, and yet they devolved just as quickly, with a Burton offside and Alamoti escorts paving the way for the unfriendliest friendly fire of the season when Flanno and King converged on Neame.

The frontrower was taken down by a finger in the eye, and the backrower dislocated his finger in the process, producing the most gruesome sights of 2023 so far and the Cowboys’ first full set in the twenty, as King succumbed to his injuries, bringing Kurtis Morrin off the bench, while Neame, the man whose charge ushered in this period of carnage, took his best run so far by driving two defenders into the right padding. A try now would have been catastrophic, so Alamoti and Ado-Carr combined for the Dogs’ best work under the high ball a beat later.

The no. 4 prevented Hess collecting it in the air, but with the ball tapped back he had to circle back around, and combine with the Foxx, to force the knock-on from Mclean at the death. A new adrenalin and volatility now surged over the park, as Feldt obstructed Ado-Carr at the end of the next Canterbury set, the home crowd baying out for a professional foul, and Holmes wasted his Captain’s Challenge to contest a clear error, gifting the Bulldogs a scrum to establish a more regular rhythm, or else parlay this new intensity into four more points.

They were able to summon one last burst of energy with another crack at the right edge, where a Flanno double pump through Averillo laid a platform for another Kiraz break, this time with a kick on the end of it that Mahoney abruptly knocked on back in field. Twice the Bulldogs had failed to fully unlock Kiraz’s footy genius, and that double deflation cast a dourer vibe over the next few minutes, as this recent intensity abated, the crowd dimmed, and Brendan Elliot took a soaring Burton bomb with ease despite one last big effort from Kiraz.

The Canterbury no. 2 made a valiant effort to drag him back over the dead ball line, but nevertheless Elliot had withstood the highest ball Burton could boot and the hardest chase Kiraz could muster, while a cold drop from Alamoti early in the next count – easily the worst Bulldogs error so far – meant that the Cowboys were back on the ten by tackle four, and on the verge of resurrecting the escalating excitement of the last five minutes as their own. All they needed was a big individual play, and Hess came excruciatingly close to providing it.

Townsend got him rolling by dropping the footy off the side of the boot, while an Alamoti air swing meant that Hess had about two metres to plant it down, but was just high enough for the grounding to turn into a bounce. His massive frame, normally such an asset in the forward pack, had ended up giving the Doggies one last chance before the break, as the thirty-five minute mark arrived, and a slow peel from Heilum Luki gave them a precious bump up the park, where Burton dummied left and then went grubber for grubber to force the dropout.

Full credit to Feldt for bumping it dead at the death, but his dexterity was immediately eclipsed by a barnstorming carry from Franklin Pele, who was fresh off the bench, and set his eyes on the defensive line with a scowl on his face that made it clear he was determined to summon the spirit of Frank Pritchard and Sam Kasiano. He twisted and spun beneath the uprights a moment later, but all this grunt evaporated when Holmes scooped up a loose Flanno pass out on the left, giving his Cows a shot at absorbing Pele’s adrenalin as their own.

Yet while Chester had his best take under the high ball a beat later, reaching out his arms and stumbling to ground to collect a mid-level Burton spiral, North Queensland were unable to do much with the residual energy of the Bulldogs’ aborted dropout, ending the first stanza with a Hiku drop and an unsuccessful two-point field goal attempt from Holmes. The shakiness continued after the break too, as Dearden fumbled the footy about five times before finally regaining it, ensuring that the Cowboys wouldn’t make much headway on this first stint.

The crowd were unusually quiet as the blue and white took their first carry, as if waiting with bated breath to see what kind of vibe they would lay on this back forty. Burton didn’t deliver much with the boot, although he combined well with Preston to shut down Feldt on the chase, but the Bulldogs faithful were roaring again when a Reece Robson error got the locals a scrum, and, more importantly, when the cameras shifted to a close-up of Josh Reynolds, waiting pensively for the moment he would return to his beloved team in first-grade once again.

In fact, the hush of the crowd, which continued periodically now, was starting to feel like so much apprehension of Reynolds, arguably the second-most popular Bulldog of all time after Terry Lamb, to light up the park with the blue and white belief that would indeed end up winning them the game. Meanwhile, Okunbor put precise pressure on Dearden to deflect his next kick, as the match settled into its most uneventful end-for-end rhythm yet, with both sides working it up the park as if in a prelude to Reynolds finally stepping into the spotlight.

Robson took a searching run from dummy half a beat later, Ado-Carr brought the kick back from the chalk, Kiraz crashed into Neame in an effort to break his twenty, and Burton booted his next one just outside the forty – all impressive but ultimately uninspiring plays, the game lingering and waiting for one man and team to put their stamp on this back forty. Finally, forty-eight minutes into the match, a cry went up from the Canterbury crowd, and Reynolds was on the park, joining a tackle on Townsend for his first game in the Dogs jersey in six years.

Townsend recovered with a chip that left Ado-Carr with no option but to bump it over the backline, and Reynolds slammed straight into Neame on tackle one, in an echo of the Michael Ennis-Sam Burgess Easter Monday hit. The Cowboys got a scrum from the twenty off a Burton touch, but Reynolds was there to hold up Heilum Luki beside the left padding, before he and Burton conceded ruck errors to propel the Bulldogs into their most desperate period of goal line defence yet, culminating with a mad charge from Taumalolo beside the right post.

In one the best combined tackles of the night, Mahoney came in low to halt the big bopper’s momentum, and Okunbor took a middle forward charge, adding the impact on top to rattle the Steeden loose. Burton’s next bomb was a monster, so dangerous that Kiraz and Corey Waddell both shrugged away from it, only for Mahoney to knock it on, as Riley Price trotted off the bench for his first taste of top-tier footy, against his father’s former club, the ghost of Canterbury victories past flowing fast and loose into the Dogs’ best attack since the break.

It started with a beautiful pass from Burton out to Alamoti, who sent it on for the Foxx to deliver a trademark run up the left edge, where he danced over a Townsend ankle tap, and booted it at speed back in field. Yet Elliot condensed the Bulldogs’ brilliance during their recent goal line stint into one conversation-stopping play – curling himself around the Steeden and burrowing into the turf so comprehensively that Flanno was immediately pinged for a second effort, causing Reynolds to go off at the ref, even though it was the right call.

No matter though, since this kind of passion, this refusal to accept anything other than Canterbury supremacy, was what the blue and white needed to get them through this failure to capitalise on Ado-Carr’s vision, which only intensified when the Foxx missed a wayward cut-out from Perham a set later. The Bulldogs fullback seemed to have made up for his error – almost – by taking the next kick right on his own chalk, but in his efforts to wrestle Townsend free, he lost it on the ground, and then wasted the Captain’s Challenge in disputing the call.

On the cusp of the final quarter, this was the lowest point of the second stanza for Canterbury, who hadn’t scored since the eighteenth minute, had failed to organise around the Foxx twice, and had started to slump despite Reynolds’ presence – and were faced with their biggest deficit of the night a moment later, when Luki ran a barnstorming line to get on the outside shoulder of Flanno, and offload through the subsequent legs tackle for Chester to get a try during his first stint in the fullback role, which became an eight point lead with Holmes’ kick.

Yet if the third quarter had been rough for the Dogs, the fourth would become a staple of Canterbury mythology the moment the final siren rang. The Cowboys wouldn’t put another point on the board tonight, while the hosts would rack up seven to come away with a precious one-point victory. For the moment, the rhythm hadn’t really changed, despite a heroic King charge to bring the footy to halfway right when his men were struggling to make territory a set after, in what was otherwise one of their most positionally modest advances tonight.

Play paused a beat later when Burton and Preston converged on Feldt for a crusher-like tackle but managed to escape a penalty, giving the rest of the Canterbury team time to reset their defensive line, and gather a second wind as they combined to keep Townsend in his own end by the time he put boot to ball. As Ado-Carr took the catch, and the drums rang out over Accor, a new energy was starting to build, and Mahoney leaned into it by drifting across the ruck, bereft of support runners, but threatening enough to tempt an Elliot-Averillo early shot.

It wasn’t the prettiest way to garner a penalty, but to their credit the Dogs used it to supercharge the remainder of their night, as Reynolds raised a roar from the crowd by shifting the play back to the right, and a risky offload from Kiraz ended up ricocheting backwards on the third. Canterbury were sitting on the cusp of total chaos, and looked like their set might be over with an average Flanno grubber, only to get one final shot when Robson fell on it – and deliver two plays later, when Preston brought the last fifty-one minutes full circle.

He’d scored at the eighteenth minute, and now he put the footy down again, collecting a beautiful Mahoney pass from dummy half, busting his way through a legs tackle from Neame on the line, and reaching out the Steeden with the hand he’d injured during the friendly fire with King in the first stanza – the hand whose webbing had been stitched together in the interim – to bang down the next four. Even if Burton missed the kick, and Preston himself coughed it up into a Robson hit on the restart, this was a massive motivator for the hosts.

Burton was called offside at the end of the set, and Holmes lined up the tee from the sideline, but couldn’t make it a six point lead – and this would prove critical in the nine minutes that remained. Even so, the Cows made good headway on the next set, building enough space for Holmes to take a crack at escalating through the line up the left, only for Mahoney to rocket in for the legs tackle, and Kiraz to seal the deal with some enormous contact up top. That energy didn’t continue immediately, however, as Perham found nobody waiting for a pass.

Nevertheless, a big Alamoti-Hiku fend got the Bulldogs back in business, as Burton showed Holmes how to make the left edge break, angling a perfect bounce back in field that he collected, and followed with a mini-bomb as Chester swung around his waist. Feldt cleaned it up behind the line, but this was possibly Burton’s biggest statement with the boot all night, galvanising the hosts into one of their most expansive edge-to-edge sweeps, from left to right, with some good work in the middle from Reynolds, midway through the following set.

North Queensland survived, but Townsend had to kick inside his forty, while Ado-Carr collected it on the full, and like Alamoti before him fended off Hiku before Feldt finally brought him down on the left edge. Pele was off now with a suspected fractured forearm, but the Dogs didn’t have time to register it as they headed left once again, where Preston was contained by a three man pack, and Burton bombed end-over-end to the other wing. Okunbor knocked it back, Morrin offloaded on the ground, and Averillo spilled it towards the chalk.

Before Averillo had made the error, however, Elliot had knocked it on, and so the Bulldogs had a full set on the line, with two and a half minutes on the clock. Burton tried to go it alone on play one, and actually crossed over before a host of Cowboys delivered their most scrambling defence of the night so far, while Preston aimed for a crash play in the same spot, beside the left padding, on tackle four. With a Dunn touch, and then a penalty from Jake Granville for holding down, the blue and white had one last chance to bring it all together.

They swept right, they swept left, and then it ended as it always had to – with the Foxx sneaking through on the wing to bring the game to a 14-14 deadlock. Full credit to Alamoti for the mercurial catch-and-pass that wrongfooted Feldt, and ensured that the Foxx had just enough space to plant it down before Hiku spun him into touch. Yet with Burton missing the kick after the final siren, we were back to another ultra-grandstand finish following the Warriors’ epic comeback over the Sharks, and the Manly-Knights tie the afternoon before.

Burton’s strike was good, but with the footy hitting the upright, and only catching a trace of paint before it ricocheted away, the cult five-eighth was faced with an echo of Johnathan Thurston’s agony during the 2015 grand final. Golden point had arrived, and the first field goal attempt won the game – from Burton, four minutes in, who booted through the match-winner, before Reynolds came in to congratulate him, one Bulldog generation to another, for a match that instantly entered Canterbury mythology, a burst of belief heading forward.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: