ROUND 9: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (WIN Stadium, 30/4/23, 16-18)

At their best, the Bulldogs have been one of the most exciting teams to watch in 2023, drawing deep on the blue and white spirit for some truly inspiring wins. Sunday night’s match at WIN Stadium was another one of those games, with Josh Reynolds back in the starting lineup, and beginning in the halves for the first time since he partnered Moses Mbye, while bringing the requisite grubbiness to get his men over the line, culminating with a tense standoff before half time that saw Grant Atkins giving him a final warning for verbal dissent.

Matt Burton took the kickoff, and the Dogs did well with the follow-up, making their first tackle inside the Dragons’ twenty, only for Talatau Amone to hit back with a tough carry, and Harrison Edwards to get pinged for a slow peel. A quick play-the-ball from Jack De Belin set up Moses Mbye for a deft dummy half dart, before Tyrell Sloan glimpsed open space on the right edge, where he skidded to ground for a clutch pass out to Jaiyden Hunt, who coughed it up, but not without the Red V sending the play upstairs to show Declan Casey touched it first.

With an illegal strip from Josh Reynolds, the conviction of the Bulldogs’ first tackle felt like a distant memory as the visitors settled into the first goal line attack of the afternoon. Yet just as Mbye was scheming for a sweep to the left edge, Amone took his eyes off the footy for the fraction of a second needed to register Tevita Pangai Junior hulking off his line – and lost it in the process. Finally, four minutes in, Canterbury had a touch of the ball, and Casey made up for lost time, and for his own recent error, with a linebreak up the left on the very first play.

That laid the platform for a blue and white surge, as Jake Averillo made twenty up the right, and Corey Waddell capped it off by chasing down his own kick to score. Sloan was up in the defensive line, but didn’t seem to think the backrower could pull it off, while Amone reached out a boot to deflect the Steeden, but to no avail. After defending four straight sets, the Doggies had put down four on their opening stint, a hint that we were in for one of the spirited performances that have put them alongside the Warriors as the great entertainers of 2023.

Burton was always going to add the extras, so they were just under a point per minute as they got stuck into the restart. Jacob Preston almost broke through Ben Hunt on play four, injecting some momentum up the left edge, and getting Reynolds in position for his first kick of the afternoon. The game settled into an end-to-end rhythm for the first time now, with both sides failing to make the red zone, and Burton and Hunt going boot for boot, as Reed Mahoney tried to amp up the adrenalin by lifting Blake Lawrie clean off the ground on a mid-count shot.

The next tipping-point came at the ten-minute mark, with another error from Casey, this time a fairly harsh escort penalty that got St. George back on the Canterbury chalk once again. And once again, too, a Dragon coughed it up in anticipation of a big hit – this time Hunt, who lost his composure when he saw Reynolds preparing to give him all he had. Add to that a high shot from Jack Bird on Pangai, who didn’t appreciate the contact, and the relative calm of the last five minutes had evaporated, as Braidon Burns lingered restlessly for a leg strap in backplay.

With a ruck error from Sloan, the Dogs had their first campout at the Dragons line, where they took a few steadying tackles, as if cautious not to reprise the Red V’s two chokes at the death – to no avail, however, since Pangai, possibly still unsettled from the Bird hit, coughed up what should have been a simple Burton ball, an astonishing enough result that the Berries lost their Captain’s Challenge trying to contest it. Lawrie kickstarted the next set with an offload, and De Belin continued by busting through Mahoney, as the passes began to get flat.

Luckily the Dragons kept the ball play just on the right side of legality, and so Hunt got to his bomb, which he directed for the second time at the last sliver of sunlight blazing over WIN. Casey was blinded into his third error of the first quarter, tumbling to ground and letting the footy roll over the sideline, and yet with a Moses error immediately after, the Dogs packed the scrum for another let-off in their own twenty. Again, too, they got a boost up the park, this time from Zac Lomax, who got done for a slow peel before Burton kicked it into Row 12.

Raymond Faitala-Mariner and Reynolds now had an elegant combo to set up extra metres for Waddell up the middle, before Grub delivered a kick that had veteran written all over it – on the fourth, into the corner, and again off the realization that Sloan was trapped up in the defensive line. To his credit, the young fullback reached the footy in time to prevent the try, but the Doggies still had the first dropout of the game, only for Lomax to make up for his error in the most spectacular way – by intercepting a Pangai offload and burning up sixty metres.

He seemed intent on scoring until he reached the twenty, where he quickly changed the gameplan with a host of Bulldogs crowding in, opting now for a brilliant arcing wide ball out to Mat Feagai. In keeping with the pressure that had been applied to Lomax, Burns, whose right knee was heavily strapped, surged across the park, got his quarry by the jersey, and held him above the ground almost long enough for Jake Averillo to slide beneath the Steeden. Only the sheer strength and commitment of Feagai was enough to guarantee the four points now.

Lomax might have missed the sideline conversion, but he’d still single-handedly orchestrated the Dragons’ first try on the brink of the second quarter. Hunt kicked his next one, at the end of the restart, to the narrowing chink of sunlight, but sent it low now, meaning that Casey didn’t have much trouble scooping it up. The next St. George set was all grunt, culminating with Blake Lawrie trying and failing to lob out an offload, and De Belin almost coughing it up, but managing to get it out to Hunt, who aimed the kick well to trap the Doggies on their line.

The visitors spent the first three tackles inside their ten, so Reynolds opted to kick on the fourth, and the gamble paid off, getting his men inside the opposition twenty by the time Burton put boot to ball. Now it was St. George’s turn to work it out of their own end, as Mbye mirrored Grub with an early kick. He didn’t get the angle for the 40/20, but the Red V still got extra position from it, as Josh Kerr led a three-man pack to drag Burns over the sideline when he collected it. The sun was leaving the stadium entirely as the hosts got stuck in once more.

Amone experimented up the middle, Hunt thought better of the shift to the right, and then cleaned up the footy when his halves partner lost it backwards. The set was losing momentum with each tackle, and while Amone ended with a sharp chip to the left edge, and Kerr initially seemed to have forced a dropout right on the chalk, the call came down belatedly that the future Dolphin had been the one to knock the footy forward. Hayze Perham set up a linebreak for Mahoney a few plays later, and fed it back in for Burton, who shifted to Reynolds in turn.

All the pieces were in place for some Canterbury consolidation, but Josh couldn’t quite bring it together, spooking in the face of Sloan to grant St. George the latest letoff in a game that was starting to feel like one missed opportunity after another. Toby Couchman was the next to put it down, taking his eyes off a De Belin pass to register Preston slamming up in his face, while the Dogs got six again off an Amone ruck error early in the next count. With a try apiece on the board, the game was begging for a breakout play as the half hour mark came and went.

This set ended with another failed Canterbury combo, as Burton tucked the footy under his arm and burst into space up the right, before feeding it back in to Mahoney, whose restlessness got the better of him, resulting in a messy offload that Burto didn’t have much chance of reining in. Hunt’s next bomb was to a northeast corner entirely devoid of sunlight now, as Karl Oloapu trotted on the park for his first NRL appearance as Jake Averillo, the former Bulldogs rookie, busted into space up the right for the second try of the afternoon.

While the rest of the game would be neck and neck, this felt like the critical consolidator for Canterbury. Burns set it up beautifully, drifting across the defence in his red zone, and timing the pass perfectly to lay the platform for an eighty-metre run from Averillo, who pivoted away to elude a Sloan ankle tap, leaving him with clear sailing to go coast to coast. Even with Burton’s conversion attempt ricocheting off the post, the Doggies were in full footy flow now, tapping into the deep and renewed vein of self-belief that has made them so exciting in 2023.

Oloapu got his first challenge early in the restart, when he reached out his full wingspan to rein in an over-wide Reynolds ball, before Burton torpedoed it from halfway, sailing it into the sea breeze for what could have been another key turning-point if Grub hadn’t found himself offside. Twice, the Berries’ fan favourite had thwarted a dramatic escalation down the park, and for a moment it looked like the response might be disastrous, as Jacob Liddle found a disarming amount of space on the line, followed by a question of a Pangai penalty.

While the Bulldogs survived, thanks to a dangerous shot from Hunt on the chalk, they wouldn’t get a chance to score themselves before the break either, as Reynolds followed a decent role in some second phase play, and a good chip to finish the set, by tumbling karate-style onto Sloan’s head as he tried to collect it. Things would explode between Grub and Grant Atkins presently, but for the moment all that ensued was one last set for the home team, and then a thirty-second set for the visitors when Suli coughed it up midway through the count.

However, the last note of the first stanza was a blowup between Reynolds and Atkins, after the Canterbury fan favourite seemed to take issue, belatedly, with the dangerous tackle penalty. Atkins got as enraged as he ever has on the park, issuing a stern warning that Josh needed to stay out of his way for the rest of the match, and this would be his final notice. Mahoney might have apologized, but Atkins’ curt response was that he wasn’t the one who needed to say sorry, lending a particularly volatile edge to the Doggies’ first set post-sheds.

By this stage, Reynolds had apparently apologized himself, but the aggro remained as Canterbury got a penalty on their first set, off a Liddle slow peel. Mahoney set up space for Burton on the left edge, and while Hunt came in hard and fast, he couldn’t prevent the offload, as the Dogs shifted their attention to the other wing, where Burns coughed it up. St. George didn’t make much headway on their first set back though, and the visitors had their first carry at their own forty, before a Burto wide ball set up Preston to slam into the twenty.

Still, this was the last tackle, and so the third quarter was starting to settle into another end-to-end rhythm. Perham went some way to countering it with a searching crossfield run on his next return, and Burns compounded his effort with a well-timed offload, before Burton booted one of his highest bombs of the year, soaring the torpedo a good twenty metres above the WIN roof, as Sloan pulled back from a bounce that was itself about fifteen metres high. The Dogs got it back and swept to the right, but found there was no shot of breaking through.

Seizing the moment, Burns took a second boot, crossfield, and while he might have contributed one of the great heroic one-legged performances, he sent it too far, setting up St. George to level the score. It came off the Hunt show, as the captain built on a series of massive charges up the middle by dummying beside the left post, taking the brunt of an exhausted hit from Waddell, and flicking the offload out for Couchman to smash over for four, before Lomax added the extras to make it ten apiece as the fifty minute mark loomed near.

Hunt’s kick at the end of the restart was a beauty as well, splitting the difference between the Burton monster and Burns crossfield chip that had set up his assist to begin with. Launching it to the left edge, he got a bounce so dangerous that an entire cascade of Bulldogs drew back from it, until Burns continued his gritty afternoon by scooping it up and shifting it out to Averillo, who glimpsed another mad charge up the right wing before he was downed by Amone. Three plays later, Preston copped high contact from Liddle, and departed for an HIA.

The silver lining was that Burton got the penalty kick from right in front, as the Doggies once again took the lead in this courageously contested match. WIN made have been resounding with boos, but he sent it symmetrically between the posts, as RMF braced himself for a sooner stint off the bench than he’d been expecting. The Pacific had dimmed to a luminous turquoise as the blue and white stuck into their repeat set, as Burton kicked before the last, and his men delivered the chase, to keep both Feagai brothers trapped on the brink of St. George’s twenty.

By the time Amone put boot to ball, the Dragons had recovered enough field position that Casey had to field it at his ten, but with a clean collect, a minimal chase and a barnstorming charge from Pangai, Burton was at the halfway mark by the time he lobbed a more traditional one deep into the Red V’s red zone. The brilliance of the Hunt-Couchman combo was starting to wane, and yet the Doggies hadn’t offered anything especially splendid to take its place, so the game started to feel unformed again, crying out for a big individual effort to break it open.

Perham came close with a break up the left edge, and while he couldn’t bring it together, his speed and vision injected the adrenalin that Canterbury needed, as they shifted it back to the right wing, where they reprising the Burns-Averillo-Sloan sequence that had proved so galvanising in the first stanza. This time Burns delivered a beautiful harbour bridge ball, and Averillo exectuted an even more flamboyant right foot pivot to ensure that Sloan could barely get fingertips to him, after completely defying Mathew Feagai’s effort to bring him down too.

Averillo had now scored three straight doubles against St. George, while his first combo with Burns, terrific enough on its own terms, had been bettered here. Full credit to Burns, too, who had contributed some true leadership this afternoon, despite battling with a leg strapped. Paul Alamoti now took over kicking duties, slotting it through from right in front, while the Doggies were sitting on 7-1 linebreaks, but copped a sudden blow when Waddell lost the footy, hung on too long to retain it, and got binned for a foul, all during their restart.

It was a big call from Atkins, since in the push-and-shove with Lomax, it was hard to say that Waddell really deserved the ten minutes, or that he’d even properly discerned the call. Canterbury didn’t have time to reflect on it though, since the Dragons were back on their chalk in no time, and got six again five metres out off a ruck error from Jayden Okunbor. That’s all they needed for the Feagai boys to both get on the board, as Amone popped a crisp cut-out for Max smash over on the wing, where Lomax added a terrific conversion moments later.

It was a resounding return to the NRL for the Feagai twins, and yet these would be the last points the Red V score, as the Doggies dug in over the last quarter to hold on to their elusive two-point advantage. They got some good news now, with Preston having passed his HIA and back on the exercise bike, although Waddell was still off the park, and they were hard pressed to bring it out of their own thirty next time they had ball in hand. RMF tried to elasticize things with an offload, but no dice, so they had to rely on Burton’s boot to build some more position.

The Dragons glimpsed their next burst when Hunt showed it midfield and popped it in to Ben Murdoch-Masila, who saw a space opening up before him, only for Alamoti to chop him down with one of the key legs tackles of the night, as Burton tumbled in on top to seal the deal. So brutal was the contact that play paused for the ex-Warrior to get some attention, as all the energy contained in Hunt’s vision leaked away, leaving the Red V to face a renewed Doggies line when they resumed. Hunt stepped up again though, with a bounce that defied Perham.

While Canterbury got it back, they were grinding it out of their twenty for the second set in a row, and so Burton booted it over the sideline to get his men a breather before putting their defensive line in order. Now it was the Dragons’ turn to spend the first three tackles in their twenty, remaining well within the thirty by the time Hunt took the kick. Finally, three plays into the following set, the Dogs hit St. George territory again, and won a full set in the opposition half off a slow peel from Lawrie, opting to tap and go instead of attempting goal.

It was the wrong decision, since not only did Kurtis Morrin cough it up on tackle one, but Preston was promptly penalised for holding down, laying a platform for Bird to offload out to Lomax for the Dragons’ best left edge raid since Feagai’s try. They swung it back to the other wing, where Casey made another error, but a critical trysaver, reaching out to intercept a Sloan-Suli ball, and knocking it on in the process. Waddell was back on the park now, but the Bulldogs were again defending their chalk against a renewed period of leadership from Hunt.

It was a big turning-point, then, when the visitors forced the Hunt cough-up on tackle four, Morrin coming in low and Mahoney in high to tempt the skipper into reprising his miracle offload to Couchman at the forty-sixth minute. Unlike Averillo’s right-side dash, lightning didn’t strike twice here, and with a hard charge up the middle from Sam Hughes, and a more modest (but still elegant) Averillo-Burns combo on the right, the Doggies seemed to have found a second wind with eight minutes on the clock and a two-point difference on the board.

Again, the game needed a big individual effort, and Burns provided it, in his own way, by chasing down the next kick and tapping it back in field on the cusp of touch. It wasn’t the most spectacular piece of footy, but after Burns’ performance, and with his leg strapped, this was a perfect symbol of Canterbury’s tenacity, proof this could be another 2023 game where they survived against all the odds. Meanwhile, Alamoti came up with an assertive sequel to his hit on Murdoch-Masila, this time on Moses, as the blue and white flow started to take the stage.

Mahoney tried to reprise Averillo’s bust up the right to no avail, and the game started to peter out from here, as errors from Lomax and Alamoti led to the last big statement from Hunt – a two-point field goal he missed to bring the Dragons to another agonising close loss after handing the competition points to the Roosters on ANZAC Day. They’ll be pumped to take on a Wests Tigers outfit still high on their shock win over the Panthers, while the Doggies have a four day turnaround before “hosting” the Raiders for the opening game of Magic Round 2023.

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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