The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs have celebrated Aiden Tolman’s 250th match in style with a gritty 14-12 win against the Sharks at ANZ Stadium.
It was Sunday afternoon football at its best; a glorious day and a fast and dry surface encouraging an attacking and open contest.
What played out was anything but, after the blue and whites skipped away to an early lead and the Sharks slowly but surely reeled them in. Some comical refereeing played a role in the Cronulla resurgence and threatened to deny the home side both the two competition points and the ray of hope that they still might be able to avoid the wooden spoon in 2019.
The afternoon began in perfect fashion for the Bulldogs when a Will Hopoate try in the third minute was followed by a Nick Meaney penalty goal in the 12th.
When Kieran Foran broke the line after 20 minutes, the Dogs were officially having a party and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak’s converted try under the posts set up a 14-0 lead.
The Sharks were flat. Very flat and the Bulldogs hustled and bustled their way to dominance through sheer effort and energy. However, the sight of Foran leaving the field after his powerful break deflated the home fans once again.
Each and every time the New Zealander gets going, he is cut down by bad luck. Hopefully for Canterbury his mild hamstring strain is exactly that and a week or two on the sidelines is all he needs to recover. The Round 16 bye may have come at the best possible time for Foran.
Cronulla managed two late tries in the first half, the second from a blatant knock-on that our friends in The Bunker failed to identify. What appeared to be a comfortable first half lead had suddenly shrunk to a 14-8 advantage and the Sharks were circling in the waters.
Once again the completion rate of the Bulldogs (82%) was outstanding. They made just seven errors for the match and with only five penalties conceded, their discipline was also noticeable.
Missed tackles (41) were again too frequent yet 659 total kicking metres from 24 kicks helped force the Sharks to continually work away from their own line.
Tolman led the way up front with 148 run metres and 38 tackles and Sauaso Sue played an outstanding 33 minutes from the bench; collecting 119 metres and 18 tackles.
Michael Lichaa was inspiring. He provided the much needed spark around the play the ball, ran for 57 metres and tackled everything that moved, in 53 defensive efforts that had him exhausted at the end of the match.
Young star Brandon Wakeham made his debut in the top grade when Foran left the field and compiled an impressive 55 minutes. He looks like a key component in the future plans of coach Dean Pay and appears to have a rare football instinct and class.
There was to be just a lone try in the second half. The Sharks crossed the line with 32 minutes remaining and looked likely to finish strongly and earn a vital two points for their semi-final aspirations.
However, the Bulldogs tackled, scrapped and guts their way towards the finish line. With one try already disallowed late in the match, the Sharks threw all they had at the home side.
They fielded a Jack Cogger grubber kick with just two minutes remaining on the clock and when Jack Williams sped into open field, Cronulla looked home.
Yet Reimis Smith and Marcelo Montoya showed all the spirit and resilience around which many have asked questions recently and caught Williams just five metres short of the line.
How the Sharks didn’t score from the subsequent play the ball is anyone’s guess and fittingly, Tolman dove on the ball to save the day for the home side.
The subsequent drop out gave the Sharks one more chance yet it was to be the Bulldogs’ day, claiming their fourth win of the season.
The team enjoys a well earned bye next week before tackling the Knights in the Hunter in Round 17. The win was a reminder to all the blue and white fans that the rebuild is indeed on track and the wins will come if the levels of hard work and effort remain high.
On Sunday we saw a glimpse of those future wins, when the Bulldogs well and truly speared the Sharks.
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 14 Cronulla 12