The Bulldogs prevailed against the rival Sea Eagles in an overtime thriller, with Halfback Trent Hodkinson yet again showcasing his nerves of steel when the lights burn brightest to sink Manly with the game-winning golden point Field Goal. It was an enthralling affair from start to finish. Here are the ups and downs.
- One game away: With the heart-stopping 1 point victory over Manly, the Bulldogs are now just one win away from their second NRL Grand Final appearance in three years. Upon reflection, this was a most unlikely result considering the form slump the team experienced after the State of Origin period of the season. But in a testament to the ability of both the coaching staff and the players to ready themselves for the business of the season, the Bulldogs have flashed the skills and qualities required of a legitimate title contender in both of their post-season wins thus far against the perennially magnificent Storm and the always tough Sea Eagles.
First, though, they must defeat a Penrith Panthers team that are not only in exquisite form, but have had the Bulldogs’ number in 2014, with the Panthers 2-0 in the regular season against Canterbury-Bankstown. Both games were close, particularly their first encounter early in the season that saw Panthers Fullback Matt Moylan spark his impressive rookie season by kicking the game winning conversion from the sideline right on full-time.
The Bulldogs will surely have their work cut out for them against Penrith, but considering this team lost to the underwhelming Gold Coast Titans three weeks ago, the fact they’re one of the final four teams remaining is rather remarkable.
- Trent ‘clutch’ Hodkinson: Honestly, what else is there to say about Trent Hodkinson’s ability to perform in high pressure situations? Time and time again, this season alone, he has produced key, game deciding plays when the lights have burnt brightest.
I have spent a significant portion of the season already (see here & here) lauding his coolness under pressure, which is downright other worldly at this point. But the following statement is in no way hyperbolic: Trent Hodkinson is the most clutch player in Austrlian sports right now. His role in countless games this year for the Bulldogs, his Origin game two, and now this effort in a do-or-die finals game has been astounding.
There just honestly aren’t words for it. Please read the aforementioned links referring to Hodkinson’s freakish clutch nature for my feeble attempts at describing it. And just to add to the lore of it all, he did it after being forced from the field due to sustaining an injury to his left knee which initially looked far worse than the significant cork he ended up with.
Hodkinson’s fairytale season continues, and the Bulldogs season does too in large part because of his heroics in the clutch.
- Williams’ redemption: If there is one interview I would love to do on an NRL player this year aside from Trent Hodkinson, it would be Tony Williams. Williams was downright unstoppable against his former team, bumping off initial contact on almost every single carry en-route to his monstrous 178 metres gained.
In another statement that is in no way an exaggeration, Tony Williams has not just been one of the Bulldogs’ best this season, he’s been on of the best forwards in the NRL, period. Long lamented for never fulfilling his immense potential in a Bulldogs uniform, Williams has found his most-damaging form once again this season and is currently playing out of his skin. He’s energetic, involved, and almost impossible to tackle. He’s more judicious in his decision making, particularly with his propensity to offload, and is a much more fundamentally sound defender (though still at times susceptible to being mismatch exploited in short-area situations, an inescapable consequence of his size, no matter how athletic he is despite said size).
Things seem to be finally coming together for Williams, and this is a huge credit to his perseverance in the face of the criticism, both fair and unfair, leveled his way in recent seasons. His form has been completely and utterly ameliorated. In terms of his days as a forward, he truly hasn’t been better than he is right now, and that’s an immense positive for the Bulldogs. Especially in the wake of the loss of Sam Kasiano. Williams first answered the call when Pritchard was seemingly lost for the season and left a massive void in production on the field, and now again with the absence of Kasiano. In fact, it might not be a stretch to suggest that the absences of both Pritchard and Kasiano may have aided Williams’ resurgent 2014 season, as he not only got much more opportunity for playing time, but also much more responsibility was out there for someone to step up and shoulder.
Williams did just that and seized the increased opportunities and responsibility, turning in solid performances week after week that only improved as the season went on. Williams is now in career best form as a member of perhaps for most talented forward pack not just in the NRL, but in its history.
And rather than the afterthought of the stellar group that was often synonymous with words like ‘lazy’ and ‘bust’, Williams has clawed his way back to prominence and has become the game changing nightmare for opposing defenses the Bulldogs signed up for. No matter the result of this season for the team, it has been one of immense triumph for you. Well done, Tony. What an incredible resurgence.
- Prtichard’s progress: Frank Pritchard has looked every bit the explosive player he’s always been in his return from serious injury, and that too is great news for the Bulldogs and their post-season run. His conditioning still leaves a little to be desired, and understandably so given such an extended stint on the sidelines, but his impact has been one of high quality rather than quality, and should give the team a big boost going forward as he will only improve as he regains his bearings, fitness and finer skills.
- Tolman toils away: There were a few unheralded heroes in this one, including the ceaselessly phenomenal James Graham for more reasons than one, but I would be remiss not to mention the monumental efforts put forth by Tolman. He may be lost in obscurity a little bit now with the resurgence of Williams, the form of Graham and Eastwood, the revelation of Jackson and the return of Pritchard, but Tolman is putting in a large quantity of very high quality efforts, as evidenced by his spectacular stat line of 43 tackles and 222 metres gained.
He may not be flashy, but Aiden Tolman’s production is second to none. He’s among the hardest working players the NRL has to offer, and will be a key part of the Bulldogs’ success in the remainder of the season.
- Emotion: Strictly speaking, I don’t think I’d call this an up or a down. Nonetheless, I wanted to note some of the post-game action. Of course, the scenes after the Hodkinson game winner were incredibly passionate, though of disparate extremes for both teams. The jubilation of victory, the agony of defeat.
But in particular, I wanted to highlight the emotion of Michael Ennis in his post-game interview. If you missed it, he was equal parts relieved as he was ecstatic. In fact, maybe moreso in relief than in ecstasy, as in his own words, he thought he ‘bombed it’ after dropping the ball on the Bulldogs goal line in attempting to corral an attacking Manly kick, then knocking it sideways in to the path of Cheyse Blair, who scored the tying points for the Sea Eagles. There was a somber tone to Ennis’ voice , which almost quivered when admitting he thought his season, and Bulldogs career, were over due to his error.
A rare instance of unfiltered emotion and insight mere moments after such an emotionally draining contest. Luckily for Ennis and his Bulldogs, it ended the way it did, and both he and the team live on to fight another day. I just thought it was incredibly poignant to hear of how he thought that was not to be the case.
- ‘I’m so sorry’: These words were uttered by James Graham to Manly players as soon as Hodkinson sealed their loss. What an incredibly empathetic, genuine act of sportsmanship well and truly in the moment. Hard to believe this is the same man who was suspended for 12 weeks for biting an opposition player in the 2012 Grand Final.
Still, it was a great moment captured by Channel 9 cameras. Great stuff.
- Another fast start, but..: Despite the relief and joy Bulldogs players, staff and fans would have experienced after such a nail-biting encounter and the ramifications of such a victory (keeping their post-season hopes alive), make no mistake – the Bulldogs need to vastly improve their overall performance if they are to get past the Panthers, much less achieve anything more.
The Bulldogs recorded their third fast and clinical start in as many weeks. The stats alone tell the story of just how dominant they were in the early stages against Manly. At halftime, the Bulldogs had 1208 metres gained to Manly’s 721, made 5 offload to 2 and 5 linebreaks to 1. They were dominant in all phases. Execution was again sharp, intensity was high and structure both with and without the ball was sound. It seemed as though the form against Melbourne had carried straight through to this game.
However, just before half time, after execution fell away and at least two great chances to extend their 16 point lead were felled by poor kicking and some poor decision making, and the relentless Bulldogs wilted only slightly, but just enough to let Manly back in to the contest. Manly managed to score a very, very soft Try right on halftime and the score, despite such dominant statistic, was merely 16-6.
The number suggest the Bulldogs could have scored double the points they did, and although they shouldn’t have necessarily scored that many more, they definitely left points out there. Points that could have negated the drama that unfolded. They just lacked that killer instinct such a talented, and relatively in form side should possess.
Manly held the momentum for the remainder of the game, threatening to score quite easily on various occasions and obviously doing enough to eventually tie the game. The Bulldogs never recovered after the dent that was the Try right on halftime, despite another near-perfect first half.
In fact, the Bulldogs almost fell apart completely, becoming disjointed in attack and relenting somewhat defensively. There was no direction, no polish, and execution couldn’t even be poor as there was nothing really even being attempted, much less succeeding or failing.
If the Bulldogs are to take their season even further, they can’t simply go missing like they did in the second half, regardless of which team has momentum. They have the talent and decision makers at key positions to get themselves out of almost any situation. They were good enough when they had to be, but if they played anywhere close to their capabilities, as was the case in the first half, the result would have been much more decisive than it turned out to be. Against those left in the competition, disappearing in the second half could prove fatal for their season, and it quite easily could have against the Sea Eagles. They simply have to play a full game.
- Kicking game: On the note of the decline in performance after their impressive start, a big contributor keeping the Bulldogs from recovering was the kicking game of Josh Reynolds. In particular, the short kicking game.
Trent Hodkinson seems to be back on top of his kicking game, employing a varied arsenal at the right times. However, Reynolds, who has admittedly been much improved with his intermediate kicks from the middle of the field. In fact, he was quite good in this area. But the thorn in the Bulldogs’ side at times this season has been the inept attacking kicking game in the red-zone , particularly from Reynolds, who put in several poor last tackle options that negated their dominant field position at times. In particular, his kick that ended the set before Manly’s first Try was crucial as rather than a repeat set of six for his team, they gave Manly an opportunity to go the length of the field and score.
Ultimately, they did, after Graham was slow and out of position from marker. Tony Williams, the ‘A’ defender (closest to the ruck on the defensive line) had the first receiver off the ruck, and Graham and David Klemmer both were too slow in reacting to their responsibility from marker – Manly Hooker Daniel Hodges, who got over for a Try that was far too easy.
A poor kick, and inefficient marker play. That’s all it took for Manly to seize momentum back from the Bulldogs heading in to half time. Great example of how critical the kicking game, and being decisive with it at all times really can be. If Reynolds forces a dropout instead, it’s 16-0 at half time, potentially more. Little things like this can truly decide games, especially when they’re as close as this one was. Have to execute situational football better as the stakes get higher, despite how innocuous it can seem in isolation.
- Sin-bins: Both sides had someone sent to the Sin-Bin, and rightly so. Firstly, there’s simply no place for dumb violence in professional sport. Period. The argument ends there. The neanderthal-like cries of ‘bring back the biff’ are incredulous. Despite the obvious health concerns of people hitting each other, this is professional sport. Violence is a blight on a game and will do nothing but prevent parents from allowing their children to play the great game of Rugby League. There’s no place for it in society, and the Football field is no exception. Any contact and collision sport isn’t rendered less physical or confrontational by removing unnecessary acts of violence that aren’t in the spirit of the game, or anything, really. The game isn’t all of a sudden ‘soft’ because people can’t punch each other in the head. The real toughness in this game is in the physicality of the contest. The great tackles, the tough hit-ups. The efforts when players shouldn’t have the energy left to muster. Not unnecessary punches.
Secondly, everybody knows the rule. You throw a punch, you leave the field. Very simple trail of cause and effect. Nobody had a right to complain whatsoever. Both were stupid enough to throw punches, and got caught. So, Josh Starling and Reni Maitua were rightly sent from the field. However, Maitua’s was particularly poor, as he, and every other player, had a gleaming example of such stupidity and its consequences in the same game, yet threw a punch anyway. He knows better. Everyone does. Very disappointing to see.
To Maitua’s credit, however, he was a key contributor to the victory once he returned to the field, making several strong runs to get the team into field goal range. He seemed very determined after letting his teammates down, and he did a good job of doing what he could to make up for his transgression. His efforts were crucial in the end.
Play of the game: Hodkinson field goal #2. It was a tough kick, under immense pressure in a clutch situation, and he delivered yet again as he has all season, and had already in the game. All of that despite his injury. What a player. Clutch personified.
Stat of the game: Bulldogs metres gained: 1853. After gaining 1208 in the first half alone, they only managed 635 in the second half, which provides apparent context for how the complexion of the game truly changed in the second half, with Manly well and truly holding the ascendancy in the second 40 minutes.