The Bulldogs have defeated the Panthers 18-12, and have clinched their third NRL Grand Final appearance in three years in the process. Here are the ups and downs.
- Grand Final bound: For the second time in three seasons, the Canterbury-Bansktown Bulldogs have earned a place in the final NRL game of the season – the Grand Final. The Bulldogs showed the kind of form, ability and toughness worthy of such a result by leading the NRL in the middle of the season. However, a mix of injuries and post-Origin form slumps at key positions seemed to derail their season, with a loss to the Gold Coast Titans in the final week of the regular season seeing them finish seventh.
They almost missed the Finals altogether. Think about that. If they lose just one of those one-point victories in that stretch of three such wins in a row, and it’s a very real possibility that they miss the Finals completely. However, with their dominant victory against the Storm, yet another nail-biting one-point victory against Manly, and now a tough win against an over-achieving Penrith team, the Bulldogs are one of the final two teams left standing in the NRL.
Quite remarkable to think about when put into that context, especially after the very disappointing loss to the Titans. But Grand Final appearances (and wins) are why the club tried so hard to get Head Coach Des Hasler to the club, and this is the standard every year for this team when combining Hasler’s coaching nous with the talent on the playing roster. It’s one thing to have that standard, it’s another to have it realised. The Bulldogs have done just that, and have the opportunity to be NRL champions for the second time on three years.
It’s a testament to both the coaching staff and the playing roster, especially when considering the loss of the once prodigious Ben Barba – something that was meant to prevent the Bulldogs from ever reaching elite NRL status going forward.
Yet here they are. Despite being written off time and time again, they control their own destiny. They’re 80 minutes away from NRL glory. It’s safe to say the week ahead will be an unforgettable one for players, staff and fans alike. Soak it up, Bulldogs nation.
- Defense steps up: Defense was the thing that stood out to me most in this game, from both teams. It was a very tough affair start to finish. But the Panthers had numerous chances to convert possession into points at numerous stages in the game (especially early), and were denied by a sterling defensive effort from the Bulldogs for the most part.
The only points Penrith scored were due to two lapses. The first, much like last week against Manly, right on half time when Moylan got on the outside of the normally stout Hodkinson, who was simply slow to react and slide to the outside with Moylan on a fairly simple play. This gifted Penrith momentum before half-time, but was the only real time the defense faltered for the Bulldogs, and it was a simple case of one player being just a tad too slow to react.
Penrith’s only other Try was from a kick late in the game, where young Winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak simply beat everyone else to the ball. It was very poor kick coverage by the Bulldogs, seeing as they had at least three players in the vicinity capable of coming up with the football. But none took it upon themselves to do so, showing very little urgency, which simply isn’t good enough. Credit Watene-Zelezniak also, as it was an impressive grab for the Try.
But that’s it. One instance of slow reaction time, and an athletic catch of an attacking kick in what was poor kick coverage that lacked urgency. It’s not like the Panthers breached the line to score due to defensive breakdowns or impressive play on their part. And don’t get me wrong, there were stages in the game where livewire Hooker James Segeyaro simply couldn’t be contained, particularly towards the end of the game and especially when the markers started to be slow to react or be out of position due to Penrith getting back on the front foot and playing the ball quickly.
But defensively, the Bulldogs were very strong. They read the play well, they drifted on their own line very well, forced some errors and overall frustrated the Panthers attack. It’s going to take an even more impressive defensive performance to contain South Sydney next week (more on this in my game preview later in the week), but the foundations of structure, awareness and effort are there. This was an impressive defensive display, and it played a huge part in being the Panthers.
- Lafai multi-dimensional: On that note, perhaps the most impressive performance of the night went to Tim Lafai and no, not for his attacking prowess. He was actually extremely well handled by the Penrith defense. But it was Lafai’s defensive effort that blew me away. Lafai, very much an attacking oriented Centre, absolutely shut down the Panthers left edge attack. He did a particularly great job on Jamal Idris, who is a matchup nightmare for even the best defensive Centres.
Idris literally did nothing. All game. That simply does not happen often, and it was due to the fact Lafai dominated the matchup between he and Idris from start to finish. Lafai was physical, read the play well and was in Idris’ face for the entirety of the game.
For a player known for his offensive talents, it was his defensive abilities that shone most in this game. He was stellar in a key matchup in a big game situation. It would also be worth noting that Lafai’s defense has left a little to be desired over the years. But his offseason focus on getting bigger and stronger in anticipation of the more physical matchups on the edges of the field such as this paid tangible dividends in this game, as he turned in the most impressive defensive performance on the field in a game that featured many of them. He showed a toughness and physicality that simply wasn’t a part of his game a year ago.
Lafai has also slid nicely into the goal-kicking role in the wake of Hodkinson’s knee injury that forced him from the field. He was three from three in this one, a credit to his poise. Lafai is yet to be tested with a very difficult attempt, but at this level, there truly is no easy kick.
- Tony Williams: Not to overdo the Tony Williams adulation in recent weeks, but his performances week after week have demanded recognition.
This year, Williams has become the player everybody thought he would be upon arriving at the Bulldogs. His unique blend of size, speed and strength has finally materialised in the almost impossible to stop runner of the football that can change a game at a moments notice.
Williams continued his streak of impressive performances in the NRL Finals with yet another disruptive showing against the Panthers. He seems to now have confidence in abundance, and he has really become somewhat a feel-good storyline of the Bulldogs season this year after the struggles he had endured in his Bulldogs tenure up until this season.
But at the end of the day, Tony Williams is flourishing on the field. His combination with Trent Hodkinson is operating at a very high level, and Williams is making a point of running the ball with determination and authority. He is the Bulldogs player most likely to strike fear into opposing defenders and has become a focal point of the teams attack.
It feels like a very long time since Williams’ detractors have had anything of substance to say. He has not only performed incredibly well as of late, but he has done so consistently. Every week of this Finals series he has been the most damaging player on the field, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t extremely happy to see someone who copped so much for so long now arguably playing the best football of his career. And he’s doing it in pressure situations week after week.
In fairness, however, he threw a terrible offload in the 50th minute of action. Poor decision, and even poorer execution.
- Lewis Brown tackle: Though it wasn’t by a player in a Bulldogs jersey, Brown’s tackle to save what seemed like a certain Try was a phenomenal effort. Sam Perrett appeared to have sliced through the Panthers defense in the redzone and looked likely to score, even if defenders clung to him. Not only did Brown cling to Perrett, but the weight and direction of his body position ran opposite to Perrett’s path with the ball, slowing him just as he reached the line. In a last ditch effort to prevent the Try, Brown grabbed the jersey sleeve of the arm in which Perrett was carrying the ball, and pulled as hard as he could in the same direction the counterweight force of his tackle and the position of his body presented. As a result, Perrett, who ended up on his back in past the Tryline, simply couldn’t stretch the ball out to score as he surely assumed he would be able to do with ease.
What ensued was then nothing short of incredible, with Brown and Perrett continuing the tustle over the Tryline as Perrett then attempted to roll over and ground the ball. The closest the ball got was being suspended what looked like less than a centimetre above the ground as Penrith Fullback Matt Moylan came over to do his part in prevent the Try too.
No Try, despite a scoring play looking all but a formality. Terrific effort from Lewis Brown, who was strong throughout the game.
- Scoring forwards: Every Bulldogs Try was scored by a member of the forward pack. James Graham dived over the line after a perfect pass from Michael Ennis in a short-area situation, Josh Jackson reeled in a pass from Josh Reynolds that was slightly behind him with one hand and proceeded to the line untouched after Panthers defender Jamal Idris took the decoy runner instead of Jackson, and Dale Finucane showed great awareness in supporting Greg Eastwood after Eastwood masterfully played through the line and got the ball to Finucane who was already behind the defensive line once Eastwood penetrated through close to the line.
The strength of this team is the forward pack, and they seem to be performing extremely well when it matters most. They will face their biggest test of the season against a very talented South Sydney forward pack that is firing on all cylinders, but the Bulldogs’ pack appears to have the talent, and the toughness, to be more than capable of competing with them.
- Ennis’ foot fractures: Michael Ennis did not take the field after the half-time break, succumbing to a foot injury he sustained when both he and Frank Pritchard were attempting a tackle, and Pritchard’s legs whipped around with his momentum and collected Ennis’ lower legs in the process.
Scans on Monday revealed what are being called ‘minor fractures’ in Ennis’ foot. This is definitely not the kind of injury one can really play through easily. It can’t be strapped, recovery is slow and pain killers can only do so much. That being said, the Bulldogs will likely be saying all week, as they have already, that they will be working around the clock the get Ennis well enough to take the field in the Grand Final, which will also be his final game in a Bulldogs uniform and the chance at a fairy-tale farewell.
In all honesty, I don’t think he plays. I wouldn’t rule it out – Ennis is one of the toughest competitors in the NRL, but it’s just not the type of injury one can grin and bear, and ‘play through the pain’. A bone, or bones, in his foot are fractured, meaning they’ve cracked to a significant degree. Not only is this very painful, recovery is normally over a month with these injuries, and playing through them poses a risk to worsening the damage.
Above all else, that risk may be too much for Ennis to gamble on. He has a young family, and is leaving the club mainly due to the fact he got offered a very favourable financial situation elsewhere in a contract that will likely be his last as a player. Playing could well risk that contract.
Whilst he would want nothing more than to be out there, and it’s undeniable that his loss would leave a void in leadership, performance and work-rate that simply can’t be replaced, he may be wise to consider the future if he’s even a remote possibility of playing come game day.
- Head clash: Two Panthers players, Dean Whare and Sika Manu were unfortunately apart of a sickening head clash with each other in attempting to tackle Aiden Tolman late in the game. Both were rendered dazed on the floor, with Whare in particular looking particlarly bad. Even after a prolonged period on the ground, most of which he was likely out cold, he couldn’t stand as his legs were the definition of wobbly. He was rightfully escorted from the field, but astoundingly, Manu stayed on the field.
This is ridiculous, and the NRL really needs to start ironing out their concussion protocol. There’s no argument to be had – in any situation like that, the player(s) involved must come off the field for evaluation by an independent official affiliated with nobody in the game. This was a gross negligence of player safety, and it simply cannot continue. I’m sure the importance of the contest influenced the fact that Manu remained on the field.
But it comes down to this – best case, he’s off the field for a few minutes, is cleared, and returns. Worst case? He is foolishly allowed to stay on, and either suffers more damage in another case of head contact, known to compound the effects, or he has symptoms later on that were exacerbated by playing on and could have been treated once he was off the field.
- Lapses: Hodkinson’s defensive lapse gifted the Panthers hope after being dominated in the first half. Then, the team came out and completed only four out of their first eight sets of possession. The Bulldogs have done well to dominate games early so far this finals series, but in consecutive weeks they have faltered right before halftime, then opened the second half poorly. In such key games, you simply can’t gift talented opposition chance after chance to play themselves back in to the contest.
The Bulldogs had numerous instances throughout the season of ‘falling asleep’ with period of sloppy execution with the ball, a severe lack of direction from the halves and a lack of effort in general. They’ve clearly been good enough to overcome that so far this season, but if the same thing happens next week, it won’t bode well for them. You just can’t keep giving good teams chances and significantly falter in games. They’ll need to put together something they seemingly haven’t often this year – a complete, 80 minute performance.
Play of the game: Finucane Try. The Bulldogs needed much more than a six point lead to win the game, and this Try provided that. It also got the team back on track after a lacklustre opening to the second half, giving the team confidence and momentum at a key point in the contest.
Key stat: 1 dropout. Fifth tackle options have long been a thorn in the Bulldogs’ side this season, and repeat sets of possession and the pressure they create can often decide big games. This will need to improve if they are to prevail victorious in the Grand Final.