As with last year, the Bulldogs have played their final game of the season in a massive corporate stadium, light years away from the Belmore fanbase that seems so inextricable from their panache on the field. Sure, there were Canterbury-Bankstown fans aplenty at last Friday’s match against the Roosters, but there’s something about the scale and spirit of the Bulldogs that always seems to get lost amidst the leadup to the Grand Final. Perhaps that’s why they haven’t won a premiership since 2004, when the combination of a truly serendipitous batch of young guns – Sonny Bill Williams, Roy Asotasi, Willie Mason – plus a revolutionary strategy for staggering players on and off the field – instead of simply benching the weaker players and saving them for last – allowed the Dogs to redefine what a Grand Final could look like. Since then, they’ve failed to regain that magic, and while the return to the Canterbury-Bankstown brand in the early 00s came close, culminating with last year’s Grand Final appearance, it was always going to be an uneven match against the Rabbitohs, not just because Souths have been the critical darlings of the competition ever since they recovered from the Super League wars, but because ANZ stadium is a Rabbitohs’ home ground. Playing the Bunnies in a Grand Final is hard enough, but playing them on their home turf is a superhuman task, especially from a team that’s engendered as much media suspicion and disavowal as Canterbury-Bankstown.
As a Dogs supporter, I found that media bias towards Souths particularly acute last year – while also sympathising with where it came from – and to me there was an echo of that experience in last Friday’s clash against the Roosters as well. Once again, the Dogs were playing a prestige team on their home ground, and once again fate seemed to be against them. Of course, I’d be the first to admit that the team weren’t playing their best on the night. In particular, the departure of Trent Hodkinson has been disastrous, nipping most of the renewerd Canterbury-Bankstown momentum in the bud. Josh Reynolds is still a dynamite half, but without his partner in crime he feels a bit impotent, especially since Moses Mbye is clearly not yet up to the task, compounding his hattrick of failed intercepts against St George Illawarra last week with a backwards play-the-ball that seemed to set the whole bungling tone of the Dogs’ final game for the season. In a recent article, Matty Johns pointed out that the Dogs haven’t got a single really creative playmaker – with the exception of James Graham, who simply can’t do everything – and the absence of Hodkinson seemed to clarify that as well, with the frontrowers barging again and again into the Roosters’ defensive line without any real ingenuity, innovation or vision to back them up from behind.
At the same time, you’d have to concede that the try awarded to Kane Evans in the 51st minute did a lot to sour the Bulldogs’ momentum as well. For my money – and, it seems, for Roosters and Bulldogs fans alike – it was the worst ref call of the season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes something of a touchstone in rethinking the video refereeing system in particular, or the final groundswell needed to prompt investigation into one of the most pressing administrative issues facing the game at the moment. While Corey Parker may have come out and told the Dogs that they just needed to “move on” after that call – which even he condeded was mistaken – there’s something to be said for the way that a bad ref decision can dampen spirits on the field. It was no surprise, then, that the Roosters scored a try in the next set, nor that this marked the point at which Canterbury-Bankstown’s fortunes started to really turn. For a brief twenty minutes, after David Klemmer and Sam Kasiano were brought on around the 20-30 minute mark, it looked as if the Dogs might have a fighting chance, but the change in atmosphere at that 51st-minute mark was palpable, even if you were only watching it on television. I must admit that I did wonder whether that call would have been tolerated by the Roosters, or by the Roosters supporters, at Allianz on Friday night. Of course, that’s not to say that the ref is biased, but that there’s something more audacious, transgressive and off-limits about making a dubious call about a team at their home ground, something the Chooks would do well to remember as they head up to Suncorp this weekend, where the Broncos have only been awarded two penalties over this entire footy season.
Still, even the most die-hard Dogs fan would have to concede that the Roosters played brilliantly on Friday night as well. Trent Robinson is nothing if not perfectionist, and the defeat last week to the Storm must have been a blow, especially coming off the smashing Manly victory the week before. As a result, every player in the Roosters’ lineup was going at it full throttle, with “lesser” players such as Kane Evans, Sio Sua Taukeiaho and Issac Liu doing as much as the big names, while Boyd Cordner and Sam Moa put in arguably their hardest appearances of the season. According to Robinson, the Chooks put in an especially intense training session on Monday and Tuesday – almost too intense according to some players. Still, Robinson is nothing if not judicious – supremely judicious – and if he knew just how far to push his stable, he was adamant about not returning Mitchell Pearce to the field, a wise decision in the light of Souths’ loss to the Chooks last round, where a barely-recovered Greg Inglis actually hampered more than helped his side. Only a perfectionist coach like Robinson would manage to clock up a 30-0 victory and still find some lesson to take away for his own team. In fact, Robinson has gone so far as to speculate as to leaving Pearce out of this weekend’s clash with the Broncos, which says something about his care for his players and his team’s wellbeing, but just as equally says something about the way Jackson Hastings has risen to become the Roosters’ new “Junior” over the last couple of weeks in particular. Some young guns find their voices during finals footy, and Hastings has accelerated so rapidly that you have to wonder whether the Chooks’ middle section would really be any different with him replacing Pearce right up to the Grand Final.
If there was a single Roosters star on Friday night, though, it was Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who put in a fabulous running game that brought him just that little bit closer to running the most metres in a single year out of any NRL player to date. As the Chooks head towards the final, they’re also helping usher Sheck towards that incredible record, currently held by Jarryd Hayne before his departure for the 49ers earlier in the year. The situation is made all the more bittersweet in that Sheck’s move back to Auckland means that he may not get this chance again, with the Warriors placing considerably less running pressure on their fullbacks than the Roosters, who have made their highly mobile back three – with Sheck as foundation – a key part of their onfield brand. While I’ve got a bit more to say about Sheck in another post – as well as his synergy with Luke and Johnson, who are shaping up to be the next Slater, Smith and Cronk of the competition – even the most die-hard Dogs fan would have to concede that there was something pretty special about seeing Roger the Dodger swivel, sidestep and pivot his way towards that extraordinary achievement, even as his imminent departure for New Zealand and the contracting timespace of finals footy make it even more urgent that he rack up the metres whenever and wherever he can.
All in all then, an amazing match, although my sense is that this weekend’s clash between the Roosters and the Broncos is going to be even more intense. Obviously, the closer we get to the Grand Final, the more intense things get, but there’s also been a particularly intense flavour to Roosters-Broncos clashes this season, with two very tight games, a two-point game and a golden-point game turning them into the key standoff duo, especially since both teams have had some very dramatic ups and downs since they last faced each other in Round 24. Add to that the fact the Roosters feel a bit like they’re on the way down, with the departures of SBW and now Sheck, while the Broncos feel like they’re on the way up, with Bennett and Boyd arriving to bolster the dynamic halves evolution of Hunt and Milford, and things are likely to be fairly visceral, if only because the current Brisbane lineup somewhat punctures Sydney’s pretensions to be the aspirational team par excellence. In fact, so great is the enmity between the Broncos and the Chooks heading into this match that it’s almost an Origin replica, an unofficial fourth game, in which Sydney and Brisbane square off at Suncorp for the only part of the footy season to rival Origin in intensity. And certainly James Maloney has warned his team to expect an “Origin-like atmosphere” as well as to play off it and enjoy it, in what promises to be one of the most nail-biting matches in this year’s finals season.