The final game of a weekend of football always has a morose tone to it. The Cronulla Sharks against the Canterbury Bulldogs.
The anticipation of the round is now but a faint memory. All the potentials fulfilled and all the fates played out. That is, bar one last clash of steel and hardened nerve.
In the dying light of Sunday afternoon, ahead of the gloomy Sunday evening blues, the Bulldogs were desperate for a win.
Every time their closest opponent in the Broncos loses, it is a chance for the Canterbury-Bankstown men to again deliver the wooden spoon.
It was a tight finish last year and, while the Broncos may feel their feet are not so far from the fire, the Bulldogs are looking more and more likely to claim that unwanted recognition.
The Cronulla Sharks have been unable to consistently find warm water since the departure of their previous coach in John Morris.
Interim coach Josh Hannay has faced the departure of Townsend, the wavering of Johnson’s form and the unreliability of Moylan’s hamstrings.
It is a team the feels they deserve a spot in the finals, but have yet been able to mount a convincing argument.
For those watching on today, you might be convinced either way.
A 44-24 scoreline certainly suggests that the Sharks are capable of scoring some big points and rolling with the big dogs.
But it was a much closer game than that final tally might suggest. For much of the game, the Sharks struggled.
Early tries to Sione Katoa and Ronaldo Mulitalo seemed to suggest that this might be the match that Cronulla needed.
A weakend side desperately trying to avoid the spoon and prone to making errors in that extended effort.
In that effort, the rush to defend, their edges were left exposed. Once on either side of the field, easy cut out passes to flying wingers brought the Bulldogs firmly to Earth.
Then began one of the great performances by a forward in the modern game. Luke Thompson, the fiery, hardnut Englishman (aren’t they all?) has quickly found a home at the Bulldogs.
Playing few games last year and out for a substantial chunk of this season, we are a finally beginning to see what the former St Helens prop is capable of.
The first glimpse of the performance he was to deliver came as he resisted the tackle of four Sharks to somehow plant the ball and get the Bulldogs back in the game.
Not long after and it could have been the end of his night when he tackled the unaware Braydon Trindall without the ball.
The replay was enough to convince the referee team that it was late and with force – Thompson was sent to the bin.
The Bulldogs would pay for the indiscretion, Sione Katoa bagging a second with a bit of touchline tap-dancing.
With eight minutes left in the half, Shaun Johnson delivered a sweet pass at the line that would lead to a breakaway and further misery for the Bulldogs.
Will Kennedy streaked away for another try and the game was looking ugly for Canterbury. The Bulldogs were not lonely in their pain however, with the Sharks losing Shaun Johnson to a hamstring injury.
Given his departure at the end of the season, it’s possible we may have seen the last of SJ in the blue-and-white.
Another easy try to Talakai off some poor defence would see the teams enter the sheds 30-6.
Some kind of inspiration must have come Trent Barrett because the Bulldogs were fired up early in that half.
Off the back of a powerhouse performance from Thompson, Canterbury were able to finally discover some field position.
Two high kicks close to the line would see both Nick Meaney and Dylan Napa rewarded with tries, to bring the difference to 12.
For a moment, Canterbury-Bankstown were riding the wave of possibility, rather than kicking stones around in the duldrum of defeat.
The Sharks were desperate to stem the tide and hit back themselves.
Even a victory is sometimes not enough when you’re proving to everyone, including yourself, that you have what it takes to go the distance this year.
Conceding more than 20 points against the last-placed Bulldogs would do little for the confidence.
It was with a crash-play from Toby Rudolf that the Sharks would extend their lead again.
The Bulldogs would just not go away though. Luke Thompson, possessed by some kind of Terminator energy, kept the Bulldogs in the game.
In the 56th minute, he made an incredible break down the middle of the field, fending and stepping like a fullback before finally delivering an offload to Averillo for the Bulldogs’ fourth try.
Unfortunately for Canterbury, that was around the time Thompson was due for a spell.
With the Englishman off the field, the Bulldogs defence noticably weakened.
Suddenly, the Sharks were making easy metres again and the Bulldogs looked frail.
Thompson would return with eight minutes left but, by that time, it was too late and Connor Tracey was streaking down the sideline to put the game beyond doubt.
Existentially, the Sharks are no further to knowing the truth of their nature than they were before the game.
Yes, they managed to get the two points and that is the most important thing at the end of the day.
However, they conceded 24 points and had to outscore their bottom-table rivals. Do they have what it takes to make a dent in the finals? Your guess is as good as mine.
The Bulldogs would be happy with the effort but effort provides little comfort when clutching a wooden spoon.
They will vastly improve with next year’s signings and they might have found their foil to Matt Burton in the game-managing Lachlan Lewis. He battles that kid, he’s got the blood of the King.
Cronulla Sharks 44 (Katoa 2, Mulitalo, Kennedy, Talakai, Rudolf, Tracey) def Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 24 (Thompson, Meaney, Napa, Averillo)
NRL News Player of the Match
3 Points – Luke Thompson (CBY)
2 Points – Blayke Brailey (CRO)
1 Point – Siosifa Talakai (CRO)