The mid-season revival for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs has continued, with a resounding 24-10 victory over a lacklustre and directionless Newcastle Knights in what may prove to be the final game for beleaguered coach Adam O’Brien.
With both teams sitting comfortably towards the lower end of the NRL table, only dimly and half-heartedly doing the maths on the potential of playing finals, you would be forgiven for expecting a dour affair.
If there are fair-weather fans, Novacastrians are cyclonic supporters – more than 20k showing up on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
And in great honour of these stalwart fans, the Newcastle Knights seemed to immediately begin the match with the sort of effort and skill commensurate of a team coming back from five weeks off in Hawaii.
That is, to say, the recently rejuvenated Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (three from their last five) dominated the opening stanzas.
From knock-ons to Aaron Schoupp throwing Dane Gagai out of the field Tallis-style, the Knights seemed to have no answer for the Bulldogs early onslaught, lead in no small part by the big-bodied five-eighth in Matt Burton and his trusty sidekick in Josh Addo-Carr.
It was Addo-Carr who looked like earning first points until the Josh Jackson pass was called forward.
The Knights would kindly continue to offer good opportunity to their opposition until, inevitably, a Burton special to the wing would see Kiraz crash over for a try.
Burton would miss the conversion from the sideline.
It wouldn’t take long for Josh to get his second, this time off a cross-field kick from his wing partner, of all people, in Josh Addo-Car. Burton converts. 10-nil in 10 minutes.
It was at this point that it became evident that milestone man Paul Vaughan (in game 200) and damaging edge-runner Tevita Pangai Junior were dominating the middle of the field.
Frizell and Klemmer offered some resistance for the Knights, but the tackle breaks and offloads were becoming too much for Newcastle to contain.
Now, before Bulldogs fans start hastily texting their loved ones at how excellent Canterbury-Bankstown have become, this is all under the proviso that they were playing a down-and-out Newcastle – gaining Clifford and losing Ponga.
The Bulldogs themselves were struggling to maintain possession at times, knocking on or giving away a seven-tackle set.
Nonetheless, it must be said that the team look much improved after new coach Mick Potter.
However, it wouldn’t be long before the Knights capitalised on their unsteady opponents, earning their first repeat set with nary 10 minutes left in the half.
A spread out wide in the next set would Enari Tuala stroll over off a flat pass. Clifford would miss the conversion.
The score remained 10-4, good buddy.
Canterbury would have the last word of the half though, with Matt Burton and The Fox combining again.
Firstly, Burton would chip out wide (in his own half, no less), inch-perfect to his winger.
There aren’t many that can stop The Fox at range, and the Dogs could only do enough to force Addo-Carr to gain his second try-assist, after he passed to a supporting Aaron Schoupp.
A Phoenix Crossland penalty at half-time would take the score out to 18-4, advantage Canterbury.
The second half would begin much the same – with Newcastle mistakes and Canterbury capitalisations.
Playing with an expansive, offloading kind of football, the Bulldogs were easily able to overpower Newcastle’s simple hit-ups and wide passes (sometimes wide enough to go straight into touch).
After a degree of this kind of play, Kiraz miraculously managed to get the ball down for his third try of the game – and sixth ever in the NRL.
Approaching the hour mark, penalties for both sides and a general drudgery would bring the game to a slow.
Grinding for most of the half, the exhaustion was clear with hands on hips for both players.
There was the distinct impression that both teams were at the tail-end of a desperate period. The Bulldogs, at least, had something to show for it.
The only positives for Newcastle were few. Milford’s running game, I suppose (more a willingness than a success in doing so) and Klemmer’s desire.
It was a bit of Milford passing magic with 18 minutes left, sneaking a ball to Dominic Young (about a metre forward) to bring the game to a somewhat more respectable 24-10.
Milford would continue that level of desire, providing enough tricky balls to Bulldogs fullback Averillo that the man had made three spills by the 65th minute before he was taken off for a dubious HIA (aka, a soft hooking).
Still, they couldn’t compare to Matt Burton’s exhibitionist bombing that terrorised Newcastle’s back five all game.
Newcastle would dominate field position and possession for much of the remainder in the second half, most of the momentum – but they would never be able to cross the line again.
A distinct lack of creativity in the absence of Kalyn Ponga.
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 24 (Kiraz 3, Schoupp) def Newcastle Knights 10 (Tuala, Young)
NRL News Player of the Match
3 Points – Matt Burton (BUL)
2 Points – Jeremy Marshall-King (BUL)
1 Point – Paul Vaughan (BUL)