The Bulldogs have won 12 matches so far this season, but they haven’t earned a more valuable two points than the ones they collected against the Warriors at Mt Smart Stadium.
Kevin Moore’s men showed the turnaround in the club’s fortunes is more about a culture and attitude change rather than a change in personnel.
With seven players missing due to injury, suspension and Origin commitments, the Bulldogs were able to guts out a remarkable 18-14 victory over the Warriors in New Zealand – a win Moore wouldn’t have necessarily been banking on.
For Bulldogs fans switching on their televisions, on paper their side resembled the 2008 team that collapsed to the NRL wooden spoon. But the similarities were in name only, because the Bulldog ‘Bs’ played like a team of champions and somehow lifted to do the job without the likes of Kimmorley, Ennis, Morris, Idris, Goodwin, Hannant and Eastwood.
The Bulldogs took a narrow 6-4 lead into halftime but extended that advantage to 12-4 shortly after the break, courtesy of a Luke Patten try.
However, after captain Andrew Ryan dropped the ball over the line and missed a chance to seal the game for his side, the Warriors took the mistake as an invitation to storm back into the match.
The New Zealanders, who overall were dismally poor yet again, did show some fight to score first through brilliant rookie Kevin Locke and then young bull Russell Packer to take a 14-12 lead.
But with just two minutes left on the clock, two much maligned and under-rated Bulldogs players sparked a sensational last-gasp win.
First it was former Souths utility Yileen ‘Buddy’ Gordon, who has been doing a terrific job at Belmore as an impact forward. Gordon busted through out on the Warriors’ left side and dashed up field. He slipped a miracle offload to centre Daryl Millard and all of a sudden the Bulldogs had possession inside their opposition’s 20-metre zone.
The Warriors were rattled and all it took was one sweep across the backline before whiz kid Ben Barba, who hasn’t had much of a shot in the top grade, sliced through for the match-winner.
Barba had a couple of key touches during his time on the park and the performance was enough to remind Moore of his value as a bench utility as the finals approach.
The Game Swung When… The turning point came when Ben Barba entered the fray in the 68th minute. The livewire and former superstar of the Toyota Cup competition fell out of favour earlier in the year when he was involved in an off-field altercation with team-mate Jamal Idris. However, in 12 electric minutes, Barba showed his immense talent, re-igniting a tiring Bulldogs outfit to victory.
He first broke through with just under five minutes remaining on the clock and got away a superb offload to Tim Winitana, nearly resulting in a match-turning try. He had to wait a couple more minutes to slide over for the sealer, but he did it with class – summing up the situation and deciding to punch over the line with the Warriors’ defenders on the back foot.
In his short stint on the field Barba managed three tackle breaks, an offload, a line break, a try, four tackles and 46 running metres from just four runs.
Who Was Hot… David Stagg was again enormous for the Bulldogs in the middle of the field – his defence was truly inspiring. The former Queensland representative made a game-high 53 tackles and also managed four tackle breaks and four offloads. In an often tight and dour game, Stagg provided the cement for the Bulldogs’ defence in the middle corridors of the field.
In the absence of prop Ben Hannant front-rower Michael Hodgson stood up and had an enormous game. Hodgson made 148 metres from 20 runs and also made 30 tackles in a monster effort.
Another match-winner for the ’Dogs was Ben Roberts. He was far from perfect in the match, making two errors and taking some wrong options, however when it mattered he was able to execute. Roberts set up two tries – throwing the last pass for Luke Patten’s and Barba’s second-half tries. Roberts also came up with a massive play in the 56th minute when he took an intercept on his own line which prevented a certain Warriors try. Prop Jesse Royal had all but accepted a short pass and was preparing to dive for the line when Roberts plucked it out of thin air.
Who Was Not… It’s unfair to point the finger at any one Warrior, but as a unit they simply aren’t doing the job. The Warriors enjoyed 55 per cent of possession and spent the majority of the first half in their opposition’s red zone, but weren’t able to come up with points.
The fact they could only muster the one try in the opening 40 was simply not up to first grade standard, considering how depleted their opposition was.
Halves Stacey Jones and Lance Hohaia seem to have no other attacking plan other than the kick high and hope – which worked just once in the match, when Kevin Locke came down with a great grab. But this hit-and-miss play isn’t something that can be relied upon for victory, and the playmakers need to come up with other options.
However it’s not just their halves – players like Wade McKinnon, Ian Henderson and Joel Moon just aren’t having the impact and timing in attack that’s expected of them.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… The fact the Warriors could come up with just one try in the first half was simply unbelievable. They should have led by three tries minimum at oranges.
Injuries… Micheal Luck and Aaron Heremaia had a nasty head clash, but otherwise nothing serious.
Refs Watch: Jason Robinson and Gerard Sutton came up with some puzzling decisions. In the first half video ref Tim Mander awarded the Warriors a repeat set after Daryl Millard was ruled to have obstructed a chaser – which was a questionable ruling. In the next set Millard appeared to get a hand to the ball but the whistleblowers failed to blow six again.
But in the greater context of the game, though, the referees had no impact.
NRL.com Best & Fairest: 3 points – David Stagg (Bulldogs): Worked tirelessly and led by example all match; 2 points – Michael Hodgson (Bulldogs): Even though his team was undermanned, Hodgson powered forward all match; 1 point – Kevin Locke (Warriors): The only man in the Warriors line-up who looks like doing anything. Made three tackle breaks, a line break and scored a special try. Almost won them the match.
Bulldogs 18 (L Patten, M Sullivan, B Barba tries; H El Masri 3 goals) def Warriors 14 (R Packer, K Locke, M Vatuvei tries; K Locke goal) at Mt Smart Stadium. Crowd: 11,802