Oh, dear. The Bulldogs’ headless performance in this game will have transported more seasoned observers back to 1993, when the high-flying Canberra lost their general, Ricky Stuart, on the eve of the finals and proceeded to collapse out of the competition in ignominious style. That was then and this is now. And that was Canberra and this is the Bulldogs, the most resilient club of the past 30 years. But alarm bells were going off constantly against the Wests Tigers.
In 80 minutes they’d like to forget, the ’Dogs surrendered the minor premiership to St George Ilawarra and confirmed the fears of their own supporters that the loss of halfback Brett Kimmorley the previous week could derail their premiership campaign. Perhaps it was just one of those nights. The ’Dogs barely touched the ball during the first 10 minutes, and the heavy damage inflicted to their right-side defence was not something obviously attributable to Kimmorley’s absence. But there were plenty of signs as well that they missed their playmaker’s composure, smarts and kicking game.
Tim Sheens’ men were always going to be dangerous, playing with nothing to lose after months of pressure, and some blissful time off awaiting them at game’s end. Sure enough, the Bulldogs ran into a Benji Marshall-inspired unit that left not a single trick in the suitcase. The Tigers got the early jump and were never headed. Marshall was outstanding in a way Kimmorley can’t be, but the ’Dogs don’t look to Kimmorley for jaw-dropping brilliance. They just need him to steer them around the park.
The Bulldogs can take some comfort from winning the last 25 minutes, during which they scored two tries and did a better job of controlling the Tigers than they’d managed during the previous 55. They’ve still gone from last in 2008 to second this year, and will be better next week for a practice run without their no.1 playmaker.
For the Tigers, this was a bittersweet win. They were good enough to be in the finals and the finals will be the poorer for their absence. But the harsh reality is that their performance against the Bulldogs doesn’t mean a thing. For the fourth September in a row, the Tigers will be spectators.
The Game Swung When… The Tigers had the ball for all but a few seconds of the first nine minutes, during which they put on two tries, the first coming from a superb long pass by halfback John Morris, the second from a slick short-side play triggered by Marshall. The ’Dogs were rattled and never recovered, completing just over 60 per cent of their sets and making 100 more tackles than their opponents.
Who Was Hot… Marshall was the best on ground by a long way. He had a hand in most of the Tigers’ six tries and played with the kind of freedom and zip you more often see in the pre-season. More than once, he made the ’Dogs look second-rate, which they aren’t. There’s just no-one else quite like Marshall when he’s on.
Most Tigers players had a night to remember, with all but four of the starting 13 making more than 100 metres in attack. Gareth Ellis and Keith Galloway were the pick of the pack, while out wide Chris Lawrence and Blake Ayshford shone brightest.
For the ’Dogs, Ben Hannant (lots of metres and 34 tackles without a miss) and Luke Patten (busy all night) were the pick of a badly beaten side.
Who Was Not… The Bulldogs’ forwards were so worn out by the quantity of defence they were required to get through that they struggled to make a dent in attack. Except for Hannant and David Stagg, no-one else in the starting pack made more than 45 metres. Michael Ennis and Andrew Ryan fell off seven and six tackles respectively. And not a great outing either for the promising young giant Jamal Idris, who patrolled a side of the field on which the Tigers had a picnic.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… Marshall’s 51st-minute try was a beauty, an exhibition of the trademark acceleration and footwork that left three ’Dogs defenders tasting dirt.
Bad Boys… None. The Tigers were too busy having fun and the Bulldogs were too tired just trying to hang on.
Refs Watch… Jared Maxwell and Steve Lyons refereed strong, done fine.
NRL Best & Fairest… 3 points – Benji Marshall (Wests Tigers): It was the last Benji show of the year and one of the best; 2 points – Gareth Ellis (Wests Tigers): Nineteen runs for 178 metres and 22 tackles deserves its reward; 1 point – Chris Lawrence (Wests Tigers): Switched on and dangerous, ran 16 times for 141 metres.
Wests Tigers 34 (B Ayshford, C Lawrence, T Moltzon, D Galea, B Marshall, D Halatau tries; B Marshall 5 goals) def Bulldogs 12 (L Patten, J Morris tries; El Masri 2 goals) at Sydney Football Stadium. Crowd: 17,375.