Ben Barba inspired the top-of-the-table Bulldogs to their ninth consecutive victory with a thrilling hat-trick in their 32-18 win over North Queensland.
Billed as the clash of the No.1s with Barba facing off against childhood hero Matt Bowen, it was the Canterbury custodian who prevailed with three telling plays – the first two bringing the crowd to their feet as the Bulldogs raced to an 18-6 half-time lead.
It took just 12 minutes for Barba to make his mark, with Josh Reynolds supplying a jinking run before offloading to his flying fullback who raced 60 metres to score.
A deftly placed Bowen grubber saw Kane Linnett pounce to level the scores, but soon afterwards it was Barba in open space again with an almost identical try to his first – this time from a clever Josh Jackson run and pass.
When Krisnan Inu leapt highest to gather in a Reynolds bomb the Bulldogs looked set to score a comfortable victory but North Queensland had other ideas and fought back strongly after the break.
Antonio Winterstein was first to cross in the second half when Barba slipped trying to cover a grubber out wide, then Johnathan Thurston left defenders clutching at his heels as he dummied to the left and strolled over to make it 18-all heading into the final 10 minutes.
An Inu penalty goal handed the home side the lead back but it was two more tries to the Bulldogs as the clock ticked down – the first a long-range Josh Morris special and the second completing Barba’s hat-trick – that ensured their impressive run of form continued.