Dogs edge Eels in finals-quality thriller
Canterbury have righted a very shaky 2014 campaign with a narrow and hard-fought win over bitter rivals Parramatta, triumphing 18-16 in a top quality match that had a strong semi-finals feel about it.
Ball boy ruling has Eels seeing red
Arthur: 'We were the better team'
Bulldogs rediscover their composure
WATCH: Eastwood crashes through the Eels defence
WATCH: Full match highlights
WATCH: Eels press conference
WATCH: Bulldogs press conference
Relive our match commentary
Match stats, scores, highlights
A crowd of 30,394 were at ANZ Stadium to see the Bulldogs run up a decent lead, a strong Eels fightback before a scoreless but deeply enthralling final 35 minutes of the game allowed Canterbury to hold on to a two-point lead and reassert their position in the top eight on 28 points and fifth place, while the Eels' season is now in grave danger, on 26 points and in ninth with chances running out.
The match had some obligatory Jarryd Hayne magic, but a strong all-round performance from the Bulldogs pack – headed by blond props James Graham and Aiden Tolman and a return to form of Origin back-rower Tony Williams – helped them graft out the exhausting win.
A see-sawing first half saw the Eels absorb a ton of pressure relatively unscarred before conceding a couple of soft tries only to claw one back on the stroke of half time to be down by just eight points at the turn despite seeming to have lost the half by a wide margin.
It started from the first of Canterbury's four straight penalties when Tepai Moeroa was pinged for offside, handing the Bulldogs the first real opportunity of the match, which they dutifully accepted.
A quick play the ball and some slick leadup from centre Tim Lafai handed Greg Eastwood a chance at a gap close to the line and he charged across with Hodkinson's conversion making it a six point lead after as many minutes.
An offside penalty from the first set after points handed the Dogs yet more field position but this time, despite several repeat sets, the Eels defence held firm – but some brutal Canterbury defence repeatedly forced them to take their kicks from as little as 20 metres out – when they weren't drop kicking it from their own goal line.
Despite all that the Eels were the next to score, and they did it from their very first foray into Bulldogs territory – and in a result that would have surprised precisely no-one, it was in-form fullback Jarryd Hayne doing the damage.
Showing great vision to get himself into position, Hayne outjumped several Bulldogs at the line to mark a precision Chris Sandow cross-field kick and come down with the prize.
The fact the Eels were level after 20 minutes was remarkable given the Bulldogs' dominance in the ruck but they then set about undoing all their good work.
The Bulldogs, minus the services of second-rower Josh Jackson who left the field concussed after coming off second best when attempting to tackle David Gower, were again marched upfield by a penalty.
Again Lafai was involved, stepping a rushing Ryan Morgan before handing the ball back to Mitch Brown who easily wrong-footed opposite winger Semi Radradra to score almost untouched, Hodkinson icing the touch sideline conversion.
The Dogs earned more territory on the back of a huge Tony Williams charge – one of several from the reinvigorated back-rower and former Eel – before earning one of the softest tries of the season.
Having shown a fair bit of determination at their own line, the blue and gold defence looked to be re-enacting the Red Sea to Aiden Tolman's Moses, the prop hardly able to believe his luck as he ran on to an Ennis double-pump at the line to find no-one in front of him as the defence parted in a most accommodating fashion.
When diminutive Eels hooker Isaac De Gois was penalised for a high tackle in the next set it was four penalties to nil but an earlier blow-up from Hayne, questioning why only one side was getting penalised in the ruck, may have triggered something with the officials. Eels fans cheered ironically shortly after as Graham handed them their first penalty of the night for a slow tackle.
The next five minutes saw an avalanche of Parramatta possession and field position with several repeat sets, and it finally paid dividends right before the break – and it was a sublime touch from Hayne that did the damage.
With Ryan Morgan running the decoy play out the left, and ball to Hayne was batted on to Radradra so quickly it almost seemed to have floated straight past him – in fact even Channel Nine commentator Phil Gould remarked "that was so quick I doubt his fingerprints would be on it".
It gave Radradra an easy put down and although Sandow shanked the tough conversion chance the Eels would have been somewhat relieved to trail by only eight at the interval.
Radradra's first try kept him one behind his captain on the season try-scoring tally but he caught up to Hayne just three minutes after the resumption, his 18th try of 2014 coming from a brilliant Norman cut-out after the Dogs conceded a penalty in their own territory to hand the Eels a golden opportunity. This time Sandow made no mistake with the sideline conversion chance to get his side back within two points.
It's not clear what Eels coach Brad Arthur said to his troops at half time but it seemed to work, with Parramatta absolutely full of running, launching a series of searing dummy half runs, bending back the line with almost every charge and spending much of the opening exchanges of the second half camped in Bulldogs territory.
Every time the Dogs got the ball in the next 10 minutes they were getting it at their own line and taking their kicks from inside their own half. The trend was finally broken around the midpoint of the half when Pauli Pauli was dragged into touch despite a suggestion the tackle had already been completed.
With the game suddenly being played in the middle part of the field Canterbury began to regain ascendency in the armwrestle – that fact in itself a tribute to the low error and penalty count from both sides in a high quality passage of play.
Hodkinson earned his side a repeat set via a goal line drop out and a short quick restart did not pay off for Parramatta but their defence held firm – but shot themselves in the foot with a lost ball right after regaining possession.
In a play reminiscent of his Origin series-winning try, Hodkinson dummied and went at the line and it was only an immensely strong tug at the back of the jersey from towering young Eels back-rower Pauli Pauli that saved the try and earned his side a 20-metre restart in the process.
The set finished with a possible try to Radradra but the blockbusting Fijian was pushed into touch as he looked to barge over from dummy half.
When the same winger overran a last-play run from Hayne to hand the Bulldogs a set from halfway with five minutes remaining, the clock began to count against the Eels, and with virtually no points, penalties or errors in the half the relentless and non-stop stanza was also showing on the exhausted players.
But a miracle 40/20 from Sandow with virtually no angle to work with threatened to turn the game on its head – however his quick tap and try was called back because the ball boy didn't place the ball on the line, but rather tossed it to the player.
The Eels players and fans were irate but the rule has been in place all year, and when that set broke down when Will Hopoate and Vai Toutai flirted too close to the touch line, the Bulldogs were able to close it out from there.
Canterbury Bulldogs 18 (Eastwood, Brown, Tolman tries; Hodkinson 3 goals) defeated Parramatta Eels 16 (Radradra 2, Hayne tries; Sandow 2 goals) at ANZ Stadium. Crowd: 30,394.