Bulldogs earn grand final date with Rabbitohs
There was only ever one way the Dogs were going to do this.
Through a combination of brutal goal line defence and more guts than you'd find on an abattoir floor, Canterbury are through to the NRL grand final, downing a gallant Penrith 18-12 at ANZ Stadium.
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Ennis shrugs off injury concerns for grand final
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WATCH: Bulldogs press conference
WATCH: Panthers press conference
As it happened: Recap NRL.com's live match blog
Swarming anything in black like their lives depended on it, the Dogs bustled, bashed and belted the Panthers into submission to be up 12-0 within half an hour.
Then with inspirational skipper Mick Ennis confined to the dressing sheds for the second half with a foot injury, and Trent Hodkinson hobbling between plays, they gritted their teeth, packed their hits with dynamite and somehow denied a Panthers outfit that threw everything including the kitchen sink at them.
Their reward is a date with the rampaging Rabbitohs next Sunday, bringing the two sides together in a decider for the first time since 1967.
For the 46,168 who ventured to the Olympic Stadium, their reward was a contest of scarcely believable ferocity that lasted even longer than the allotted 80 minutes.
A penalty after the siren gave Penrith one final roll of the dice as the Bulldogs bench invaded the field prematurely, and the madness was only brought to an end when Josh Morris claimed a Jamie Soward bomb and went to ground, taking the Panthers' fairytale season down with him.
Just as they have all season – despite an injury list that has read like a casting call of M*A*S*H – the Chocolate Soldiers simply refused to melt, clawing their way back into the contest through a 72nd-minute try to Dallin Watene-Zelezniak that set up yet another grandstand finish.
Battered from pillar to post and back again, no one can deny the Bulldogs deserve to be lining up opposite Souths next weekend, having now proven themselves in breathtaking circumstances against Melbourne, Manly and Penrith.
Earlier in what turned out to be a night that won't soon be forgotten, both sides were guilty of gifting penalties and errors throughout the opening exchanges. Three infringements in the first 10 minutes from Canterbury delivered the Panthers to the blue-and-white promised land, and put the Bulldogs' goal-line defence under examination for the first time.
And they passed with flying colours. The Bulldogs didn't just absorb the unstructured attacking forays of the Panthers, they made mince meat of them and set the tone for the remainder of the half.
After another penalty the Dogs themselves marched downfield and posed a few questions of their own for the Panthers on their own line. When barraging Brit James Graham took aim at James Segeyaro from point blank range, the Panthers cracked and the Dogs went in for an early 6-0 lead as a result.
Taking full advantage of Hodkinson's pin-point left boot, the Dogs targeted Penrith's youngest cub Watene-Zeleniak with plenty of aerial and foot traffic throughout the opening 20 minutes. When Josh Morris forced an error from the youngster in the 26th minute the Panthers found themselves again firmly under the pump, and sliding to the right on the ensuing play Josh Reynolds put back-rower Josh Jackson through a yawning gap to stretch their advantage to 12.
But with a mountain of possession in the shadows of half-time, the Mountain Men finally posted points with Matt Moylan dummying through from 10 metres out for a crucial four-pointer that sent them into the sheds down just a converted try.
The Panthers shot out of the blocks after the break, and only a fumble in the air from Jamal Idris prevented them from levelling up within minutes of the resumption.
As the Panthers turned up the heat with some heavy hitting the Dogs lost their cool, then their heads, but somehow kept the lead. As Graham clashed with everyone bar the ball boys in an attempt to lift his side, Penrith set up camp in their 20-metre zone but were repeatedly denied entrance to the try-scoring inn.
Having been on the receiving end of desperate goal-line defence, the Panthers then returned serve at the other end after Corey Thompson had raced downfield, with Lewis Brown somehow holding up Sam Perrett with a try-saving tackle that defied all the laws of physics and plenty of logic as well.
In the 58th minute the scorers were troubled for the first time in an absorbing second half, Greg Eastwood slipping a ball to Dale Finucane to again give some much needed breathing room on the scoreboard.
No one expected this Penrith side to die wandering, and they've hardly been in the habit of disappointing in 2014, so again the Dogs goal line defence was forced into overtime. This time winger Mitch Brown was called on to shove Watene-Zelezniak into touch with a try beckoning, and Canterbury's six-point lead was preserved.
The contest wore on, and the Panthers started dropping like flies. Centre Dean Whare was forced from the field on wobbly legs after a sickening head clash, while Segeyaro was also laid out in a heavy collision soon after.
With just eight minutes to go, Watene-Zelezniak flew high above Brown to claim a Soward bomb and drag the Panthers back into it yet again.
There was blood in the water and the Panthers sniffed a comeback, and another assault was waged on the Bulldogs line. It was Tim Lafai's turn for defensive heroics, not only shutting down Idris in a one-on-one tackle that had to be made, but forcing an error that delivered his side possession off their own line.
And so it went. Penrith went with the hammers, the Bulldogs responded with the tongs, and but for a bounce of the ball, a slip of a foot or a split second's difference, it could've all ended differently.
For the Bulldogs, the biggest occasion in the rugby league calendar awaits. For the Panthers, a long summer to dwell on what might have been beckons, as well as a very rosy future.
Canterbury Bulldogs 18 (J Graham, J Jackson, D Finucane tries; T Lafai 3 goals) defeated Penrith Panthers 12 ( M Moylan tries; J Soward goals) at ANZ Stadium. Crowd: 46, 168