Dogs edge Dragons in golden point thriller
The Bulldogs have overcome a resolute and injury-hit Dragons side as well as their own scrappy efforts with the ball to move into the second week of the NRL finals and book a meeting with minor premiers the Roosters win an 11-10 extra-time win.
A brave Dragons outfit overcame the losses of halfback Benji Marshall (ankle) and back-rower Joel Thompson (hamstring) in the early stages of the second half to somehow hit the lead in the 76th minute.
They were on track to steal a famous victory before the Dogs stole it back with a 78th-minute try but a missed conversion kept the margin to two and a controversial offside penalty from the restart allowed Dragons pivot Gareth Widdop to level up on the siren to force the game into golden point.
But ecstasy turned to agony for the English international when missed a field goal and then sent a 40/20 attempt out on the full in extra time to put the Dogs in range to take the victory with a field goal.
The Dragons will be left to rue an inability to capitalise on plenty of good field position and an excellent completion rate in the face of solid goal-line defence from the blue and whites, while Des Hasler's men will need to find a far greater level of proficiency in attack if they are to worry the Roosters next Friday night.
A dour first half saw both sides struggle to take their opportunities – particularly the Dragons, who were unable to score despite a wealth of possession inside Canterbury's red zone and a completion rate of over 90 per cent with 20 completions from 22 sets.
The Bulldogs for the most part looked more likely when in attacking field position thanks to hard running from the Morris twins and deft offloading from big men Frank Pritchard and Sam Kasiano.
They created a half chance when Josh Morris hit a Pritchard ball near the line and was held up. First points came shortly after, in the 11th minute, when Brett Morris speared onto a perfect inside ball from James Graham in front of the posts.
It proved to be the only score of the half as both sides struggled for fluency, with the Dragons rarely looking like scoring despite Canterbury gifting them penalty after penalty at the line – a glut which led to a warning to acting captain Aiden Tolman for slowing down the play the ball.
That goal-line defence was the major positive takeout for Des Hasler from a grafting opening 40. A rare foray from the Bulldogs into Dragons territory right before half-time generated an unsuccessful field goal attempt from Josh Reynolds.
The Red V started the second half brightly with a spirited set that finished with a deft Rein grubber that spot up an awful bounce at Brett Morris and very nearly gave Eto Nabuli an easy try before Morris recovered to ground it in-goal.
They almost scored again the next set when some vintage Benji magic allowed the pivot to jink back and forth across the field before bursting through for a try but the score was overruled for obstruction after Moses Mbye was denied a fair chance at a tackle.
An obstruction call also denied the Dogs in the 58th minute when lead runner Josh Jackson clearly denied the Dragons a chance at marking would-be try-scorer Tim Lafai.
In between those two no-tries the Dragons lost both Marshall to an ankle injury as well as back-rower Joel Thompson who succumbed to a dodgy hamstring after possibly returning from the injury too early. Marshall got strapped up and attempted to return but just couldn't run on the injury.
With both sides still completely failing to generate fluency in attack it was amazingly the Dragons that were next to score, with Nabuli crossing out wide despite the attention of three Bulldogs cover defenders.
Widdop's clutch sideline conversion levelled the scores with 10 minutes to play.
The Dragons went ahead shortly after, despite a field-goal attempt from Widdop being charged down by Sam Kasiano. Widdop backtracked to retrieve the loose ball before being hit hard by chasers Kasiano and Frank Pritchard, with Pritchard being penalised for dropping the knees into Widdop. Both Pritchard and Kasiano were placed on report.
The Dragons were awarded a penalty and took the lead 8-6 with a goal just four minutes from full-time.
Yet another twist in the tail emerged as a Josh Morris line break scattered the Dragons defence and some great play from Reynolds put Lafai into space, from where his offload sent Shaun Lane over for what looked a match-winning try.
But Mbye missed the conversion and when Lafai and Lane combined for an accidental offside from the short restart Widdop was handed a tricky, 80th-minute chance to level up.
His clutch penalty goal sent the match to golden point, then in a busy few minutes for the playmaker he just missed with a huge field goal attempt. Then, excruciatingly, the man who had kept the Dragons in it with a series of clutch plays sent an attempted 40/20 out on the full, giving the Dogs a full set from where Reynolds made no mistake with his drop goal attempt.
As one, the Dragons sank to their haunches in the knowledge their season was over after coming so close to defying the odds. For the Bulldogs, they've dodged a bullet to book a semi final meeting with minor premiers the Roosters at Allianz Stadium next Friday night.
Canterbury Bulldogs 11 (B Morris, Lane tries; Mbye goal; Reynolds field goal) defeated St George Illawarra Dragons 10 (Nabuli try; Widdop 3 goals) at ANZ Stadium. Half-time: Bulldogs 6-0. Crowd: 33,854.