Bulldogs strike first in NRL finals with 16-10 win over Sea Eagles
Ben Barba attacks. AAP Image/Action Photographics, Renee McKay
Minor Premiers Canterbury Bulldogs are now one win away from the NRL Grand Final after a gritty 16-10 victory over the Manly Sea Eagles, who will be left counting the cost of a bruising 80 minutes of rugby league.
Geoff Toovey will wait nervously on the availability of several key players ahead of a sudden-death final next weekend, with Jamie Lyon picking up a leg injury and Jason King and Steve Matai both placed on report.
Despite finishing the season in top spot the Bulldogs came into this one as underdogs, with the Sea Eagles seemingly rediscovering the form that saw them crowned 2011 Premiers.
But pre-match expectations appeared unfounded when Bulldogs flyer Josh Morris sliced through some questionable Sea Eagles defence and set up winger Jonathan Wright to cross the tryline on the Bulldogs’ first meaningful attack of the night.
Manly slowly began to win the arm wrestle and were dominating possession without hurting the Bulldogs on the scoreboard, and the frustration began to show.
Jason King was the first to be placed on report after an errant high shot on James Graham and serial offender Steve Matai followed minutes later after another reckless effort that is certain to attract the scrutiny of the NRL judiciary.
A promising opening 20 minutes had all of a sudden turned sour for the Sea Eagles, and when Lyon limped off with a calf injury before the half hour it looked a long way back for the boys from Brookvale.
But a rapid-fire one-two punch from Mark Taufua and Brett Stewart turned the contest on its head within the space of five minutes and the Sea Eagles went into the break with a 10-6 lead and all the momentum.
The second half opened much like the first, with both sides trading punches in a tight, classically finals-like contest, before a superb solo effort from Bulldogs halfback Kris Keating put Des Hasler’s men back in the lead.
It seemed to invigorate the Bulldogs after the shock of the two first-half Sea Eagles tries and the Bulldogs’ two chief destroyers were at it again soon afterwards.
Morris and Barba have lit up defences throughout the season and they linked again to scorch Manly in a length-of-the-field try following an ineffective Daly Cherry-Evans kick.
The Dally M Medallist had his opponents at sixes and sevens and looked to have crossed again five minutes later, but video referee Steve Clark ruled that Cherry-Evans had been impeded in what appeared another controversial application of the obstruction rule.
The six-point margin proved enough for the Dogs, who showed the composure and professionalism that has served them so well througout the season to close out the final quarter of an hour and seal the 16-10 victory.