Sonny Bill Williams enjoyed a triumphant return to the his old Canterbury kennel, as his Sydney Roosters survived a late surge to score a 20-18 NRL win on Friday night.
Outstanding back-rower Boyd Cordner and centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall each scored two of the Roosters’ four tries.
Down 20-6 with 19 minutes to go, the Bulldogs scored the last 12 points, but ran out of time.
Converted tries in the last six minutes to Dene Halatau and Krisnan Inu got the Bulldogs close.
Playing against the Bulldogs at their ANZ Stadium home for the first time since walking out on the club in 2008, Williams displayed his full range of skills.
Listed at halfback, Williams was cleared to play before the game after suffering a gluteal muscle injury on Thursday and relished his roving role.
Often going into first receiver with regular playmakers James Maloney and Mitchell Pearce on NSW State of Origin duty, Williams skilfully mixed up his kicking, passing and running game against an out-of-sorts Bulldogs combination.
Williams got plenty of support from forwards Cordner and Frank-Paul Nuuausala.
In the backs, halfback Daniel Mortimer’s smart option-taking helped the Roosters overcome the loss to NSW of first-choice halves Pearce and Maloney, while winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck excelled.
Canterbury slipped to just their second loss in their past nine games, but could have few complaints.
Leading 10-6 at the break, the Roosters took control by scoring the first two tries of the second half.
Tuivasa-Sheck set up Kenny-Dowall in the 49th minute and Cordner surged onto a Mortimer pass to complete his double in the 61st minute.
The Roosters dominated the first quarter, creating most of the early opportunities.
Kenny-Dowall was held up off a Williams pass before crossing in the fifth minute following good ball movement and a well-timed pass from fullback and captain Anthony Minichiello.
While much of the pre-match fuss surrounded Williams, it was the Bulldogs’ latest superstar, fullback Ben Barba, who snatched back the spotlight.
The elusive Barba sliced through two attempted tackles to notch his eighth try in 12 games this season.
Cordner regained the lead for the Roosters when he rushed onto a Mortimer pass at pace and smashed over the line, with Mortimer converting.
Halfback Trent Hodkinson was at the heart of most of the Bulldogs’ best attacking moments.
Roosters debutant Dylan Napa made his presence felt, being placed on report for a shoulder charge on James Graham just before the break and redeemed himself almost immediately by stripping the ball from Sam Kasiano.
Graham did not return to the game.
Williams said he felt pretty sore in the last 20 minutes and was struggling.
“I had physio three times yesterday and iced up pretty much all night and then this morning had to take a couple of pain killers,” Williams said.
“If it was any other week and we had a full strength side, I’d probably just try and get it ready for the next week.
“But because we were understrength I knew I had to try and get out there for the boys.”
Roosters coach Trent Robinson, who described it as a great win, was happy to leave the decision to Williams, who had a fitness test before the game.
“I didn’t even ask him after the warmup because he would have told me if he wasn’t right, so he played and played well,” Robinson said.
Asked about the report on Napa, Robinson said: “It looked like a shoulder charge but I’m hoping he got his arm around it.”
Bulldogs coach Des Hasler said Graham hurt his back, but should be right after the coming bye.
“They ran a little bit harder, they tackled a little bit harder and consequently they did enough to hang on,” Hasler said of the Roosters.
“We’ve been up for a little while, but there was plenty for us to play (for) tonight coming off the back of a win last week and heading into the bye.”
Robinson wasn’t sure how the last-minute knee injury on Martin Kennedy would affect the prop’s role of 18th man in the Queensland Origin squad.