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Burton boosts Blues claims as Bulldogs bulldoze tackle-shy Dragons after Bird grounded by painful ankle injury

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Expert
23rd May, 2024
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Matt Burton didn’t quite bash down the State of Origin selection door but he definitely gave his chances a major boost by orchestrating Canterbury’s second-half surge to sink an insipid St George Illawarra side. 

With the Dragons’ edge defence crumbling after Jack Bird went off with an ankle injury late in the first half, the Dogs ran in seven unanswered tries to register a resounding 44-12 victory on Thursday night at Accor Stadium. 

Bird appeared to have suffered a broken leg as he writhed in agony after tackling Bronson Xerri but club medicos are hopeful he may have only suffered a lesser syndesmosis injury in the only bright spot for the beaten visitors.

Burton scored a try in each half and steered Canterbury towards the weak link in the opposition defensive line after Bird limped off but it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to seal his selection ahead of Jarome Luai and Cody Walker in the race to be the NSW five-eighth alongside Nicho Hynes for Origin I on June 5 at the same venue.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 23: Jaeman Salmon of the Bulldogs fends off Tom Eisenhuth of the Dragons to score a try during the round 12 NRL match between Canterbury Bulldogs and St George Illawarra Dragons at Accor Stadium on May 23, 2024, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)Jaeman Salmon fends off Tom Eisenhuth. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)[/caption]
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Bird’s injury looked nasty but while his prognosis turned out to not be as dire as first feared with the club hopeful he may only miss six weeks for what initally appeared to be season-ending damage.

Even though he managed to crawl over the sideline before getting treatment, play was held up for several minutes a short time later as he received attention, eventually getting the green whistle to ease his pain as the medicab took him into the dressing room.

His absence in the defensive line was a huge problem for the Dragons given they had selected four forwards on the bench, forcing Shane Flanagan to shift Matt Eisenhuth to left centre. 

The Bulldogs ran past Eisenhuth and an equally inept Luciano Leilua for Jaeman Salmon to make it 12-12 early in the second half and were unlucky to concede a penalty which piggybacked Canterbury downfield a short time later when Hunt was ruled to have made a second effort to drag Xerri over the sideline.

“I can’t believe that’s a penalty. That’s a dud call,” Johns fumed.

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Canterbury cashed in on the next set when winger Jacob Kiraz sped past Eisenhuth and Leilua’s arm grabs to put Salmon over again.

Salmon spent a couple of days in hospital last week on an IV drip due to an illness and missed Magic Round even though Ciraldo said he still wanted to play.

Nobody can accuse that Dog of being weak-gutted. Surely. 

Kiraz crossed for a four-pointer of his own midway just before the hour mark, running through that same right-side channel, to give the Dogs a 24-12 lead and the tiring Dragons were on the ropes.

Second-rower Jacob Preston completed the onslaught down the western edge of the ground as Leilua again snatched at thin air and the contest was over.

When Zac Lomax was marched for a professional foul in a Xerri near-miss for a try, the floodgates opened wider still with Burton and Kiraz grabbing their second and Crichton also cashing in.

“I think we just played with some freedom once we got going in the second half,” Ciraldo said.

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“Every win is huge for us. We’ve had our opportunities to win games at the end and we haven’t taken them. Tonight to come here and played the way we did was really pleasing.”

Utility value missing at Dragons

There were a lot of eyebrows raised when Canterbury seemingly bought every utility player on the open market in the off-season.

St George Illawarra could have done with a versatile bench option on Thursday night – a forward who could fill in out wide.

But with Flanagan going into the game with four forwards, his best of a bad bunch option was to switch Eisenhuth to left centre when Bird was hobbled.

With Leilua playing his first game for more than a month due to a calf injury and looking well short of a gallop and Kyle Flanagan shuffling wider to defend next to Mikaele Ravalawa, it was a recipe for disaster with Canterbury running in six of their seven four-pointers in the second stanza through the tackle-shy quartet.

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The Dragons also lost forward Hame Sele early in the contest to a shoulder injury so they were clearly under fatigue as the match wore on with only two subs to rotate onto the pitch but some of the defence was downright embarrassing.

When coach Flanagan plonks himself down at the selection table to prepare for next week’s trip to Penrith, the first order of business should be working out a way to cover all options with his interchange.

“Without a doubt, we’ll be looking at that for sure,” he said when asked if he would be making changes to his line-up. “If you keep getting these results and you keep picking the same side, they’ll find a new coach.”

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