Illawarra’s finals hopes are over after an empathic second-half performance from the Bulldogs allowed the hosts to run out convincing winners 32-8.
After a tight first half which saw the Bulldogs lead at the break 10-4, the Cutters reduced the gap to just two points early in the second half.
But from there it was all Canterbury, scoring four unanswered tries including a double to Lindon McGrady and a customary try to the VB NSW Cup’s top try-scorer Tyrone Phillips.
An already settled-looking Bulldogs side going into this clash was strengthened by the inclusion of prop David Fualalo in the starting side.
Conversely Cutters coach Scott Logan rolled the dice making several changes to the side named mid-week, most noticeably with the inclusions of George Rose, Craig Garvey and Mark Ioane among others, while back-rowers Nathan Green and Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard were shifted out to the centres.
The opening twenty minutes was a tense affair with Illawarra enjoying the majority of possession and territorial advantage but were unable to convert into points.
A rare Bulldogs foray inside the Cutters’ 20 allowed winger Jarrod McInally to be on the receiving end of a terrific cut-out pass from Matt Frawley to score in the left corner after 22 minutes.
A kick-retrieval error by Eto Nabuli deep in his own half was soon capitalised upon by the Bulldogs when Lindon McGrady was first on the scene to ground a Jaline Graham grubber to extend the home side’s lead to 10 points on the half hour mark.
Nabuli made amends on the stroke of half time after a scrum play created numbers on the left before the Fijian Flyer streaked away to score in the corner to reduce the deficit to six.
The Cutters started the second half the same way they finished the first with a try to Tuimavave-Gerrard after Drew Hutchinson’s awkward grubber kick couldn’t be defused by the Bulldogs’ goal-line defence and the centre was on the spot to reduce the gap to just two points.
But that’s as close as Illawarra got in the second half as the Bulldogs’ big forwards pack clicked into gear.
Several quick play-the-balls had the Cutters defence back-pedalling before Lindon McGrady went straight through the middle to score an easy 40-metre try under the posts to push the lead out to eight points.
The Bulldogs continued to apply pressure to the Cutters middle defence and increased their lead out to 14 points when Fualalo capitalised on some exciting second-phase play from his fellow forwards to score.
From there, the Cutters showed some urgency to get back into the game but began to buckle under pressure with their season slipping away.
The Bulldogs put an exclamation mark on their strong second half showing, taking advantage of Illawarra’s frailty in defence on their left edge to score late through Jaline Graham and the competition’s leading try-scorer Tyrone Phillips.
The win gives the Bulldogs plenty of confidence going into next Saturday’s home clash against Wests Tigers with the prospect of a win giving the Bulldogs an opportunity to secure fifth spot and also take plenty of momentum going into their first finals appearance since 2012.
On the other hand, the Cutters travel to Pepper Stadium next Saturday with nothing but pride to play for when they take on co-leaders Penrith, in their final game for 2015.
Canterbury Bulldogs 32 (L McGrady 2 J McInally, D Fualalo, J Graham, T Phillips tries; L Dodd 4 goals) def Illawarra 8 (E Nabuli, A Tuimavave-Gerrard tries) at Belmore Sports Ground.