A last-gasp try from centre Patrick Herbert with just 10 seconds left has given Illawarra a 28-all draw with Canterbury-Bankstown at WIN Stadium this afternoon, keeping their Intrust Super Premiership NSW season alive.
The dramatic draw secured the defending premiers the last spot in the top eight finals series to keep their title defence alive for at least one more week – after being behind the Bulldogs on the scoreboard for all but the last play of the match.
The Bulldogs started on the front foot when second-rower Rhyse Martin charged down Illawarra’s clearing kick at the end of the first set of the match, before regathering to set up field position for prop Renouf To’omaga to score the game’s opening try. Rhyse Martin converted for a 6-0 Canterbury lead after just two minutes.
Canterbury doubled their lead in the 14th minute when a slick right side backline movement saw centre Reimis Smith easily score wide out on the right. Martin made no mistake from near touch to have the Bulldogs up 12-0.
Illawarra then worked play upfield after finally getting some decent early possession in the 19th minute – where five-eighth Jack Payne threw a 25-metre cutout pass to hit winger Izaac Thompson on the chest for his 13th try of the season in the corner. Jai Field converted from touch to cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 12-6.
After Payne had a try disallowed for obstruction by referee Adam Cassidy, Canterbury then dominated the rest of the first half – starting with winger Tom Carr running off a neat pass from fullback Brad Abbey in the 26th minute to score wide out on the right for a 16-6 lead.
From the restart set, Illawarra lost the first of their two retirements from concussion when Will Matthews was forced to leave the field before being ruled out under the concussion rule for the rest of the match.
Then three minutes from half-time, at the end of another attacking set, a deft Lincoln Lewis grubber kick on the last tackle hit the upright for evergreen Canterbury-Bankstown lock Rod Griffin to pick up and score under the posts. Martin’s simple conversion gave the Bulldogs a handsome 22-6 lead at the break.
Illawarra’s concussion woes then reached their nadir when the debut of young forward Matt Jurd lasted just 30 seconds at the start of the second half.
Jurd went down in a sickening blow after catching Griffin’s hip in attempting a tackle in the opening set of the second stanza – forcing him to take no further part in the match.
After Bulldogs five-eighth Josh Cleeland dropped the last pass from a Martin break three minutes into the second half, Illawarra showed signs of a comeback when Field was penalised for obstruction when crossing the goal line to score four minutes later.
The comeback then started when Field showed his pace to finish a right-side move for his first try 15 minutes into the second half. Field duly converted his own try to cut the Canterbury lead to 22-12.
The Bulldogs then appeared to have steadied when they scored the best try of the match with 19 minutes left.
Cleeland took on the defensive line before linking down the short right-hand blind side with Martin, who in turn passed to Carr, who then miraculously flicked a pass out the back when tackled to centre Richie Kennar who scored a brilliant team try in the corner.
Martin’s conversion bounced over off the upright and the Bulldogs seemed to be in control leading 28-12.
After the Bulldogs made an error from the restart, Illawarra took advantage when Field burnt off the cover defence from the scrum win to score his second try to keep the premiers in touch. The speedy fullback again converted his own try to cut the Canterbury margin to 28-18.
The comeback was then well and truly on with seven minutes to play when Payne popped up a lovely short ball in traffic to prop Jacob Hind, who showed good speed for a big man to burst over from 20 metres to score. Field converted and it was game on at 28-24 with time left on the clock.
Canterbury then appeared to be holding on in defence before Illawarra started the last set of the match in possession with just over one minute to play.
Four tackles into the fateful last set, Illawarra went down the left-hand short side through Payne, Field and centre Taane Milne. A loose ball then was scooped up by Field who desperately switched play back to the right-hand side to half Adam Clune.
Clune then linked up with Herbert, who got on the outside of his man and dashed 20 metres to beat the cover and score the try that put Illawarra into the Finals in the corner with just 10 seconds left.
The last-gasp try simultaneously ended the season of the Wentworthville Magpies, who were hoping for a Bulldogs win for a final chance to sneak into the playoffs against Penrith on Sunday.
Field missed the touchline conversion after the full-time siren to round out the 28-all draw – but that didn’t bother a relieved Illawarra, who had kept their season alive with their late escape.
Illawarra will play fifth placed Mounties in a rematch of the 2016 Grand Final in the first elimination final next weekend, while Canterbury-Bankstown will take on minor premiers the Wyong Roos in the first qualifying final to start their playoffs campaign after the draw saw the Bulldogs finish in fourth place on the final table.
Illawarra 28 (J Field 2, I Thompson, J Hind, P Herbert tries; J Hind 4 goals) drew with Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 28 (R To'Omaga, R Smith, T Carr, R Griffin, R Kennar tries; R Martin 4 goals)