The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs have sealed a preliminary finals berth with a 32-14 victory over Illawarra, overcoming a slow start to ensure the Intrust Super Premiership NSW will have new premiers in 2017.
With both sides' NRL affiliates absent from the finals, they enjoyed the rare luxury of virtually unchanged line-ups. Siliva Havili was the only inclusion for Illawarra while the Bulldogs were 1-17, with all hands on deck to keep their respective seasons alive.
The afternoon started poorly for Illawarra as Jai Field dropped the kick-off, but they managed to defend their tryline early. When the defending premiers got their first chance to attack they forced a repeat set, coming up with points in the second opportunity. Patrick Herbert was the man to open the scoring off a fine pass from Field, who failed to convert for a 4-0 scoreline.
As the Bulldogs enjoyed back-to-back penalties, they looked dangerous; Tyrone Phillips and Craig Garvey both went within millimetres of scoring, but a knock-on soon brought them undone. With Illawarra back on the attack, Jai Field was well and truly making amends for two key errors; the livewire five-eighth split the defence on the western touchline to advance further upfield, before the follow-up play went left to Izaac Thompson. The winger took a good cutout ball to score Illawarra's second, unconverted again for an 8-0 advantage.
The Bulldogs needed something or were at risk of falling further behind in the first half - and their first points came via captain Tyrone Phillips. The winger did it all himself from dummy-half, muscling his way over to score. With an impressive conversion from Rhyse Martin, the score was 8-6.
The Bulldogs would not let up in the second quarter as errors crept into Illawarra's game, but the defending premiers held strong without the ball and maintained the 8-6 score until half-time.
There was not much in it as the sides made their way onto the field for the second stanza - and Illawarra looked to score a third as Matt Dufty spread the ball to the left. The pass found Tom Carr perfectly, however, who raced 90 metres and beat Field to get his side in front.
Momentum had swung and the Bulldogs made no mistake with their next opportunity; this time Lachlan Lewis would show and go to break through and score from close range. Another fine conversion from Martin ensured an 18-8 lead.
The Blue-and-Whites had hit peak form and when Richie Kennar broke the line inside his own half, Abbey made sure he was there in support to make a 24-8 scoreline.
With 15 minutes remaining Illawarra were running out of ideas, but an unplanned chip to the corner found Jordan Pereira who gave the side a slight chance. Shortly after, the Bulldogs were deemed to have been held down when attacking Illawarra's line, opting to take the two points and re-establish the 12-point lead.
The result was all but assured with seven minutes remaining, but Abbey soon sealed it with a second four-pointer. The fullback took the pass from Rhyse Martin, who had caught a deflected Josh Cleeland chip kick close to the line. With Martin maintaining his perfect night with the boot, the full-time score would be 32-14.
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 32 (B Abbey 2, T Phillips, T Carr, L Lewis tries; R Martin 6 goals) def Illawarra 14 (P Herbert, I Thompson, J Pereira tries; J Field goal)
The NSWRL senior competitions’ finals series, covered like never before on NSWRL.com.au and the NSWRL Facebook page, culminate on Grand Final Day at Leichhardt Oval on Sunday 24 September. Be there to witness history, with tickets just $10 for adults and children under 12 free.