The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs are in to the 2018 Intrust Super Premiership Grand Final after a thrilling 28-26 victory over a fast-finishing St George Illawarra Dragons outfit.
Josh Cleeland was superb for the Bulldogs by constantly creating chances for his team, while Mason Cerruto had one of his best games for the club off the back of a powerful forward pack.
The Dragons were boosted by the inclusions of Jai Field and Blake Lawrie who both played in the NRL last night, with Field in particular causing havoc with the ball in hand. Reuben Garrick was one of, if not, the best player of the field despite being on the losing team with two tries, a try assist, and an involvement in the last try.
A shaky start for both teams saw the Dragons invite the Bulldogs into good ball territory through poor handling, and in return the Bulldogs bombed two try-scoring chances when Eastwood couldn’t hold onto the ball close to the line and Mason Cerruto dropped it during a left-side raid.
A huge hit from Eastwood forced another Dragons error to which they received a penalty off the ensuing set, the Rhyse Martin posted the first points of the game with a penalty goal.
Back-to-back penalties gave the Bulldogs another golden opportunity that they converted into a try when crafty dummy half by Zac Woolford passed to Renouf To’omaga, who had to wrestle his way through a number of defenders to plant the ball down.
An error off the kick-off set meant the Bulldogs conceded a scrum inside their half and the Dragons immediately responded when Pat Herbert made a line-break off the scrum. He was pulled down 10 metres short, but they couldn’t stop the brilliance of Jai Field on the next tackle when he sharply stepped off his left foot and threw a pin-point miracle offload to Reuben Garrick who charged onto the ball and scored.
Garrick soon had his second the next time the Dragons were on the attack; the halves linked up and with players in motion Adam Clune threw a bullet-pass to his left, to which the skilled centre ran a beautiful line and took the lead for the first time.
A great play before half-time from Morgan Harper gave the Bulldogs a final chance when he stripped the ball and earned possession back; Francis Tualau crashed over a few plays later to take the lead right back from the Dragons.
The Bulldogs went very close to opening the scoring in the second half when Cleeland put in a perfect grubber off the back of a Cerruto run to which Harper won the race, but couldn’t pick the ball up cleanly.
Garrick continued his absolute field day off the back of that when Jai Field once again got to the outside of his defender with sheer speed, threw a nice pass to the centre who held it up perfectly for Shaun Sauni-Esau who had plenty of work to do but finished in the corner.
Some great scramble defence from the Dragons prevented what looked to be another certain try with Cleeland at speed, but they couldn’t stop the next effort when Fa’amanu Brown put a kick up to a pack of players from both teams that wasn’t handled by anyone until John Olive pounced on the loose ball to take the lead back.
Cleeland would not be denied the next time he saw an opportunity when he broke the line, drew the fullback and passed to Cerruto who raced away to score under the posts.
That try seemed like the game was over, but the Dragons went so close in a frantic final few minutes of the game.
Field continued to buzz around the ball and created an opportunity for Stephen Masters to score, but a contender for try of the year followed. The Dragons just kept the ball alive, and through a series of freakish offloads and a final kick, Pat Herbert scored to bring the margin back to two points with minutes left. Words can’t describe the sheer franticness of the try; it simply has to be seen to be believed.
The Dragons had one last roll of the dice, but the Bulldogs kept them out to book their place in the Grand Final against the Newtown Jets.