Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs tonight booked their place in next Sunday’s Grand Final having defeated Penrith 18-12 in front of 46,168 loud and proud fans.
After sustaining a knee injury in last week’s hard-fought victory over Manly, Trent Hodkinson was passed fit to take his spot in the run on side. The only change to the team was Tim Browne, who has been sidelined for nine weeks with a fractured skull, coming on to the bench at the expense of Reni Maitua.
The Bulldogs, boosted by a sea of brilliant blue and white fans, were never behind on the scoreboard in their Preliminary Final taking the ascendency mid-way through the first half before a determined defensive effort saw them progress to the decider with a 18-12 win.
It took a few sets to the settle the troops with both teams making early errors and conceding penalties. On the back of consecutive penalties and then a fortunate six again call, the Panthers had the first real attacking opportunity of the game but as was the story of the night, the Bulldog’s defence was rock-solid. It remained 0-0 after 10 minutes.
After being awarded back-to-back penalties of their own immediately after, the Bulldogs mounted their own first meaningful attack of the night. After initially being repelled, the Panthers made an error coming out of their own 20m and this time the boys in blue weren’t to be denied, with James Graham missiling himself at the line to score from close range. Tim Lafai was on kicking duties with Hodkinson’s knee niggle and converted the try from in front for a 6-0 lead in the 16th minute.
The pace of game really picked up afterwards, with the Bulldogs crossing for their second four-pointer of the match in the 27th minute, again making Penrith pay for a mistake deep in their own territory. A cleverly worked move involving Josh Reynolds and Graham opened up a gap for Josh Jackson who strode to the line untouched. Lafai added the extras for a 12-0 lead.
An uncharacteristic mistake in the 31st minute from Sam Perrett gave Penrith a golden opportunity to strike back. However, the Bulldog’s defence again stood tall.
After a string of penalties, Penrith crossed for their first of the night with less than a minute on the first half clock. Matt Moylan found space down their right edge to cross and Jamie Soward converted to leave it 12-6 at the break.
Bulldogs resumed the second half without skipper Michael Ennis who suffered a foot injury earlier in the match. He didn’t return to the field. This saw Reynolds shift to hooker with Tony Williams moving into the halves.
Upon resumption of play it was all Penrith in the opening 15 minutes, with a series of errors gifting Penrith good field position. Against the run of play, Perrett came agonisingly close to extending the lead in the 55th minute only to be held up over the line. A dropout ensued and from the next set of six a great offload from Greg Eastwood put Dale Finucane over next to the posts. Lafai added the extras in the 59th minute to restore the 12-point lead.
Penrith winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak made a play for the corner in the 62nd minute but an excellent covering tackle from Mitch Brown denied him. Waves of Penrith attacks continued to be turned away and it took a bomb in the 72nd minute to break the shackles, with Watene-Zelezniak swooping on a Soward bomb to score under the sticks. Soward converted to make it 18-12.
Lafai came up with a big tackle to dislodge the ball from Jamal Idris in the 77th minute with Penrith peppering the Bulldog’s line.
It was a tense final few minutes for the Bulldog’s faithful but the boys hung on to book a place in the big one against the Rabbitohs next Sunday. We’re going to the Grand Final!
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BULLDOGS 18 (Graham, Jackson, Finucane Tries; Lafai 3 Goals) def. PANTHERS 12 (Moylan, Watene-Zelezniak Tries; Soward 2 Goals)
At: ANZ Stadium