Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs went down fighting 24-18 against Penrith in the opening round of the season after being down 24-0 with just 10 minutes on the clock.
The Bulldogs launched their 2015 campaign at the foot of the mountain with a full-strength line up including new faces Brett Morris, Curtis Rona and Michael Lichaa (pictured). With Morris slotting in at fullback, Sam Perrett moved back to the wing outside of Tim Lafai. It was an imposing 465kg bench named featuring Sam Kasianio, David Klemmer, Frank Pritchard and Tim Browne.
In a replay of last year’s preliminary final where the Bulldog’s prevailed 18-12, this time Penrith squeaked home by six surviving a late scare to claim a 24-18 victory.
It was all Penrith in the opening exchanges with the blue and whites absorbing plenty of early pressure. A 40/20 from Josh Reynolds in the 7th minute gave the Bulldogs their first attacking opportunity of the match but camped inside Penrith territory, new skipper James Graham came up with a handling error.
A crusher tackle from Josh Jackson in the 11th minute gave Penrith a repeat set on the Bulldog’s 20m line and they capitalised through winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak after quick hands created space down their right edge. Jamie Soward converted for a 6-0 lead.
A penalty in the 22nd minute after a scuffle gave the Bulldogs the perfect chance to hit back, starting their six just 15m out. However, the set ended with a grubber from Tony Williams going dead in goal.
Back-to-back penalties allowed Penrith to charge up field and a cut out ball from Soward to debutant George Jennings saw him score in the corner. Soward converted from the sideline to stretch the lead to 12-0 in the 30th minute.
Three straight penalties put Penrith in an attacking position just before half time and on the third one they elected to take the two. Soward popped it over to take a 14-0 lead to the sheds.
Aiden Tolman led the way in the opening half with 11 runs (for 77m) and 23 tackles. Although a penalty count of 8-3 in Panthers’ favour and 16 missed tackles best told the story so far.
Penrith started the second forty as they ended the first with an offload from Bryce Cartwright sending James Segeyaro clear to post the fourth try of the match. Soward struck his conversion sweetly making the score 20-0 in the 44th minute.
Watene-Zelezniak collected his second try in the 52nd minute, spinning out of a Rona tackle after taking a Soward bomb. Soward hooked his conversion to the right leaving things 24-0.
A break from Brett Morris in the 61st minute looked promising for the Bulldogs but a trailing Greg Eastwood was hauled down 10m out before the play broke down next tackle.
The Bulldogs weren’t to be denied in the 69th minute though with Time Browne scoring under the posts off a clever pass from Graham. Hodkinson collected the two for a 24-6 score line. It turned out to be the catalyst for a late rally.
In the following set Rona crossed the line after a long ball from Hodkinson found him unmarked. Hodkinson covered to cut the deficit to 12 with eight minutes remaining.
Another promising Bulldog raid was this time thwarted with the referees deeming a Brett Morris offload to a flying Frank Pritchard to have gone forward. It was a close call.
Soon after, Reynolds collected a loose ball and handed it off to Brett Morris who sped clear before avoiding a couple of late tackles to score under the posts! Three minutes to go and the lead was only six after Hodkinson added the extras.
From the kick-off the ball was switched to the left which saw Josh Morris streak clear only to be tackled 40m out. Eventually the last tackle option of a bomb to Rona brought a Panthers mistake. Bulldogs scrum 10m out with two minutes remaining. They peppered the line but it came down to a fifth tackle kick which was fumbled in the air and trickled over the sideline.
It was a gutsy effort on a very hot afternoon to post 18 late points but unfortunately the comeback fell just short.
Special shout outs to the Bulldogs debutants, Lichaa, who made 37 tackles, and Brett Morris and Rona who both collected tries.
Bulldogs will be in action on their home patch next Friday night against Parramatta. Kick-off at 7:35pm local time at ANZ Stadium.
PENRITH 24 (Watene-Zelezniak 2, Jennings, Segeyaro Tries; Soward 4 Goals) def. BULLDOGS 18 (Browne, Rona, Brett Morris Tries; Hodkinson 3 Goals)
At: Pepper Stadium, Penrith