In a frustrating game that never really got going, Cronulla Sharks scrapped their way to an 18-16 victory over Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs at Belmore Sports Ground.
Aiden Tolman was a late withdrawal with a hamstring strain, and was replaced by David Klemmer in the run-on side. Moses Mbye dropped off the bench with Tim Browne and Lloyd Perrett joining Sam Kasiano and Shaun Lane on the pine.
Sunday afternoon footy doesn’t get any better and to add some extra spice to the contest, former players Ben Barba and Michael Ennis lined up in the light blue of Cronulla. Pre-game, former Bulldogs legends were paraded around the ground, including in front of the sea of blue and white supporters that covered the famous Belmore hill.
Now to the on-field action! Josh Reynolds went up the tunnel in the 8th minute nursing his arm – an injury sustained earlier the game. He was replaced by young gun Lane.
It was Sharks that drew first blood though with Michael Gordon streaking clear in the 13th minute after Wade Graham busted the line. Gordon converted his own try for 6-0.
Bulldogs were close to striking back immediately but Lane’s effort was ruled to be a double movement. There was no denying Josh Morris in the 19th minute, with the centre crashing over from close range to send the sold out crowd into raptures. Trent Hodkinson sent his conversion to the right to leave things 6-4. It was a double boost for Bulldogs with Reynolds returning to the field moments prior to the try.
Sharks winger Sosaia Feki dropped the ball over the line in the 24th minute, having chased through a grubber. A barrage of penalties thereafter saw Cronulla camped on the Bulldog’s line for four straight sets but they were turned away empty-handed.
It was a tight and hard-fought first half of footy but very scrappy, littered with 12 penalties and 19 errors. Sharks led 6-4 at the break. It was the engine room that showed the way with Klemmer (10 runs for 108m, 16 tackles), James Graham (11 runs for 78m, 25 tackles) and Michael Lichaa (26 tackles) getting through a mountain of work.
Sharks skipper Paul Gallen was put on report in the opening minutes of the second forty, gifting Bulldogs the opportunity to take the lead for the first time in the match but after a promising raid, Frank Pritchard was ruled to have lost control by the video referee.
Unfortunately the second half begin like the first ended – too many handling errors and too many penalties. Bulldogs absorbed plenty of pressure in the first 10 minutes but the Belmore wall finally cracked with Gallen barging over next to the posts in the 50th minute. With Gordon off the field, replaced earlier by Barba, it was left to Valentine Holmes to slot the extras for 12-4.
Just as Bulldogs looked to be building an attack in the subsequent set, Josh Morris’ pass to brother Brett was ruled forward.
A clever kick chipped in behind from Ennis in the 60th minute was hunted down by Holmes, who extended the lead further. The conversion was waved away for 16-4.
A glimmer of hope was offered to the Bulldog’s faithful with 15 minutes on the clock after great second phase play opened up the Sharks’ defence for a Hodkinson wrap around to send Pritchard over untouched. Hodkinson added the two to cut the deficit to 16-10.
Greg Eastwood and David Klemmer cannoned themselves into the line in the following set, suggesting the remaining minutes would make up for the intensity that the rest of the game lacked. Two promising attacking sets thereafter amounted to no points though.
The loud and proud chants from the 19 thousand-strong crowd lifted the boys and they came agonisingly close in the 73nd minute via Brett Morris who crossed the line but the video referee only needed one look to disallow the try due to a Pritchard obstruction on Jack Bird.
Holmes attempted a field goal in the 74th minute but a rushing Reynolds saw the attempt spiral to the right. Controversially, Reynolds was penalised for his tackle, gifting Sharks two points from right in front. Holmes dusted himself off to slot the penalty for 18-10.
An opportunistic try from Lichaa in the 78th minute, scooping up a Sharks deflection, offered some late hope! With 1 minute and 35 second on the clock after the kick-off, there was one final set to steal the game. It wasn’t to be though with Josh Morris spilling a difficult Lane offload.
The real pandemonium began long after the siren, with fans encouraged to spend time on the hallowed Belmore turf! What an experience for those that stayed behind.
Bulldogs are hosted by Roosters next Friday night at Allianz Stadium with kick-off 7:35pm local time.
Sharks 18 (Gordon, Gallen, Holmes Tries; Gordon 1, Holmes 2 Goals) def. BULLDOGS 16 (J.Morris, Pritchard, Lichaa Tries; Hodkinson 2 Goals)
At: Belmore Sports Ground