It was far from a vintage performance from Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs but they eventually prevailed 26-22 against a gallant Warriors side.
Brett Morris was a late withdrawal with a corked quad which saw Sam Perrett shift to fullback and Chase Stanley come on to the flank outside of Tim Lafai. Trent Hodkinson was ruled out for the rest of the season with a dislocated wrist but it was a timely return for livewire five-eighth Josh Reynolds. Aiden Tolman also returned to the side, starting on the bench, with in-form Sam Kasiano keeping his run on spot.
With Manly upsetting Cronulla hours prior, a win for Bulldogs would see them jump to fifth on the competition ladder and set up a week one Finals clash with Dragons.
A slippery ANZ surface welcomed the players onto the field, after Bulldogs had said their farewells to departing players Trent Hodkinson, Corey Thompson and Frank Pritchard with a guard of honour. Chasing five straight wins in their run to the semis there were a few shaky moments but class prevailed in the end with skipper James Graham sealing the 26-22 victory late in the match.
Warriors were on the score sheet after just five minutes, with Nathan Friend scooting out of dummy half to catch Bulldogs napping after a penalty put them on the attack. Tuimoala Lolohea added the two for 6-0.
Perrett went close to evening it up in the 9th minute but he lost control as he slid towards the corner. Perrett was in the thick of it again soon after, producing a brilliant solo try-saver on half Mason Lino who had through the broken the line.
Damien Cook came up with a bone-rattling hit in the 13th minute forcing an error and Bulldogs capitalised, with Curtis Rona offloading for Josh Morris to score. Lafai stepped up for kicking duties, but his effort was waved away for 6-4.
Fans were treated to a Rona special in the 29th minute, with the try-scoring machine producing a yet another spectacular finish flirting with the sideline. Lafai missed from out wide to leave it 8-6. It took Rona’s season tally to 22 – just one try off equally the club record of 23 held by Ben Barba and Nigel Vagana.
Josh Morris looked certain to score at the end of the second half after collecting a Reynolds kick but had the ball knocked loose as he went to fall over the line.
That was the last chance in a half littered with errors. Bulldog’s completion rate was 13/20 with Warriors a lowly 10/19.
Warriors got off to another flying start with Solomone Kata finishing off a sharp backline movement in the 43rd minute. Lolohea’s conversion missed to the right for 10-8.
Bulldogs took the lead again in the 58th minute through Stanley who slid over in the corner after an overlap was created down the right edge. Tim Browne stepped up for the conversion and nailed it from the sideline! There’s a new sharpshooter in town! Bulldogs back in front 14-10.
Cook darted over from dummy half in the 61st minute, which was his third try of the season. Browne slotted the extras for 20-10.
Lolohea cut back the deficit in the 65th minute, dancing past several defenders with terrific footwork. He converted his own try for 20-16.
It was that man again Lolohea in the 70th minute, running a great line off Chad Townsend. The possession was on the back of an earlier Rona error off a bomb. Lolohea converted to give the Warriors a two point lead. It was a much more disciplined Warriors side, completing 14/14 sets at this point in the second half.
With only four minutes left on the clock, Warriors came up with their first error of the second forty. They paid a heavy price with Graham touching down next to the posts after Reynolds found the skipper in space. Browne knocked over the two for 26-22.
Warriors retrieved the ball off a short kick-off, providing one final chance but with one tackle left in the set Kata made a bee line for the corner only to find Josh Jackson, who forced him into touch. Bulldogs saw it out from there to squeak home 26-22.
BULLDOGS 26 (J.Morris, Rona, Stanley, Cook Tries; Browne 3 Goals) def. WARRIORS 22 (Lolohea 2, Friend, Kata Tries; Lolohea 3 Goals)
At: ANZ Stadium