Bulldogs v Sharks: Five Key Points
They left it late. Extremely late, in fact. But Ricky Leutele's try and James Maloney's sideline conversion in the final 100 seconds of play was enough for the Sharks to come away with a 20-18 win over the Bulldogs on Monday night.
Sharks steal ninth-consecutive win
Sitting pretty atop the NRL Telstra Premiership ladder following their ninth-straight win, the Sharks offered the Bulldogs a lesson in persistence.
As we reach the halfway point of season 2016, the coolness of Maloney was on show for all to see in the Sharks' two point win.
"We showed plenty of resolve. I wouldn't say we didn't play well. The Bulldogs were up but in the end it was the belief in this group at the moment just to hang in there [that proved the difference]," Sharks coach Shane Flanagan said.
"They didn't score any points in the second half so for us to hang in there, believe in each other and fight until the last minute I was really proud of."
Match-winner Leutele found himself on the paddock for the final 26 minutes of the game after winger Sosaia Feki suffered a slight groin injury – what came next was one of the highlights of his 71 NRL game career thus far.
Sharks' NSW hopefuls prove points
Flanagan was buoyed by the way skipper Paul Gallen, Andrew Fifita and Maloney bounced back from New South Wales' loss to Queensland, but he could very well lose more players to the Blues if form dictates selection.
Wade Graham and Jack Bird were two men unlucky not to be picked for Origin I by Laurie Daley. Yet following solid performances against the Bulldogs they could very well throw on a different shade of blue in 15 days.
Graham in particular is in the box seat with good mate Boyd Cordner (foot) potentially out long term.
"You could say he was unlucky not to be there in the first place," Gallen said of Graham.
"He can play if Laurie goes that way and I think the good thing going in his favour is, he is a genuine left edge like Boyd is. I have no doubt he can do the job if Laurie goes that way."
Flanagan was equally complimentary of young centre Bird following a performance including eight tackle breaks and three offloads.
Matt Gidley eat your heart out
Still on Bird, the 21-year-old produced one of the great try assists of the season.
Bird palmed off Bulldogs winger Curtis Rona twice and despite having Josh Morris and Moses Mbye hanging off him was good enough to free his right arm and flick it out to Valentine Holmes for his 31st minute try.
The pass was reminiscent of champion Newcastle, NSW and Australian player Matt Gidley's ability to set up Timana Tahu on numerous occasions.
Whether Bird remembers the now-Knights CEO is another question but he was happy to expand on his partnership with best mate Holmes.
"We practice things like that at training and it obviously paid off," Bird said. "You just have to do those things at the right time though and this time it paid off."
Hopoate explodes after month sabbatical
Will Hopoate certainly made up for lost time following his return to the NRL.
Prior to facing the Sharks, the Bulldogs' past three games have been on Sundays with Hopoate given the club's blessing not to fulfil his playing duties in the name of his faith.
"I thought Will was outstanding. He ran the ball, caught the ball and carried the ball well," Hasler said.
His coach's short assessment wasn't the best reflection of what Hopoate truly offered.
A 75-metre long-winding run was the impetus behind Josh Reynolds' try early on in the match, while his three tackle breaks and double century of metres weren't too bad either.
Defeated Bulldogs bounce back from Blues in big way
Josh Jackson – in his 100th NRL game – recorded a game-high 42 tackles, Josh Morris produced four offloads and three tackle breaks while David Klemmer racked up 190 metres in 64 minutes.
It may not have been the best night for the Bulldogs but their three Origin representatives were certainly not to blame. Hasler himself said the trio were outstanding in their efforts.