The Penrith Panthers advanced to the second week of the finals series thanks to a scintillating second-half attacking spree that saw them overturn an early deficit into adominant 28-12 victory.
While the Panthers produced the sort of football that will have their fans dreaming of a first premiership in 13 years, the Bulldogs can look to next year after injuries to key personnel ended their 2016 campaign.
Exuberance trumps experience
They say finals football is the start of a whole new competition and the Bulldogs proved in the early exchanges that regular season form must be thrown out the window when the playoffs get underway. The blue and whites headed into the elimination final on the back of three straight losses but showed why they are such a feared side come the business end of the season. In the first half they completed 90 per cent of their sets and produced three try saves to hold a two-point lead despite only having 44 per cent of the ball. And while their almost 100 extra games of finals experience kept them in the contest, it wasn't enough to keep their season alive.
Perhaps overawed in the first half, the Panthers unleashed after the break to show why they are regarded as one of the most exciting teams left in the competition. The Bulldogs simply had no answers to Penrith's second-phase footy and their flashy footwork. Nothing typified their exuberance more than Tyrone Peachey's try in the 62nd minute that effectively put the result beyond doubt as a speculative offload, a cheeky tip-on and a late left-foot step combined to send the ever-improving centre over. Penrith's tries in the second stanza were nothing short of breathtaking, and based on Sunday's performance, they have the weapons to cause real damage in the post-season.
Gamesmanship swings momentum Penrith's way
With Penrith down by a converted try approaching half-time, the men from the foot of the mountains desperately needed something to get back into the game. Enter Matt Moylan. The Panthers skipper flirted with the sideline in the 34th minute and was nearly dragged into touch by Josh Morris. As he inched towards the sideline, Moylan heard the referee yell "held" and cleverly extended his arm to make sure he went into touch. The officials had no choice but to blow a penalty, and from the next set, Penrith crossed for their first points to give them a much-needed lift at the interval before running away with it in the second half.
Injuries cruel Brett Morris and the rest of Bulldogs' spine
Brett Morris's return to fullback for the first time since last year's finals series ended in heartbreak with the 30-year-old forced from the field early in the second half with a suspected knee injury. Filling in for Will Hopoate who was unavailable on religious grounds, Morris made a bright start to the game when he denied Trent Merrin a certain try with a terrific goal-line stop. But that's where the good news ended.
The Bulldogs custodian appeared to pick up the injury in the 33rd minute but bravely battled on, only to aggravate the knock a minute into the second stanza. He desperately tried to defend the line when Josh Mansour broke through barely 60 seconds later but was simply unable to push off the injured leg. There was no other option other than to take him off when he crumbled to the ground for a third time in the 49th minute, forcing him to watch the Bulldogs' season come to an end from the sidelines.
It capped a disastrous day for Canterbury's spine with halfback Moses Mbye the only member of the quartet to play the full 80 minutes after Josh Reynolds and Michael Lichaa both spent time in the sheds undergoing head injury assessment tests.
Kasiano's return a mixed bag
In his first game back from a two-week suspension for kicking Brisbane's Corey Parker in the face, Sam Kasiano was tipped to be the game-changer when introduced around the 20-minute mark. Instead, Bulldogs coach Des Hasler sprung a surprise and started the big man in place of David Klemmer. The expected fireworks never eventuated with Kasiano restricted to just two hit-ups and nine tackles in an 11-minute stint. The Bulldogs prop didn't come back on until the 50th-minute, and while he produced a couple of nice offloads, he didn't provide the impact that was expected and needed of him.
Josh Morris no-try might have made a difference
It received very little fanfare at the time, but Bulldogs centre Josh Morris appeared to have scored a try on the hour-mark that might have given his side a sniff with 20 minutes to play. Trailing by 10 points at the time, Morris looked to have been enveloped by a swarm of Penrith defenders, only for the ball to go agonisingly close to the line, forcing him to make a polite enquiry to the officials to check whether he had scored. The referees backed their judgement, and while there were no protests from the blue and white brigade replays suggested the ball may in fact have scraped the chalk as he was swung towards the in-goal. To make matters worse for the Bulldogs, Peachey scored from the very next set to all but end the contest.