Dragons v Bulldogs: Five Key Points
Needing a win to earn passage to the finals and knowing a loss would end their season, the Dragons were lacklustre in the opening 40 before hitting the lead midway through the second half only to get run down in a 26-20 loss.
Bittersweet end for departing Josh Reynolds
An unlikely early comeback from a calf injury quickly followed by the opening try of the game had Belmore's favourite son Josh Reynolds on track for as good a farewell as he could have hoped for, given his team won't play finals this year.
Instead, his highlight reel ended with that fourth-minute four-pointer with Reynolds suffering an ankle injury in the lead-up to that play, which eventually forced the Wests-Tigers-bound five-eighth off in the 18th minute.
The sight of a dejected Reynolds in the sheds with ice on his ankle was a sad one for all rugby league fans but his energetic four-pointer to open the match is the type of play Reynolds became synonymous with in his Belmore career.
"I'm gutted but I'm not going to let this moment wreck all the moments I've had in this Bulldogs jumper," Reynolds told Channel Nine after leaving the field.
"I've had some great moments and this is just another hurdle I need to get over."
Season of missed chances and hollow records for Dragons
It will be cold comfort to the Dragons players and their fans that they are, statistically, the "best" team to miss the finals since the NRL became a 16-team competition in 1999. Instead, it will be a season that got away.
St George Illawarra exploded out of the blocks in 2017 with their power-packed forwards storming through the middle of opponents. After seven rounds they were leading the competition and had the best attack.
They finish the year with a +83 points differential – the best of any team not to play finals (not counting teams that lost ladder points for salary cap breaches) in that period.
Only a handful of teams in that period have got to 28 points and not played finals while the team finishing eighth has frequently had fewer than 28 points. Had the Dragons won the Cowboys would then have become the first team since the 1999 Raiders (in a 17-team competition) to make it to 30 points and miss the finals.
Even heading into Round 26 in ninth place St George Illawarra were expected to account for a Bulldogs side that had struggled to score points all season (up until the final three weeks), but after leading 20-14 with 15 minutes to go they found a way to concede twice and bow out of finals contention.
Running man Lichaa's Dogs career a mystery
The often unfairly-maligned Canterbury hooker Michael Lichaa will depart the Bulldogs with fans wondering exactly why the incisive running game he used to such wonderful effect over the final three games of 2017 wasn't on show more often in his three years at the club.
Given Lichaa's NYC career at Cronulla – in which he forged a reputation as a threat running from dummy half and frequently topped 100 running metres in a game – it would appear to have been a directive.
On Sunday, Lichaa's dangerous darts were critical in setting up at least three of Canterbury's tries and there were plenty more potent scoots amongst his eight runs for 71 metres. Then of course there was his amazing 73rd-minute try, shooting out of dummy half at the Dragons line to earn the Dogs the lead to go from 20-all to 26-20 ahead, though unfortunately he injured his calf in the play and was forced off.
Lichaa is still without a club for 2018 but no doubt whoever snaps him up will do so on the basis of having been impressed by his sharp work around the ruck in the final three games of his Canterbury career.
Dragons win the stats but not the scoreboard
Watching the game it was hard to work out how, after Matt Dufty scored in the 53rd minute to put the Red V ahead 18-14, the Dragons were actually in front. The Bulldogs had seemed to have more energy from the outset and looked more dangerous with the ball. The Dragons were offloading at will to flat-footed players and going nowhere.
Canterbury were running and tackling with more intent even after falling behind.
But if you cast an eye over the stats having not watched the game you may be left wondering how the Dragons lost.
They held 53 per cent of the ball, won the penalty count 8-3, forced three goal line drop-outs to none, missed half as many tackles as their opponents (15-27), ran for more metres (1,684-1,465) and won the offloads 17-11.
If there was a "winning the key moments" stat though, the Dogs would have won it at a canter.
Lafai's up-and-down afternoon summarises Dragons' plight
If there was one player who encapsulated the Dragons' fluctuating fortunes (both on Sunday and across the season) better than any other it was strike centre Tim Lafai.
Lafai, like the Dragons, performed poorly in 2016 – to the point that it came as something of a surprise to outsiders he was a first-pick to start 2017.
Lafai, like the Dragons, exploded out of the blocks in 2017, making a mockery of the predications of plenty of expert pundits.
And like his team, Lafai produced some excellent moments on Sunday with the season on the line but faltered when it counted.
The former Bulldog produced a nice draw-and-pass to help set up Jason Nightingale's late first-half try and followed that up with a special piece of work to help set up Matt Dufty for the go-ahead try early in the second.
However he also produced a regrettable attempted offload late in the piece to gift the Dogs possession near the Dragons' line to set the platform for Lichaa's match-winner.