Canterbury rookie Brandon Wakeham had an NRL debut to remember on Sunday after receiving a late call up for Canterbury following the 11th hour departure of Rhyse Martin and being thrust into a playmaking role when Kieran Foran limped off in the first half.
With Foran suffering a hamstring injury in the 25th minute, Wakeham partnered Jack Cogger in the halves and the Bulldogs defended an early 14-0 lead to hold out Cronulla and score an upset win at ANZ Stadium.
Wakeham, who played halfback for Fiji in last weekend's defeat of Lebanon, had only been called into the Bulldogs squad for the match after Martin was granted a release hours before kick-off to take up an offer in Super League before the expiry of the June 30 transfer deadline.
The 20-year-old is a Bulldogs junior from the Chester Hill club who played for the club's Harold Matthews and SG Ball teams before graduating to the Under 20s and NSWRL Canterbury Cup teams.
"We only found out over the last day or so [that Martin was leaving] and it was such a great effort from a young bloke," Canterbury coach Dean Pay said of Wakeham. "He really stepped up and it didn't phase him too much. He just went out and did a wonderful job."
The win still leaves the Bulldogs at the foot of the Telstra Premiership ladder but they showed disregard for their position by racing to a 14-0 in the opening 20 minutes after Foran engineered tries for centre Will Hopoate and fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.
"We are still a young, rebuilding team and it is going to take a little while but the effort there today was there and it is so pleasing for them," Pay said.
Match: Bulldogs v Sharks
Round 15 -
Venue: ANZ Stadium
- Nine Network
- LIVE PASS
Hopoate grabbed the first try of the match in just the fourth minute after he leapt above opposing centre and former team-mate Josh Morris to catch a Foran kick and score.
Winger Nick Meaney converted and he then landed an 11th minute penalty to extend Canterbury's lead to 8-0 as the home side dominated the early exchanges against a lacklustre Sharks outfit.
Foran demonstrated why he is considered such an inspirational player for any team he is in when he pushed through an attempted tackle by Sharks forwards Briton Nikora and Braden Hamlin-Uele after a dummy half run by Michalel Lichaa and sent Watene-Zelezniak racing 40 metres to score.
Meaney's conversion gave the Bulldogs a healthy 14-0 lead but the loss of Foran in the 25th minute swung momentum Cronulla's way and they finally got on the scoreboard when Johnson and fullback Matt Moylan combined to put winger Sosaia Feki over.
Johnson was unable to convert Feki's 35th minute try but he helped the Sharks to narrow the deficit just two minutes late when he scored a try of his own after putting Nikora in a hole and then picking up a loose ball that was stripped by Canterbury second-rower Corey Harawira-Naera.
Trailing 14-8 at halftime, Cronulla looked set to romp home in the second half when centre Josh Dugan pounced on a Moylan kick to score in the 49th minute but again Johnson failed to convert and the Sharks trailed 14-12 despite having scored three tries to two.
Winger Bronson Xerri got over the Canterbury line four minutes later but the try was disallowed after review officials ruled that Nikora had obstructed Wakeham and the decision proved costly as they could not score again.
Interchange forward Jack Williams looked set to snatch victory for Cronulla when he fielded a grubber kick near his own line and raced 80 metres before being run down by Reimis Smith and Marcelo Montoya.
Cronulla coach John Morris claimed Smith should have been penalised for holding down Williams in the tackle.
“I felt that we were robbed of a chance to at least level the game," Morris said. "Jack Williams is held down there, that is a seven second play-the-ball after a long range break.
"Reimis Smith comes over the top of him, has a second attempt to get back on top of the ball. That game should have at least been going into golden point, I thought."
Canterbury coach Dean Pay questioned Johnson's try due to a knock-on.
“I am not going to whinge about those sort of calls but gee, we don’t get them,” Pay said.
We just don’t get them, and I don’t know if that is because of where we are sitting. I am not sure but the 50-50s we don’t get.”
The Sharks were their own worst enemies and committed 16 errors, while Moylan was caught in possession on the last tackle in the 72nd minute and Johnson kicked out on the full with five minutes remaining.
Bulldogs prop Aiden Tolman, who was playing his 250th game, saved a possible try in the final minute when he dived on a Chad Townsend kick into Canterbury's in-goal.
“You’ve got a guy in Aiden Tolman who is playing his 250th game who is there to clean up that kick in the last minute to win the game," Morris said. "That’s what we are lacking at the moment, we are lacking enough players who want to do that."
Pay said: “The boys really busted their boiler for him today and I thought his game went to another level. He comes up with a play right at the end and he is there as the person who secures the game for us. He means so much to our team and so much to our club".