So after 26 gruelling rounds featuring two tumultuous battles in Rd's 8 and 20 it just had to be, an epic finals encore of the Desdogs war. Who would reign supreme?
The match on everybody's lips threw up countless tantalising prospects. The master defector Hasler v the master apprentice Toovs, the prince Brett v the Dally M wonder kid Barba, and well, pretty much every other opposite number on the park at each others throats. The ultimate them v us war of attrition was set out before us at a windswept ANZ Stadium. Blow that whistle ref.
An origin like intensity set the tone from the opening. Massive hit ups met with driving tackles, both packs flexing their brutal muscles not only to gain the physically ascendency but mental dominance too. The halves waiting to unleash the strike force weapons of speed who'd no doubt determine the scoreboard.
At the 8th minute mark the Dogs went wide to send the scarily dangerous Morris tearing down the left, puncturing a giant hole before putting Wright away for the runway try. 6-0 and first blood to the Dogs.
The intensity went up a few more notches in the engine room, the Dogs giants and the Manly hard heads belting each other, Watmough revelling in the war. In the 18th minute a triple blow of penalties put us under enormous pressure. King on report for a high shot, and seconds later Matai the same. Kings may have been worthy of a report but Matai's was an utter joke that continues the disgusting bias against an individual. If that same tackle had of been a Jamie Buhrer it would have barely raised an eyebrow, but once again the trial by media calls wanting Matai's head. Please. A simple penalty for an arm that caught the throat and nothing more, let's move on.
Surging at our line Ennis the cheat faked a try but fortunately Clark in the video box had the sensible Mellor by his side and the obvious double movement was called. Ennis of course whinging like hell as he did all night long. Seriously is there a bigger dickhead in the NRL? Just how this guy is allowed to get away with the constant verbal torrent of rubbish he dishes up is beyond belief.
Holding back the waves of Dogs attack we suffered a crippling blow in the 24th minute when our hero captain Lyon limped off with an apparent calf problem. As one we groaned at the instant fear of a season ending possibility. Please footy gods say it ain't so. Minutes later Ennis clutched at his chest and went off too, and that loss opened a mental door. Sweeping the attack to the left T Rex did just enough to scare the defence and offload a ball to Brett who calmly slotted it Matai and onto Taufua who brilliantly got it down in the corner. DCE became the sudden goal kicker but his attempt was just a fraction off to the right. The score may have been 6-4 but it was as good as level.
Two minutes later we went back to the left from deep in our own half and T Rex did exactly what he's built for, puncturing a giant hole through the Dogs wall leaving Inu on his back and sending the semi trailer thundering down the highway before smartly finding the missile Brett on his inside. Barba spun to put on the chase but the Brett afterburners were already on and it was shut the gate. A brilliant try under the posts. Suddenly just like that we led 10-6.
There was an enormous sense we'd now hit the hammer and set up a match winning half time lead, but as awesome as our defence looked the Dogs was a mirror reflection and we went to the break holding onto the delicate 10-6 margin.
The painfully long half time break (why are semi's suddenly at least 15 minutes?) finally saw the epic battle resume. Jamie was long gone but Ennis was immediately back, a mental win for them and just 6 minutes in they made us pay with sweeping ball movement getting Brett out of position for Keating to plug a grubber under the posts and beat the only cover T Rex for the try. Inu lobbed the conversion for 12-10 and we went back to battle.
Choc was doing his best to rattle the cage, taking on not only the entire Dogs pack but of course continuing his private war with Ennis' protagonist protege Reynolds. The war continued and the hits kept coming. The Dogs giants throwing everything at our front line running their hear bear twins at us in waves. The shave heads Kasiano and Pritchard, the surf mops of Tolman and Graham, tough to tell them apart, even tougher to stop them.
A single innocent moment can turn a game and it struck in the 56th minute when DCE piloted what looked like a harmless 5th tackle clearance into the Dogs 20 metre zone, but Perrett swallowed it whole and immediately sent a wave of attack across field to Barba and onto Morris who ripped us to shreds down the left side. No situation is more dangerous than broken play with the defensive line is out of shape, and painfully Morris only had a gallant King to beat to be on a runaway streak down the line. Brett made the cover tackle as only he would, but Barba was there for the pass and he was gone. DCE at least doing a great job of keeping him out wide, a vitally smart play given the normally dead accurate Inu missed the conversion.
16-10 was anyone's game and we had plenty of time to take it, but as the final quarter bore down on us so too did the weight of expectation. Our normally flowing attack was stuttered, passes were being pushed, DCE too often running cross field in an empty search for a gap, and with it all a couple of aching errors. Ball security had been poor from both sides during the night, but two spills from Whare and King at critical moments in our own half were head dropping moments. As Gould lamented it just didn't look like we had it in us to take the game. The match had taken a physical toll on both sides, but it was us who looked the more fatigued, Toov's admitting afterwards our fuel tank light was ominously flashing.
Whatever you want to say about Hasler you have to give him enormous credit for turning a team of also rans into a Manly like defensive machine. They just didn't let us through their steel gates, and the refs inability to keep them back a proper 10 metres made it all the harder, not to mention Ennis's constant diatribe. Can someone, anyone, please give this guy a giant upper cut?
Yet despite all of that Barba's bizarre field goal miss, where he had an eternity to kick it yet pushed it wide, gave us a couple more last throws of the dice. Matai went agonisingly close only to be stopped inches short by a heroic Tolman tackle, and in the dying moments a right side attack saw Glenn surge at the line, but he was missing our match winning hero Lyon on his right, and with it the ball and the match slipped from his grasp.
The siren sounded for a 16-10 scoreline. Agonising, but we'll be back.
Brett Stewart: Never put a foot wrong, so safe under the swirling high ball, and that try, wow.
Jorge Taufau: Arguably our MOM, huge metres and a left side danger all night, slightly marred by that fumble into Brett.
Steve Matai: Another barnstorming performance, so close to winning us the game.
Jamie Lyon: The footy gods can be so cruel, impossible to replace, let's pray it's not as bad as we feared.
Dean Whare: Not a standout performance and not to be too unkind, but showed why a player like Wolfman is missed more than we realise.
Keiran Foran: Tried everything, agonisingly close to a vital break several times, defended gallantly.
Daly Cherry-Evans: Forced by the brick wall defence to run sideways too often, and punished by that kick down Perrett throat, but that aside tried his heart out.
Glenn Stewart: Did nothing wrong but something still missing for mine, maybe it was simply the no 3 jersey on his right hip, especially in those dying seconds.
Tony Williams: The agony and the ecstasy. The Brett try was all his, but we badly needed one or two more of those and they didn't come.
Anthony Watmough: Took on everyone, monster performance that went unrewarded. Still like to see him a step or two wider running straighter.
Jason King: Tried hard but not great metres, was he gun shy after the report hit?
Matt Ballin: 47 bone crunching tackles.
Brent Kite: Led the front line gallantly but ultimately outplayed by the bigger Dogs monsters Tolman Graham and Kasiano.
Jamie Buhrer: The Jamie blow caused more than one problem, it took our dummy half speedster out of the game leaving him as makeshift right centre.
Joe Guluvao: Poor old Joe copped another inury and you sense could be getting close to the fat lady singing.
Darcy Lussick: Ripped and tore his way to 127 excellent metres, but like Kite not at the level of the Dogs pack.
Vic Mauro: Not a big impact but bough to expect more given he came on at a late stage of the match.
We lost by a tiny 6 points to the no 1 ranked team in the comp, and we're still more than alive. This was not a bad loss.
Our ball security and lack of finishing attack was disappointing, but let's give credit where it's due, we would have scored match winning tries against almost any other defence.
Jamie Lyon's calf. Please footy gods, please.
A week 1 loss for a top 4 team usually feels like a crushing fail but let's not let this new semi final system fool us. We lost by a painfully close margin of only 6 points to the no 1 team in the comp, without our captain and match winning centre for most of it, on their home turf. In a war of attrition the Dogs pack finished the stronger, but ultimately it was just two freakish Josh Morris moments that decided the outcome. With a bit of luck we could have had a second moment of our own to send it into golden point but it wasn't to be.
It's going to be an unfamiliar tough road missing the week 3 jump, but we're far from dead yet. We have the team and the confidence to knock off the challengers and set up a deserved grand finale crack at the Dogs.