ASHWOOD Park had been a fortress all year for Bathurst Bulldogs and it remained that way on Saturday as they downed Cowra Eagles 27-0 in the Blowes Clothing Cup preliminary final.
In making it nine games at their home ground without defeat – and having amassed just shy of 400 in that time – Bulldogs booked a place in the grand final alongside Orange Emus.
It means Bulldogs now have the chance to end an eight-year first grade title drought, so coach Dean Oxley could not have been happier.
“This is our fortress, we wanted to make it that and we talked about that before we started this game – how we wanted to keep our undefeated record this year,” he said.
“We started in October to try and create an opportunity for Bathurst to break the drought and making the grand final to start. So we’ve achieved that, we’ve got an opportunity, and we will see what happens.”
While Bulldogs’ defensive record on their home soil this season had been impressive prior to Saturday – averaging just 14 points against – to hold Cowra scoreless was a massive effort.
In the first half especially Bulldogs had to step up in defence as the Eagles had the wind at their backs and plenty of ball in an attacking position.
“They’re a side that can score off the back of anything, they have got a couple of very entertaining players in their outside backs and led by Chris Miller, they’re also very strong in the forwards. It’s a testament to the boys’ attitude that we held them to nil,” Oxley said.
“When we played into that wind without the ball, the scraps that we got we converted to points. I knew once we could play into that win we would be running home.”
And convert the scraps Bulldogs did.
Both sides struggled to adjust to the cold, wet and windy conditions early as the game was frequently punctuated by knock-ons, but on 18 minutes Bulldogs struck.
Harry Peacock split Cowra’s defence up the middle to score and the conversion made it 7-0.
But after that it was the Eagles who took control of possession and finally managed to couple good phase rugby with the metres their back line earned in broken play.
Prop Josaia Dakuitoga got within inches of scoring while his team-mates also steamed onto the ball in an attempt to bust Bulldogs’ on-line defence. But it held.
Even when Pate Beramaisuva had the chance to open Cowra’s account with a penalty goal, his attempt was waved away.
Having absorbed that pressure, in the final five minutes of the half Bulldogs finally managed to get back inside Cowra’s 22.
Replacement Phil Tonkin looked destined to score only to have the ball knocked from his grasp thanks to a brilliant Kalova Nacina tackle, but Will Oldham slotted a penalty goal soon after to give Bulldogs a 10-0 lead at the break.
That advantage opened up further just six minutes into the second half. Centre Harry Webber – who pulled off some of the biggest hits in defence and had threatened in attack – found space down the right flank.
He then found Oldham in support and he crossed untouched. Josh Weekes’ conversion took it to 17-0.
With just under an hour of play gone Cowra looked like clawing that lead back as they spread the ball to the right wing. But Bulldogs’ winger Ben Sheppeard intercepted a pass and sprinted away to score.
Weekes converted that try before, with eight minutes left, he made sure of the result as he added three more points with a successful penalty goal attempt.
While disappointed that his side’s season had come to an end, Cowra skipper Miller could not fault the effort of his team-mates.
Even in the final minute they were pressing on Bulldogs’ line, looking for a try despite the knowledge their season was about to end.
“Twenty-seven to nil I don’t think is a fair reflection of the game, Bulldogs definitely deserved the win, but we stuck right in there, we never gave up,” the talented lock said.
“That’s Cowra’s way of doing things, we showed that today, we just didn’t get the points on the board.
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“We’ve modelled ourselves on Orange Emus from three or four years ago. At the start of season it was a three-year plan and this season we exceeded our expectations from what we wanted to get out of the year at the start of the season.”
Miller admitted Cowra could have shown more patience in attack during the first half when his side enjoyed a majority of possession. But at the same time, he gave credit to Bulldogs’ defence for holding them out.
“We played the same way we’ve been playing the last three or four weeks when it’s been dry conditions and obviously a few balls didn’t go to hand and what not with the slippery ball. We just didn’t adapt to the conditions,” he said.
“Full credit to Bulldogs, their line speed was excellent, they didn’t give us an inch of space.”
As for who he thinks will win the grand final, Miller thinks it will be so close between Bulldogs and Orange Emus he couldn’t call it.
“Bolder men than me have made predictions and got it wrong before,” Miller laughed.
“I just think it will be a good game against both solid teams that deserve to be in the grand final because they’ve been the two best teams all season.”
BATHURST BULLDOGS 27 (Will Oldham, Ben Sheppeard, Harry Peacock tries; Josh Weekes, Will Oldham penalties; Josh Weekes 2, Brad Glasson conversions) defeated COWRA EAGLES 0
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