It was a tale of two halves but it was the Kurri Kurri Bulldogs that finished the stronger and ahead of the Maitland Pickers on the scoreboard in Saturday’s Mercury Shield clash.
Bolstered by the services of Newcastle Knights player Sam Anderson the Bulldogs dominated the second half after the Pickers had done the same in the opening 40 minutes, but in the end it was the home team upsetting the two-time defending premiers 16-12 in a scrappy affair at Kurri Sportsground.
Tries to forwards Daniel Abraham and Mick Campton either side of half-time put the Bulldogs in a position to pounce but it was centre Simon Craig crossing with five minutes remaining that pushed Kurri Kurri ahead for the first, and most important, time in the match.
The Bulldogs are undefeated after the first two matches of the Newcastle Rugby League season and while the performance wasn’t outstanding the commitment and determination certainly were, which was pleasing for tri-colours player-coach George Ndaira.
“It wasn’t the best performance by us and it was very scrappy but it was good to get the win in the end,” Ndaira said.
“The boys did well to stay in the contest and to stay in the grind, which is the type of football they like to play.”
In his first game back at the venue since 2009, Ndaira was particularly impressed with the work of his forward pack, debutant James Charles and makeshift winger Stephen Blakemore.
A man-of-the-match performance from Anderson was also an unexpected surprise for the Bulldogs after the 21-year-old was released from the Knights NSW Cup squad for the weekend’s game.
“I thought he (Anderson) did a great job for us,” Ndaira said.
“I received the call (from the Knights)
during the week and I was more than happy for him to play.
“He has played here before, knows the blokes and slots in really well.”
Anderson’s fitness was a telling factor,
especially when the contest was at its fiercest at the back end of proceedings and just two points separated the combatants.
A mountain of possession, helped by a few back-to-back penalties and Pickers mistakes, had the Bulldogs camped down in opposition territory, but at 12-10 down they were unable to turn pressure into points and get ahead.
Eventually the Pickers defence caved and Craig scored the late match-winner for the Bulldogs by finishing off a quick shift to the left-hand edge.
The Pickers rallied and centre Ryan Walker, who played with the Penrith Panthers last year, made a bust down the left to get the visitors within striking distance but it was a case of too little too late when an error occurred a few rucks later.
Earlier in the match, the Pickers had started well and controlled most of the first half scoring two tries in the space of three minutes around the half hour mark.
Jacob Sinclair was first, getting on the back of Jade Porter flick pass after prop Damien Frize had drawn two defenders and put the playmaker into a gap 30 metres out.
Marco Delapena followed almost immediately after and he simply had to tail on the inside of Billy Towers, who burst through the line on
halfway and single-handedly set up the four-pointer for his younger teammate.
Both were converted by Pickers five-eight Joby Patten for a 12-0 lead.
The Bulldogs struck back approaching half-time with Daniel Abraham in the right place to clean up a deft grubber kick from Ndaira into the right-hand corner and it was 12-6 at half-time.
On the other side of the break it was Bulldogs prop Mick Campton crashing over after a short-range kick had been foiled and basically landed into the forward’s waiting arms a metre out to the right of the uprights.
Ndaira missed the conversion, hitting the post, but it didn’t prove costly in the end and the Bulldogs ran out winners.
Pickers coach Ron Griffiths, in his first match up against his former club, was disappointed by the performance from his boys in black and white.
“It was very, very disappointing,” Griffiths said.
“We were a better side for 40 and they were a better side 40 but in the end we played into their hands a bit.
“We can’t go turning over the ball that much, either errors or penalties, and expect to win.
“They are a quality side and full credit to them.”
This was the 10th time the Mercury Shield had been played for with the Bulldogs reducing the overall head-to-head margin to one (Pickers 5, Bulldogs 4, draw 1).
It was the first time the Bulldogs had claimed the shield since the Pickers re-entered the competition in 2009, with Maitland victorious in the clubs four previous encounters.
The shield was introduced midway through the 2005 season.
KURRI KURRI BULDOGS 16 (Daniel Abraham, Mick Campton, Simon Craig tries; George Ndaira 2 conversions) defeated MAITLAND PICKERS 12 (Jacob Sinclair, Marco Delapena tries; Joby Patten 2 conversions)
q See the Mercury website for a picture gallery of Saturday’s Coalfields encounter between the Maitland Pickers and the Kurri Kurri Bulldogs.