It was an unhappy afternoon for the St George Illawarra Dragons, as they missed out on a spot in the NRL finals after a 26-20 defeat at the hands of the Bulldogs.
The Dragons never gave up, providing an exciting finish to the game, but it was the performances of Will Hopoate and Michael Lichaa that completely took the game away from the Dragons at certain stages.
The Bulldogs were first to open their scoring after an exciting first few minutes of the game, clearly out-enthusing the Dragons side early. In one of his best performances of the season, Michael Lichaa started the play, creating some room for Brenko Lee to kick in behind the defensive line for Josh Reynolds to score in his last game for the club.
However the act of scoring was one of his last in Canterbury colours, with an ankle injury forcing him from the field shortly after. In a game already high on emotion for the half, the disappointment of being unable to finish the game was clearly visible as he slammed his hands against the dressing room door in frustration.
Joel Thompson was first to draw blood for the Dragons, scoring in the 14th minute after some dubious lead up work from Gareth Widdop. The Bunker cleared a possible fumble, awarded the try, and Widdop converted to tie the game up at 6 apiece.
Will Hopoate then laid on his own bit of magic in the 30th minute, throwing a brilliant pass and then backing up to score. He backed this up with another try assist minutes later, sending Marcelo Montoya over in the right corner.
A try to Jason Nightingale just before half time kept his team in the game, as the two teams went to the break separated by 8 points, with the Bulldogs leading 14-12.
The Dragons took the lead for the first time in the second half, with Matt Dufty taking advantage of some great work from Tim Lafai and Widdop to score.
Easily the standout, Hopoate was heavily involved in attack, setting up two tries and scoring one of his own, but his defense was definitely a feature of his game today. With the Dragons leading by four midway through the second half, a rampaging Josh Dugan stepped his way around four would-be defenders on his way to the line, threatening to take the game out of reach of the Bulldogs. Hopoate wrapped him up in a beautiful tackle, right under the black dot, saving a certain try against his team.
The Dragons did manage to extend their lead minutes later, with a penalty goal to Gareth Widdop, but the gap just wasn't big enough. A converted try to Aidan Tolman locked the game back up at 20 all, before Michael Lichaa darted from dummy half to score on of his own, taking the game away from the Dragons.
Some valiant play from Nightingale down the left edge saw the Dragons almost snatch victory, but at the end of the day the ball control was just not there for the home side.
2017 becomes a season of "could have been" for the Dragons. One of the form teams of the first half of the competition, and sitting firmly in the top 4 until State of Origin, the Dragons were simply unable to pick up enough wins in the lead up to the finals to make the Finals. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, never looked likely to make the Finals in 2017, winning only 9 games.
The Dragons' loss becomes the North Queensland Cowboys gain, as they scrape in to the NRL Finals in 8th position. They'll meet the Cronulla Sharks in an elimination game in Sydney next weekend, who will go in to that game on the back of a win against the Newcastle Knights earlier this afternoon.
For the Bulldogs and the Dragons, though, its dress-ups, beers and laughs, as they join their fellow cellar dwellars on Mad Monday.