Modesty prevented Gunnedah five-eighth DJ Smith for lavishing himself with praise. But after delivering a five-star performance in the Bulldogs’ 44-16 upset win over North Tamworth at Kitchener Park, someone has to.
The slightly built 23-year-old’s short kicking game was laser-guided in the Bulldogs’ first win over the reigning four-time premiers in a long while. Smith, who debuted in the top grade at Gunnedah at age 17, said it was the first time he had played in a Bulldogs side who had bettered Norths.
Dylan Lake played the missile to Smith's laser, pouncing on two beautifully weighted Smith grubbers and a chip kick for a try hat-trick in the first half, as the home side, berated by their coach Sean Hayne for their “listless” play the past two rounds, came alive to lead 28-0 at the break on Saturday.
After returning to Gunnedah this season following stints with West Lions and then Greta Branxton Colts in Group 21, Smith said he had never played in a better win, and nor had his general-play kicking been so damaging. And boy, what a time to produce such a performance.
The whole team lifted massively, playing with the verve Hayne had so desperately wanted them to achieve. In the fourth-last round before the finals, it feels like third-placed Gunnedah’s season has just commenced. While second-placed North Tamworth suffered their second loss of the season, allowing the Roosters – who beat the Cowboys 32-12 at Dungowan on Saturday after being down 12-6 at halftime – to get a two-point ladder jump on them.
On an afternoon in which Gunnedah celebrated their Old Boys’ Day, Smith said: “That’s the best win I’ve ever had in me whole career … I consider myself a bit lucky there [with his try-scoring kicks].
“But Dyl [Lake] he’s always there. He’s quick. So yeah, just get him in a bit of space and he’s off.”
Gunnedah’s dominance in the first half meant that the planned halftime interview with Bears captain-coach Scott Blanch was scrapped, as he led his players to the sheds in a position they had not experienced for a long time.
Predictably, North Tamworth started the second half with elevated urgency, and Bears centre Mitchell Sheridan crossed in the 42nd minutes after Blanch mounted a blindside attack inside the Bulldogs’ red zone before firing the ball to Sheridan.
Five minutes later Bears prop Shane Wadwell charged on to a pass and crashed over the tryline from close range. Wadwell lived up to his bad boy billing – his afternoon spent engaged in niggle, as Bulldogs supporters jeered.
Veteran centre Richard Clegg converted to make it 28-10. And for several minutes Gunnedah lapsed into their old ways – losing their spark and allowing Norths to control the ruck, much to Hayne’s chagrin.
But in the 52nd minute, Smith orchestrated the try of the match, his chip kick from about 10 metres inside Norths’ half a thing of visionary brilliance. Winger Nic Altmann caught the ball on the bounce and flew down the right-hand touchline to score his second try.
Six minutes later, Bulldogs prop Kye Conlan, a standout performer in the second half, showed great strength to cross next to the left upright. Smith converted and it was 38-10. Game over, effectively.
Gunnedah lock Hayden Smith was among his side’s best, producing a couple of incisive midfield runs.
What a difference a week has made to the Bulldogs. Six days after Hayne chastised his players after the side’s lucky 36-32 defeat of Dungowan, a stiff breeze has now filled their sails. Smith, who played in Gunnedah’s 2014 grand final loss to Norths, wants to believe: “Hopefully it’s the year of the Dogs.”
GUNNEDAH 44 (Dylan Lake 4, Nic Altmann 2, Aaron Donnelly, Kye Conlan tries; DJ Smith 6 goals) d NORTH TAMWORTH 16 (Mitch Sheridan, Shane Wadwell, Richard Clegg tries, Jake Mcmanus 2 goals)