Dogs counterpart Dean Pay added: “There was no [atmosphere], but at the end of the day we still want to keep playing, the boys want to keep playing, it’s not ideal, but that’s what it is at the moment.”
An official crowd of 241 was posted, which included the 34 players and three members of Bulldogs debutant Jake Averillo’s family.
The attendance dropped by one before kick-off when someone was turned away at the gates because he had been in Las Vegas the past fortnight to attend a UFC fight.
In a sign of things to come this weekend – and possibly the remainder of the season, depending on how badly COVID-19 takes hold of Australia – there was not a soul in sight and an eerie silence outside the ground. Never had it been so easy to get a park on the coveted level three in the Sydney Olympic Park P1 car park.
Bulldogs boss Andrew Hill was spotted carrying a plastic bottle filled with vitamin water that was meant to help combat the nasty virus.
One Dogs player jokingly cupped his hand to his ear and turned to the crowd when the home side trotted out for a warm-up.
The seats on the bench were set one metre apart to encourage social distancing, yet bulked up players quickly took to the field to tackle, grapple and rip into each other.
There were also whispers some of the players were asked to try to limit the profanities on the field that were bound to be picked up on the TV coverage.
Every player, not just the halves, could be heard yelling orders and instructions at each other. At times the mood felt more communal rather than combative between the players. There was even laughter on a couple of occasions when a kicking tee could not be located, nor any balls for Valentine Holmes to convert a try.
Canterbury lost 24-16 but actually scored first through Lachlan Lewis in the fifth minute. But from there the Cowboys enjoyed the bulk of field position.
Lewis was actually replaced by coach Dean Pay in the 55th minute as the home team missed 32 tackles and completed around a miserable 60 per cent.
The early mark handed Averillo a debut to remember.
Pay said Lewis and Brandon Wakeham were his best halves at the moment, but the Cowboys loss was a good learning curve for them.
“He [Lewis] will learn from that and be better for it,” Pay said.
“The way we were coming up with errors and putting ourselves under pressure all the time, he wasn’t on his own. There were a number of players who came up with simple errors … that’s the area we need to get better at.
“We’ll address it during the week. We have [the right combination] but they need to learn how to control a game. Tonight was a real lesson for them.”
Cowboys captain Michael Morgan put Coen Hess into a nice hole for a try, Scott Drinkwater showed good speed to score from a scrum, while Holmes rifled a lovely cut-out pass for Ben Hampton to keep the scoreboard ticking over, which drew some colourful words of praise from colourful Cowboys forward Josh McGuire on the sidelines.
Taumalolo was at his usual frightening best, running for more than 300m, including a 40m sprint late in the game with four Dogs defenders in pursuit.
The Dogs head to Campbelltown to play the Wests Tigers next Sunday, provided the competition is still going, and some fans will remember the Belmore club caused a boilover last year in the corresponding game.
Once the novelty factor wears off, the lack of atmosphere at matches will become a drag for players and TV viewers. The alternative, however, is much worse.
Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.