The Rabbitohs have come away from a home clash against the Broncos with what will probably end up being their most frustrating and controversial loss of the 2017 season, thanks in part to two contentious referee calls relating to Anthony Milford in the latter part of the game. Over the first part, Brisbane were dominant, with the Rabbitohs unable to manage a tackle in Broncos territory until well into the second stanza and Damien Cook only able to bring in a solitary try at the fifth minute due to the first of several failures by David Mead to clean up the Bunnies’ high ball.
By the last twenty minutes, however, Brisbane were struggling to make it back into Souths territory, thanks to a stellar Rabbitohs comeback that saw them go from trailing at 18-8 to leading by a converted try. Key to that was Robbie Farah’s presence in the second half, with two perfectly timed short passes setting up Angus Crichton and Siosifa Talakai for tries at the 55th and 59th minutes respectively, building a Souths surge that would refuse to lay down and die until Milford kicked the controversial match-winning field goal.
Across the match there was no lack of Souths leadership, with Sam Burgess barking orders at his team mates from the opening minutes and organising play at the front of the pack and Bryson Goodwin bookending Robert Jennings’ try at the 50th minute with an intercept that got the Bunnies down Brisbane’s end in the first place and yet another outmanoeuvre of David Mead under the high ball. Cody Walker also managed to take advantage of Brisbane’s disorganisation under the Souths high ball and would have put down a try at the eighth minute if George Burgess hadn’t happened to be offside.
With two missed tries from Bryson Goodwin and Andrew McCullough maintaining the 24-18 scoreline into the final fifteen minutes the stage was set for a climax as dramatic – if perhaps not quite as volatile – as the Sea Eagles-Raiders clash early in the evening. Whatever you think about the game beyond this point, however, has to come down to what you think about the final try that put Brisbane back on the board – a try so complicated in its execution that it took the bunker a good five minutes just to re-examine it in slow motion, despite the insistence of some of the Fox commentators that this actually ended up obscuring what was more intuitive and evident in real time.
It’s an interesting theoretical issue – does a moment come at which the slow-motion capture of the bunker camera starts to distract us from what actually happened? Certainly, it seemed as if – intuitively – no try had occurred, as Milford scrambled over the line only for a sea of Rabbitohs defenders to put their hands between the ball and the ground, after which point Milf fed it backwards for Tautau Moga to plant over the line. There were two major points of contention – whether Milford had originally grounded it and whether the tackle on Milford had ended the play – with the bunker answering no to both questions.
It was a surprising decision, and one that seems to suggest a new era of bunker assertiveness. On the one hand, I was surprised that the bunker had ruled no try on Milford since – while it seemed as if the Steeden probably hadn’t hit the turf – there was no way that they could definitively prove that it hadn’t due to the maelstrom of Souths limbs in the way. On the other hand, I was surprised that the bunker hadn’t considered the tackle to be complete – as Sam Burgess suggested in his remonstrations with the ref, if that wasn’t a completed tackle, then what is? Since then various justifications as to the call have arisen, but the fact remains that it was murky territory and the bunker appeared to be taking a more emphatic stance than it would have this time last year.
If that wasn’t enough, Anthony Milford won the game with a field goal that, upon reexamination, turned out to have been preceded by a pretty clear knock-on. In some ways, I thought this was less controversial and less surprising – the knock-one was clearly there in retrospect, and yet it’s just as clear that refs can sometimes miss stuff in the moment, especially when the knock-on was as slight as it was here. The problem, however, is that when bunker error – or potential bunker error – compounds ref error, it can produce situations like Friday night where the team that deserved to win – or the team that really had won – don’t get the competition points.
While that sense of a dodgy win might have been enhanced by Korbin Sims’ fringe try – right on the verge of being “downtown” – earlier in the game, I don’t want to suggest that the Broncos’ victory was purely a matter of contentious calls either. For one thing, Milf showed remarkable aplomb filling in for Jordan Kahu at goal-kicker, stamping his signature on the game with his first two-pointer from out wide and managing most of the conversions thereafter. A penalty goal at the 38th minute proved that, in the short term, he’s more than capable of filling in for his team mate with the boot.
Still, it was in the rapport between Corey Oates and Darius Boyd that Brisbane’s true professionalism made itself felt, with the winger and fullback managing virtually identical tries at the thirteenth and twenty-seventh minute – a neat cut-out pass from Boyd to Oates who planted it in his favourite corner. Apart from the fact of Hymel Hunt replacing John Sutton as key defender, it could have been the same try, and showed just how clinical Brisbane can be when they’ve got their game plan set in motion. Let’s not forget James Roberts, too, who almost broke free a couple of times and whose intercept got the Broncos the field position needed for Oates’ and Boyd’s second effort.
Yet that professionalism and focus just made the way in which the Broncos won all the more disappointing. Both Burgess and Maguire seemed to be livid after the game, and rightly so, since some of the bunker’s decisions are starting to genuinely feel as if they infringe upon the rules of the game as it is intuitively played, or even upon the rules of the bunker itself, which I’ve always understood can only overturn a referee’s decision on the basis of clear evidence. For now, Souths just have to suck it up, but they’ll definitely have something to prove when they take on a triumphant Sea Eagles at home, while there’s no doubting that their next clash with Brisbane will be a grudge match to savour.