South Sydney have delivered one of their most cathartic wins of the 2017 season against a Gold Coast outfit that looked set to utterly decimate them in the opening minutes of Friday night’s game at ANZ. Barely touching the ball in the first ten minutes, the Bunnies offered one of their worst opening halves in age, and by the thirty minute mark the Gold Coast had made twice as many metres despite losing Jarryd Hayne and Nathan Peats to Blues Camp. Whatever Michael Maguire said in the sheds at half time sure worked, though, since by the time we were midway through the second stanza the Rabbitohs had managed to turn things around, completing twice as many sets as the Gold Coast players and building to a magnificent final crescendo.
Of course, it didn’t help that Hayne and Peats were out, nor that Ryan James, Joe Greenwood and Ashley Taylor had all been taken off with injuries by the end of the second stanza. Still, you can’t entirely attribute the South Sydney surge to a depleted opposition either, since Friday night’s game saw Kevin Proctor back on the park for the first time in weeks, while the Bunnies themselves initially looked a bit dishevelled in the absence of Sam Burgess, even if his brothers put in one of their most barnstorming games in the forward pack in some time to compensate for his absence.
Instead, Friday night’s game was a testament to the power of a struggling team to effect a turnaround when they gather their forces and manage to take advantage of momentum as soon as they glimpse it. For that reason, it felt a bit like a game of two halves, with Gold Coast dominant before half time and Souths dominant after. In retrospect, you could perhaps say that the Bunnies were dominant all along, and just warming up over the opening stanza – especially because Gold Coast failed to put down a single point after returning from the sheds – but the effect in real time was of a game that somehow suddenly turned into a completely different game after Maguire spoke to his men at half time.
For the first twenty minutes, though, the Titans didn’t seem to be feeling the loss of their key playmakers, with Pat Politoni showcasing his assurance at dummy half with the first try of the night and setting up Kevin Proctor minutes later with the most unusual try assist so far this season – a short kick that ricocheted off Kyle Turner only for Proctor to scoop it up and dart through the Rabbitohs defence as they were starting to disassemble in preparation for the following set. It was easily the easiest try of the night and a rousing return for Proctor as co-captain, especially because Ryan James had received a knee knock that would see him eventually taken off the park in the dying minutes of the game.
One minute out from half time, Joe Greenwood made it three, with possibly the most low-key try of the season, as he lurched towards the line and into a tackle that, in retrospect, and with bunker scrutiny, turned out to have actually been a try. As the ball hit the chalk, Greenwood was buried under no less than five Souths defenders, and yet the almost accidental understatement of it all was what made the four-pointer so powerful, as all the Bunnies’ big men men gather around to watch as the bunker detailed a try they hadn’t even realised had happened, let alone been able to prevent. In its quiet confidence, it really undermined the momentum and intensity the Bunnies had started to build towards the end of the first half, giving Gold Coast the upper hand as the players headed into half time.
Still, there had been some warning signs for the Titans over the first stanza as well. Half an hour in, Angus Crichton put down the first Rabbitohs try off the best Souths set of the night. It started with Bryson Goodwin gathering up the Steeden after Hurrell failed to secure it in time, and four tackles later Crichton managed to curve round and elude Politoni, as if to demystify his first four-pointer for the Titans in the opening minutes of the game.
Five minutes later the Bunnies went over again, with Alex Johnston putting down points on the back of a superb cut-out pass from Cody Walker after Hurrell fumbled the play-the-ball and gave up possession. It was one of the most visceral NRL moments in weeks, not simply because it decisively reversed what initially looked to be an absolute shocker for the visitors, but because of Hurrell’s explosive rage at the way in which he had lost the ball, claiming that the Rabbitohs had forced it from him and that they deserved to be penalised.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that kind of rage on the field, and it was almost inevitable that Kony would give the ref some backchat, which ended up gifting the Bunnies the penalty and momentum they needed to cross a second time, with Hurrell also unable to prevent Johnston going over. Given that Hurrell’s haircut was at its most chaotic and unkempt this season, his blistering anger was a sight to be seen, and actually culminated with him storming over to the referee from the other side of the field to tell him that he’d made a mistake, once again, in awarding Johnston the try.
It was a great show of sportsmanship, then, when Robbie Farah came over to calm Kony down, as well as nice example of what you’d hope to see in a more experienced, veteran player. At the same time, it was pretty fortunate for Hurrell, since it seemed more than likely that things might genuinely get out of hand if he didn’t take a few deep breaths. Still, it had been a show of vulnerability from the Titans, and probably made the Rabbitohs realise that they could make a significant dent in the hosts’ armour if they just mustered their forces.
As fate would have it, then, the second half belonged entirely to South Sydney, with Walker putting down the third Bunnies try several minutes after returning to the field, in a powerful riposte to Greenwood’s four-pointer at the thirty-ninth minute. It didn’t hurt, too, that it culminated a series of brilliant Souths sets that couldn’t be more different from their lack of possession in the opening minutes of the game. Following on from a great run from Crichton and a deft inside pass from Sutton, some brilliant footwork allowed Walker to dodge between King and Politoni to put the Bunnies within four points of Gold Coast after Adam Reynolds had converted.
Ten minutes later, Crichton went over again, following a blistering line break from Robbie Farah who sent out a terrific pass to Johnston before being brought down. The fullback-turned-winger then had his own brilliant run to further dishevel the Titans defence and set up Crichton for his second try of the night, although in some ways the points seemed to belong to Farah, who ran the ball for the first time in two games and did so at just the right moment to put the Bunnies ahead for the first time over the course of the evening.
Ten minutes later, as if by clockwork, Souths crossed again, with Bryson Goodwin showcasing some terrific footwork to break away from Kevin Proctor and make it over the line to cement the Rabbitohs lead. The Bunnies weren’t done, however, with Alex Johnston putting down more points with a hit and spin through Sami right on the edge of the field with Hurrell launching over only to get there too late. Planting the ball with one hand as his opposite foot was poised right on the edge of the chalk, it was a moment of pure gymnastic brilliance, and confirmed just how well Johnston can handle the wing if he ever decides that’s really where he wants to be.
It was Crichton, however, who had the last words of the night, bursting through five or six defenders, including William Zillman and Chris McQueen, and eluding Ryan James twice to put down the seventh Rabbitohs try and the first hat trick of his NRL career. I wouldn’t be surprised, then, if this comes to be seen as a watershed moment in Crichton’s growth as a player, and you can be sure that the Bunnies will be looking to showcase his talents again when they take on the Panthers after the bye. Meanwhile, the Titans have now lost three in the wake of the best game of their career against the Storm in Round 10, and they’ll be looking to recover some of that magic when they take on the Tigers after the bye.