ROUND 20: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (Southern Cross Group Stadium, 21/7/17)
The Sharks have come away with a stunning win over the Bunnies at home, thanks to a pair of tries in the last ten minutes from Gerald Beale and Ricky Leutele that broke a fifty minute scoring drought. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a bit of a mixed game for the cardinal and myrtle, with Souths putting in some of their weakest defensive moves in weeks, but almost making up for them with a few flashes of attacking brilliance – and some very good work off the boot from Adam Reynolds – that never quite gelled into a compelling lead.
Cronulla staked their claim on the game early, taking advantage of the home crowd to put down points five minutes into the match. It started with a brief dummy, and then a pass to the right from Chad Townsend to James Maloney, with Maloney repeating and condensing the same move for a short ball that put Wade Graham through the line. Full credit to Maloney for the pass, and for the subsequent conversion, but this was also a pretty lacklustre Rabbitohs defence, with only an arm grab from Adam Reynolds preventing the big Cronulla second rower from crossing over. The four points were all the more frustrating in that Robbie Farah initially looked to have set up Sam Burgess to orchestrate the opening try, only for the Cronulla defence to prove too strong.
The Bunnies only had to wait four minutes to level the score, however, once they found themselves right on the goal line midway through the tackle count. Knowing how valuable Reynolds’ kicking game can be in these situations, Farah sent a cut-out pass to his halfback, who then proceeded to put in one of his best short range kicks of the season, sending the ball over the line for Braidon Burns to storm over and get it to ground.
Given Farah’s role in the almost-try of the first couple of minutes, and Reynolds’ inability to prevent Graham getting over, this must have been a particularly cathartic combination for Rabbitohs supporters, not least because Graham himself tried to get a boot out to prevent Reynolds’ grubber getting through, only to prove just how deft the Bunnies halfback can be when he’s this close to the line. With Reynolds adding the extras, the score was brought to 6-6, and South Sydney set in to make up for the opening few minutes.
Yet Burns’ try was followed by about ten minutes of deadlock, with both sides completing sets fairly cleanly, and both halfbacks putting in some good fifth tackle kicking options. It was Townsend, however, who broke the deadlock, upon realising that Cody Walker had come in off his line, and then booting the Steeden deep into the in-goal area, where it trapped Alex Johnston and granted Cronulla a goal-line dropout.
On the following set, the Bunnies gave away a penalty following a strip from Reynolds and Robert Jennings on Andrew Fifita, and once again the Sharks scored on the back of that penalty, in a second unfortunate moment for the Rabbitohs fullback. Collecting the Steeden right on the line, Fa’amanu Brown didn’t even both to dummy, but instead put his head down and rammed into Walker like a battering ram, forcing him back a good metre before getting the ball to ground, with even Sam Burgess unable to act as a bulwark against the Cronulla utility’s massive strength. While he may have been in the role of hooker in this particular game, it was a testament to Brown’s commitment and heft in the backline more generally. With Maloney adding the extras, and then a penalty goal a couple of minutes later after the Bunnies’ defenders were called out for not being square, the Sharks had broken the deadlock to rise to a 14-6 lead.
Things got more convulsive as the half time siren approached, with the Bunnies seeming to make some headway over the course of an impressive set in which Reynolds contributed a nice little chip and chase, and Jennings almost crashed over, only for a perfectly timed trysaving tackle from Townsend to clean up the play. The Sharks responded, however, with one of their best defensive sets of the game, culminating with a change in possession and Gallen running halfway down the field.
Down the other end, Townsend put in one of his best kicks of the night – a lovely, elegant bomb – that Lewis managed to ground only for the refs to call a knock-on from Maloney in the process of collecting it. Still, the Bunnies weren’t disciplined enough to take advantage of the shift in momentum, with Bryson Goodwin slamming Luke Lewis into touch during a play-the-ball – apparently in response to what he considered an unnecessary hand in the tackle from the Cronulla second-rower – producing regained period of possession for the Sharks once again.
Yet despite making it within the Bunnies’ twenty by the second tackle, Cronulla somehow coughed up the Steeden early in the set, leaving it open for John Sutton to pick up the ball and send it back towards the other end of the field, only for Farah to miss a tackle on Gerald Beale when the ball got there, allowing the Cronulla winger to put in a terrific run. It was followed by another fantastic run from Sosaia Feki up the left side of the field, and in combination, those two mad dashes allowed the Sharks to finally take advantage of the shifting momentum of these final ten minutes.
With a minute on the clock, they received another penalty, and wisely opted to take the two, if only to put their stamp on these frenetic series of sets in an emphatic manner, for a two-pointer that felt more like a four-pointer in spirit, especially coming as it did right before the break. Still, despite more or less dominating the opening half, the Sharks struggled to score for much of the second stanza, with the Bunnies putting down their second – and final try – thirteen minutes in. It came shortly after Damien Cook subbed on for Farah, and involved some good timing and vision out of dummy half to get the ball across to John Sutton.
In a game in which the Rabbitohs had struggled to make their defensive formations seem capable of withstanding the Sharks’ big men, Sutton now compensated with a barnstorming attacking move – a massive step off the left foot that sent him through Lewis, Bukuya and Townsend – and over Holmes – to get the ball to ground just over the chalk. Sometimes the spectacle of a player clutching the footy under their arm against every defensive effort is what a team really needs to rouse their spirits, and there could be no doubt that this was one of Souths’ gutsiest four-pointers in weeks, with a nice clean kick from Reynolds bringing them to within two points of Cronulla with twenty-five minutes left on the clock.
It was a show of strength that seemed to dishevel the Sharks, who would have to wait until the seventieth minute to put down their next points – close to fifty minutes after Brown had crossed over early in the first half. In the intervening period, both sides fumbled a bit, leading to a period in which seven tackle sets almost became the norm. That said, the immediate buildup to the next Cronulla four-pointer was marked by a particularly emphatic push from the Bunnies, thanks to an uncharacteristically wonky kick off the left boot from Wade Graham that granted the visitors another seven tackle set.
From there, the Rabbitohs surged back down the field, with a lucky one-handed offload from Sutton to Burgess setting Reynolds up for some good field position and a pitch-perfect kick that seemed set to find Burns right on the chest. Yet, in the most disappointing moment of the game for the Rabbitohs, the young centre knocked the ball on, despite having got ahead of Leutele and Feki, and established himself in prime position to catch the ball. It was the kind of glitch that so often empowers the opposite team, and so at the end of the subsequent seven-tackle set Maloney chose something a bit special – a grubber that bounced past Farah and hit the posts, where Townsend showed some quick thinking to leap down and scoop up the Steeden before the Bunnies could get a hand to it.
By the time he sent it across to Beale the try was all but certain, since if the Rabbitohs’ defensive line had been weak earlier in the night it was utterly dismantled here, as the Cronulla winger strolled through for the softest try of the night, even if it had been preceded by the most compressed and frantic buildup. While Maloney may not have added the extras, it was a statement of purpose from the Sharks, and with Sam Burgess downed three minutes later and then led off the field – a rarity indeed for Slammin’ Sam – with what appeared to be a rib injury, it became clear that this was just not going to be the Rabbitohs’ night.
From there, the Sharks made up for their pointscoring drought over the last fifty minutes with a sustained period of possession and field position that made it feel as if they’d won the game even before Leutele added another try three minutes out from the end. It started with Robert Jennings coughing up the Steeden at the seventy-third minute, returning possession to Cronulla for a series of repeat sets. The first ended with Townsend grubbering for Lewis, who almost planted the ball down only for Johnston to boot it out of the field of play without a second to spare.
On the next set, the Sharks charged at the line, with Matt Prior, in particular, putting in a barnstorming effort and almost burrowing through the Rabbitohs line from ten metres out on the fourth tackle. This time, it was Maloney who grubbered, trapping Burns on the other side of the field and setting the Sharks up for another goal line dropout. They opted to go short, and with both Gallen and Feki putting in damaging runs it felt like only a matter of time before the team went over.
No surprise that it happened on the back of another Maloney grubber, nor that it occurred at Burns’ expense, as the South Sydney centre didn’t quite get to the Steeden in time, culminating a fairly disappointing – and uncharacteristic – second half after having put down the match-opening try for the Bunnies, and allowing Leutele to sneak up from behind and plant the ball to earth, cementing the Sharks’ win for Lewis’ 300th game. In the succession of barnstorming runs, the dexterity and versalitity of the halves, and the flexibility and endurance of the team as a whole, it was the perfect way for Cronulla to conclude a home game, and will surely be a rallying point in their journey to finals footy over the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, the Bunnies have to ask themselves some difficult questions as they head into Round 21, since they came close enough to winning last night for the loss to be especially hard to take.
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