The Rabbitohs have stuck it out during a hot, humid night in Mudgee to bring in their sixth consecutive Charity Shield. Clad in their 1964 Country Tour jersey – Green V against Red V – they were with all their players except Adam Reynolds, although Adam Doueihi put in a pretty decent showing in the halves, and despite Alex Johnston being sent off with a rib injury roughly halfway through. It goes without saying that it was great to see Greg Inglis back on the field for the first time in close to a year, but part of the power of the game came from how brilliantly the veterans, young guns and new faces synced up on both sides, in what often felt more like a regular part of the NRL season than a pre-season trial.
The Dragons put down the first points in the most encouraging way possible – off the back of some deft judgement from Ben Hunt, who drifted over to the left side of the field, waiting as long as possible before sending the Steeden over to Gareth Widdop, who opted for a harbour bridge pass to Nene Macdonald in turn. With Richie Kennar and – to a lesser extent – Dane Gagai having been tempted to rush in, there was just enough room for Macdonald to storm up the left side of the field, burst through the reforming Rabbitohs defence, and get the ball to ground. To make things even better for Red V fans, Widdop capped it off with a beautiful sideline conversion, as the ball seemed to drift just to the side of the posts before correcting itself to sail through and put St. George-Illawarra six points ahead.
The Bunnies didn’t have to wait long to level things, though, with some beautiful sweeping motion over to the right sending Kennar over a couple of minutes later. So many hands did the Steeden move through that this felt like a team try in spirit, with the Rabbitohs outfit syncing so elegantly and seamlessly that it all seemed to gel into one perfect pass from the left side of the field to the right, as Gagai cemented things by sending the footy over to Kennar at just the right moment for the ex-Bulldog to glimpse a bit of space.
After their involvement in Macdonald’s four-pointer, it was rousing for Souths fans to see these two new faces playing the role of tryscorer and try assister, especially since they’d scored in the same part of the field – in mirror image – to the big St. George-Illawarra winger. Adam Doueihi’s conversion also gave Widdop’s two-pointer a run for its money, with the teenage halfback setting up about the most difficult sideline angle imaginable, only to boot the ball through the posts as if he’d lined the tee up right in front.
Given that these kinds of high profile trial fixtures are often won or lost on the role of new and younger faces – or returning faces – it was especially important for the Bunnies that it had been the trifecta of Kennar, Gagai and Douehi who had managed to match the more veteran combination of Widdop and Macdonald a couple of minutes before. That said, the Dragons responded in kind a couple of minutes later – not with a try, but with a standoff between Hunt and Greg Inglis that saw the cardinal and myrtle come away the worse for wear.
Sending a Widdop-esque kick over to the left corner, Hunt’s ball was perfectly placed to dishevel the opposition – and dishevel them it did, with G.I. leaping up to catch the footy but knocking it on into Robert Jennings, a stark contrast to the elegance and economy of Hunt’s boot. That said, Inglis’ presence on this particular occasion wasn’t about putting in a terrific performance – it was about showing that he could get back out there and put in a solid couple of sets, and when he was led off at the twenty-minute mark it felt as if we’d witnessed a momentous opening quarter simply by virtue of seeing G.I. back on the field in Bunnies colours.
After the debacle of keeping him on during the Rabbitohs’ opening fixtures against the Wests Tigers last year, it was also reassuring to see Inglis getting off the field when he felt like it, rather than being forced to stay on and play through discomfort, or acclimatise too quickly to the demands of the footy field after a year on the sidelines. In the interim, the Dragons put down an even more rousing four-pointer than Macdonald’s opening try – a combination of Hunt, Widdop and Matt Dufty that beautifully encapsulated the dialogue between veterans, young guns and new signings that already seems to have made this St. George outfit a force to be reckoned with in 2018.
Running right up into the line, Hunt drew in the Rabbitohs defence before popping the ball across to Widdop, who opted for a short ball to Dufty in turn. From there, the ex-Penshurst player simply burned through the Bunnies, eluding Alex Johnston to slam the Steeden to ground right beneath the posts, setting up Widdop for the easiest conversion of the evening. The synergy between the Dragons spine was incredible here, with Hunt and Widdop seeming to read each other’s minds as if they’d been playing together in the halves for years, and Dufty building off their play like a veteran fullback – and one of the best veteran fullbacks – rather than a young gun who only made his first grade debut recently.
For a while there, it looked as if the Dragons had to be the next to score, thanks to a sustained period of possession and field position that saw them rack up penalty after penalty, and restart after restart, on the South Sydney line, which they assaulted for a good seven minutes or so. Over that period, nearly every player in Dragons colours came close to crashing over, or to assisting another team mate to crash over, culminating with Hunt’s best moment of the game so far – a high kick to the right side of the field that bounced and sat up in just the right place for Jason Nightingale, who slammed it to ground before being dragged into touch by Kennar.
At least, that’s how it seemed at first, with the replay footage showing that the wiry winger had actually reached out a hand to steady himself in the midst of twisting to the ground, and had copped a bit of the chalk in the process. That kind of let-off can be massively cathartic for the opposing team, and the Bunnies expressed their relief immediately, with Damien Cook dummying briefly before slicing through the defence to run the length of the field, coming to ground just short of the line but flicking the ball over to Douiehi rapidly enough for the young half to continue his incredible momentum and bring it to earth under the pressure of a massive tackle from Tyson Frizell.
It would be hard to think of a better argument for Cook as full-time Rabbitohs rake, or a more powerful contrast to the Dragons’ slow build over the previous seven or eight minutes, and while Doueihi may not have added the extras, this was yet another one of those linkups between a young gun and veteran player that can make a trial match so galvanising to watch.
So cathartic had the let-off from the Dragons been – and the way that Cook had taken advantage of it – that it almost felt as if the Bunnies had to coast further on it. Sure enough, Cody Walker replicated Cook’s mad run a couple of minutes later, showcasing some astonishing footwork to dodge away from the first couple of tackles headed his way, but ultimately only making it as far as the twenty before the St. George defence got to him. From there, the Bunnies might have made it, or at least gained a goal line dropout to consolidate their momentum, only for Hunt to showcase some terrific speed and strength to get the Steeden back into the field of play at the eleventh hour.
Still, it would be only a couple of minutes before the Bunnies crossed over, thanks to a short range effort right on the line – a superb pair of passes from John Sutton to Gagai, and then from Gagai to send Robert Jennings over the line just out from the halftime siren. While Euan Aitken might not have backed himself enough in the defence, this was all South Sydney’s vision and dexterity, with the Bunnies getting into gear so seamlessly that it felt as if this was their first professional game of the season, rather than a trial match – although, of course, that combination is always what makes the Charity Shield so memorable as the last of the trial fixtures anyway.
Only Souths’ kicking game left a bit to be desired at this point, with Doueihi once again missing the conversion, meaning that despite being a try ahead the cardinal and myrtle were only two points up on the board. To be fair, though, that will be a non-issue once the team have Reynolds’ marksmanship back on board, while Doueihi had the chance to make up for the two missed conversions with a penalty goal right on the siren that got the Bunnies back to a slightly more comfortable 16-12 lead.
South Sydney managed to make that lead a bit more secure ten minutes into the second stanza, but not without a brief cessation of momentum that initially looked as if it might hand the advantage to the Dragons. Putting in an enormous run to bring the ball back in from the dead zone after an overlong grubber from Hunt, Gagai was stopped short by a damaging tackle from Jack De Belin that saw his ankle crushed under the big Dragons forward’s leg, momentarily halting the play and making it look, for a moment, as if the ex-Knight and Origin representative might be sidelined before the NRL season had even begun.
Given that Johnston had been already sent off with a rib injury this was a bit of a grim moment for the Rabbitohs, and while Gagai might have gingerly got to his feet and returned to the game, there was no doubt that the brilliant burst of energy he’d displayed in recovering Hunt’s grubber had well and truly dissipated. It was all the more extraordinary, then, when Cook simply resumed that momentum with a brilliant ball to Sutton, who skidded and swerved through the defence and then popped it over in turn to Walker, who’d glimpsed the play as soon as Sutton had taken control of the Steeden, and burned up from behind to put the Rabbitohs four points further ahead on the board.
With Doueihi adding the extras this time the Bunnies were able to enjoy a more comfortable ten point lead, although it was a bit dispiriting to see Robbie Farah fumble the ball during his first minute on the field, especially in comparison to Cook’s superb vision out of dummy half during the preceding part of the game. Still, any momentum the Dragons might have built off it was itself dissipated by the second Nightingale putdown of the evening that looked destined to be called a try, and the second that was overruled by the replay, with the footage now showing that Hymel Hunt’s pressure had forced Nightingale to knock forward the Steeden at the very moment at which he was grounding it.
To make things worse, Dufty made his first error shortly after, coughing up a bomb from Doueihi and gifting the Bunnies the scrum right on their line. Luckily for the Red V, Gagai lost the ball on the first tackle, but this nevertheless marked the beginning of a disappointing period for St. George-Illawarra. In one especially dispiriting moment, a brilliant cut-out pass allowed Tim Lafai to get on the outside of Braidon Burns, allowing Lafai to actually make it over the line with Burns on his back, only for him to inexplicably send the ball over to the left side and into touch.
To make things worse, Nightingale made it a hat trick of aborted tries, burning up the right edge with about fifteen minutes to go, and putting in a brutal fend on Walker before making the sensible decision to send the ball inside before getting into place on the wing, only for Gagai to position himself so that the Steeden smashed off his chest and straight over the sideline, to the point where it almost looked as if Nightingale had deliberately passed into his opposing backliner’s jersey.
No doubt, the Bunnies had a few patchy moments during this final quarter as well, with a second error from Farah allowing Sims to scoop up the Steeden halfway through a fairly promising Rabbitohs set. Still, Robbie made up for it a minute later with the best long range-kick of the game – a gradually decelerating ball that came to rest right on the try line, and a stunning reminder that, while Cook may excel at storming up through the ruck and creating rapid playmaking opportunities, Farah is still a master with controling and organising play with the boot.
Yet despite some of these more mixed moments from the Bunnies, it was the Dragons who came off the worse for wear during these last minutes, making it all the more momentous when Leeson Ah Mau crossed over for the final try of the night, and his first try in eighty games, even if a trial match doesn’t technically count as a drought-breaker. There’s no doubt that this was the toughest four-pointer of the evening, with the massive forward not receiving a pass so much as slamming straight into the Steeden as it hung in the air, and then smashing past Zane Musgrove and the rest of the Rabbitohs front-row defence to ground it right beneath the posts, setting Widdop up for another seamless conversion.
With only four points difference on the scoreboard, the Dragons had a real shot at breaking their own Charity Shield drought, especially once Jennings was sent to the bin for a professional foul on Nightingale as he was trying to beat Gagai to the back end of a brilliant long-range grubber from Widdop. As it turned, out, however, Ah Mau’s points were the last of the night, while it was hard to escape the feeling that Nightingale wouldn’t have made the putdown even if Jennings hadn’t got in his way.
That image – Nightingale reaching out, but Gagai managing to stay beneath him and shepherd the Steeden into touch – was therefore the defining one of the game, with the Bunnies celebrating a hard-won victory as the final siren rang out, and a promising vision of their 2018 season to come. Despite their loss, and some pretty unlucky and uncharacteristic moments for Nightingale, the Dragons, too had put in some stellar efforts and combinations, and it will be fascinating to see how these two teams look when they meet each other again at Jubilee Oval in Round 5.