The traditional Good Friday clash between the Bunnies and the Bulldogs was no less visceral this year, with both teams heading into the match after a mixed and frustrating start to the 2018 season. Both teams had only clocked up one win – the Dogs over the Panthers, the Rabbitohs over the Sea Eagles – and both were raring for some kind of momentum or headway to sustain them over the next couple of weeks, with the Rabbitohs, in particular, keen to prove that their unexpected victory over Manly wasn’t simply down to the complacency – or exhaustion – attendant upon the opposition’s 54-0 landslide over Parra at ANZ Stadium the round before.
Unfortunately for cardinal and myrtle fans, however, Canterbury were dominant from the outset, having clearly studied the Rabbitohs’ key formations and weaknesses, and putting in an even more sterling display in defence than they brought to their clash against the Panthers in Round 3. Given the role that Robert Jennings had played in the Bunnies’ win over the Sea Eagles, it therefore felt symbolic when the Bulldogs managed to keep him out in the corner in the first couple of minutes, even if it cost them some stark collateral damage in the process.
For so epic was the defensive effort that it resulted in a fairly intensive head clash between Jennings and Moses Mbye, resulting in both players immediately leaving the field and being replaced with Braidon Burns and Fa’amanu Brown respectively. The clash was especially sobering and dispiriting for the Dogs, given that Mbye had seemed to considerably the worse for wear, and was indeed confirmed to be off for the entire match as Jennings trotted back onto the field roughly ten minutes later.
Yet sometimes that sense of crisis can galvanise a team into their best performance – witness the way James Maloney stepped up in Nathan Cleary’s absence the night before – and so it was here, with the Dogs finishing the next set with a stunning instance of cohesion and communication. It started with a pitch-perfect kick into the sun from Jeremy Marshall-King, who seemed to intuitively grasp that Josh Morris would be right in place to leap up and catch the Steeden. And catch it he did, outplaying both Dane Gagai and Adam Douiehi to send the ball across to his brother to slam over the with, with Gagai coming in for a follow-up tackle but failing to smash him into touch as the Dogs had done with Jennings a few moments before.
Given how integral Mbye is to the Bulldogs family, it was rousing to see the Dogs start with a family try – and things just got better with the conversion, with Kieran Foran putting in a bending banana kick just for the hell of it, as the footy appeared to curve beyond reach of the uprights only to correct itself at the last minute. Back to back, the dogs had saved a try and then scored a try, a testament to their synergy in both defence and attack and their ability to regroup quickly without their fullback.
For a moment there, it looked as if they were set to put in three magnificent back-to-back efforts, with David Klemmer building some space with a terrific offload at the beginning of the subsequent set, and Michael Lichaa then managing a line break at the Bunnies’ thirty, reading the fractured Rabbitohs ruck perfectly as he dodged and weaved out of three or four impending tackles before shifting the footy across to Aiden Tolman, who inexplicably passed it across to Marshall-King despite having more than enough space to cross over and put down four more points by himself.
It’s not uncommon for props to get a bit spooked when they find themselves right on the line, biut even so Tolman’s decision was unusual – a bit of panic that could only be explained by the speed with with Gagai accelerated towards him, moving so quickly that he seemed to diminish the space more quickly than he actually was, and unsettling the big Bulldogs prop enough to ensure that the pass to his five-eighth was as awkwardly timed as Lichaa’s pass to him had been impeccably orchestrated.
From there, the Bunnies seemed to build a bit of momentum, with Sam Burgess crashing over shortly after, in what initially seemed to be a bit of a riposte to Tolman – a vision of a big man putting down points without looking back – only for the replay to show that his brother Tom had obstructed Lichaa in the midst of the ruck. All of a sudden, the unfavourable comparison was reversed, with the Burgess brothers now standing in the shadow of the Morris boys in terms of their ability to use their sibling synergy to make the most of a clutch situation and put down points.
Whether or not that galvanised the Morris twins to another brilliant effort is anyone’s guess, but a couple of sets later Will Hopoate found himself with the footy out on the wing and realised that Hymel Hunt had been taken out in the previous tackle, taking advantage of the gap in the ruck to offload the Steeden out to Brett Morris. Initially, B-Moz looked set to score in the wing, only to send the footy back inside to brother Josh to crash over for the second Bulldogs try of the afternoon.
On the one hand, there was something unarguable about the spectacle of the Morris boys scoring twice in succession – a vision of cohesion and family spirit in the absence of Moses Mbye (and, more distantly, in the absence of Josh Reynolds). At the same time, though, you couldn’t discount the dent made in the team’s seamless performance so far by Foran’s subsequent conversion attempt either – a kick that was as ridiculous as his earlier two-pointer had been sublime, with the Steeden not even making it over the crossbars in the single worst boot of the 2018 season so far.
Following on from that howler, the Bunnies goot into a groove before half time, enjoying a sustained period of possession and field position off the back of a sequence of Canterbury penalties. In the midst of being remonstrated by – and remonstrating – the ref for them, Josh Jackson found the opposition taking advantage of his absence from the line, with the footy moving through Doueihi and Walker before Greg Inglis took possession of it, getting on the outside of Marcelo Montoya and then smashing through Jackson before he could fully compose himself.
It goes without saying that seeing G.I. crash over for the first time since Round 1 last year was a massive symbolic moment for the Rabbitohs, and yet the fact that it had come off Jackson’s conversation with the ref made it feel a bit less emphatic in retrospect, even if Inglis had managed to put in a pretty sturdy hit upon on the Bulldogs’ big second-rower. At the beginning of the second half, a pitch-perfect kick from Walker failed to send Junior Tatola over after the upright after the goal post put in yet another defensive effort for 2018, a let-off that allowed the Dogs to regroup and gain a bit of perspective in the high-octane aftermath of G.I.’s moment.
Shortly after, G.I. actually seemed to have crossed over for a second try, slamming the Steeden to ground just short of the line with only a couple of centimetres to spare. In slow motion it looked even more impressive – more convincing, in some ways, than Inglis’ actual four-pointer – but then again, so did Jackson’s defence, with the Bulldogs captain making up for having let G.I. at the end of the first stanza. Still, the Bunnies had built momentum, and Burns crashed over in the corner shortly after, in a cathartic sequel to Jennings’ aborted try in the wing in the first minutes.
For a while, there, the game seemed to hang in the balance, only for two incidents to gradually tip things in favour of the cardinal and myrtle. First, Brett and Josh Morris were injured in quick succession, with Josh, in particular, seeming especially debilitated by an elbow to the throat from Sam Burgess in the midst of a heaving tackle that saw the Dogs awarded a penalty and Burgess put on report. Second, Doueihi put in his best single effort with the boot since moving into first grade – a massive, spiraling bomb that Hoppa was unable to contain, even if he did manage to ground it before Angus Crichton could slam in to try and rack up four more points.
From there, the Rabbitohs coasted until the final siren, consolidating their momentum from the subsequent set, where everything leaned towards a further four points, only for Walker to mistime the critical pass to Burns out on the wing. Still, the Rabbitohs regrouped quickly, with Doueihi continuing his brilliant fifth tackle options a couple of sets later with a deft grubber, thanks to a pair of amazing runs from Gagai and Sutton that saw the hosts getting up to the Bulldogs line much more rapidly than ever the Bunnies themselves seemed to have been expecting.
Once again, Hoppa was the casualty of Doueihi’s kick, with the young halfback sensing that he was caught in the ruck, and threading the Steeden forward for Hymel Hunt to bring it to ground just across the line. For a moment there, it looked as if Brett Morris might have booted it before Hunt got a hand to it, but the replay showed just how deft the Rabbitohs winger’s timing had been, along with the strength and speed he’d had to showcase to get ahead of Morris in the first place.
With the Bunnies now only two points behind, all eyes were trained on Doueihi as he lined up the conversion, and when the Steeden hooked away to the left all the escalating excitement of the previous twenty minutes seemed to have momentarily evaporated. On the other hand, the Dogs had to have breathed a sigh of relief at the prospect that Foran’s howler of a kick – under the goal posts, despite being kicked from directly in front of the uprights – wouldn’t turn out to play a deciding role.
Yet their relief was short lived, with the Bunnies realising that the only way to avoid giving into the sense of anticlimax was to redouble and intensify their efforts on the subsequent set, which saw every player put in their very best, culminating with a short ball from Sutton that sent Cameron Murray over the line – a fitting end to what had been a particularly impressive night for the young lock forward. While the crowd might have erupted in joy, no person in the stadium can have been more relived than Doueihi, who was the first in the huddle to congratulate Murray on the win.
For a moment there, then, the Rabbitohs seemed to have felt the absence of Adam Reynolds more emphatically than at any other moment this season, only for the team to rally around and show just what they could do without their star halfback. In that sense, the game was a nice sequel to the Panthers’ stunning win without Cleary in Townsville the night before, and will surely come to be seen as the critical moment in the Bunnies’ movement out of the more frustrating opening to their season, as well as an important source of motivation before they take on such a dominant Dragons outfit next round.