The Rabbitohs had a bit more to prove than the Roosters heading into Thursday night’s clash at ANZ Stadium, having almost given the Dragons a run for their money the week before, only for the Red V to emerge unscathed once again. By contrast, the Chooks had enjoyed a fairly comfortable win over the Sharks, and were the clear favourites heading into the game, which perhaps made them a bit complacent, since they were clearly the less energised outfit on the field during the first forty minutes.
The matchstarted with an outstanding set for the Bunnies and got better from there, with Adam Reynolds putting down the first points with a field goal, Tom and George Burgess more than making up for George’s absence, and Damien Cook and Tom Burgess managing two line breaks in the first twenty minutes. Plenty of other players almost broke through as well, most notably Junior Tatola at the twentieth minute, as the Roosters’ ruck seemed to be offering the visitors ready-made gaps for them to surge through, while they leaked a seemingly neverending cascade of penalties too.
Meanwhile, the Roosters struggled to consistently execute and complete sets, with a forward pass from Cooper Cronk to Dylan Napa setting the tone for much of their subsequent strategy and focus, making it somewhat surprising – almost a comeback – when they managed to put down the first points of the night shortly before half time. A couple of sets before, the Bunnies had put in their biggest play so far, with Robert Jennings, Greg Inglis and Robert Nicholls slamming Blake Ferguson over the sideline after he’d cleaned up a Reynolds bomb with little difficulty, so it was clear that the Chooks had to respond, if only to break South Sydney’s peaking momentum.
They did so in the best possible way, answering the linebreaks and near-linebreaks of the visitors with a linebreak from James Tedesco, who scrambled out of a tackle from Alex Johnston for a quick play-the-ball, setting up Luke Keary for a sublime no-look pass to Latrell Mitchell, who defied both Dane Gagai and Richie Kennar on the wing to slam down the first points of the night, adding the extras a moment after. If the spectacle of Gagai simply missing a tackle wasn’t dispiriting enough for the Bunnies, this also felt like a critical moment in Teddy’s sync-up with the Chooks too.
South Sydney got their own back, though, thanks to another brilliant run from Cook, followed by a short ball from Cody Walker to John Sutton, who flicked it back to Walker again. From there, the Bunnies five-eighth dummied, stepped and stood in a low tackle from Cronk, before shifting the ball across to Robert Jennings to cross over in the corner. With Reynolds slotting through a challenging sideline conversion moments after, the score was set at 8-8 as the two teams headed into the sheds – a fascinating prospect for one of the NRL’s most enjoyable and enduring local rivalries.
The Bunnies came with a bang after half time, too, with one of the most unusual tries of their season so far. It started with a big crossfield kick from Walker, which Reece Robinson tried to clean up right on the line, but somehow richocheted laterally to the right, in a move that brought back bad memories of his nightmare game against the Warriors a couple of weeks ago. Sensing danger, Tedesco scooped in to the get the Steeden to ground in the in-goal area, but not without Gagai and Kennar smashing in to tackle him there, forcing him into a contorted and awkward position that saw him effectively flinging the ball away just to straighten his posture.
From there, Gagai made up for letting Mitchell through earlier by contorting his own body to ensure that the footy bounced off his head, with Kennar also doing a brilliant effort to prevent it being knocked on. While Teddy may have managed to reach out his hand for a second shot at the Steeden, he ended up bouncing it rather than grounding it – and bouncing it right into Angus Crichton’s hands, who managed to put down the softest try of the night before Teddy, Gagai or Kennar had even got up.
It was a pretty terrific spectacle for Souths, with the contrast between the chaotic maelstrom of Teddy’s tackle and the calmness of Crichton’s putdown seeming to reflect their composure in the face of such an intimidating Roosters outfit. While the error had been Robinson’s rather than Tedesco’s, the image of the new Chooks fullback scrambling to get control of the ball was also galvanising for the visitors, who seemed to gain a new sense of confidence and focus in the aftermath of this bizarre bit of play, even if Reynolds didn’t manage to add the two this time around.
He didn’t have to, though, since the Bunnies crossed over at the end of the next set, with a sterling effort from Greg Inglis that both marked his most definitive effort since returning to football – a riposte to Tedesco if there ever was one – and proof that the Rabbitohs didn’t need a bizarre error from Robinson to put down points. If the previous four points were freaky, then this was as classic as they come, as G.I. outjumped Teddy on the kick chase and then outran Joseph Manu to cross over, in a terrific response to the dismay of seeing Euan Aitken slam past him the week before.
The scoreline was just starting to genuinely reflect the Bunnies’ supremacy in the first half when Ryan Matterson slammed over for four more points, and six more once Mitchell had added the extras. Still, the momentum was all the Rabbitohs way, culminating with an awkward passage for the Chooks that, in retrospect, felt like the turning-point of the game – a pitch-perfect kick from Keary that Cronk somehow failed to collect right on the goal line, leaving it open for Johnston to clean it up in the in-goal area and actually make it back into the field of play for a fresh set of six.
That let-off may have done more than any try to galvanise the Bunnies with a sense of what they could do and, sure, enough, G.I. crossed over again shortly after. This time Matterson just prevented him getting to ground – or at least there was insufficient evidence to counter the on-field ruling of try – but Inglis wasn’t to be deterred, putting in a massive tackle on Ferguson a set later – and sticking a hand in the tackle – to force the Roosters’ winger to cough up the ball at a critical moment.
With possession and momentum, the Rabbitohs were quick to cross over, thanks to a brilliant pair of dummies from Reynolds and then Sutton, who had got out to the left quickly enough to catch the Roosters edge players by surprise, slamming through them to put down four more points, and setting up Reynolds for another brilliant sideline conversion. Full credit goes to Inglis too, though, who felt as if he’d returned more emphatically, in these moments, that at any other point so far in the season.
As the game reached the final ten minutes, it became clear that the Chooks needed to really build something to traverse the two converted tries standing between them and the Bunnies. Yet their play got more and more sloppy, with Kennar intercepting a pass from Keary at the end of a set, and Isaac Liu going to ground without the Roosters getting a fifth-tackle option on the next set. With a sustained period of possession at the seventy-four minute mark, a series of Rabbitohs penalties, and a formal warning for Greg Inglis, it looked as if they might have a chance at a try, only for the Rabbitohs to eventually clean up Manu at the end of it all with no real fuss.
Two minutes out from the end, the Chooks seemed to have finally found four points, only for the replay to show that Keary had lost control of the Steeden into Crichton before he even set up what might have been a consolation try. It looked like a classy move, but turned out to be messy – a situation that summed up the game for the Roosters, which was easily their most frustrating loss of the 2018 season so far, as well as a further incentive to repeat their Round 2 win over the Bulldogs in Round 7.