Both the Raiders and the Rabbitohs came into Saturday afternoon’s match at Central Coast Stadium determined to build upon rousing wins from the week before. On the one hand, Canberra had kept Parramatta tryless; on the other hand, the Bunnies were pumped from having handed the Roosters a decisive defeat during their traditional rivalry. With George and Tom Burgess both celebrating their 26th birthday, and Sam Burgess returning to the field, the drive was slightly stronger for the Bunnies, especially given that this was a home fixture for them, although the Raiders’ determination to continue getting their season on track was a factor as well.
The game actually started in a pretty grueling way for South Sydney, with Siliva Havilii putting in a damging run on the first Canberra set, busting through several tackles to get halfway down the field midway through the tackle count. While the Rabbitohs might have wrapped up the Raiders on the last tackle, John Sutton was almost dragged into touch halfway through the following set, only just managing to pop the football back into the field of play before tumbling across over the sidelines.
A penalty for the Bunnies changed everything though, combined with some good metres from Sam Burgess, which set up a platform of field position for Alex Johnston to accelerate between Joey Leilua and Blake Austin to put down the first points of the afternoon. While Adam Reynolds may not have added the extras, the sudden shift in fortune was enough to galvanise the Bunnies into scoring again on the restart, thanks, once again, to a barnstorming run from Sam Burgess to set it all up.
Full credit has to go to Reynolds too, for a perfectly weighted kick that got South Sydney the first goal line dropout of the afternoon. On the next set, Cody Walker more or less replicated Johnston’s opening try, slicing through Austin and Havilii to put down four more points for the Bunnies, with Reynolds adding the extras this time around to bring the scoreline to 10-0. After seeing Havilii spearhead the Canberra attack in the opening minute, it must have been empowering to the Rabbitohs to see him contained here, while Austin had now let two tries go by him.
If the first two Rabbitohs tries had been evidence of their organisation, they now executed a set piece for their third, moving the Steeden through Sutton, Walker and Johnston, while Greg Inglis acted as a decoy, before sending it across to Robert Jennings to cross over in the corner. With Reynolds adding a spectacular sideline conversion, and a penalty goal shortly after to make up for his first missed kick, the Bunnies were now three converted tries ahead, in their best opening of the season.
At the same time, this was also South Sydney’s third consecutive try on their left edge, and their sixteenth try of the season on their left edge – compared to five on the right and five off the centre – meaning that the Raiders had to target their right side if they were going to have a shot of putting down points. A couple of minutes later, they did just that, at the back end of a period that saw the cardinal and myrtle starting to concede just a little more to the visitors than they had in the game so far.
That said, the Bunnies initially looked set to crash over once again, thanks to a perfectly timed tackle from Angus Crichton on Jack Wighton moments after the big Canberra fullback had collected the high ball. Whether Wighton thought he had a foot over the try line was unclear, but the South Sydney second rower managed to collect him and drag him into touch the moment after he’d got hands on the ball, setting up the Bunnies for yet another goal line dropout and tryscoring opportunity.
Wighton more than made up for it with the dropout kick, however, booting the Steeden back over the opposite forty, where Junior Tatola fumbled the catch and knocked it back another fifteen. From there, it was unlikely that the Rabbitohs could make the try – unless Reynolds managed some magic, which he didn’t – and with a penalty at the beginning of the subsequent set the Raiders were back on the attack.
They may not have got over this time, but an error from Crichton on the following Rabbitohs set undercut his brilliant tackle on Wighton as much as Wighton himself had made up for it with his massive kick. Shortly after, the Raiders were able to showcase their own left edge, as Sezer and Wighton sent the football across to Nick Cotric on the wing, who danced and tiptoed along the sideline before putting down the most dexterous and delicate grounding of the afternoon, Jennings’ try included.
Still, the Bunnies regathered quickly, with a shoulder charge from Elliott Whitehead and a quick tap from Damien Cook allowing them to resume their control of the game as seamlessly as they’d wrested it back from Havilii’s opening burst of momentum. While South Sydney had executed three brilliantly organised tries, what came next was probably the most moving moment for Bunnies fans, as Greg Inglis intercepted a cut-out pass from Aidan Sezer a couple of minutes later, and then ran virtually the entire length of the field to ground the football right beside the posts.
While G.I. has had some brilliant moments this year, none have quite seemed to signal his return from injury like this barnstorming run. Watching him, you’d never have guessed that the big backliner had nursed a knee injury for most of 2017, as Croker and Wighton barely came close to catching him, and even the ref, hovering in the background, seemed to be willing Inglis to make the most of his majestic dash.
Over the course of the 2018 season, Inglis’ Goanna trysaving signature has been a bit like the Hayne Plane – something we’ve glimpsed from both players, but not quite seen in anything like their former versions. This time, however, G.I. stuck out his tongue and seemed on the verge of going full Goanna, only to get up at the last minute for a more conventional cheer, as if still not quite certain enough of his return to celebrate it fully, a fact that made the try as poignant as it was courageous.
At first, then, the Bunnies seemed to have had the last word, but a succession of penalties and errors from South Sydney gave Canberra the upper end in the closing minutes, culminating with an offload on the ground from Wighton that Whitehead was able to scoop up and slam through Johnston and Richie Kennar to get to ground. With Sezer booting through the extras right on the siren, the Raiders were now only half the Rabbitohs’ score at 24-12, in what was actually a relatively close game on the board, even if South Sydney had been miles ahead in terms of their structure.
As with the game between the Sea Eagles and the Eels the following afternoon, the losing team didn’t manage to come back with much after the break – at least not immediately after – as Sam Burgess quickly found open space, and Jarrod Croker was binned for a professional foul a couple of minutes later. The Bunnies took the penalty goal to put themselves two more points ahead, but it was merely the first taste of the cascade of points that would now come against the twelve-man Raiders.
The turning-point came with another Canberra error – a jarring tackle from Whitehead on Tom Burgess from behind before Tom had even received the ball from Greg Inglis, who was in the midst of being tackled by the Raiders defence. Both high and early, it was a dirty move, and while the Bunnies may have received a penalty, it didn’t feel like enough to satiate their frustration as they saw their star prop being lef off the field for his twenty-sixth birthday. Understandably, they wanted more than a mere change in possession and they got it, spectacularly, on the following set.
Once again, Inglis played a critical role, putting in a magnificent pair of fends on the Raiders’ big men to bring the ball right up to the line, before a beautiful pair of one-handed offloads from Sam Burgess and Dane Gagai shifted the footy over to the right edge, by way of Reynolds, where Richie Kennar crossed over and curved around to plant it down right beneath the posts. It was the catharsis South Sydney needed after Whitehead’s dog move, not least because it was their first try on the right edge all afternoon, and the spectacle of the big second-rower remonstrating with the ref over a pretty clear four-pointer must have made it all the sweeter for the home fans.
South Sydney didn’t take long to cross over again, thanks to a superb crossfield kick from Reynolds that Rapana leapt to catch, only for G.I. to burst up from beneath him and knock the ball backwards, in possibly his best – if his most unusual – handling effort of the season so far. From there, the ball ricocheted out to the left and sat up perfectly for Cook, who popped it over to Jennings to cross over for his second try of the afternoon, an indication the Bunnies hadn’t lost an iota of their opening passion.
While South Sydney would score one more try, and Canberra two more, the climax of the game came shortly after, with a high shot from Sam Burgess that absolutely skittled Aidan Sezer, leading to the Bunnies’ big man being put on report and the visitors receiving the penalty. The commentators may have questioned why on earth Burgess would put in a big hit at this point in the game, but the frustration of the cheap shot on brother Tom, combined with Whitehead’s outrageous challenge to Kennar’s try, had already made this an emotional, volatile, high-ocatane afternoon.
That was only enhanced by the prospect of Burgess copping a ban during his first match back after a couple of weeks on the sideline, and you had to wonder whether Slammin’ Sam had gone all in during the fracas following his hit on Sezer because he knew he was likely to be off the field for the next few matches anyway. In any case, the Bunnies’ fans seemed to get where Burgess had been coming from, applauding him as they came off the field, and providing the Rabbitohs with the energy to cross over again on the next set, for their third consecutive try against the sorry Raiders.
This time, it started with a deft offload from Johnston to Inglis, and ended with Jason Clark crossing over off the back of a perfectly timed short ball from Cook, slamming through the line as if to testify to the power of the South Sydney forwards to hold the fort for Burgess during his time off the field. It was a gutsy effort, and a perfect coda to an even better game for the Bunnies than last week’s win over the Roosters.
The match wasn’t over yet, however, with the Raiders putting down two more tries. The first came from Jarrod Croker in the corner, thanks to an improvisational pair of passes from Austin and Sezer, who seemed to have bounced back pretty well after being clocked by Burgess. The second came, somewhat frustratingly for the Rabbitohs, from Whitehead, who crossed over for a double after a botched try from Iosia Soliola the set before, followed by a damaging run into the ruck from Austin.
As powerful as these two tries were, however, they couldn’t help but feel like afterthoughts after such a powerful and barnstorming performance from South Sydney, and such a terrific gesture of organisation and focus from Greg Inglis. The Bunnies are going to be looking to consolidate this winning streak, then, when they take on the Broncos at home next week, while it’s back to the drawing board for the Raiders, who’ll be taking on a North Queensland outfit desperate to clock up a win.