They may have been several positions apart on the ladder, but South Sydney and St. George were only a try apart when they met at ANZ Stadium on Sunday afternoon for one of the most-touted matchs of Round 10. On the one hand, the Bunnies were roused by resounding victories over the Knights and the Raiders, and only a four point loss to Brisbane, in the previous three weeks, while the Dragons were keen to continue the near-winning streak that has made them such a force to be contended with over the 2018 season, along with a terrific win over the Storm the week before.
What ensued, however, was a landslide victory that not even the most ardent of South Sydney fans could have expected, with the cardinal and myrtle keeping the Red V scoreless until the sixty-seventh minute of the game after putting down three tries of their own. The first two came in rapid succession, after an error from Nene Macdonald in the first minute almost sent Sam Burgess over in the right corner, in a stunning way to announce his return after a couple of weeks out on the sidelines.
The Dragons may have regrouped, but the Bunnies simply shifted their focus, sending the footy over to the other side of the field where Hymel Hunt crashed over on the fourth tackle, on the back of a short ball from Cody Walker to John Sutton, and then a pass from Sutto that barely touched the second rower’s fingertips before he flipped it across to his wingman. It was galvanising to see how quickly Hunt had stepped into George Jennings’ tryscoring boots, and even if Adam Reynolds lobbed the subsequent conversion away to the left, the Rabbitohs had started with a bang.
Reynolds got a chance to add two points pretty quickly, though, bookending the next try by sending a short ball to Angus Crichton while dragging Tariq Sims out of the Dragons’ defensive line to leave just enough space for the big second rower to ease through. At first, an ankle tap from Gareth Widdop seemed to have defied him, but Crichton managed to slip out of it without the tackle ever quite being completed, bursting through Matt Dufty and a swathe of other red jerseys for four more points.
All of a sudden, then, the Bunnies were at 10-0, once Reynolds had slotted the Steeden through the posts, leaving the Dragons somewhat shellshocked in the wake of these opening two tries. Nevertheless, they managed to regather themselves and orchestrate a sustained period of possession in the buildup to the thirtieth minute, throwing everything they had at the line only for an error from Nene Macdonald on the final tackle of the culminative set to grant the Bunnies the football once again.
From there, things moved quickly, with a penalty on Hunt for a slow peel and then a penalty on Sims for being offside meaning that all the Dragons’ field position ended with Reynolds booting through a penalty goal at the other end of the park. It was a moment of despair for the Red V, and must have led to their decelerating form over the remainder of the first stanza. Five minutes out from the end, a left foot kick from Widdop tumbled over the line, where Walker let it bounce, only for Frizell to storm forward but not quite get it to ground before lunging into touch. Two minutes later, Widdop lost the ball under a tackle from Walker, while shortly after Walker himself nearly scored only for a knock-on from Inglis to let the visitors off before the sheds.
Still, it had been a pretty dispiriting first act for the top team in the NRL at the moment, and the pattern continued after the break, when Sam Burgess set the scene for the next forty minutes by catching Hunt’s fifth-tackle kick square on the chest after passing an HIA following a high tackle from Leeson Ah Mau at the back end of the first half. Hunt himself was a major factor for the rest of the game, having come down with a debilitating cork in the opening minutes that saw him much more error-prone, and much less of a motivational focus for his teammates, than usual.
A major turning-point for the Bunnies came at the end of a promising set for the Dragons, when Tim Lafai lost the ball under the pressure of a tackle from Reynolds. Pouncing on the ball, the Rabbitohs halfback knocked it on in the same gesture, but for some reason the Bunker didn’t see it that way, allowing South Sydney to continue with their set, during which they received two penalties of their own, allowing Reynolds to clock up another two points once they got down the other end.
For an error from Reyno that should have ended with another set for the Dragons, these two points were possibly an even more bitter pill to swallow for the Red V than the Rabbitohs’ previous try. To make things worse, Hunt really started to show signs of discomfort from this point onwards, with a big Hunt-on-Hunt tackle from Hymel with eighteen minutes to go seeming to make the cork even worse. Three minutes later, the ex-Bronco coughed up the footy, and then, shortly after, put in a subpar kick that George Burgess managed to clean up easily halfway up the field.
This was probably the nadir of the game for the Dragons, yet that just made it all the more galvanising for their supporters to see how the next few minutes panned out. At the end of the set that started with George’s clean-up, Reynolds passed to Sam Burgess, only for Slammin’ Sam to lose the footy and allow Frizell pick it up and run the length of the field to score. In the absence of Hunt’s motivational energy, Frizell’s surging runs had provided the team with their few bursts of energy throughout the game, so it was appropriate to see him burning ninety metres for their first try now.
For a moment, it had looked as if the Bunnies might keep a team tryless for the first time since their premiership-winning year, so it must have been relieving for the Dragons to finally put a pin in being that statistic. Still, with Widdop failing to add the extras, a margin of ten points remained, and, meanwhile, Hunt’s injury was getting worse. Coughing up the football once again shortly after, he allowed Walker to respond to Frizell with his own run down the field, followed by an offload to Sam Burgess on the ground, who got it across to Damien Cook, who was finally contained.
The Rabbitohs got a penalty at the other end, though, thanks to a bizarrely slow peel from James Graham who, like Hunt, seemed to be somewhat disoriented and playing significantly below par. What happened next was one of the most spectacular NRL sequences this year, as Reynolds took the two only for the Steeden to bounce off the uprights and back into the field of play, producing a terrific piece of game footage as Reyno’s face suddenly adjusted, on the big screen, to the football still being live.
To his credit, though, Reynolds regathered quickly, sending through a short grubber early in the tackle count, as if sensing that it was important, above all, to strike the Dragons before they had a sense to reconsolidate their line. It paid off, too, with the footy ricocheting off Widdop before skittering over to the corner, where Campbell Graham slammed it down for another four points for the South Sydney supporters.
While Reynolds may not have added the extras, it barely mattered, since this had effectively been a four-point penalty kick already, so fortuitously had things turned out for Souths. No team in the NRL feels quite mythological as the Rabbitohs, and even a second try from Frizell at the seventy-fifth minute couldn’t prevent the overwhelming feeling that this was the cardinal and myrtle’s night. It felt appropriate, then – almost inevitable – when Greg Inglis crashed over in the last minute for the last try, crowning the game with his own inimitate footy signature.
This last sequence actually started with Matt Dufty, who appeared to have cleaned up the South Sydney kick on the left edge only to knock the football on under the pressure of a well-timed tackle from Cook. From there, Inglis was in just the right position to ground the Steeden just as Zac Lomax tried to put him into touch, only for Cook to inadvertently provide a brief buffer. While we’ve seen some big speed and strength from G.I., the dexterity of his putdown seemed to belong to another era in his game, making it all the more rousing to see him showcase it at this point.
All in all, then, it was premiership-winning stuff from the Rabbitohs, who are going to be absolutely pumped when they front up against the Cowboys at 1300SMILES next week. Meanwhile, this has been a pretty big shock to the system for the Dragons, who are going to be desperate to come away with a win – and a comfortable win at that – when they take on the Raiders for a rural clash at Glen Willow Stadium in Mudgee.