Both South Sydney and Cronulla had kept their opponents to ten points in Week 12, with the Bunnies steaming twenty points ahead of the Warriors, and the Sharks decimating the Knights with a thirty-eight point lead. Stakes were high, then, when they met up on Friday night for the first of a four-game round, especially given that if the Bunnies came away victorious this would mark the first time they’ve enjoyed four consecutive wins since their premiership-winning season in 2014.
The fact that the first team to score in the last ten South Sydney-Cronulla clashes has also been the team to win made the opening minutes of the game particularly hard fought. Cronulla were the first to put down points, thanks to a slow peel from Cameron Murray that saw Chad Townsend boot through a penalty goal about five minutes in. That said, the Bunnies had the best scoring opportunity at the start of the game, after a spiralling bomb from Matt Moylan landed in Braidon Burns’ hands, but some quick thinking from the ex-Panther saw him take out Burns he could pass the footy to his inside or make it all the way to the try line himself.
The Bunnies got a penalty of their own after a strip on George Burgess, and chose to take the two as well – a decision that momentarily looked as if it might be a momentum-killer for South Sydney, since it was succeeded by the most damaging defensive set of the night so far from the visitors. Nevertheless, a quick play-the-ball from Tom Burgess set the stage for a dazzling display of cardinal and myrtle dexterity, allowing Adam Reynolds to move deep into the Sharks’ line and dislocate Luke Lewis, unsettling the entire Cronulla defensive push in turn.
From there, South Sydney showcased two brilliant – and subtle – shifts in the direction of the play. The first came from Cody Walker, who slowed down just as the Sharks were crowding in and twisted around to pass to Sutton, who ran a diagonal line to collect the footy on the inside of the field. From there, Sutton pulled an even more audacious move, heading to the left of the posts only to shift the Steeden back in to George Burgess with a left-handed offload that found the big prop to his right.
It was like seeing a stealth play unfold in slow motion, and with all the strength of the front row, as Burgess simply slammed through the last line of Cronulla defence to reach out a hand and get the footy to ground. An extraordinary period of dominance now ensued for South Sydney, despite the fact that they wouldn’t score until three minutes into the second stanza, in what was probably one of their most impressive periods of football this year – and certainly one of the best back row combinations of the year from Sam Burgess, Sutton and Murray.
The South Sydney surge continued with a perfect kick from Reynolds on the next set, which found Sosaia Feki on the chest right on the try line, where a pummeling cardinal and myrtle defence drove him back into the in goal area to force a dropout. A set later, Graham stuck out a boot to deflect a Reynolds grubber, only for it to bounce into the reach of Sam Burgess, where only a clutch effort from Moylan prevented the Bunnies scoring again. Over the next few minutes, Moylan would be the last line of defence against an enormous South Sydney effort, only just cleaning up a second Reynolds grubber on the next set, before Feki was almost dragged into the in goal area once again on the second tackle.
Things went from bad to worse after Graham copped a knee from Sam Burgess and was taken off for an HIA. While Jayson Bukuya provided some fresh energy for the Sharks, they still had to kick from within their own ten at the end of the following set. A dropped ball from Gallen on the fourth tackle a minute later – the first error of the match – was the nadir, and yet two events now put a slight dent in the South Sydney momentum, decelerating them just enough to ensure that they wouldn’t score again over the opening stanza.
First, the Bunnies got a repeat set and then an additional penalty in front of the uprights, and yet chose to kick for goal. If there was ever a time to tap and go in their season, it was now, since even if it hadn’t resulted in a try – which it probably would have – it would still have depleted a Cronulla team that were on the verge of total exhaustion. At no point in this season has the penalty kick felt like such a default option, and while Reynolds’ boot might have done the trick, it gave the Sharks some much-needed breathing-space instead of forcing them to defend their line again.
The next setback actually started by looking like the best tryscoring opportunity of the night so far for South Sydney. It started with a brainsnap from Sione Katoa, who stuck out a toe and deflected a last-tackle Reynolds kick, only to misjudge the angle and see Robert Jennings launching forward to scoop up the footy. With a strip on Tom Burgess deemed a loose carry, however, all the Bunnies’ energy came to nothing, in the most disappointing moment of the night for the home team.
Between the penalty kick and Jennings’ pickup, South Sydney probably should have clocked up another two tries over the preceding five minutes – a fact that wasn’t lost on the Sharks, who were more assertive than they had been for a long time for their next period of possession, when they forced a pair of dropouts. The first came when Graham was trapped in goal after a Moylan kick, while the second came after Jennings coughed up a Lewis kick in goal, forcing Adam Douehi to slam in and clean up, gifting Cronulla another set of six in the process.
Yet while the Sharks might have found a bit of energy, they were still struggling. Over the course of the night, Moylan had been one of their key playmakers, and even he almost neutralized the dropout he’d helped orchestrated, coming within centimetres of taking the football into touch on the first dropout. The visitors went into the sheds trailing 10-2, then, while the Rabbits scored within three minutes of trotting out onto the park again.
They did so in the most remarkable manner, with Reynolds and Graham combining for one of the most elegant tries of South Sydney’s season so far. What the Bunnies had lacked in point scoring frequency they now made up for in dexterity, as a crossfield kick from Reyno hovered in the corner over Graham, Leutele and Feki, initially looking as if it might be too deep, and that it would probably result in one of two outcomes – either Feki managing to snatch it, or Leutele putting too much pressure on Graham for him to catch it.
Instead, Graham leapt into the air and travelled a full seven metres to take control of the Steeden just as it seemed to be heading towards Feki’s chest, before crashing to ground to score in the same motion. While the Rabbitohs wouldn’t score again until the seventieth minute, the spectacle of this try hung over the rest of the second stanza much as Burgess’ effort had hung over the first stanza – two efforts that were so gutsy and dexterous that they effectively announced South Sydney as the dominant outfit, and seemed to dishevel Cronulla into a subpar performance.
The Bunnies had now scored more than twenty points in eight consecutive matches for only the second time in club history – and they would be the next to score as well. It didn’t look that way at first, though, as a superb linebreak from Katoa forced a professional foul from Jennings, who was sinbinned with twelve minutes to go, although the call seemed to momentarily cause some dissent amongst the refs.
By all accounts, the Sharks should have gone across on the next set, and might well have, if Jennings’ foul had been called more rapidly, and Cronulla had been given a more immediate opportunity to build upon Katoa’s momentum. As it was, Doueihi came up with the football at the end of the set, while Moylan was sent to the bin a couple of tackles later for being offside, after Gallen had received a formal penalty warning shortly before.
For a brief moment the Rabbits had been a man down, but now it was a level playing field again, as Doueihi showed that he could be just as good in attack as in defence, storming the footy up to the right edge where he was only just cleaned up by Lee. A tackle later, Sutton almost broke through Prior to score beneath the posts, compensating for being held up with a quick play-the-ball that sent Tom Burgess over on his right for the big prop’s second try of the night.
With six minutes left on the clock, the Sharks still hadn’t scored a try, and while Ramien and Katoa might have smashed over in quick succession, and Katoa finally got a chance to continue the splendid momentum of his Jennings-thwarted linebreak, it was too little too late. Cronulla will be looking for a decimating win over the Tigers, then, when they take them on at home next week, while the Bunnies will be keen to continue the momentum of one of their best matches of the season when they take on the Titans at Cbus.