The Rabbitohs had all their Origin stars back on deck when they took on the Eels at ANZ Stadium on Thursday night, with Damien Cook, Angus Crichton, Greg Inglis and Dane Gagai all taking the field after the series opener the week before. Undefeated since their four-point loss to the Broncos in Round 8, the Bunnies were therefore keen to make the most of a decimated and dejected Parramatta outfit to cement their momentum as they move to consolidate their contention for finals footy in 2018.
The first two tries felt like a vision of the Eels’ season in miniature, starting with a four-pointer from Josh Hoffman that was half inspiration and half luck. It came at the receiving end of a cross field kick from Corey Norman, and a contest with Hymel Hunt, who got to the Steeden first but found it tumbling straight through his arms as Hoffman wrapped his arms around his waist, before it bounced through Hoffman’s legs in turn before coming to rest so fortuitously that all the ex-Titan had to do was simply reach around and stretch out a hand to ground the softest try of the evening.
No surprise, then, that the initial ruling was no try, nor that the luckiness of it all made it feel as if this might be the night that Parra were destined to begin the comeback that blue and gold fans have been waiting for all year. Things turned South rapidly, however, after Clint Gutherson missed the conversion, as Hoffman and Manu M’au put in an absolute howler at the tail end of the restart kick, failing to properly communicate who was going to collect it, with the result that the Bunnies got the football again immediately, just as the Eels seemed set to build momentum.
They made the most of it, too, shifting the Steeden across through Sam Burgess, Cody Walker and then G.I., who sent it out to Robert Jennings to score a try so quickly and effortlessly that it not only eclipsed Hoffman’s opening effort, but made it feel as if it was the Bunnies who had scored a restart, so effortlessly did they steal the Eels’ sense of rhythm and focus. The fact that it was Michael Jennings’ 250th game just made the four points all the more pointed, as did Adam Reynolds’ subsequent kick, which was as focused and confident as Gutho’s had been awkward.
It was the other Jennings brother who crossed over next, as George notched up four more points for the Eels on the right edge after some deft timing from Brad Takairangi combined with a catch-and-pass from Clinton Gutherson to take Inglis by surprise. While Jennings jammed in to try and make up for the gap, he was too late to thwart this brother, but it was G.I. who seemed the most ropeable and frustrated by the try, which should have been easily contained by the South Sydney defence.
Seeing one Jennings put down points in Parramatta colours seemed to strengthen the Eels, who now proceeded to put in one of their biggest and hardest performances all year, eventually achieving the heights of their best 2017 performances at the first stanza drew to a close, to the extent that it felt as if they were the top team on the ladder, and the Bunnies were the cellar-dwellers desperate to prove their mettle against a dominant and unassailable football outfit.
While there were great moments from multiple Parramatta players during this period, two runs from Peni Terepo said it all. The first saw him simply steamroll over Damien Cook, while the second came off the back of a damaging spiral bomb from Reynolds that would have disheveled the Eels in any other game this year. In this match, however, the blue and gold army just bunkered down, with Terepo making one of the linebreaks of the year at the other end of the field, slicing through Cook and Sam Burgess and skipping over Johnston to find himself a foot from the chalk.
By all accounts, Terepo could probably have scored right then and there, but he compounded his strength with judgement, sending the footy across to Bevan French on his left despite the fact that he himself hasn’t scored for over fifty games. It was easy enough, from there, for French to put down the points, scooting out of a last-minute effort from Crichton and setting up Reynolds for another seamless kick.
If possible, Parra got even stronger over the next couple of minutes, with a terrific trio of runs from Michael Jennings, Manu Ma’u and David Gower seeming to promise a cascade of points over the rest of the opening stanza. At the same time, this also felt like the most relaxed version of Parramatta we’ve seen this year, as if, having resigned themselves to remaining at the bottom of the ladder, the team had simply decided to have some football fun and do what they could without pressure.
For that reason, nothing can take away from Parra’s performance over this splendid sequence, but the tide did start to turn a few sets later, when an offload from Walker on the ground saw the footy move through Johnston and Inglis, who was momentarily grounded by a face slap from Jennings but got up again pretty quickly. A bizarre backwards banana kick on the last tackle from Reynolds seemed to signal an end of the set, but Dane Gagai showed some Origin-worthy judgment by slamming French into the goal post as he was collecting the ball to get the Bunnies a dropout.
The Eels remained strong over the next set, and seemed to have kept South Sydney out, only for the slightest of knock-ons from Norman on the first tackle to return possession to the hosts. Once again, Robert Jennings scored out of the scrum, and the formation was almost identical to his first try, except that it was even faster and more efficient. No surprise, then, that it disheveled Parramatta even more rapidly as well, as their period of brilliance seemed to end before they’d even taken stock of it.
The remainder of the first act belonged to the Bunnies as well, who scored once more thanks to one of the more creative decisions of the night from Walker – a chip to the left edge of the field, despite the fact that nobody was waiting for the football in the corner. It paid dividends, though, as Johnston read Walker’s mind perfectly, speeding up the side to ground the Steeden before Gutherson could boot it out of play, with Inglis following him and cheering him on for the last try of the first stanza.
With a scoreline of 14-16, it was still only a two-point game as the teams trotted back out to the field, but the Bunnies quickly expanded on that, putting the screws on the Eels immediately with some of their most aggressive attacking of the night, culminating with Norman being bunched in and forced to kick from within the thirty. From there, Crichton showed some great vision by choosing to pass to Johnston early in the tackle count rather than run and take a hit-up – a decision that utterly flummoxed the Parramatta defence, allowing the South Sydney fullback to slice past Takairangi and French and then outrun the rest of the blue and gold army to score.
The difference was still only a converted try after Reynolds’ kick hit the goal posts, but it didn’t matter much, since the Bunnies scored again on the restart, thanks to a beautiful offload from Walker to Inglis and then an equally well-timed pass from G.I., who just floated along the left edge of the field to buy some time for Robert Jennings, who cruised up alongside for a hat trick to ruin his brother Michael’s party.
Even if the Rabbitohs had retained a ten point lead it would have been a resounding victory given the strength and speed that the Eels had showcased in the opening stanza. Yet with twenty-five minutes left on the clock, the cardinal and myrtle now proceeded to almost double that scoreline, in what has to be one of the pinnacles of their 2018 season, and a pivotal point of reference as they start the journey towards finals football, since they were already showcasing finals quality and conviction here.
Some deft footwork from Walker saw Hunt crash over again shortly next and while Reynolds may have astonishingly missed his fourth conversion, his work with the boot helped secure the next South Sydney try, as the hosts regained possession after French lost his timing under the high ball. Once again, the Bunnies got the scrum feed, and while Sam Burgess might have experimented briefly with muscling through the line, it ended up being the fourth time that the left edge combination sent Robert Jennings over in the corner, making him the first player in 2018 to get down four tries.
This time, Reynolds got the football through the posts, and another spiralling bomb on the restart saw Hoffman take his turn to make a handling error, setting the platform for yet another South Sydney putdown – this time from Tom Burgess, who continued brother Sam’s barging run from the previous set to score right beneath the posts. Reynolds himself bookended the play, too, swapping roles to collect a deft grubber from Cook and carry it to the line like he was part of the forward pack, bracing himself for his biggest hit-up of the night as he cleared up space for Burgess.
If Reyno hadn’t enjoyed a great night with the conversions, then, he’d more than made up for it with the number and sheer quality of his spiralling bombs, in what has to be one of his most dexterous games with the boot within the field of play. With less than fifteen minutes on the clock, the blue and gold had only been allowed five sets in the entire second stanza, and yet they managed to put down a couple of consolation tries in the last minutes to regain a bit of pride after their stunning start.
The first had a fair bit of luck to it, as Johnston got in position to contain a kick from French only for the Steeden to ricochet unexpectedly off to the right and straight into Jarryd Hayne’s hands. While there’s always something galvanising about seeing Hayne score in blue and gold colours, this occurred so late in the game, and was so contingent on the unexpected bounce, that it simply couldn’t replicate the spectacle and momentum ushered in by his double against the Cowboys the previous round.
The next try was a bit more motivating, involving a nice cut-out pass from Norman that saw Hoffman score the last try of the night. Still, the fact that it sailed over Michael Jennings head said everything about the way the game had devolved for the Eels as well. A penalty goal for Reynolds at the seventy-ninth minute saw the game end with a symmetrical scoreline of 42-24 – an appropriate final touch for the second forty minutes, which had been increasingly organised around Reyno’s kicking fortitude.
It’s hard to know, then, what this game can and should mean for the Eels. They can certainly hold their heads high after their brutal performance in the opening stanza, which must make its way into any of their highlights reels this year, although that also makes their struggle in the second half even more shattering as well. On the other side of the Steeden, the fact that the Eels had so much to give early on also makes this one of the Bunnies’ most impressive victories for the 2018 season, and may well be seen, in retrospect, as the pivotal moment in their trajectory towards finals footy.