ROUND 19: Wests Tigers v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (ANZ Stadium, 21/7/18)
Things were more personal than usual at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night, as both teams muscled it out to claim milestone matches two of their most senior players. On the one hand, this was John Sutton’s 300th game for the Rabbitohs; on the other hand, it was Robbie Farah’s 250th game for the Tigers. In addition, Souths were aiming for ten straight wins, while the hosts were aiming to continue their stunning victory over St. George-Illawarra the week before.
In other words, this promised to be a consolidation game for whatever outfit won – not only a consolidation of their recent form, but of their connection to one of their most iconic players. Farah’s brief stint at the Bunnies, and the condition of the Tigers’ season, made the win just that little bit more desperate for the black and gold army, and Robbie looked steelier and more determined that he has in weeks, often stopping, hands on hips, to surveil and take the measure of the field of play.
Thanks in part to Farah’s rigour, the Tigers were on fire straight out of the tunnel, notching up four linebreaks by the twelfth minute, most of them right up through the South Sydney ruck. Their first points came after Moses Mbye cleaned up a pair of spiralling bombs from Adam Reynolds, and a quick tap from Luke Brooks sent him clean through the line. A huge tackle from Sam Burgess momentarily downed Ben Matulino, but the ex-Warrior got up just as quickly, setting the stage for a game where the Tigers’ ability to bounce back would be as important as their impeccable defence.
Sure enough, a couple of tackles later Benji Marshall almost burst through the line, intensifying the Tigers’ momentum even further, and setting up Farah and Brooks for a well-timed pair of passes that provided Esan Marsters with the platform to showcase some of his best footwork of the season so far. Dancing through the defence, the Tigers’ most reliable centre skipped over Tom Burgess and came to ground with Alex Johnston on his back, for his second try of the 2018 season.
Things got even more personal for the Tigers following a high shot from Sam Burgess that absolutely floored Farah about ten minutes later and saw Big Sam put on report. In retrospect, and in slow motion, it wasn’t quite as bad as it initially seemed – as much a matter of the angle Farah had brought to the tackle as any illegal intention on Burgess’ part – and sure enough Robbie got to his feet pretty quickly, and was back in the flow of play a minute later.
As with Matulino’s hit-up earlier, however, seeing a player cut down and get up so quickly seemed to galvanise the Tigers, as Marsters – who had sent the hospital pass across to Farah in the first place – went from trysaver to tryscorer, running into the line at the end of a series of silky passes across to the Tigers’ right edge, where he pivoted off his right foot and forced Hymel Hunt to commit, before flicking the footy across to David Nofolauma to score with only a centimetre of space along the sideline.
The Bunnies got two more chances as the siren grew close, the first of which came after a fumble from Mbye that was preceded by a forward pass. South Sydney built some good momentum on the following set, and kept on nosing their way through the line on their left edge, with an error from Brooks getting them some more field position. A combination of brilliant acceleration and footwork from Dane Gagai seemed to promise a superb tryscoring sequence, but with the slightest of obstructions from Crichton it all came to nothing.
Nevertheless, the visitors got another opportunity shortly after, when a pair of penalties – a second effort from Matt Eisenhuth, offside from Farah – saw them shepherded back down the Tigers’ end of the park much sooner than they were expecting. It was at this moment, however, that the Tiges really amped up the defence that has served them so well under Ivan Cleary, as a pack of defenders – spearheaded by Marsters, Farah and Mbye – helped Sutton celebrate his 300th by dragging him into touch on the fourth tackle, from about seven metres in field.
The best attacking team in the NRL in 2018 had thus been kept scoreless by the best defending team – a pretty stark contrast to the last nine weeks of football from the Bunnies, suggesting that the Tigers’ strengths could well win out over South Sydney’s strengths if things continued this way over the second stanza. As it turned out, these next forty minutes turned out to be some of the most confident and accomplished of Brooks’ year so far, as he even outdid Reynolds with the boot, rallying and organizing the team to perfection.
Even the team weren’t quite prepared for his form, as he sent Naiqama a kick so perfectly weighted, three minutes in, that Kev worked too hard to get it, fumbling it in the process and costing the Tigers an opening four points. Shortly after, Josh Aloiai was subbed on when Luke Garner suffered a head-on collision with Campbell Graham’s hip. While it was great to see Garner gingerly able to walk off the park after initially appearing to sustain a neck injury, this was all a bit of a dent in the Tigers’ momentum, while Souths, by contrast, seemed really energized by the lapse in play.
Sure enough, Reynolds sent through his best kick of the evening on the next set, setting up a bounce so deceptive that Corey Thompson waited for it to tumble into touch, before realising too late that the footy was going to sit up short, and so forcing Mbye to clean it up before the Bunnies could get a hand to it. The Rabbitohs now had their first dropout of the night, and an additional penalty – for a hand in the ruck from Elijah Taylor – seemed to gift South Sydney the platform they needed.
Yet Reynolds now put in the first of a weird pair of kicks, booting the ball through on the third tackle for George Burgess, and mistiming it enough for Eisenhuth to come up with it a moment later. All of a sudden, what looked like the critical tryscoring opportunity for South Sydney had collapsed back into their near-misses before the half time siren, while Brooks’ kicking game only seemed to grow strong in comparison, epitomised by a beautiful skidding kick that sent the footy over the sideline at the end of the next set.
No doubt, the Bunnies were still putting in a strong effort – a brilliant run from Murray saw him almost break through the line a couple of times – but the disconnect between Reynolds and Brooks was becoming starker. Shortly after, another weird kick from the Rabbitohs halfback was not quite good enough to trap Thompson in goal, and with twenty-three minutes on the clock, Brooks got the Tigers a much-needed dropout. Moments later, Michael Chee Kam collected the Steeden from Benji Marshall at speed and pivoted in off the right foot at the same moment, scattering the South Sydney defence and setting up Mbye for his first four points in Tigers colours.
The home team were now sixteen nil against the competition leaders once Marsters had booted through the extras, but Brooks wasn’t done yet, forcing a handling error from Gagai shortly after with one of his gutsiest tackles of the year. They probably needed just one more try to clinch the win, and they got it in the most spectacular way, with Thompson intercepting a harbor bridge pass from Crichton to Graham, before running the length of the field to smash the footy down beneath the posts.
Only Gagai came close to catching him, but he only got the slightest of touches to his quarry’s boots, as Thompson read the low tackle before it arrived and skipped out of it effortlessly. Over the next couple of minutes, both Nofoaluma and Farah followed Garner in having sustained neck examinations after head clashes, but the Tigers were still dominant, even if it was a bit of a blow to see Farah taken off the park for his milestone game, and after such a powerful performance from his team.
It was a bit of an anticlimax then, when Cody Walker crashed over a couple of minutes, since this was considerably more than a consolation try – it ensured that the Tigers wouldn’t keep the Rabbitohs scoreless for the first time in their history. Even the Balmain Tigers and Wests Magpies hadn’t kept the Bunnies scoreless since the 1930s and 1940s respectively, so the South Sydney would have breathed a sigh of relief that it was only a bad loss, rather than a historical loss. Nevertheless, the game was a rude shock for the Rabbitohs, who’ll be looking to come away with a particularly visceral win when they take on Parramatta at ANZ next week.
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