At this point in the 2018 season, the Eels are playing for two key goals. First, to make sure that they avoid the wooden spoon, if humanly possible. Second, to recover some belief and strength in preparation for the 2019 season. While it may have made their loss to the Rabbitohs especially frustrating, Saturday night’s game at ANZ was nevertheless an important rallying point in their season for the second goal, both in terms of the close scoreline of 26-20 and their sustained quality football.
The game actually started with a huge period of possession for the Eels, thanks to a series of errors and penalties from the Bunnies, including a lazy high shot from Tom Burgess on Jarryd Hayne. While a botched pass from Clint Gutherson meant it all came to nought, the fact that the Rabbitohs had to work so hard to define their line in the opening minutes meant that the Eels built more of a platform than anyone might have expected, epitomized by Kaysa Pritchard’s determination in remaining on the field for as long as possible despite what seemed to be a dislocated shoulder.
Nevertheless, Gutherson’s botched pass galvanized the Bunnies to score their first try on the subsequent set, where a big carry from Tom Burgess set up Damien Cook for a short ball that sent Dane Gagai past Hayne for the first try of the night. Ever the dexterous showman, the ex-Knight ground the Steeden right on the dead ball line beside the posts, setting up Adam Reynolds for the two points that turned him into the second highest scoring Rabbitoh of all the time for his 150th game in the NRL.
A pair of goal line dropouts gave Parra another sustained period of field position, along with a succession of penaltes for the Bunnies – two from Junior Tatola alone – that culminated with Hymel Hunt being sent from the field. Sensing their opportunity, the Eels consolidated their focus over the next set, thanks to a pair of tackle busts from Tim Mannah and Bevan French, as well as a restless, roving attacking mentality that saw the ball shift vertiginously from one side to the other.
While Corey Norman and Mitchell Moses could have stood to run the footy more consistently during these periods of field position, it was a crossfield kick from Norman on the last tackle that paid dividends now. Leaping up to catch the ball, Campbell Graham saw it go through his hands and – somehow – avoid touching Brad Takairangi, who was also making a play for it. From there, it bounced awkwardly into the in goal area, where Gutherson beat Reynolds to get it to ground, in a rousing sequel to the poor pass that had cost the Eels their first sustained period of attack.
Despite their very different positions on the ladder, the Eels had had the competitive edge over the course of the first half, and while this try may have brought them level, the score still didn’t quite reflect the resurgence in form they’d managed to bring to the game. They needed at least another try before half time, and they got it in the most galvanizing way, thanks to a hard run from Peni Terepo up to the ruck followed by a short ball to the Hayne Plane, who gathered the footy under his right arm, and dodged his way through the defence like it was 2009 at Parra all over again.
The Plane doesn’t seem to be a part of Hayne’s repertoire any more, but if it was this would have been the time to use it, with the action suddenly seeming to shift back to Pirtek Stadim for what would have been a classic try from Jarryd even before he headed off for the 49ers. With the Eels reaching 4-0 dropouts two minutes out from the halftime siren, the Rabbitohs didn’t have any reprieve from the escalating pressure, so it felt almost inevitable when Michael Jennings busted through a tackle from Hymel Hunt thirty seconds later to bring the Eels to a 18-8 lead over Souths.
It wasn’t quite as impressive as Latrell Mitchell’s smashdown of Euan Aitken on the wing the next day, but it was cut from the same cloth, and the definitive moment at which Jenko put his brief demotion to Wentworthville behind him. With the Eels now three times the Rabbitohs score, once Moses had added his third conversion, this capped off the single best sequence for the Eels in the second half of the 2018 season, and a critical rallying-point as they rebuild team spirit and cohesion for 2019.
As it would turn out, however, these were the last points scored by the blue and gold army, with the exception of a penalty goal booted through by Moses at the fifty-fourth minute, since the shock of being tripled by Parra roused the Rabbitohs to a plethora of points over the second stanza. It took them a good twenty minutes, though, since the Eels were just as strong after coming back from the break, despite everything in the South Sydney arsenal that the hosts managed to throw at them.
A couple of minutes in, Cody Walker effected a deft linebreak and kicked at the end of it, only for the football to ricochet off Hayne’s chest. The Bunnies got the ball back and a penalty to boot, only for Hayne to intercept and run the length of the field, in what finally felt like his return to form in 2018, a long and luxurious surge back into the kind of vision and presence he once had on the rugby league field. At the other end, he put down the Steeden and lay on it like it was a pillow, for what would surely have been one of the defining moments of the 2018 season if the try were allowed.
Unfortunately, however, it turned out that the ball had made brief contact with Johnston as Hayne bobbled it in the intercept, and the sense of deflation was proportionate to the sense of elation, as Hayne began the long walk back down the eighty metres to join his team mates at the other end. You’d think the Bunnies would have been galvanized by such a rapid shift in momentum, and Robert Jenning did almost slam his way through the blue and gold line on the next tackle, but with Hunt ricocheting his footy into touch on the fourth the set ended pretty scrappily.
Shortly after, the Rabbitohs had an agonizing near-try of their own, as Walker slammed his way through the defence to reach out a hand and ground the football as near as I’ve ever seen a player come to the chalk without definitively hitting it. In fact, it was utterly indiscernible whether the ball had made contact or not, especially since it rolled a bit after Walker had planted it, but with an on field ruling of no try the Bunker had no choice but to deny Souths the four points, leaving things at 18-6.
While the Bunnies had other near misses over the course of the night, no play epitomized their inability to make the most of their periods of momentum quite like this one, which was almost as deflating, in its own way, as Hayne’s eighty metre no try. To make matters worse, Parra got a penalty kick a set later to put them fourteen pahead, while they also seemed to ratchet up their defence at this point as well, epitomized by a stunning sequence in which Crichton plunged through the line, only for Hayne to tackle him just before he reached the chalk, setting him sufficiently off balance for Gutherson and Norman to come in and clean things up before he scored.
With John Sutton almost crashing over shortly after, the Rabbitohs’ near-misses had reached breaking point. Something had to give if they were going to have a shot at points, so when Reynolds, Johnston and Gagai sent the ball across to the right edge to get Campbell Graham over it felt like the potential turning-point of the game, despite Reyno not getting the conversion. To build any real momentum, Souths had to score off the restart, since they’d already had a multitude of chances, and they did so, thanks to a penalty that got them a repeat set of six at the end of the next set.
Once again, the try came in a surprisingly conventional and organized way after such a period of struggle, with Johnston bouncing out of a tackle from French to send a harbor bridge pass across to Robert Jennings, who crossed over to become the equal top tryscorer of 2018 alongside Valentine Holmes. This time, Reynolds added the extras, putting the Rabbitohs neck and neck with the Eels. With Norman sent off after a string of Parramatta penalties, a harbor bridge pass from Reynolds set up Gagai for the try that finally put the cardinal and myrtle army ahead for the first time since the twenty-seventh minute, with Gagai fending off Gutherson to crash across.
While this may have been a resurgent period for the Rabbitohs, they were still only two points ahead – a narrow margin in any game, let alone a game where the Eels had been playing with such unexpected vigour, and in which Hayne had been so alive to the possibilities of the match. A neck injury and an HIA for Robert Jennings at the sixty-third minute made the lead seem even more precarious, and so it was relieving for the home crowd to see Graham put down a double at the seventy-eighth minute, not least because a two point lead over the cellar-dwellers wouldn’t have been an especially encouraging outcome for the Rabbitohs in the build up to finals football.
South Sydney are therefore going to have to do a bit of soul-searching before they take on Melbourne next week, since an eight point win over the Eels doesn’t bode well for the demands that the purple army are going to make on their resources. Meanwhile, the Eels can hold their heads high after some of their best passages of play this season, and should use their upcoming match against the Titans as the opportunity to continue consolidating their morale and spirit for the 2019 season.