The Bunnies opened Thursday night’s game against the Tigers with a big statement, putting in a punishing defensive set that forced the Tigers to kick from within their thirty, and bringing all their attacking acumen to their first touch of the ball. With a leg pull from Michael Chee Kam on the last tackle, and a fresh set of six for the cardinal and myrtle, it looked as if they might put down the first try of the night in these first couple of minutes.
They made a good shot at it too, as Alex Johnston broke through the line and slammed over the chalk for an epic fullback-on-fullback clash with Moses Mbye, who contributed his best single tackle of the year to prevent Johnston getting the footy to ground while Benji Marshall crashed in on top. In slow motion, you could see just how dogged the ex-Bulldog was in not giving up in the play, and it was only that sustained determination that caused Johnston to lose the ball momentarily into his opponent’s jersey before getting it to ground.
The Tigers responded with a set play, as Benji kicked on the second tackle, and a shoulder-to-shoulder effort from Chris Lawrence on Cody Walker saw him score the first four points during the moments when the Bunnies might have expected Adam Reynolds to be setting up the tee in the aftermath of Johnston’s try. The momentum had shifted, and shifted unexpectedly, and the Rabbitohs proceeded to give away a few more errors over the next couple of sets, momentarily disheveled by this opening act.
All they had to do to consolidate, though, was to find an opportunity to showcase their left edge, which has been responsible for 46 of their 91 tries so far in 2018. For a while, that wing of their attack was a bit depleted by the absence of Greg Inglis and Robert Jennings, but they proved their reconsolidation now, as the footy moved through Reynolds, Walker and Inglis for Jennings to ground it seamlessly in the left corner.
Watching the play in slow motion just emphasized how slow it already was, as Reynolds and Walker, in particular, stepped right into the line and took their time to draw in the Wests Tigers defence, seeming to reset the pace of the game in the same way as Lachlan Lewis’ otherworldly kicks. With Reyno pulling off a difficult sideline conversion just as effortlessly, the Bunnies had regained control of the match after an unexpected opening glitch.
Still, the Tigers were the first to score, once again off a Benji Marshall kick. This was pure Benji magic, as the Tigers’ favourite veteran received the football at the ten metre line, and dummied left, before heading right, skidding along the ruck, then finally dropping the Steeden on his boot and grubbering it off at an angle nobody could have predicted. Nobody, that is, except David Nofoaluma, who’d clearly rehearsed this play with his five-eighth, and grounded the ball accordingly.
The Bunnies now needed to wrest back control, and translate their massive dominance in possession and field position into points. The catalyst was a huge run from George Burgess, followed by a terrific dummy and pass from Cook just as Brooks and Taylor were coming in to contain it, setting up Crichton – who had read the play perfectly, and run a hard line to complete it – to burst through and score another try for the cardinal and myrtle.
Two mistakes from the Tigers now compounded this South Sydney advantage even more drastically. The first was a penalty on Sauaso Sue for working the ground, setting up Reynolds to take the two to put the Rabbits a converted try ahead as the half time siren loomed. It was the surest sign yet of the Tigers’ desperation, and their need to do anything to prevent the rapid play-the-balls that were fueling the Bunnies’ momentum, and helping them to consolidate once again on their left edge.
The second came from Esan Marsters, who made the first black and gold error of the night with a minute to go. South Sydney made the most of the changeover in possession, setting up their left edge only for a massive run and hit-up from Greg Inglis to shift the direction of the play back on the inside, where an enormous offload from Sutton sent Walker over in the final second of the first stanza.
The first big event in the second stanza was Taylor being sent off after a head clash, but the Tigers got themselves in place to make some momentum when Naiqama caught the Steeden in goal for a seven tackle set. It was doubly deflating, then, when Fonua coughed up the footy on the third tackle, and the Bunnies made the most of that deflation, crossing over shortly after on the back of a big run and rapid play-the-ball from Cook up the middle of the field.
This time, South Sydney chose to showcase their right edge, as the ball moved through Sam Burgess, Reynolds, Walker and Gagai for Graham to score. The one-handed pickup from Sam was spectacular, but the sequence as a whole had the same leisurely, languorous sense of confidence as their left edge efforts, with Reynolds and Walker setting the pace for the edge men once again.
Seeing Jason Clark trot onto the field for his last game before heading to Warrington brought a roar from the crowd, but it was offset by Burgess being taken off for what appeared to be a hamstring injury. Any cessation of Rabbitohs power was immediately erased, however, thanks to the most embarrassing moment of the night for the Tigers, as Naiqama tripped over the footy while trying to play it twenty metres out from his line.
In an agonising period for black and gold supporters, the Bunnies now got multiple chances to attack the Tigers’ line on the back – all on the back of Naiqama’s error. For a period, they seemed to have contained the South Sydney attack, but Naiqama turned out to bookend the sequence in the most painful way, finding himself confronted with a Walker high ball that bounced awkwardly right on the line, forcing Kev to slow down to contain it and leaving space for Graham to slam in and get it to ground right at the back of the in goal area a la Brian Kelly a couple of weeks before.
It was a massive letoff for the Tigers, then, when the replay showed that the Steeden had hit the chalk, but they didn’t make the most of it. Shortly after, a badly timed play from Naiqama saw the Bunnies rack up a dropout, and Reynolds slice through on the third tackle, collecting the Steeden from Clark for a play that he felt as if he’d been preparing it all night.
Things now looked really dire for the Tigers, who were becoming the mere platform for the Rabbitohs’ articulation of themselves as a decisive premiership threat on the eve of finals football. With Sutton getting the footy across to Johnston to smash over on the restart, the Tigers’ defence felt non-existent, and the next couple of tries were amongst the easiest scored by any team throughout the 2018 season, as Tom Burgess clocked up four points after a pass from Sutton, and Sutton himself broke through the line five minutes out from the siren.
With the Bunnies having managed a full kilometre of run metres more than the visitors, the best thing for the Tigers, now, was for the game to end, and they’ll be looking to draw on some of their more memorable moments in 2018 when they reconvene for the 2019 pre-season. Meanwhile, this was just the aggressive and uncompromising effort that the Bunnies needed after an inconsistent month, topped off by a final conversion from Clark to bring them to a round fifty, and a field goal from Reynolds in the final minute, and they’ll be looking to continue right where they left off when they take on a top eight team next week.