Finals footy started with a bang at AAMI Park on Friday night, with a shoulder injury to Greg Inglis and an eye injury to Cameron Smith making it immediately clear that this was going to be a hard-won victory for whatever team came away with the chocolates. The match started with Campbell Graham losing the footy, in what looked like a strip, but was called a loose carry – a pretty luck call for the Storm given that the replay showed the Steeden appeared to have bounced backwards anyway.
From there, the purple army wasted no time in consolidating, paving the way for what would have been one of the best tries of their 2018 season if there had been a millimetre more in it. An early kick from Cameron Munster saw Billy Slater chasing the ball down, dodging his way through at least five South Sydney defenders for a heroic one-handed putdown right on the dead ball line, outplaying Graham in particular as Josh Ado-Carr burned up from behind in support.
As it turned out, however, Munster’s kick had been just a little hard, forcing Slater to ground it right on the dead ball line, rather than in front. It was to be the beginning of a bit of a clunky night with the boot for the Melbourne halves combination, both of whom kicked a bit hard generally over this opening stanza, granting the visitors three seven tackle sets by the time that the twenty minute mark came around.
The next came shortly after, when a promising set for the Storm ended with Brodie Croft gifting the Bunnies seven tackles and a much-needed respite for what already seemed like an incessant wave of purple attack. John Sutton poked his nose through the line, Inglis followed up with a big fend, and Adam Reynolds capped it off with a perfectly placed crossfield kick.
It arrived a metre out from Souths’ right edge, where an epic contest between Graham and Ado-Carr in the air saw the Fox knock it on. Taking advantage of the momentary disruption of the Melbourne defence, Dane Gagai scooped up the football and scooted around Cheyse Blair to plant it in the corner for the first four points of the match. Nevertheless, it remained four points, since Reynolds didn’t quite manage the sideline conversion off the right boot, although the Storm had still paid the price for Croft’s overlong kick the set before.
A few sets later, some quick turnarounds heightened the drama, as a big hit from Ado-Carr on Damien Cook saw the South Sydney hooker clutching his jaw in pain, only for Jesse Bromwich to cough up the footy immediately after, with some working on the ground from Joe Stimson getting the Bunnies a penalty to boot. With Reynolds choosing to kick for goal from thirty metres out, the visitors were now a full converted try ahead, although their lead felt anything but secure at this point.
What the Rabbitohs needed was a gesture of consolidation, and initially Sam Burgess seemed to have provided it, launching a massive tackle on Ado-Carr that saw him driven about eight metres back after Tom Burgess and Sutton came in on the action, culminating with the Fox losing the football. Yet it was also Burgess who broke the momentum too, losing the Steeden on the second tackle of the next set while lunging himself through Felise Kaufusi and Tim Glasby for what momentarily looked as if it might be the tryscoring move that Souths needed to build on their lead.
A couple of sets later, Munster put in another awkward kick, but the Storm got a get out of jail free card when the Steeden ricocheted off Cook and Surgess knocked it on while slamming to ground for what seemed as if it should be a pretty easy clean-up. Yet another long kick from Munster at the end of the next set, combined with some clutch patience from Graham, gifted the Rabbitohs yet another seven tackle set, as Melbourne got prepared to defend their line once again.
It was now the Storm’s turn to make a big gesture, in the form of a huge hit-up from Suliasi Vunivalu on Inglis. At first, it looked a bit like a late tackle, but the replay showed that G.I. had got a hand to the ball as it was making its way across to Robert Jennings, for a hit that was as galvanising for the Storm as Inglis’ own hit-ups had been galvanising for the Maroons during Origin this year.
Taking advantage of the shift in momentum, Melbourne felt their way around the South Sydney defence on the next set, making their move on the fourth tackle – a series of perfectly timed passes that sent the football through Smith, Croft and then Kaufusi, who sent the Steeden across to Croft, who caught it on the ground and bobbled it every so slightly before smashing across in the corner undefended.
After a game with so many big hits and gestures of leadership, it was quite powerful to see the Storm cross over on the back of sheer timing and professionalism, especially once Smith managed to overcome his niggling eye issues to send the Steeden through the posts. It didn’t help, either, that Inglis had been one of the main casualties of the four-pointer, dragged in as effortlessly as if he had been the young gun and the Melbourne halfback had been the veteran player.
With twelve minutes to go, the Storm made another huge gesture, with Kaufusi putting in the biggest tackle of the night so far – an enormous hit-up on Sam Burgess right after the kickoff. On the next set, Melbourne put in a classic Melbourne move, as a huge cut-out pass from Smith set up Slater for the slyest and most perfectly time manoeuvre of the match so far. Dummying and raising the football above his head in a single movement, Slater swiveled it around Inglis head as he ran out of his line, before sending a basketball pass over the Rabbitohs’ left edge to send Vunivalu over the chalk.
The Bunnies responded with panache though, as a couple of sets later Reynolds chose to pass instead of running the football. At first it looked as if the play was devolving into chaos, as Cody Walker batted the Steeden on and it skidded across to the left side of the South Sydney defence. Yet Jennings wrested order from chaos, scooping up the ball and bracing himself for a bone-crunching tackle from Slater five metres out from the line.
What happened next should go down in South Sydney lore, as Jennings managed to keep his ball-carrying arm above the ground throughout the entire effort from Slater, offloading to Inglis in the most improbable conditions, leaving G.I. free to mirror his tackle-defying strength to bust through an aborted hit-up from Bromwich to slam down four more points for the cardinal and myrtle.
After a game in which he had seemed so vulnerable at moments, this was a critical display of strength from Inglis, especially since it had made the Melbourne defence look so vulnerable in turn. The strangest part of it all was Vunivalu’s decision to turn away to remonstrate with the sideline official immediately after Jennings’ offload, allowing Inglis to cruise over while his back was turned for the biggest defensive howler of the night so far.
To his credit, though, Vunivalu made up for it, on the back of a brilliant play from Croft thirty seconds out from the siren. Slicing through the line and weaving his way around Sam Burgess, Croft kicked at just the right time, setting up his winger to storm forward, gather the footy and lunge it to ground. While this wasn’t one of Vunivalu’s most gymnastic efforts of 2018, it was arguably his most epic, since he seemed to have factored the slow-motion camera into his putdown, clearly pausing and taking his breath before launching into air in a superhero pose for the most emphatic grounding of the game so far.
This was the perfect way for the Storm to end the first half, since it compensated for what had arguably been their two weekest moments over the opening forty – Croft’s inconsistent kicking game, and Vunivalu’s brainsnap in the moments before Inglis’ try. Meanwhile, a dangerous tackle from Ado-Carr on Reynolds while he was mid-kick saw the Rabbitohs supporters in the crowd holding their breath as their halfback gingerly left the field, although he seemed to have recovered by the time he trotted back on.
The second half didn’t start well for the Bunnies. Christian Welch was now the next player to confront Sam Burgess with a huge tackle, while a professional foul saw George Burgess sent to the bin at the forty-fourth minute. Yet this just seemed to galvanise the cardinal and myrtle into their best period of the game so far, as they ground in to take on Melbourne with one man off the field.
It started with a clutch kick from Jennings that initially seemed too long, along to head off to the right just as it approached to dead ball line, forcing Smith to tap it into touch as Ado-Carr slipped over in goal. A knock-on from Brandon Smith on the first tackle of the next set got the Bunnies some more field position, and a second dropout ensued, with Croft now forced to boot the footy into touch.
If nothing else, these repeated dropouts were eating up time while Burgess languished in the bin, and yet shortly after he returned to the field they paid more serious dividends, in the single most spectacular moment of the game of the night so far for South Sydney. Booting the ball over to the left edge of the field, Reynolds watched as Inglis leapt in front of Vunivalu to catch it on the full, before making his way through a tackle from Slater and managing to ground his second try of the night.
From catching the footy, to negotiating Slater, to getting around Slater to ground the footy, this was an utterly virtuosic moment for Inglis, and the pinnacle, so far, of his comeback over the 2018 season. With Reynolds slotting through the extras, the score was now locked at 18-18 – two points more than the Bunnies have ever scored at AAMI Park, where they had never won a game in all twelve of their appearances.
It was a resounding way to cap off their defence while Burgess had been in the bin, setting the platform for a renewed surge in momentum after the big man returned to the field. A couple of sets later, Walker cut through the line and made his way up the left edge, where Scott tried to drag him into touch, but got a second effort penalty for his trouble. With so much movement up the left, it felt almost inevitable when the tried-and-tested formula – Walker, Inglis, Jennings – saw the South Sydney no. 2 crash over for in the corner for his nineteenth try of the 2018 season.
As the final part of the game loomed, every error was significant, especially since the referees had been pretty sparing with the penalty count over the course of the evening. A penalty on Dane Gagai for holding down was all the Storm needed to consolidate, and a minute later Blair smashed his way through on Melbourne’s own left edge to put down a resounding try for the purple army and the home crowd.
By the same token, all it took was a forward pass from Slater – or at least a perceived forward pass from Slater – for the Bunnies to score just as quickly. On the very first tackle, the Steeden moved through Cook and Walker, before Cameron Murray scooted around Joe Stimson to put the Rabbitohs six points ahead once Reynolds had booted the two points through the posts, and Kenny Bromwich and Dale Finucane jogged onto the field to put some final petrol in the Melbourne engine.
If there wasn’t enough tit-for-tat in that, Blair now put down another try in response – under a tackle from Inglis – on the back of an offload from Vunivalu down the right side of the field, compounded by some organizational vision from Smith. The icing on the cake was a pass from Blair to Ado-Carr, who kicked the footy at speed back on the inside, where it bounced obliquely and then sat up for his backliner before Reynolds could get to him.
A field goal from Munster three minutes out from the siren sealed the deal, for a Melbourne victory so epic that it almost felt as if they’d nailed the grand final as well. At the very least, their performance made it clear that whatever team takes them on for the final is going to have a huge amount to contend with, since this was easily one of the best performances of the year so far – and a terrific start to the finals weekend.