SEMI-FINAL: South Sydney Rabbitohs v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (ANZ Stadium, 16/8/18)

It was another one-point game between the Bunnies and the Dragons on Saturday night, giving 2018 the most one-pointers in the history of the competition. The match started just as viscerally as the showdown between the Sharks and the Panthers the night before, with a Burgess-on-Burgess head clash seeing George taken off for an HIA and replaced with Cameron Murray just as Sam Burgess coughed up his first touch of the football, just inside the Dragons’ half of the park.

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Last week Ben Hunt’s first kick went dead, resulting in a seven tackle set for the Broncos, and he started with an underwhelming effort this match as well, aiming for a bomb that didn’t go nearly high enough and allowed the Rabbitohs to clean it up fairly effortlessly. He followed up with another underwhelming option that Cody Walker contained with no exertion, paving the way for an inconsistent kicking game that was only enhanced by Adam Reynolds’ early dexterity with the boot.

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The Rabbitohs got their first big shot of the night after Tim Lafai was penalised for a high shot on Angus Crichton late in the tackle count. Some heated words from Dane Gagai made it clear the cardinal and myrtle weren’t going to take this lying down, and sure enough they chose to tap and go instead of taking the two. At the end of the set, Matt Dufty second-guessed himself and took the football into touch, despite the replay showing that he had ample time and space to wait for it to bounce dead.

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Three tackles into the next set, another high shot – this time from Leeson Ah Mau on John Sutton – got the Bunnies another penalty, and they now chose to take the two, as Reynolds lined up the tee to clock up the first points of the night. A slow peel from Zac Lomax leaked yet another penalty in the following set, while a deft Reynolds grubber got the Rabbitohs yet another goal line dropout, only for an error in the play-the-ball from Crichton to get the Red V a much-needed let-off.

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Buoyed up by that shifted in momentum, St. George followed with one of their best sets of the night so far, including one of their best kicks in the form of a sly grubber from Lomax. It might have gone dead, but it was still a statement of purpose, and the Dragons’ attacking acumen continued with some significant pressure on Souths on the following set, culminating with Nene Macdonald forcing Alex Johnston into touch as he was trying to clean up a messy, hasty pass down the left edge.

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The next set ended with Hunt’s best kick of the night so far – a return to form – but Greg Inglis responded in kind, storming twenty metres ahead to take the footy on the chest. The Saints had the rhythm, though, and when Sutton lost the Steeden a couple of tackles later, Tyson Frizell had the wherewithal to scoop it up before it hit the ground and send it onto Jack De Belin. From there, the big forward made a damaging run at the line, following up with a quick play-the-ball to Tariq Sims, who came as close to anyone had so far to scoring the first try of the night.

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A slow peel from Murray quashed the Dragons’ momentum, but not without conceding a penalty, setting up Lomax to boot through two points to put his team level with the Bunnies. Johnston might have responded with a linebreak a set later, but Hunt and Dufty held him up, while Jordan Pereira cleaned up the high ball as clinically as G.I. had cleaned up Hunt’s kick a couple of sets earlier. With George Burgess pinged for a strip on Jeremy Latimore, and then a knock-on from Inglis at the end of a Ben Hunt kick, this was a consolidation moment for the Dragons, who started to approach the stunning form they’d showcased against Brisbane as the half time siren approached.

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No doubt, Inglis knock-on had helped to stop what could have been a try assist from Souths, but the big backliner had a bit of a brainsnap shortly after, when a crusher tackle on Lafai saw the ball switch possession, and raised questions about the judiciary in the wake of Latrell Mitchell’s effort a week before. Another painful move ensued immediately after, as Latimore found himself unable to pull out of a tackle on Graham on the high ball, forcing the Bunnies’ winger to do a full somersault over him and land torso-first on the ground, and causing Latimore to be put on report in turn.

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The Dragons now needed an opportunity to continue consolidating, and they got it by way of a Reynolds kick that was just a little too long. Showcasing the patience and judgement that Dufty had been unable to muster in goal earlier in the game, Hunt just waited patiently for the footy to go dead, earning his team a seven tackle set. All it took was a good run through the ruck from Macdonald, a hit-up from Latimore, and then a dummy and run from Hunt to put down the first try of the evening, although the ex-Bronco’s linebreak was undoubtedly one of the most spectacular moments of the finals season so far.

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In real time, it looked like an optical illusion, as Hunt poked his nose into what seemed like an impenetrable ruck, only to find a space between Sutton and Walker that didn’t seem to exist even in slow motion, for one of the best stealth tries of the year. Hunt hadn’t had the best kicking game over the first stanza, so it was a good rallying point for the Dragons to see him put down the opening try.

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An incorrect play the ball from Jason Clark a minute out from the siren gifted the Red V an opportunity to add another point to their tally, only for Dufty to lose the football on the line before Lomax or Hunt could take a shot at field goal, anticipating the frustrating way in which the game would eventually end for St. George. With Tariq Sims injured two minutes into the second half, however, the Dragons’ lead felt that little bit more tenuous as the Bunnies ground in for another forty.

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Still the Dragons reconsolidated almost immediately, while Souths seemed to be running out of options. A mere four minutes in, the cardinal and myrtle threw everything at the wall in one of the most desperate sets of the night, only for the Red V to contain them at every turn, culminating with Graham being cleaned up on the fourth tackle on the right edge and knocking the football on in the process.

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Two penalties for Crichton for being offside within the ten and an error from Reynolds set up the platform for the Dragons to take the two, putting them eight ahead. It was clear that the Bunnies needed a decisive gesture of leadership – more than leadership, vision – to counter a game in which St. George had been dominant since the first fifteen minutes, and in which their famed left edge attack had barely been a factor.

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Reynolds was the man to provide that vision, stepping up to claim responsibility for the remainder of the South Sydney points, thanks to an astonishing combination of try, conversion and three successive penalty goals that gave the hosts a one point lead with only a single four-pointer to their name. The comeback started with a terrific ball from Reynolds, who came right up to the line and dummied just long enough to send Crichton into space, before returning on the inside to recollect the Steeden and beat both Dufty and De Belin to score beneath the posts.

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So seamless was this sequence that it was as if Reynolds had assisted his own try, and with the conversion he brought his team to a mere two point deficit. Shortly after, Mann was called offside, and once again Reyno booted through two points – this time from thirty metres out – to level the scores at 10-10. From this point on, the Bunnies were like a new team – or, rather, they were like the team they have been for most of this year, suddenly finding the form that got them to finals football in the first place as they ground in for one of their most difficult victories.

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Moments later, Reynolds secured a goal line dropout after Dufty was forced to clean up the footy in goal, at the end of an incredible sequence of play in which St. George had seemed to have contained South Sydney at every opportunity, only for Reyno to get through a grubber at just the right moment, and against all odds. At the end of the set, Cook sent through a grubber and achieved a second dropout, although Mann was arguably the star of the show here, contributing a trysaving tackle that momentarily renewed the Dragons’ defensive vigour and determination.

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As a result, Reynolds lost the ball at the end of the next set under some impressive St. George pressure, but the shift in momentum had been too drastic for the Dragons to regain the splendid dominance they’d showcased over the middle two thirds of the match. With only two tries scored, and most the scoreline comprised of kicks, it was clear that each side had to get points any which way they could, so it felt ominous for the visitors when Ben Hunt aimed for a field goal but booted too wide, only for Reynolds to follow with a successful one-pointer a minute later.

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With four minutes on the clock, a slow peel from Walker gifted the Dragons the penalty kick that all but guaranteed them the game. Yet that just prompted an even more superhuman effort from Reynolds, who now proceeded to boot through two field goals in the final three minutes to regain the Bunnies’ one-point lead as the final siren rang out. The roar of the Red V supporters after Lomax sent the two-pointer through the posts had barely died down when Reynolds made his first move, taking advantage of an error from Leeson Ah Mau to level the scores at 12-12.

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The kick was all the more impressive for the pressure from Latimore and De Belin, whose outstretched hands forced a particularly difficult angle from Reynolds given his proximity to the goal posts. Two minutes out from the end, Reyno sent through a huge bomb, but Pereira cleaned it up perfectly, in what looked like it might just be the last significant effort of the night for the Bunnies, depending upon how the Dragons handled the next set.

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In one of the brainsnaps of the year, though, the Dragons chose to run the football on the last tackle, providing the Bunnies with the platform they needed it – and they took advantage of it, with Reynolds booting through the one-pointer with twenty seconds left on the clock, for the single most dramatic ending of the 2018 football season. It’s hard to believe that even a grand final will come close to this incredible conclusion, although Souths will also be keen to go back to the drawing board and think about how they can come away with a more emphatic win, and a more consistent game, when they take on the Roosters next weekend at Allianz.

About Billy Stevenson (231 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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