The Rabbitohs-Roosters preliminary final started with a series of convulsive and unpredictable plays, as both teams seemed strained by the pressure of coming up against their arch-rivals in such a high-octane setting. Dane Gagai gave away the first penalty, after a terrific tackle on Boyd Cordner ended with him stripping the ball from the Sydney City co-captain’s grasp, although a tackle later George Burgess, Tom Burgess and Angus Crichton forced a cough-up from Jared Waerea-Hargreaves in turn.
A penalty to Souths immediately after, thanks to a scrum infringement from Isaac Liu, saw the Roosters’ first real field position of the night rapidly recede, and the set ended with a crossfield kick from Adam Reynolds that James Tedesco scrambled to clean up in goal, with the ex-Tiger eventually relying on Luke Keary to get it to ground. At first, this looked like a dropout for the Rabbitohs, but the replay showed that Gagai had got a hand to the ball first and actually tapped it back into Teddy, giving the Tricolors the run of the field again.
In yet another twist, Paul Momirovski lost the footy a tackle later, clearly feeling the pressure not only of his first grand final appearance, but his second first grade appearance. Gagai was the next to make an error, coughing up the Steeden on the fourth tackle of the following set, where Tupou scooped it up. Still, the Roosters didn’t make much headway, thanks to a brainsnap from Blake Ferguson that saw him simply drop the footy after what seemed like a fairly uncomplicated pass from Jake Friend.
Friend took out his frustration a tackle later with a dangerous tackle on Damien Cook that saw the South Sydney hooker lifted leg-first before being dumped unceremoniously on his head. The first two points of the night therefore went to the Bunnies, as Reynolds booted through the penalty goal from thirty-seven minutes out, a big statement that initially seemed to be continued by huge run from George Burgess at the start of the next set, only for George to lose the ball during a massive hit-up from JWH.
This provided the Roosters with the platform they needed to consolidate their left edge, as an offload from Tupou to Tedesco set the scene for a series of tackles, and a movement towards the corner, that ended with a superb catch-and-pass from Teddy to put Tupou across for the first four-pointer of the night. It felt appropriate that Tedesco’s catch-and-pass sailed across Momirovski’s chest, just as there was a certain drama in seeing Keary linger with the Steeden just long enough to draw Reynolds in off his line, before sending the football along to the left.
It must have felt good for JWH, too, who had gone from making the first handling error of the night to gaining the Roosters the field position they needed for their first try, although the Rabbitohs seemed to have found an answer only a couple of minutes later. It started with Cody Walker, who found some space through the ruck and got the footy across to Greg Inglis, who sent it over to Alex Johnston in turn. From there, all the Bunnies fullback needed to do was pop the Steeden over to Jennings, who was unmarked on the wing, but the ball was forward the moment it left his hand, in one of the key dents in the South Sydney momentum over this opening act.
Still, with Tupou losing the footy on the first tackle of the next set, the Roosters took a bit of a hit to their momentum as well, and with Cooper Cronk called offside a couple of minutes later, Reynolds was able to level the scoreline to 4-4, since Sio Siua Taukeiaho hadn’t been able to pull off a difficult sideline conversion. As the siren grew close, though, the Roosters consolidated further, with an error from Sam Burgess providing the hosts with just the opportunity they needed, only for Luke Keary to kick for the corner and the Bunnies to come up with it.
As soon as the teams trotted back from the sheds, it was clear that Cronk had sustained some issues with his left arm, and that he was unable to lift it to any real height, or pull off the kinds of long, spiraling passes that can prove so critical to his game. At tsis point, then, Keary needed to step up, and he did so by gaining a dropout that saw the Chooks embark upon a similar left edge movement to their earlier tryscoring formation, except that this time Tedesco’s catch-and-pass found Momirovski on the chest, rather than bypassing him.
It was a costly decision, with Momirovski then mistiming the pass to Tupou, although the Chooks got the ball back immediately, and then used their possession for their single best showpiece of the night, starting with a deft pass from Teddy to find Manu out on the right edge. At first, Inglis seemed to have charged down the young backliner, but a great fend and offload saw Manu get the footy across to Ferguson just as Inglis was tackling him to ground, and Jennings was flying in to help his captain.
Watching the play in slow motion was pretty surreal, since it was clear that Fergo thought the sequence was over, standing and watching the tackle draw near completion before suddenly finding the footy in his hands. To his credit, the big winger managed to seamlessly continue Manu’s momentum, staying just within the field of play before slamming over Johnston and then Inglis to ground the ball, while making his way through a Rabbitohs defence that had barely finished coalescing around Manu’s movement before Fergo burst through it for a fresh shot.
The putdown was every bit as good as the struggle, putting the Roosters four points ahead after Ferguson took over kicking duties from Taukeiaho only to miss a fairly challenging sideline conversion. Meanwhile, Cronk was looking the worse for wear with every passing minute, forcing Sydney City to search for ever more ingenious ways to maintain their tenuous lead while accommodating the reduced skill set of their star halfback.
They were tested pretty quickly, too, as the cardinal and myrtle now enjoyed their most sustained period of field position of the entire game, thanks to a scrum feed following an error from Zane Tetevano that saw them rack up three successive sets. Time and again, the Bunnies got a chance to score, but it all ended with Manu taking advantage of slippery conditions to drag Johnston into touch on the first tackle, as the best attack in the game found itself unable to make a dent in the best defence in the game, and South Sydney finally seemed to have run out of ideas.
Sure, JWH might have lost the footy just as the Roosters were starting to consolidate again, but the Tricolors had all the momentum by this stage, and regrouped quickly on the back of an escalating series of South Sydney errors, most notably a forward pass from Cook that Momirovski cleaned up as if he were the veteran, and Cook the young gun. Even the Bunnies’ efforts to target Cronk were misplaced, with a late tackle from Junior Tatola gifting the Chooks the chance to put themselves two more points, and a converted try, ahead.
It was a bit of an upset, then, when Taukeiaho missed from right in front of the posts – never had Latrell Mitchell’s presence been so acutely felt over the course of the evening. Even after all this time, and all this Sydney City pressure, it was only a four point ball game, meaning that the next team to score were likely to win, and the Roosters delivered here as well, with Keary kicking to the corner where Momirovski slammed down the ball for only his second game at a first-grade level.
In the way it exemplified Keary’s ability to step up for Cronk, and in the fairytale moment for Momirovski, this was the stuff of finals legend, so it felt apt that these were the final points of the match scored, leaving South Sydney tryless across the entire eighty minutes. Ninety seconds out from the end, the Bunnies got a penalty, and Reynolds took the risk of a long kick for goal, hoping to put his team within a converted try for their last set of the game.
As it turned out, however, he missed, delivering the Chooks their most resounding win of the 2018 season, even if it wasn’t their cleanest or most consistent at times. With a sold-out crowd, it was also the perfect send-off to Allianz Stadium, as well as a dramatic prologue to next week’s grand final, as the issue of Billy Slater’s eligibility will now be compounded by the question of Cronk’s shoulder, as well as the eligibility of Jake Friend following his dangerous tackle, making for a tense weekend for both teams.