CHARITY SHIELD: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (Glen Willow Oval, 2/3/18)
The annual Charity Shield started and ended brilliantly for the Rabbitohs, who scored two tries in the first five minutes and came away with a 36-24 scoreline, but had to fight for their win several times throughout the afternoon. An opening error from James Graham was all it took for the Bunnies to put down their first six points, as a silky string of passes from Alex Johnston and Dane Gagai gave Campbell Graham the chance to show off some scintillating footwork on their right edge, with Gagai adding the conversion after the big winger had busted through the line.
Two errors from Zac Lomax now gave Corey Allan the opportunity to cross over on the other side of the field. First, Lomax struggled under Cody Walker’s next high ball, allowing South Sydney to follow up their first try with the first dropout a mere four minutes into the match. After a penalty for James Graham for a hand in the ruck allowed them to consolidate further, the Bunnies looked pretty dangerous right on the line, with several players coming close to twisting and spinning across.
Already, the St. George defence looked exhausted, so it was perhaps no surprise when Walker brought the footy right into the line, double pumped, and then sent it through Johnston for Allan to cross over on the Rabbitohs’ left edge. Once again, Lomax was the critical factor, losing his footing right on the edge of the defensive line while trying to pivot abruptly in order to follow Euan Aitken into the play. Once again,too, Gagai booted through the extras, and once again a pair of Rabbitohs’ veterans had given their young guns a chance to shine in this pre-season fixture.
The Dragons now started to fight back – they had to – as the two players who had ushered in the first two South Sydney tries now combined for the first four points on the other side of the scoreboard. The sequence started with a big hit-up from Graham on the first tackle, and some deft communication in the halves on the second, as Corey Norman popped the ball backwards to Ben Hunt, who responded with a sailing harbor bridge pass from the middle of the field to Lomax in the corner.
Now it was St. George’s turn for some deft edge play, as Aitken was caught in field and Lomax responded to Hunt’s soaring ball with a superb aerial sequence of his own. Buoyed up by this sudden change in momentum, the young no. 5 leapt into the air to bring the ball down just before tumbling in touch, embodying a renewed sense of belief that percolated through the home team over the next couple of minutes. It didn’t hurt, either, that Hunt and Norman had linked up decisively for the first time in the night – a promising sign for their combination over the season ahead.
When a possible fumble on the first tackle of the restart turned into a penalty against Braidon Burns for crowding, the Dragons felt on the cusp of consolidating. They wouldn’t score on this set, but at least they’d prevented the Bunnies from scoring immediately, as they probably would have if they’d got the football back there and then. Still, with several more sets passing without St. George points, and Paul Vaughan off with an HIA, the Dragons started to decelerate again, opening up the space for the Rabbitohs to reset their game by repeating their formula.
Once again, the cardinal and myrtle scored on the edge, and once again it involved a linkup from an older player and a young gun. To make things worse for the Dragons, the Bunnies also drew on Hunt and Lomax’s combination, as John Sutton shot over a cut-out pass that played like a compressed version of Hunt’s effort – shorter, to be sure, but even higher, as Sutto placed both his hands over his head and jumped in the air, basketball-style, for an aerial ball that none of the Dragons defenders had a chance of containing, allowing Lomax to collect it and beat Widdop in the corner.
While Gagai might have missed his first conversion of the night, this seamless recapture of the game from the Rabbitohs was the shock that the Dragons needed to get their form back on track. They now put in a passage of play that – finally – rivalled the Bunnies’ opening five minutes, putting them ahead for the first time so far, as Tim Lafai clocked up a double on the left edge. While the edge plays had involved fairly limited combinations for both teams so far, both of Lafai’s tries were team tries in spirit, reflecting a Dragons outfit who were organizing at every level in order to avoid falling further in the face of the onslaught from South Sydney.
The first sequence actually started with an offload from Lafai on the left edge. As the ball back moved inside the field, Hunt collected it in the centre, before taking a big tackle and offloading to Korbin Sims, who shifted it back to the left just as quickly. Sensing that Lafai still wasn’t done, Widdop popped the footy across to his winger, who beat Sam Burgess to score four points in the left corner, still high on the energy and adrenalin of the offload that had started it all in the first place. With Widdop adding the extras, St. George were now a mere four points behind.
The second sequence occurred on the restart, and saw Hunt organise the play much as he had the first time around, albeit structuring it so as to allow his team mates to play to their maximum strength as well. A short ball from the ex-Bronco almost sent Widdop through the line, before Sims once again played a key role in shifting the attack, collecting the footy from his fullback before spinning around and sending it back to Hunt. Sensing Lafai unmarked out on the right edge, Hunt popped the Steeden across to his winger for a double, putting the Dragons two points ahead once Widdop had booted through the extras.
After an opening surge from the Rabbitohs, then, the game had settled into a more even playing field when the half time siren rang out. Still, the Bunnies took the lead back pretty quickly when they returned from the sheds, thanks to a superb cut-out pass from Damien Cook that allowed Walker and Sutton to dishevel the Dragons with a neat little run-around. Collecting the footy from his hooker, Walker sent it back to Sutton, who got Hunt just interested enough to mean that Walker was able to slide through the defence when he recollected it, scoring the first try of the second half.
In a game where so many points had been scored by young guns, and where Greg Inglis and Adam Reynolds were both on the bench, it was great to see two South Sydney icons connecting so effortlessly and playfully. Cook had been great too, and set up the next four points with a 40/20 kick that got the ball back for the Bunnies at the end of the restart, impersonating Reynolds’ boot as well as anyone in the South Sydney lineup ever has.
The next set was all Cameron Murray, who slammed at the line on the first tackle, and almost twist and spun his way through a maelstrom of much bigger players. Sam Burgess followed up with a huge run on the third edge, but instead of trying to muscle his way through, Sam stopped suddenly – almost calmly – and popped the footy back inside to Murray, as if aware that the young winger had the next four points sorted out. Sure enough, Murray became the next junior player to cross over, thanks in part to a catch-and-pass from Junior Tatola, and despite Widdop almost getting beneath him as he cruised beneath the posts and got to ground.
The Bunnies weren’t done yet, however, with Corey Allan now clocking up a double at the back end of yet another organized and focused passage of play from the visiting team. It started with a last-tackle option from Connor Tracey, who managed to get a pretty good kick away despite some pressure from Tariq Sims, and proceeded through a rare drop under the high ball from Widdop, thanks to some timely pressure from Gagai. From there, Walker sent the footy across to the left edge once again, where Johnston lobbed it across to Allan for a NFL-style pass that split the difference between Hunt and Sutton’s cut-out efforts in the first act.
The Rabbits had not only repeated but intensified their drive at the start of the first stanza, and the Dragons wouldn’t be able to catch up this time around. Still, they made a valiant effort for their final try of the night, which left them with a reminder of how much of an asset Norman might be in 2019 if he plays to his ability. The sequence started with Norman’s best boot of the night, which almost defied Johnston, who would probably have been pinged for a knock-on if Widdop hadn’t got the slightest of touches to the Steeden first.
Nevertheless, South Sydney had been disheveled by this Johnston-Norman standoff, and with Graham losing the football on the first tackle it was as if Johnston had never managed to clean the high ball up. Two tackles later, Cameron McInnes found himself out on the right edge, and sent a wide ball back in to Norman, who read the play perfectly, pausing just long enough for Sims to get in place. With the Bunnies still struggling to catch up with McInnes and Norman’s combination, it was easy for the ex-Cowboy to plunge through a scattered right edge defence, narrowing the scoreline to eight points once Widdop slotted through the extras.
Yet these would be the last points of the night for the Red V, as Bayley Sironen crossed over for the final try in what had been a stellar game for the more recent additions to the South Sydney lineup. The Bunnies should feel confident about their depth when they take on the Roosters in Round 1, then, since it’s clear that they can fire on all fronts even without Inglis and Reynolds to organise the spine. Meanwhile, this was a disappointing outcome for the Dragons, but proof that they can be a force to be reckoned with in 2019 with just a bit more focus – and proof that Norman may be just what Hunt needs to fulfil his potential at halfback for St. George-Illawarra.
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