The annual Roosters-Rabbitohs clash started and ended well for South Sydney, who eventually came away with a convincing 26-16 win over their traditional rivals. While Sydney City started stronger than any other team so far this year with the exception of the Storm, they still weren’t quite able to congeal. First, it was an opening error from Jared Warea-Hargreaves under pressure from Tom Burgess, then it was a near-fumble from James Tedesco, who only just cleaned up a dangerous bounce at the tail end of an Adam Reynolds kick a set later, with the ex-Tiger scooping up a big chunk of SCG turf in the process as the rain settled in.
The Roosters then got an early opportunity following a linebreak from Jake Friend, who opted for a harbor bridge pass midway down the field to Joseph Manu. From there, the big winger popped the footy across to Brett Morris, who sent it back inside just as quickly, only fot Alex Johnston to clean it up and then gain his side a penalty after Friend dragged him over the sideline in a second effort.
The Bunnies’ momentum continued with their first dropout, and on the fourth tackle Greg Inglis collected the footy five metres out, and moved through a sequence of fends before a huge twist and spin sent him over the line, all of it seeming to take place in the surreal slow motion that G.I.’s rangy bulk and pace can exude. The replay therefore felt like double slow motion, clearly showing that Luke Keary had got a hand beneath the football at the critical moment, in what would turn out to be one of the best trysaving tackles of the match.
Unfortunately for the away crowd, Inglis wasn’t able to lend his energy to the remainder of the set, as Manu cleaned up Reynolds’ kick a tackle later, and the Roosters started to march back down the field. At the other end, however, some big pressure from Dane Gagai saw Tedesco stuff up an attempted catch-and-pass between Keary and Daniel Tupou, who was unmarked on his outside – a shift in rhythm big enough to galvanise South Sydney to score on the next set.
Not surprisingly, the points came off a kick from Reynolds, who grubbered from the left edge of the attack, and aimed his boot at the left upright. Clear as day, the ball skittled off the padding, and was almost cleaned up by Sio Siua Taukeiaho, who collected it in his right hand, only for the big lock to lose possession – perhaps due to the slipperiness – as Cameron Murray slammed in, collected it, and put down the first four points for the cardinal and myrtle in 2019.
With an easy conversion for Reynolds, the Bunnies were now six points ahead, and almost made it a double following a near-try from Johnston a couple of sets later on the back of a superb sequence of passes that started with Reynolds and Walker in the middle of the field. From them, the footy moved through John Sutton, who put in a deft fend on Keary, and then arrived at Braidon Burns, who executed the flick pass of the night back inside for Johnston, who arrived at the Steeden in time, but slightly misread the bounce, as four more South Sydney points went begging.
At first, this fumble seemed to breathe new life into the Roosters, with Tedesco opening the next set with a barnstorming run – a statement of purpose that recalled some of his first tackle efforts with the Blues last year. Yet this ushered in a bit of a messy sequence for both sides, full of early tackle count errors, starting with a loose carry for Boyd Cordner a set later. Next, it was an error in the play-the-ball from Sam Burgess, then a loose carry from Brett Morris, and then forward pass from Burns to Graham on the left edge under some pressure from Morris in turn.
With Gagai the next to turn the ball over, both teams were really struggling to complete a set of six, or even get halfway through a set. It was clear that one side needed to break the deadlock, since as the rain really started to set in, these opening forty minutes were starting to recall the early rhythm of the Newcastle-Cronulla clash earlier in the night.
Then, all of a sudden, seventeen minutes out from the siren, Friend crossed over on the fourth tackle, on the back of a quick play-the-ball from Victor Radley. Receiving the footy a metre out from the line, Friend briefly dummied to the left, before bending down and burrowing through Cameron Murray and Mark Nicholls to get the ball to ground. With Mitchell booting through the extras, the two teams were neck and neck, so Souths had to respond immediately to retain their opening edge.
To their credit, that’s just what they did, this time off the boot of Damien Cook, who sent the Steeden off the side of his foot for a perfect short-range kick. Sensing the slightest sliver of space between Mitchell and Keary, the South Sydney rake timed the bounce perfectly to find Sam Burgess in the chest, and as big Sam slammed over for his first try of the 2019 NRL season, it felt as if the Roosters had never scored, so triumphantly did this Rabbitohs effort eclipse their own short-range display moments before.
The Roosters now needed a one-man display of leadership to get them back in the game. That’s just what Mitchell provided eight minutes out from the end, stealing the Steeden from Johnston on the first tackle – on the first hit – and disheveling South Sydney enough for Walker to leak an offside penalty a tackle later. Walker was also the casualty of the try itself, as Cooper Cronk got around him on the Roosters’ right edge before dancing over Burns to offload to Mitch Aubusson, who broke through the line to score four more points for Sydney City.
With Mitchell’s subsequent kick, it became six points, putting the Chooks ahead for the first time in the game. Neither team would score again this half, but it was clear that the Roosters had regained the competitive edge, and were in control of the game when they returned from the break. As had occurred so often through the match, however, this control turned out to be more fleeting than appeared, since while Teddy might have showed some strength under the high ball about six minutes in, he knocked on a Reynolds kick shortly after, setting up a sustained period of South Sydney dominance.
It started with Burns asking some big questions of the ruck at the start of the next set, and led on to a dazzling display of broken play over to the left side of the field. First, Murray fumbled the ball in the air but regathered it before it could hit or reach a Sydney City player, then Burns seemed to have been cleaned up only to offload out to Sutton, who sent the Steeden on to Graham in turn. Only Cronk read the play properly, but still couldn’t arrive in time to defy the huge of wingspan of the South Sydney no. 5, who crossed over in the corner with plenty of space to spare.
The score remained at 12-14, after Reynolds missed the conversions, and the Roosters hit back right away, getting a boon when Graham leapt up to catch a last-tackle kick only to end up knocking it straight back into the arms of the opposition. Moments later, Keary ran straight into the line and shifted the ball across to Cordner, but an enormous defensive effort from Sam Burgess just prevented the New South Wales captain from getting the football down, with some additional pressure from Johnston sealing the deal.
Cordner had come as close as possible to scoring without actually scoring, and there’s no doubt that four points here could have been a key rallying-point in his 150th game. Unless the Chooks put down points immediately, then, the Rabbits would regain the upper hand. The Bunnies knew it too, following up Cordner’s almost-try with a massive defensive effort, partly enabled by a hospital pass from Keary to Manu right on the line, that prevented Sydney City getting beyond their thirty.
So pummeling was the defence that this felt more like a South Sydney attacking set, meaning that their next set felt like a repeat set, with all the accumulated momentum that brings. Four tackles in, the game paused for a Keary wrist issue, but it didn’t sap the energy of the cardinal and myrtle, who decided to tap and go following a dangerous tackle from Mitchell. It was a good decision, since Tom Burgess crashed over shortly after, only to lose the ball moments before grounding it.
In such wet conditions, it was inevitable that these kind of early errors would occur, so the mark of South Sydney’s dominance was how easily they bounced back – or how easily Sydney City let their advantage wane. Following a first-tackle error from Tupou, Inglis collected the footy, and started a classic Rabbitohs left edge play before Walker brought the ball back inside and Tom Burgess straightened things up. On the next tackle, Lowe moved left again, and Cook brought the ball right, turning the Roosters attack inside out as the rain continued to pelt down on the field.
Finally, the Bunnies came back to the left edge on the fourth, where an accidental offside from Cronk got them the scrum feed. They took a different strategy on the next set, shying away from long-range passing combinations, as Inglis, Tom Burgess, Cook, Reynolds and then Sam Burgess all made massive short-range drives at the try line. Yet those barnstorming efforts just made the Roosters even more surprised at the elegance and dexterity of Reynolds’ last tackle effort, which took advantage of the uprights for the second time in the game.
This time Reyno aimed for the right post, booting through a grubber that bounced off the padding and careened back at the perfect angle for Walker to scoot in and score, as Tedesco mistimed his angle and slammed into the points. It was a terrific South Sydney set, pairing strength and skill, and cementing Reynolds as their most important playmaker over the course of the night so far, for all the speculation around the Mitchell-Inglis showdown that had accompanied pre-game coverage.
The next South Sydney try also came off Reynolds, who sent a superb cut-out pass across to Johnston at the sixty-seventh minute, before converting to bring the Bunnies to a final twenty-six points. Between the try and the conversion, however, a fracas broke out on the side of the field, and continued for longer than might be expected, thanks in part to the most heated behavior I’ve normally seen from Cronk, who shed his trademark iceman persona here after a perceived slight on Mitchell.
With the Rabbits now beyond two converted tries at 12-26, the writing was on the wall for the Roosters, who would only score once more over the course of the game. It came from Tupou four minutes out from the end, but this was too little too late, the very definition of a consolation try after such a rigorous display from the Rabbitohs. The Chooks will be looking for a big win, then, when they take on the Sea Eagles at Brookvale next week, while the Bunnies will be keen to continue their winning streak when they take on a disheartened Dragons outfit on Thursday night.