ROUND 3: South Sydney Rabbitohs v. Gold Coast Titans (ANZ Stadium, 31/3/19)
The Bunnies started their home game against the Titans on Sunday evening with a conservative and careful mindset, keen to get three wins in a row for the first time since 2015. On the other side of the Steeden, Gold Coast reached deep into their arsenal to put down four tries without Nathan Peats, who had injured his pectoral muscle during a training session earlier in the week.
South Sydney read the situation well, since this would turn out to be a closer game than either team were expecting. With four tries scored apiece, conversions and penalty goals made all the difference. That said, a linebreak from Cameron Murray in the opening minute boded well, given that he’s been the first tryscorer for the Rabbitohs in the first two fixtures of the 2019 season. Nevertheless, when Jarrod Wallace was pinged for a slow peel, the Bunnies chose to kick for goal, taking nothing for granted.
Eight minutes in, Tyrone Peachey and Dale Copley opened up some space on the Titans’ left edge, thanks to an offload from Wallace and powerful pass from Michael Gordon that got the footy to the short side of the field. It was the most enterprising play since Murray’s opening linebreak, and with Peachey’s kick ricocheting off Alex Johnston, and forcing him into a knock-on, the visitors got their first chance at the line. The magic didn’t work on the left side a couple of tackles later, however, as an offload from Peachey sailed over the sideline instead of finding Copley on the chest.
A series of errors from both teams now put the game in that provisional space where it was open for either side to break open if they could just get their act together and consolidate. First, it was Ryan James, who made a minor mistake in the play-the-ball only twenty metres out from the Gold Coast line. Tom Burgess and AJ Brimson thenboth made errors early in their respective tackle counts, before a beautiful pass from John Sutton on the fourth tackle led to a brief pause in the game, as Cody Walker was examined for a shoulder injury following a big hit from Brian Kelly.
As it turned out, the breathing-space worked well for the Bunnies, with Adam Reynolds making the most of their remaining tackle with a high crossfield kick that ensured them a much-needed dropout. Full credit has to go to the dexterity of the Gold Coast defence in preventing a try as well, since Peachey managed to outleap the tallest South Sydney players to send the Steeden backwards, before Copley found the footy at the back of the in-goal area and sent it on into touch.Embed from Getty Images
Walker was now fully recuperated, and executed a condensed left edge play, sending a harbor bridge pass – his first try assist of 2019 – across to Campbell Graham to score the first four points in the corner. Unusually, Reynolds missed the conversion, swinging the ball away to the right of the posts, but he made up for it with a massive strike at the end of the restart – a dazzling 40/20 effort that Copley only just managed to clean up at the other end of the park.
Two successive penalties from Wallace now paved the way for a second South Sydney try – a hand in the ruck, then a leg pull on Cameron Murray a minute later. With that burst in field position, it wasn’t hard for the Bunnies to consolidate, with Burgess trying to slam over at close range on the second tackle, before Reynolds showed Walker that he could execute an equally good try assist on the right edge, popping over a second harbor bridge pass for Corey Allan to put down his first four points in the NRL.
With the Rabbits starting to roll, the Titans needed one of their veterans or key playmakers to step up and take control. That’s just what Gordon did a couple of sets later, gathering the Steeden under his arm and almost skittling a swathe of South Sydney defenders in the right corner. He didn’t quite make it, but his courage and momentum gave Kelly the platform he needed to repeat the same play out of dummy half a second later.
The only difference was that Kelly’s run was shorter, more condensed and less contested by the Rabbitohs, who had only just started to regroup after the pressure of Gordo’s massive effort. Consequently, the ex-Sea Eagle only had to get his head down and burrow through Graham and Walker to score the second try of 2019 for Gold Coast. With their only tryscorer of 2019, Brenko Lee, off the field, this felt a bit like they were resetting and restarting their season, although Gordon wasn’t quite as impressive at the other end of the play, missing the conversion to keep the Titans eight points behind.
Meanwhile Braidon Burns was taken off the field with an injury, but this brief surge from Gold Coast didn’t seem to hurt the Bunnies’ momentum. Eight minutes out from half time, Ethan Lowe scored his first try since arriving from the Cowboys, on the back of a thrilling twist on South Sydney’s signature left edge play. It started with a wide pass from Damien Cook out to Reynolds, who headed left but shifted the ball back inside the field, where it was collected by Cody Walker.Embed from Getty Images
From there, Walker drifted to the right, only to flick the ball back inside to Dane Gagai, who sent it on to Lowe, in arguably the sharpest twist of the entire sequence. The Bunnies had changed the direction of play three times in a single tackle, running rings around the exhausted Gold Coast forwards as if they were playing with a fresh pack. Only Jai Arrow got to Lowe in time, leaping onto his back, but unable to prevent him getting the footy to ground for another four points.
In fact, the putdown looked a bit more ambiguous in slow motion than it had in real time, with different angles suggesting different perspectives on whether Arrow had managed to hold up Lowe. For a moment, it seemed possible that the bunker might rule that only Lowe’s wrist had hit the turf, but with an onfield ruling of try the footage wasn’t conclusive enough to reverse the call, and the Rabbitohs received another surge on the board, with Reynolds booting through the conversion for good measure.
Things didn’t look too good for the Titans on the restart, as Peachey kicked too hard and Lowe took the first tackle. Still, Gold Coast would be the next team to score, thanks to another of the big individual efforts that had got them on the board to begin with. This time, Copley was the man, intercepting a pass from Damien Cook with such fluidity that even in slow motion it looked as if he had been the intended recipient all along.
It took a massive reach for Copley to collect the footy in the tips of his left hand, and for the briefest of moments he fumbled it up into his face, before regathering possession under pressure, tucking it under his arm, and making his way up the left sideline. The Rabbitohs were so taken by surprise that none of their players was able to execute a convincing chase, and as Copley decelerated during the last ten minutes, it looked as if the Titans might just have a chance of winning this, despite a momentary question about whether Keegan Hipgrave needed a penalty for a high late tackle.
Apparently, Garth Brennan had told his team that they needed to stop hoping for a win, and start believing in a win, and something of that belief had worked its way into their two big tryscoring sequences in this opening stanza. The Bunnies responded well at the start of the second stanza, however, propelled in part by a challenging period for Reynolds. First, an ankle injury threatened to send the star halfback off the field, and then Reyno called out Bryce Cartwright for an obstruction, but go no joy from the referees.Embed from Getty Images
The Titans ended up surviving the subsequent dropout, but South Sydney regathered on the following set, starting with Allan cleaning up a tricky kick from Brimson that bounced erratically three or four time before it was safe to handle. For a moment, Gold Coast looked set to regain possession after Mark Nicholls coughed up the footy under a pack tackle spearheaded by Ryley Jacks, but the football was held to have been knocked back, leaving Reynolds clear for his best passage of the second half.
Sensing his opportunity immediately, Reyno scooped it up and ran a good twenty metres, initially heading up the field before taking advantage of the broken Gold Coast play to skitter along the front of the ruck before offloading to Cook. From there, the speedster sent a crossfield kick to the left corner, where the ball looked set to tumble into touch, only for Graham to beat Don and ground it before somersaulting over the dead ball line himself.
It was a resounding comeback for the Bunnies, not least because Graham’s massive frame gave his play a rangy slow-motion quality that had more than a touch of Greg Inglis about it. After such a terrific show in the middle of the field, it felt only right that Reynolds added the extras, and yet this would be the last try of the night for South Sydney, and the start of a period of tryscoring from Gold Coast that only a pair of cardinal and myrtle penalty goals would help the home team to comfortably allay.
The first critical Gold Coast set started and ended with terrific efforts under the high ball. At one end of the field, Don put in a barnstorming run and reached out his massive wingspan to catch a challenging Reynolds kick on the full. At the other end of the park, Kelly caught the footy at the end of the tackle count, wrapping it up so cleanly that it was as if the South Sydney defence didn’t even exist, with only an ineffective effort from Kyle Turner coming close to bringing the ex-Eagle down.
It was a surreal moment, since Kelly’s putdown didn’t really feel like a try, let alone such a momentous try, partly because it was so simple and sudden, and partly because the South Sydney home crowd barely seemed to register it. Six minutes later, the Titans repeated that last-tackle dexterity, as James knocked back a Brimson kick, Kelly scooped it up in the right corner, and then offloaded right in front of Lowe for Don to muscle his way through and over the line.Embed from Getty Images
With these four points, Don outclassed David Mead to become the top tryscorer in the Titans’ existence, a historic moment for Gold Coast that felt like the perfect platform for them to execute the comeback of Round 3. While Reynolds might have taken the two with twelve minutes on the clock, it only put the Bunnies a converted try ahead, and came after Gold Coast had managed to clean up a potential tryscoring run from Johnston up the home team’s right edge on the preceding play.
Over the next ten minutes, the game hung in the balance, as the Titans tried and tried to get the converted try that would have brought the game to golden point – a real possibility given Gordon’s dexterity with the boot at the back end of their last two four-pointers. With each set that came and went without a South Sydney field goal, their chances seemed to get better and better, as the belief that Brennan had enjoined started to feel as if it might be the game-changer in their 2019 season.
It still may be, but this game was decided in the final minute, when a penalty from Don, of all people, gave Reynolds the chance to kick right in front of the posts. Even if Reyno hadn’t booted it through, the Bunnies would have been able to wind down the clock as he prepared, but as it turned out he did add the two points, concluding a more precarious match than any of the South Sydney players might have expected. They’ll be looking for a big game against a resurgent Manly outfit when they play next week, while the Titans will still be searching for their first win of the 2019 season when they travel to Mt. Smart Stadium to take on the Warriors.
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