Sunshine Coast Stadium lived up to its name on Saturday afternoon, offering incredibly bright conditions for the first South Sydney home game to be held here over the next couple of years. Both teams ran onto the park with a bit of a disadvantage – the Warriors because Blake Green was ruled out at the last minute for a groin injury, the Bunnies because they didn’t get a chance for a training run at this new home venue.
The first part of the game was all Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. A couple of sets in, he cleaned up a kick from Adam Reynolds brilliantly, and on the next set slid past Campbell Graham to break through the line, before sending a flick pass across to David Fusitua in the midst of a low tackle from Alex Johnston. The football floated forward, and was forward out of RTS’ hand, but this was still a momentum-builder for the Warriors, especially in Green’s absence.
New Zealand looked really dangerous on their next set, forcing the Bunnies to bring all their defensive grit to holding up Leeson Ah Mau on the third tackle. Moments later, Chanel Harris-Tevita trapped Johnston in goal, but the Warriors got a repeat set instead of a dropout, following an obstruction from Junior Tatola on their rookie five-eighth. On the first tackle, RTS consolidated, hovering to and fro, and dummying several times, before glimpsing a space beneath the posts, and slamming over.
There was a brief question of whether RTS had lost control of the football into Damien Cook’s leg, but the replay confirmed that he’d managed to retain contact with his forearm, despite his hand momentarily coming loose. It was a stunning effort from the New Zealand fullback, proof of his uncanny ability to slow down and elasticize time with his superb footwork, and the Warriors genuinely felt like the stronger team on the park when Harris-Tevita added the extras to bring them to 0-6.
Midway through the restart, a kick from Tohu Harris ricocheted off the defence. Harris-Tevita picked it up, and kicked it again, setting up Ken Maumalo to chase it down and potentially score in the left corner. The grounding wasn’t even examined, however, since even in real time it was pretty clear that Tevita-Harris had been offside. This was a letoff for the Bunnies, but the Warriors didn’t show any sign of flagging on their next set, which ended with RTS cleaning up a Johnston kick in goal, only for Sam Burgess to pass the ball forward to Dane Gagai after the dropout.Embed from Getty Images
The big turning-point came on the next South Sydney set, when RTS lost the footy in goal, under some big pressure from Gagai. It was ruled that Gagai had continued the pressure after the tackle was complete, meaning that the subsequent lost ball, and South Sydney putdown, was irrelevant. This was a bit of a contentious call, since in real time the tackle looked far from complete, but it still punctured RTS’ supremacy on the park, and probably worked to the Bunnies’ favor, given the sequence that followed.
After all, without this being deemed no try, the Bunnies wouldn’t have had their most spectacular double of the season so far – two tries in two minutes, both by Cody Walker, and both assisted by Damien Cook. The first came a couple of tackles later, after Walker collected the footy from Cook about ten metres out from the line, and was fueled by two spectacular kicks from the South Sydney five-eighth.
The first came seconds after Walker received the ball, which he dropped onto the side of his boot just before it hit the ground. So close was the timing that there was initially some question about whether Walker had knocked on, but it all looked fine on the replay, as did his second kick, which happened moments after, and involved him booting the footy towards the right upright, where he scrambled through the gathering New Zealand defence to ground it on the line.
Only Tohu Harris came close to holding Walker up, but even he was much too late. In one play, the Warriors had receded into the distance, and they got further behind on the restart, when Cook dummied, ran through the line, and made his way up the field. It was a play of exceeding elegance and simplicity, as the South Sydney hooker spotted Walker on his inside, and passed at exactly the right moment, with Cody coming to ground in much the same place where he’d scored a minute before.
While the Bunnies were only six points ahead, they’d taken back control of the game so decisively that it barely felt as if the Warriors hadn’t scored. New Zealand needed the next points, and they got them on the back of some superb second phase play from Lachlan Burr, who collected the footy within the twenty, and twist and spun through Johnston and George Burgess, before offloading to Jazz Tevaga.Embed from Getty Images
Tevaga now proved himself as the Dally M interchange player of the year, using his fresh energy off the bench to take advantage of a defensive misread from Mark Nicholls and slam over beneath the posts. While the angle was easy enough for Harris-Tevita, it was to his credit that he took some time to make sure he booted the ball through – a meditative approach to the kick that had more than a touch of Shaun Johnson about it.
The score remained 12-12 heading into the break, as John Sutton lost the football on the fourth tackle of the Bunnies’ last attacking set. In the first few minutes of the second stanza, Souths took a while to acclimatize to the wind at their backs, leaving themselves open for the Warriors to score two tries in relatively quick succession. The first came the first time New Zealand got down South Sydney’s ends, thanks to an early pass from Harris-Tevita to Harris, who left Reynolds behind to score on their left edge.
Both sides now ground in, with some pretty strong takes under the high ball. The next big disruption came with a linebreak from Hiku, but he found himself with no support, and was forced to settle for a fairly average pass to Adam Blair as South Sydney got their defence in place. At the end of the set, Walker collected the high ball from Harris-Tevita, but he was dragged back into goal by Fusitua, resulting in the first dropout of the second half.
One of RTS’ most extraordinary moments now ensued, as he was dragged into touch by a pack defence on the Bunnies’ right edge, but somehow managed to pop the footy back in to Gerard Beale. Two tackles later, Beale was cleaned up by Reynolds, following a poor pass from Harris-Tevita, but RTS’ genius still acted as a reminder for what the Warriors can achieve in second phase play when they set their mind to it.
No surprise, then, that their next try came off their most focused and sustained sequence of offloads all night. It started with a big run from Agnatius Paasi, who offloaded it to Jazz Tevaga, who sent it across to RTS in turn. From there, the New Zealand fullback added another offload, while Blair capped this superb passage of play with a flick pass from the right corner back inside to Tevaga that was so deft and sudden that it seemed to even take some of the Warriors by surprise.Embed from Getty Images
By this stage, the Warriors were deep into third or fourth phase play, so quickly had they racked up the offloads. They had too much momentum not to score, so it felt inevitable when Lisone put down four more points on his first carry, much as Tevaga had proved his mettle off the interchange bench in the first stanza. This was Lisone’s second try in the NRL, and his second try against the Rabbitohs. Meanwhile, Harris-Tevita booted through the extras once again to bring the scoreline to 12-24.
In less than fifteen minutes, the Warriors had doubled the Bunnies, doubled their own score and skyrocketed two converted tries ahead. Twenty minutes in, New Zealand got their second seven tackle set in a short sequence, forcing Sam Burgess to land a massive hit on Fusitua to rally his team back into the game. His impact percolated over into the new few tackles, making for some of the best South Sydney defence in the second half, and putting enough pressure on Blair to cough up the footy on the third, when he tried and failed to repeat the dexterity of his earlier flick pass.
The next set started with a quick pass out the back from Reynolds to Walker, and then an even quicker play-the-ball from Walker, as the Bunnies now accelerated their signature left edge play, moving the footy across from the right side of the field in only a few passes, thanks in large part to a superb run and cut-out effort from Liam Knight. With Reynolds and Walker combining again to bookend Knight’s vision, Ethan Lowe crashed over o the fourth tackle, and Reyno added the extras easily.
The Bunnies made some good headway on the restart, but the rhythm halted following an obstruction from Walker on Luke. On the next set, New Zealand aimed for their own left edge play, but it came to nothing when Maumalo fumbled a pass from RTS over the sideline, with Sam Burgess whispering his gratitude in his ear as he surged past the frustrated New Zealand winger. This was the third set where New Zealand had come up with an error within the South Sydney twenty, and from hereon out they started to look really exhausted, making it doubly distressing when Luke was taken off the field with an HIA about twelve minutes out from the siren.
Another dropout got Walker and Cook the platform for their third combination of the night, in a near replica of their opening linkup. The only difference this time around was that the South Sydney rake ran a bit further into the line, and held the ball a bit longer. The New Zealand defence was also much more depleted, with Hiku barely making a low tackle on Walker, and even RTS looking disheveled and exhausted as Cody steamrolled through him to get the Steeden to ground.Embed from Getty Images
With Reynolds adding the extras, last five minutes came down to a 24-24 scoreline, just as the first had come down to a 12-12 scoreline. In a worrying flashback to last week’s game against the Sea Eagles, Reynolds missed his first field goal attempt, while his second was charged down by a last-ditch effort from the New Zealand defence. As with the call on RTS and Gagai earlier in the game, this ended up being great for the Bunnies, since it once again gave Walker a chance to score.
Collecting the football from Cook, Walker fended off Afoa, got around Kata, and maintained possession beneath Fusitua, before slamming the ball to ground right on the line, to become the first Rabbitoh to score four tries against the Warriors, and the first Rabbitoh to score four tries against any team since Johnston’s quadruple effort against the Panthers. While Reynolds might have missed the extras, this was a rousing win for South Sydney following their heartbreaking loss to the Sea Eagles last week. On the other side of the Steeden, the Warriors came so close that this was almost more disappointing than their decimation at the hands of the Sea Eagles, so they’ll be looking to make a big comeback when they host the Cowboys next week.