The Roosters didn’t have a lot to lose when they met the Bunnies for Thursday night’s blockbuster at ANZ – whatever the result, they would remain at second place on the ladder – while the Rabbitohs could go as high as third or as low as fifth depending on how things panned out. Still, the Tricolors used this match as a statement of purpose, refusing to rest James Tedesco before the first round of finals footy, and sending their old rivals a very clear message by playing like 2019 premiers.
At first, the Bunnies looked set to score the opening try, as Liam Knight offloaded on their very first set, allowing Damien Cook to get the ball across to Jayden Su’A to break through the line. While the ex-Bronco might have been tackled before he reached the chalk, Adam Reynolds continued this early momentum with a terrific grubber under pressure to trap Tedesco in goal. South Sydney had managed to achieve a dropout on their very first set, so it was pretty anticlimactic when Sam Burgess was penalised for an incorrect play-the-ball early in the restart.
Undeterred, Knight went to offload once again during the next Rabbitohs set, and his effort paid off in a different way, as Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was pinged for a ball strip, getting the Bunnies another burst of field position. Cameron Murray now put in one of the best second phase efforts of his career to date, slipping past Angus Crichton, and coming to ground with Cooper Cronk around his legs, but not without offloading the footy across to the Rabbitohs’ left edge.
Billy Smith then showed some quick thinking to knock the ball back, where Teddy cleaned it up, although not without being trapped in goal, getting Souths a second dropout. They chose to take the two on the next set, after a slow peel from Drew Hutchison, before both teams proceeded to go set for set, with both halfbacks searching for the kick that would provide them with the first four points.
In the end, though, it was a run from Latrell Mitchell that set up the Roosters for the field position they needed. Ferrying the footy across the defence to the right edge of the Sydney City attack, Mitchell popped it across to Nat Butcher, who sent it on to Joseph Manu just as quickly. From there, the lanky winger fended off Alex Johnston, and offloaded to Smith just as Dane Gagai brought him to ground.Embed from Getty Images
While Smith was brought to ground a tackle later, his quick play-the-ball laid the platform for a dazzling display of synergy in the Sydney spine, as Cronk shifted the footy outside to Tedesco, who got out of an ankle tap from Damien Cook, and skidded away from a follow-up tackle from John Sutton, to send the footy back to Cronk. The play was so seamless that it was as if Cronk had passed to himself – a vision of fullback and halfback acting and thinking as one.
This sequence also felt like a comeback for Mitchell, so it was a bummer to see him fumble the Roosters’ next tryscoring opportunity, which came on the back of a dangerous tackle from Sam Burgess, who got pinged for lifting Smith above the horizontal, and warned for pulling the young winger’s hair while he was lying prone on the ground. The Roosters responded with a rapid right sweep, as the footy moved through Teddy and Hutchison to find Mitchell waiting on the wing.
This move is so integral to the Roosters playbook that the outcome seemed inevitable, so it was a big shock when Mitchell lost the footy over the sideline while trying to negotiate a tackle from Corey Allan. While Latrell had made a good effort to bundle himself around the Steeden to avoid being bundled into touch himself, his lack of ball control was quite worrying for the home crowd,since it was his own knee that appeared to bump the Steeden out of his hands, rather than Allan’s tackle.
This was a big letoff for Souths, and could easily have been a turning-point if Sutton hadn’t lost the Steeden a couple of tackles later, giving the Roosters a chance to correct. The turning-point thus went Sydney City’s way, as the home team rallied to recuperate Mitchell’s error, starting with Cronk kicking early from just outside the twenty, putting Allan in his place by forcing him to bump the Steeden into touch right on the dead ball line, securing the Chooks their first dropout of the night.
This time they headed for the right, where Manu and Smith made good on their earlier combination. Taking his cues from Murray’s superb offload earlier in the game, Manu fended off Gagai with his left hand, before curving his right hand over Johnston, who was coming in from the wing, to send the Steeden round the corner for Smith to score. With Mitchell missing the conversion, the Roosters remained eight ahead right down to the half-time siren, despite a late error from Campbell Graham that gave them thirty seconds to try and slot through a cheeky field goal.Embed from Getty Images
South Sydney needed to be the first to score after the break – and they were, with a pair of back-to-back tries that put them four points ahead in a matter of minutes. The first came on the back of a pair of slow peels from Crichton and Mitchell, moments after Gagai was taken off the park with an injury that had been niggling at him ever since a collision during the warmup. Graham made up for his absence on the wing, though, after Reynolds shaped as if to kick before shifting the footy right.
The Steeden ended up with Graham, who dummied as if he was trying to get around Tupou, before heading back inside and taking on the line himself, where he danced over a low tackle from Mitchell before scooting around to ground the footy beside the posts. With that kind of angle, Reynolds was always going to add the extras, putting South Sydney two behind before they proceeded to score on the restart.
Where their last try had taken place on the wing, the Bunnies now made their way right down the centre of the field for the silkiest and smoothest sequence of the night so far. The play started with a deception move from Cook, who made as if to pass to Douiehi, but instead sent the footy across his fullback’s face to find Tevita Tatola, tricking Zane Tetevano into lanching an enormous tackle on the South Sydney no. 1.
Tatola then sent the footy across to Johnston, who was confronted by a low tackle from Smith, but still managed to flick it back inside to Walker to score. This was a resplendent moment for the Bunnies, who had regained control of the match in an instant, but their momentum decelerated after a pair of errors from Tatola, and took an even bigger hit when a series of errors gave the Roosters a sustained period of field position about fifteen minutes out from the siren.
Mitchell made one of his best plays during this period, popping the footy back in field from the left corner before an overt knock-on from Hutchison got the Bunnies a shot at possession. An error in the play-the-ball from Nicholls handed the Chooks another chance, and Cronk responded with a deft kick that forced Sutton to ground the footy in goal to prevent Manu getting a hand to it. Lindsay Collins started the dropout with a massive run and near-linebreak, while JWH took the Steeden four metres from the line on the second tackle.Embed from Getty Images
The Roosters now accelerated on their right edge, but the Bunnies matched them, as Murray and Johnston dragged Manu over the line. Yet South Sydney lost the football once again, as Knight coughed it up on the first tackle, fifteen metres out from the line, before a strip on Mitchell gave Sydney City even more field position. There was a brief pause while Cook seemed to be injured, so it was even more miraculous when he defied a combined tackle from Collins and JWH to get the footy back into play at the end of it all, bringing this acceleration of Roosters possession to an end.
South Sydney made a few more errors, but they’d broken the back of the Roosters’ field position, and wouldn’t have to defend this intensively again in the game. Six minutes out from the end, they were galvanised by a horrendous hit from JWH on knight that saw the young prop driven off the field, effectively resetting the game and steeling the Bunnies to regain the same discipline and composure they’d showcased for their first two tries.
Reynolds took the two, at the end of the next set, following a high tackle from Sam Verrills on Cameron Murray, preventing the Chooks from winning off a converted try. While there were only four minutes left on the clock, multiple stoppages and injuries gave these critical moments an NFL pace, making for one of the most staggered and suspenseful NRL endings in 2019. Reynolds was the first to go down, and then Sutton, who lost the footy at the start of the penultimate South Sydney set thanks to a massive tackle – possibly a match-winning tackle – from Angus Crichton.
With Sutton and Reynolds taken off for an HIA, and Gagai already off the field, the Bunnies were running on empty for the last ninety seconds. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Murray now showed Crichton who was going to make the match-winning hit-up, launching himself into Smith to dislodge the ball and get the Bunnies the scrum feed with less than a minute left on the clock.
Even in these final thirty seconds, however, the pace decelerated, as Cronk and Tupouniua were the next to go down, before the Bunnies finally secured their lowest win over the Roosters since 1991, while keeping the Chooks scoreless in this second stanza. It might have been the last week of the regular season, but this felt like the first real fixture in finals footy, so it’s tantalising to think that these teams might have a chance to continue this barnstorming showdown if they meet again this year.