FINALS WEEK 1: Sydney Roosters v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (SCG, 13/9/19)

The first week of finals footy kicked off in the most visceral way – with a rematch of the Roosters-Rabbitohs clash of Round 25. This time the Roosters were the home team, and they took advantage of the home ground, notching up two tries and a penalty goal in the first ten minutes of the match. That said, they didn’t start well, with Latrell Mitchell booting through an overlong kick, but instead of letting it go dead Alex Johnston fumbled in goal, getting the hosts a dropout on their very first set.

The Roosters consolidated quickly, making a rapid right sweep on the third play that ended with Joseph Manu twisting and spinning through Adam Doueihi and James Roberts from eight metres out, before reaching out his right hand to plant the footy down in the corner. Mitchell missed the conversion, and his next kick on the last wasn’t much better than his first, thanks to some well-placed pressure from Cameron Murray, who was clearly keen to draw on the power of his match-winning tackle the week before.

Yet the rhythm was already with the Roosters, as Murray coughed up the Steeden a few tackles later, and Mitchell got a chance to make it a converted try lead on the next Sydney City set, when he slotted through a thirty-five metre penalty kick after a slow peel from Cody Walker. Buoyed up by that momentum, the Chooks executed another right side raid, as a fluid sequence of passes from Luke Keary, James Tedesco and Sam Verrills sent Mitch Aubusson across for another four points.

Once again, Mitchell missed the conversion, but the Roosters were still dominant. Midway through the next set, Jayden Su’A landed a massive hit on Boyd Cordner, but came off worse for wear himself, coming to ground as the rubbery Roosters captain continued on down the field. Things declined further when Reynolds lost the Steeden in a Keary tackle, before Latrell’s best kick of the night forced Johnston to concede a second dropout, even as Manu came very close to beating him to the ball.

While Tedesco lost the footy a few tackles into the restart off a challenging pass from Cooper Cronk, the Bunnies were unable to capitalise on this shift in possession, ending their set with a fairly standard play that was immediately defused by Brett Morris. By contrast, the Roosters pounced on the next South Sydney error – an offside penalty from Su’A – settling in for their most punishing attacking set of the night so far, which ended with a superb pair of passing putting Cordner over the line.

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The first pass came from Verills, who sent a long ball out of dummy half to get Keary on the outside of Su’A’s shoulder on the left edge. Reading the play perfectly, Keary responded with a short ball to put Cordner on the outside of Reynolds’ shoulder, opening up just enough space in the defensive line for his captain to slam over. This time the final ingredient in the Roosters’ armoury fell into place – Mitchell’s kicking game – as the star centre adding his first conversion to put them sixteen ahead.

By this stage, the Roosters had more than responded to the Rabbitohs’ late surge last week, and yet they managed to amp things up even further as the first stanza wound down, scoring two tries that were even more extraordinary than what they had achieved so far. The first came a set later, when Teddy got things rolling with a massive run and near-linebreak, before Cordner almost repeated his earlier four-pointer on the left edge of the field.

Both Tedesco and Cordner’s efforts laid the platform for Victor Radley’s final kick, which threaded a needle through the defence and came to ground just inside the try line. Tevita Tatola reached out a hand to try and plant it down, and actually made contact with a finger, but never exerted enough pressure to send it dead, while Tedesco slid past it without ever getting a hand to it.

While Teddy could possibly have regathered and returned to the footy in time, it was Sio Siua Taukeihao who stepped into the spotlight. The big forward had only been on the park a couple of minutes before he stole the try from beneath his fullback’s nose, finally exerting the downward pressure needed for the football to be grounded, and racking up another four points for the Chooks in the process.

Seven minutes out from half time Mitchell finally got into first gear, executing the trysaving tackle of the night to drag Doueihi over the sideline as he was on the verge of scoring what would have been his first try of the 2019 season. To make matters worse for South Sydney, the Roosters now scored one of the most sublime tries of their 2019 season, thanks to a silky trio of passes from Cronk, Keary and Tedesco that saw Manu receive the Steeden on the right edge of their attack.

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Just as Teddy had cleared way for Manu for the first try, so Manu now cleared way for Teddy, by way of Morris. In the most beautiful pair of tries this season, Manu flicked the footy backwards to Morris, before Morris sailed it over his head for Tedesco to slam over and score. Taken in combination, Manu and Morris’ passes traced out a perfect ellipsis, in a sequence of play that looked more like ballet than rugby league, before Mitchell missed the conversion to leave the score at 26-0.

In 2019, the Rabbitohs have been the only team to beat the Roosters twice after trailing at half time, but even their own stellar track record wasn’t much comfort as they headed into the sheds without having put a single point on the scoreboard. They needed a big surge, and rapid sequence of tryscoring, to start the second half, yet while they might have stemmed the flow of Roosters points, and witnessed a second handling error from Tedesco, the Bunnies couldn’t get much early traction.

Ten minutes in, Allan was trapped just in goal at the tail end of a Keary kick, setting the Chooks up for another dropout. Yet Allan responded with a splendid trysaving effort at the end of the restart, forcing Daniel Tupou to lay a foot on the left sideline after receiving the ball from Tedesco. This was a critical moment for the Bunnies, since at 26-0 the Roosters were just in reach, while a bigger lead would be almost impossible to recuperate with only thirty minutes left on the clock.

The Rabbits got their next big chance when a big run from Teddy ended with an obstruction from Teddy, who went for a quick play-the-ball, found nobody to receive it, and then tried shepherd John Sutton away from it at marker. Verbal dissent from Keary and a slow peel from Verrills followed, but the Bunnies’ augmented field position came to nothing after Liam Knight lost the footy into a gutsy pack effort from the Sydney City defence.

Keary immediately righted the ship with the first 40/20 of the night, while the Roosters now showed how elegantly they could reset their game and self-correct. One of their few vulnerable moments came in the midst of this set, as Verrills passed to nobody in the middle of the field, but Angus Crichton cleaned the footy up seamlessly, before Keary drifted out to the left edge, drew in the defence, and double pumped to send Mitchell over between Knight and Allan for another four points.

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Finally, seventeen minutes out from the end, the Bunnies got their single try, as Reynolds broke through the line and chipped the footy forward. While the Steeden was cleaned up by Aubusson on this play, Reno’s momentum continued a set later, when an offload from John Sutton sent him through the line a second time. This time, Reno made good on his field position, heading rapidly in field, where he ricocheted off Aubusson and Manu before slamming to ground on the left edge.

Reynolds then slotted through the sideline conversion to get South Sydney six on the board – an important moment now that the Bunnies were playing primarily to continue their self-belief into next week’s game. Conversely, the Roosters needed to respond quickly to keep the Rabbits’ hope down – and they almost did, with Isaac Liu making one of the most barnstorming linebreaks of the night a set later, only for Teddy to make his third handling error after collecting the footy from him.

Yet while the Roosters wouldn’t score again, neither would the Rabbitohs, leaving the scoreline at 30-6. Every match between these two teams is a grudge match, but this was more of a grudge than usual, given the result the week before, and the Roosters walked away with a pretty satisfying revenge. In fact, it’s hard to believe that any team can put in a better game in 2019 – this was a grand final performance as Sydney City continue into consolidate their drive to go back to back as premiers.

On the other side of the Steeden, this was a particularly dispiriting game for South Sydney, who played pretty well for most of the match, but were simply outclassed by the sheer genius and dexterity on display from the Tricolors. If the Chooks played like it was a grand final, then the Bunnies felt as thoroughly decimated as if it had been a grand final, meaning that they’re going to have to dig deep to restore some self-belief before they take on the second round of finals footy next week.

About Billy Stevenson (739 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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