The Rabbitohs got the first use of the football in their sudden death match against the Raiders on Friday night, but didn’t do all that much with it, before a high tackle from Joey Leilua on Adam Doueihi got them an early burst of field position. Adam Reynolds got things rolling with a terrific kick, and the South Sydney kick chase prevented Nick Cotric from returning to the field of play, getting the visitors the first dropout of the night four minutes in.
While the Bunnies didn’t execute particularly well here, they got a second successive dropout when Jordan Rapana was forced to pop another Reynolds kick into touch – this time a crossfield chip to the left corner. At the end of this set, Reynolds started a left sweep, instead of kicking, but a trysaving tackle from Aidan Sezer on Campbell allowed the Raiders to survive this early surge of South Sydney possession.
The Raiders got a big chance about fourteen minutes in, thanks to some magic from Lepana, as Joey Leilua took a voluntary tackle in the middle of field to set Rapana up for a scintillating run, before receiving the footy again and kicking in Adam Doueihi’s direction. The young fullback was absolutely skittled by an enormous Joseph Tapine tackle, but Jack Wighton kicked too long, gifting the Bunnies a seven tackle set.
Josh Hodgson now stepped up, making a trio of big plays that got Canberra the opening try. First, Hodgson made his thirteenth strip, wrenching the Steeden out of Ethan Lowe’s grasp on the second tackle. He then sent through an early grubber, forcing Corey Allan to slam in and scramble to get it back in the field of play. Allan would have been better grounding the footy then and there, since Hodgson stormed in for the trysaving tackle, wresting the Steeden free on the line.
All Jarrod Croker had to do was speed in and put the ball down with his right hand, before adding the extras to put the Raiders six ahead. Hodgson’s stripping game has never looked better, while the Bunnies had gone from 5/5 to 6/10, having only completed one of their five last sets. Five minutes later, the Raiders opted to add two more after Graham was pinged for holding down, but Croker shanked it away to the side of the uprights from a pretty kickable angle.Embed from Getty Images
This felt like it could be a turning-point in South Sydney’s favour, but the momentum shifted even more dramatically five minutes later, when an error from Dunamis Lui set up Graham to send Walker over the line, only for Hodgson to make another trysaving strip. South Sydney still got a dropout, though, and then a repeat set after an error from John Bateman – and this time they made good on their field position, scoring their first try on a set play out of the scrum.
Before the Raiders could process it, the footy moved through Reynolds, Walker and then Dane Gagai, who made up for a subpar performance against the Roosters last week by slamming through Croker and Cotric right on the line. After so much hesitation and prevarication, this was exactly the decisive gesture that South Sydney needed, levelling the score after Reynolds added the extras, and sending them into the sheds at 6-6 despite a near-try from Tevita Tatola and two big runs from Douehi and Wighton to conclude the opening half.
Five minutes into the second half, Wighton came up with a game-changing play at the tail end of a Sezer kick to the left corner. CNK tapped back the ball, and Wighton brought it to the line, although the onfield ruling was no try, since it seemed pretty clear that Wighton had knocked the footy on. In slow motion, however, it became apparent that Wighton had dropped the ball into his thigh, before reaching out a boot to prevent it hitting the ground, kicking it on before scooping it up to score.
This was real grace under fire, the pinnacle of the Wighton five-eighth experiment, and possibly his finest moment in the no. 6 jersey for Canberra. Still, the Raiders were only four ahead after Croker missed the sideline conversion, and couldn’t make good on some big opportunities during their next two sets, thanks in part to a stunning trysaver from Walker. Their momentum decelerated further when Papalii was pinged for a shoulder charged on Douiehi, who was taken off the field for an HIA, getting South Sydney a free interchange.
The Bunnies’ bench was depleted further when Sam Burgess was taken off for a bicep issue sustained during a dangerous tackle, but they bounced back with two pairs of back-to-back dropouts about halfway through the second stanza. The first pair came off Reynolds kicks, and looked especially promising, especially when Gagai caught the second Wighton dropout on the full, and Souths opted for a thirty metre advance instead of taking the two – a bad decision, as it turned out, when Soliola stripped the Steeden from Cook on the second tackle.Embed from Getty Images
The Bunnies got their next pair of dropouts fifteen minutes out from the end, both times at CNK’s expense. The first time around, the Canberra fullback collected the footy on the line, and lay down, expecting to be permitted to just get up and play the ball. Instead, Walker dragged him back in goal, and Sam Burgess rejoined the field as Canberra set up the dropout, while Leilua limped in backplay with a leg injury sustained during the previous set.
Walker forced a second dropout at the end of it, trapping CNK in goal with the footy, but by this stage the sheer weight of South Sydney possession was starting to work against the visitors, since it increasingly felt like they had to do something with all this field position or else concede the momentum back to the Raiders. This time, Bailey Simonsson went short on the dropout, but not short enough to get the ball back from Canberra, although with Corey Allan cleaned up on the last the home team could get rolling again.
They got six again after an error from Liam Knight, and then an anxious pause on the fourth tackle, when Wighton was briefly debilitated by a shoulder cramp after falling awkwardly on the ground. Reynolds was in front of Wighton when he was being attended to, and already seemed to be calculating how to make the most of this stoppage in play, before intercepting and breaking through the line on the next tackle, and then tempting CNK into a professional foul on the right edge, sending the Canberra fullback off the field until the final twenty-eight seconds of the match.
This was the key turning-point in the game, and yet the Raiders survived the next set, thanks in part to a superb bootlace tackle from Cotric on Walker, before Croker caught the footy on the full in goal, getting Canberra a seven tackle set. While Allan cleaned up the kick at the end of it all, Doueihi made a mistake in the play-the-ball moments later, getting Canberra the scrum feed twenty-five metres out from the South Sydney line.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and two of Canberra’s biggest men stepped up now for the match-winning sequence. Soliola put in a huge run on the first tackle, before Papalii slammed through beneath the posts, collecting the footy from Sezer fifteen metres out from the line before bumping off Graham and Cook, and coming to ground beneath Murray and Sutton. This time Croker added the extras, although the Rabbits got the ball back on the restart as Bateman was penalised for a second effort, forcing Canberra to go on the defensive immediately.Embed from Getty Images
Seconds later, however, Whitehead dove on a lost ball from Lowe to get them the restart after all, before the Bunnies were pinged for a knock-on after a scrambling end to their subsequent set. Sutton then stripped the ball to get Souths their last real chance with ninety seconds on the clock – and they made good on the opportunity, with Graham cruising over on the left edge, thanks to some good vision in the buildup from Walker.
Reynolds booted the extras as quickly as possible – too quick, since he missed the uprights – giving the Bunnies one final play to send the game into golden point if they could land a converted try. Ricky Stuart was down on the sideline, CNK was back from the bin, and the Bunnies had thirteen seconds to score, banking on a pair of kicks that Canberra cleaned up. The Raiders therefore have their first grand final appearance since 1994, breaking the longest grand final drought of any team in the NRL, and will play the winners of Roosters-Storm next week, making this a historic moment for Canberra fans, and one of the very best finals matches I have seen.