The first major trial of the 2020 year got underway at Ringrose Park on Friday night, marking the first appearance of Reagan Campbell-Gillard in Parramatta colours since making the switch from Penrith. South Sydney fans had to wait a bit longer to see Latrell Mitchell at fullback in the cardinal and myrtle, since Corey Allan was wearing the no. 1 jersey for this early fixture, but they got a bit of nostalgia with Greg Inglis running water for the Rabbitohs, and an interesting prospect in Tom manning the fort as the last man standing from the Burgess clan. Rhys Davies took the first kickoff, and Lachlan Ilias the first kick, while Shaun Lane won the first penalty of the evening – a ball strip from Tevita Tatola – after poking his nose through the line on the first Parramatta set.
Lane marked the start of a big running night by bouncing off the defence on the next tackle, before RCG straightened the play with his first charge in Eels colours, clearing some room for Marata Nikuore to follow up with a hard run on the right edge. Nathan Brown straightened things for a second time beneath the uprights, but Lane was caught up before he could offload on the final tackle – a testament to the strength of the South Sydney defence at this early point in their match. Their attack, however, was not quite as strong, as Corey Denniss took a hard run on the first tackle on the next set, and was driven two or three metres back, holding onto the footy for as long as possible, but without managing to tempt the slow peel, before a knock-on from Blake Taaffe gave Parra another shot at the Bunnies’ line.
The Eels now opened up the game, opting for a looping left sweep that almost made space for a George Jennings linebreak, before a rapid shift to the right forced three Souths defenders to clean up Niukore for a second time. RCG straighted the play once more, before a rapid shift in direction saw Jennings brought down to the left of the posts, only for the Eels to receive six again, cementing the first sustained accumulation of field position in the match. Kane Evans actually got over the line on the second tackle, but was held up, as the Bunnies consolidated their right edge defence to contain some tricky footwork from Davies, and yet another big run from Nikukore, who was clearly going to continue attacking this part of the park until he crashed over the line, or at least until he contributed to a tryscoring formation.
It was a big letoff for the Bunnies, then, when RCG coughed up the footy a moment later. The shift in momentum was so rapid that Souths should have scored then and there, but Ilias lost the Steeden almost immediately, meaning that his team once again failed to complete a set of six. Continually restless and exploratory, Davies sent a harbour bridge pass to Haze Dunster a tackle later – the highest pass of the game so far – but the set kind of fizzled, and the Bunnies finally got to their last play when they next had football in hand. Still, Parra were ascendant, as Evans glimpsed a linebreak on the next set, but had to contend with a brilliant offload, keeping his elbow off the ground to flick the footy back for the first substantial period of second phase play all evening, forcing Elias into a penalty for crowding at marker.
Finally, Parra now put down their first try, as Nikuore delivered on the right edge – not by scoring, or even by an assist, but by example, rolling over the chalk and forcing Taaffe into the best tackle of the night so far, as he got his whole body under the Parramatta second-rower to prevent him getting ball to ground. This inspired Sione Fonua to replicate Niukore’s momentum on the other side of the park a tackle later, dummying to the left midway through a rapid sweep to take on the line himself, putting the Eels four points ahead after Davies’ discomfort with the left side of the posts prevented him from slotting through the conversion. This was a perfect moment for the Eels to consolidate, but instead they went backwards for a bit, with Parry making an error in collecting the kickoff, and Lane conceding a penalty for holding down.
Conversely, the Bunnies now stepped up, as Hame Sele drew in three defenders to hold him up beside the posts, before a short ball from Joshua Cook at hooker sent Jack Johns over the line, putting the visitors two points ahead after Taaffe booted through the first conversion of the match. The rhythm had shifted dramatically, so it was paramount that South Sydney do more with the restart than Parramatta. Allan got things rolling with a strong take after Davies’ kickoff almost hit the crossbar, and took the play wide a couple of tackles later, when he dummied and tried to break through the line, before shifting the footy across to Jacob Gagai, who was driven over the sideline by a Parramatta pack determined not to allow South Sydney to go back to back, in one of the toughest defensive statements of the match so far.
No surprise, then, that things now turned around for the Eels as quickly as it had for the Bunnies a few sets before, as a ball strip from Burgess on Evans got Parra a penalty halfway up the park, Lane and RCG made a sterling effort against some tough South Sydney defence, and Davies tried to bounce through on the right edge. The match paused for a brief quarter time break that coincided with Corey Denniss being taken off for a head knock – replaced with James Tautaiolefua – and when the game resumed the Eels scored almost immediately. Peni Terepo took the first run, David Gower made some good inroads on the left edge, and finally Mahoney made a deft grubber back into the right corner to sent Dunster over for the second Parra try, although once again Davies was unable to convert, keeping it a two point game.
The Eels escalated from here, gaining the first dropout of the evening, and then sweeping left where Mahoney commenced a leftwards drive that saw the Steeden move through Salmon before Jennings slammed it down in the corner. Seeing a veteran player score points seemed to galvanise the Parra side, but they took a hit pretty quickly when an error from Jennings gave way to a slow peel from Davies, giving Souths the field position they needed to effectively replicate Dunster’s try on the other side of the field, as Allan dove on a grubber that was too oblique for Salmon to contain. The Bunnies now accelerated at the perfect moment, landing the back-to-back tries that both teams had been searching for over this first stanza.
The catalyst came when Fonua knocked on Ilias’ kick at the end of the restart, even though this error seemed to momentarily charge up the Eels, with Ray Stone making the biggest hit of the game so far to flatten Tatola in front of the goal posts. Still, Souths held onto the footy, as Cook once again showed his vision out of dummy half, commencing a compressed right side sweep that ended with Jaxson Paulo popping over in the corner to bring his team to a four point lead as they headed for the sheds. The break was a bit shorter than usual, and the second half started fast, with a linebreak and knock-on from Brad Keighran, before Taaffe almost sent one of his men through the line, and made a good kick on the last.
Nicholas Mougious now almost broke through on the left edge, but Parra bounced back with a pair of penalties – first a slow peel from Bradley Zemprech, and then a hand in the ruck from Ben Talty on the final play. Terepo took big runs before and after Zemprech’s errors, and Alvaro followed suit with a big charge in front of the posts, establishing space for Oregon Kaufusi to slam over off a short ball from Keighran under the posts. Gathering the footy, he barged through three South Sydney enforcers to bring Parra to a two point lead once Keighran added the extras from right in front. Sele made a good strong tackle on the second play of the next set, clearly under pressure with his four-week contract, and the Eels lost some more momentum when Jennings put a foot into touch on the dark side of the park.
Gagai now took advantage of the shift in pace, milking a slow peel from Eli Levido on the first tackle, before Taaffe sent Mougias over the line to the left of the posts – but with a forward pass. Still, the Bunnies got a second chance almost immediately, when Dunster lost the footy on the first play, and then made good on Taaffe’s momentum with a deft set play out of the scrum. No surprise that Taaffe was the visionary here, commencing a left sweep that saw the Steeden move through Ilias and Allan for Paulo to bust through the line in the corner. Full credit has to go to Ilias and Allan, too, for a canny pair of runs that took them deep into the line, cleaning up just enough space for Paulo out on the edge. It remained a four point lead, though, as Taaffe missed the most difficult conversion of the night from the sideline.
While the dark patches across the stadium are key to Wenty’s atmosphere, they also made Taafe’s kicking duties that much harder, and Souths seemed to crumple a bit after his miss, as Ilias sent the next last-play kick out on the full, gifting Parra their first big attacking opportunity since their previous try. Alvaro took the first hit-up, and Kaufusi followed suit, before Keighran sent the footy out left to Salmon, who stood in the tackle for about five seconds before opting for a rapid play back to the centre that saw Levido cleaned up in front of the posts. Finally, because there was nowhere else to go, Parra headed right, where Fonua coughed up the footy, costing the Eels one of their best bouts of field position in some time, in what was probably one of the key turning-points of the game.
From here, we were treated to another period of South Sydney dominance, despite a minor setback in the form of a handling error that got Parra one more chance at the line. Nevertheless, Gagai cleaned up the footy right on the chalk, and Taaffe got his men out of their own end with the first 40-20 of the night, executing a swirling bounce that defied the Parramatta defenders on the left edge. The Bunnies now had a fresh set right on the chalk, and Cook made the most of it, sending Tom Burgess across on the very first tackle. This was just the tough, gutsy, barnstorming try – a conversation-stopper – that the Rabbitohs needed to recoup their momentum after the last Parra try, and even better since Taaffe managed the kick this time.
South Sydney were now beyond a converted try as the last quarter of the game got underway, but they wouldn’t score another point, as the match settled into a fairly uneventful ten minutes, punctuated only by a few handling errors from both sides. By the seventy minute mark, the Bunnies were starting to flag, as three successive mistakes from Ilias, Jack Quinn and Patrice Siolo finally gave the Eels the platform they needed for their fifth and last try. To give Souths full credit, their defence was pretty sterling during this period, and put the Eels in some sticky situations, especially when Alvaro found himself forced to kick on the last, resulting in an overlong effort with the boot that got the Rabbitohs a seven tackle set that initially looked quite promising, only for Kane Evans to clean up the kick pretty easily.
South Sydney survived again on the next set, but a lost ball from Siolo proved too much to them, especially when it was scooped up by Levido, who put in a good run to fragment the defensive line, before setting up Jai Field for some dazzling footwork on the left edge. Parra brought all their strengths to bear on this final set, as Salmon got Evans into place to bop off the South Sydney big men, before dummying and trying to score himself. Stone then helped Alvaro get just shy of the line, and then, finally, Levido sent Makahesi Makatoa across, bringing the Eels to just a four point deficit that remained four when Levi Dodd’s conversion attempt bounced off the left upright – an appropriate ending for a game that had hung on goalkicking attempts, with both teams coming away with five tries apiece, but a four point differential.
Nevertheless, it was great for the Eels that they managed to score a try given the convergence of their skill sets on this final strength, bringing them to a much closer scoreline than you might have expected given some of the most dominant South Sydney periods throughout the match. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a testament to the strength of some of the Rabbitohs’ young guns, several of whom seem likely to make at least one first-grade appearance during 2020, while also making an intriguing prospect for next week’s Charity Sheld against the Dragons in Mudgee. Added to the atmosphere of Wenty, that made for a great trials match, and an exciting point of reference when it comes to Parra’s game against the Bulldogs on the first night of Round 1, and South Sydney’s clash with Cronulla the following Saturday.