ROUND 1: South Sydney Rabbitohs v. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (ANZ Stadium, 14/3/20)

Tom Burgess was playing for the first time without one of his brothers in first-grade football when the Bunnies took the field for their first match of the season against Cronulla on Saturday afternoon. They got the first penalty, following a grapple from Jack Williams on Cam Murray, but didn’t consolidate right away, due to some indecision from Adam Reynolds, who thought about kicking a couple of times before lobbing over a pass that his team mates couldn’t contain, resulting in a scramble that ended with an early tackle from James Roberts. Latrell Mitchell made a better start under the high ball than he’d managed in Mudgee, but Campbell Graham gave away a crowding penalty next time the Sharks had ball in hand – a bit of a spotty start for the most disciplined NRL team in 2019.

Blayke Brailey responded with a good dummy half play to Aaron Woods at the end of the next set, and Woodsy followed with a barging run that temped a leg pull from Murray. Instead of trying to build on this early momentum, though, Cronulla opted to take the kick, as Shaun Johnson sent their first two points of the year through the posts. Murray got some joy with a strong tackle on Jesse Ramien during the next set, and Graham secured a Johnson bomb, but the Bunnies were forced to work their way from deep within their own territory, with Braidon Burns only making it to the ten by the third. Wade Graham followed Murray’s hit on Ramien with a high tackle on Campbell Graham – a Graham-on-Graham effort – before Dane Gagai tried to steady the ship with a good take under another Johnson bomb.

Sure enough, South Sydney got their first penalty moments later, and Tevita Tatola drew three defenders into the first tackle, before Jayden Su’A made a good run up the right on the third. They lost focus on the fourth, forcing Damien Cook to clean up a clumsy pass, but Burgess got them rolling again on the fifth, clutching the footy to his chest and coming to ground half a metre out from the chalk. It all came together on the final play, as Reynolds shaped to grubber, only to stop in the line, dodge away from Graham on his left, scoot past Andrew Fifita on his right, and slam to ground beneath Woods and Williams for the first South Sydney try of 2020 – a superb way for Reyno to debut as captain, especially when he sent the first conversion through the posts from right in front.

Reynolds made another brilliant deception play at the end of the next set, once again shaping to kick before popping the footy across to Cody Walker, who kicked instead. From there, the Steeden ricocheted off Sione Katoa, and was collected by Liam Knight, who offloaded to Reynolds, who only now was cleaned up by the Cronulla defence. For a moment, it looked like the next South Sydney set had ended with Burns knocking the footy on, but Reynolds’ subsequent captain’s challenge had real merit, since in slow-motion you could see the the footy had appeared to brush several of Johnson’s fingertips on its way to the Bunnies’ wiry no. 4. Even though the bunker rejected the call, Reynolds had still made the most judicious captain’s challenge of the 2020 season so far.

Reynolds’ next kick bounced off Townsend, and was gathered by Kennedy, who lost it into the line under pressure from Tatola and Roberts – and the South Sydney no. 7 stayed in the spotlight on the next set, when a high tackle from Woods on Tatola set him up to boot through the first penalty kick of the season for the Bunnies, bringing them to a converted try lead as the second quarter of the game got underway. A few moments later, it looked like the Rabbits had scored their second try, but it was called back to accommodate an offside penalty from Ronaldo Mulitalo – a good outcome for the Sharkies, all things considered, even if a slow peel from Kennedy got Reynolds his second penalty kick a minute later. From here, Cronulla started to flag, with Williams and Katoa making a pair of costly handling errors early in the next tackle counts.

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Nevertheless, the Sharks’ defence was strong on the next set, and they had good field position next time they got ball in hand, when Josh Morris took a quick tap to transform a regulation penalty into a sinbin for James Roberts, leaving the Rabbits with twelve men on the park for the rest of the first stanza. Cronulla capitalised almost immediately, as Townsend took advantage of a decoy run from Braden Hamlin-Uele to send the ball out the back to Johnson, who popped it across to Graham to beat Mitchell across the line. After such a sterling effort from Reynolds, it was great for Graham to step into the spotlight as the new Cronulla captain. Meanwhile, Cook looked worse for wear after an elbow in the eye from Ramien on the next play, so it was good for Souths to get some breathing-space when Morris knocked on a moment later.

The Rabbitohs now nearly made it twice on the left edge – first, when Walker almost broke through the line and lost a boot for his troubles, and then when Burns did the same, getting an arm free in the midst of a pack effort from Cronulla, and coming dangerously close to offloading, or even getting the footy down, only for the Sharkies to finally shut down the play. Hamlin-Uele and Briton Nikora were restless at the start of the next set, and a pair of offloads from Morris and Hamlin-Uele himself continued this same energy on the last tackles, but the Sharks were unable to capitalise here either, as both teams started to show the strain of their first forty minutes back in first grade football. In only fifteen minutes, Latrell himself would be benched, begging some questions about how he will fare at fullback, and what changes he will make in the no. 1 jersey, when Souths play Brisbane next week.

Walker now tried to steady the ship with a brilliant early kick, and Kennedy let it bounce, since it initially looked like it was overlong. Instead of getting a seven tackle set, however, the Cronulla fullback watched the Steeden sit up at just the right moment for the South Sydney defence to trap him in goal, getting them a dropout right before the siren – and just like that, the Cronulla defence seemed to dissipate on the Bunnies’ left edge, allowing Ethan Lowe to pop a harbour bridge pass across for Campbell Graham to score on the very stroke of half time. Despite having a man off the field, the Rabbitohs remained eight ahead after Reynolds booted through his second conversion and fourth kick of the night – and his first really tough kick, from the left sideline, which resulted in the Steeden bouncing off the right post like a sign that the game would be with South Sydney this evening.

The Sharks returned from the sheds with a fast set, and Latrell cleaned up the last kick – only his third or fourth touch of the football in what had been a pretty quiet night at fullback so far. A few big momentum-changers now followed, starting with a one-on-one steal from Hame Sele that was followed by strong metres from Mark Nicholls and Cam Murray on the third and fouth plays. Latrell now made his first and last big statement of the match, dropping the footy on his right boot, despite being a left-foot kicker, to thread it perfectly between Morris and Katoa, who was forced to curve back around and ground it in goal for an early dropout. In another sudden shift, though, Johnson’s boot defied Gagai, who actually reached out a boot of his own to try and contain the ball before it headed over the sideline.

This would probably have put the pin in South Sydney’s momentum for a while if the Sharks hadn’t stuffed up their advantage with an unforced error – a knock-on from Williams off a challenging pass from Brailey. The Rabbits now had the scrum midway up the park, and consolidated beautifully at the end of the set, when Sele made big metres after contact, before a Walker kick ricocheted off Johnson’s left boot and rolled up perfectly for Lowe to storm in, scoop it up in both hands, and slam it to ground – a brilliant pickup for such a tall unit, and a rousing return from his knee injury during the Perth Nines. With Reynolds adding yet another conversion, the Bunnies had rocketed forward to a 22-8 lead, meaning Cronulla really had to score the next try to have any chance of a win here.

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James Roberts made a burning run up the right edge three tackles into the next set, and Su’A responded with what initially looked like a sublime bit of second-phase play, freeing his arm from two Cronulla players only to offload right into the chest of Toby Rudolf, before Morris put down the ball off a Kennedy cut-out pass a couple of tackles later. The hits got harder as both teams searched for the next try, with Murray making a pretty impressive effort on Fifita when he returned to the park on interchange, as both teams settled into the most consistent set-for-set rhythm of the night so far. Finally, the Sharkies got a chance when Reynolds made a rare error of judgement with the boot, shaping it to sit up just inside the dead ball line, but instead sending it into touch, gifting Cronulla seven tackles to try and recover.

The visitors’ chances got even better when Lowe was pinged for holding down, and Connor Tracey made a rapid run up the left edge, poking his nose through the line before Fifita showcased some trademark second-phase play. Tracey stormed up the left side once more time, and Woods tried and failed to follow Fifita with an offload, before Fifi was himself contained by Reynolds and Su’A right on the line, leaving Cronulla with one more tackle up their sleeve. Johnson made the right decision, threading throw a low, rapid, dangerous ball to trap Johnston in goal, securing his men a dropout as Burgess returned to the park. Fifita took the first hit-up, and tried and failed to get an offload away, although this disappointment paled when he fumbled the play-the-ball, getting South Sydney one of the biggest letoffs so far.

No surprise, then, that Roberts was raring to go on the next play, as was Burgess, with both men laying a strong foundation for Tatola to make big metres up the middle on the third. Reynolds now copped a big hit from Graham that slowed down the play considerably, while Katoa proved safe under Walker’s kick, meaning the Sharks now had a more minor letoff of their own, since it would have been utterly decimating if the Rabbitohs had scored here, or even secured a repeat set. With another penalty from Lowe – this time a ball strip – the Sharkies finally got a chance to make good on their aborted drive a few moments before. Johnson stepped up again, making a superb cut-out pass to Katoa on the left edge, who bobbled the footy in his right hand and then gathered it in his left, dancing between Burns and the sideline to ground Cronulla’s first try.

This was pure Johnson magic, and genuinely put the Sharks back in the game, narrowing the South Sydney lead to eight points, while also giving the away team a bit of belief after their spotty second half – proof they could come back, especially if Woods and Fifita managed to coordinate some more consistent second phase play. They capitalised immediately on the next set, which started with Scott Sorenson poking his nose through the line, and Knight leaking a penalty for crowding, getting them halfway up the park for tackle one. Their big men made good metres on the first three sets, before Johnson and Katoa more or less repeated the last play, this time with Kennedy as intermediary, as the Cronulla fullback collected a wide ball from his halfback before flipping it across for Katoa to make it a four point game.

This was yet another superb pass from Johnson, who could have shifted the footy earlier, but instead drew Walker deep into the line, forcing Burgess to scramble to clean up Kennedy. The putdown was even more sublime from Katoa, who flung his whole body into the air, Marvel-style, before using the Steeden to make first contact with the ground. Full credit also has to go to Katoa for the catch, since Kennedy’s pass was as low as Johnson’s was wide, forcing him to bend his big frame almost as low as Lowe when scooping up the Steeden. Johnson didn’t manage the sideline conversion, but only a try separated the two teams as the match settled into the second genuine thriller of the 2020 season following the Broncos’ last-minute win in Townsville last night – and a great counterpoint to Newcastle’s one-sided 20-0 win over New Zealand earlier in the day.

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Souths now got the upper hand after Tracey was pinged for a careless tackle on Walker, and their first touch of the footy within Cronulla territory for some time, but Burgess knocked on a Liam Knight offload on the first play, with no chance for a captain’s challenge after Reynolds had tried to query Johnson in the first half. This was crunch time for the Sharks, since the whole momentum of the match seemed to have shifted in their favour, especially once Burns was pinged for being offside. On the other side of the Steeden, Souths needed a big one-man effort, and they got it when Johnston collected the footy from Woods and poked his nose through the line, only for an offside error from Tatola to bring this brief attacking opportunity to an end, as Cronulla started to get rolling down the field once again.

From here, both teams took more risks, rotating through potential game-changers, starting with a bone-rattling tackle from Knight that dislodged the footy from Wade Graham’s arms. A few hits later, and after a beautiful linebreak from Roberts, the game paused while Johnston was attended for an arm issue, while Reynolds also seemed to be experiencing some of the back pain that has plagued him in recent times. As a result, the Bunnies had to accelerate rapidly again after this lag in play, but Burns looked up on the next tackle and seemed to be spooked by a sea of Cronulla jerseys, losing the footy into the defence right when South Sydney needed to be consolidating.

Brailey dropped the ball into Cook on the next set, but somehow the South Sydney hooker was pinged for not being square at marker. Another penalty, and Woods almost slammed over on the first tackle, before Ramien saved a poor pass from Johnson, and Williams made good metres up the middle, only for Cook to receive yet another penalty, as desperation spread over the Rabbitohs. This was make or break time for Cronulla as well, who seemed to have completed their comeback with a superb right sweep that ended with Morris curving around to ground the footy behind the posts for an easy Johnson conversion, only for Tracey’s try assist to be called back as a forward pass – an even more agonising error in that Morris had plenty of room to move on the wing, while Tracey could conceivably have scored if he’d just backed himself.

Souths now had the footy back with a minute on the clock, and started to slow down the game, while doing everything to preclude a steal. Cronulla got a twenty-metre restart after Kennedy caught the footy in goal, but Tracey took the last tackle at the halfway line, giving the Bunnies a much closer win than the start of this second stanza initially suggested. In the process, Latrell had been benched at the fifty-fifth minute, so the Rabbits will be looking to make more of their new fullback when – or if – they rock up to take on the Broncos at Suncorp next week, while the Sharkies will be keen to recover from the heartbreak of that final forward pass when they host Melbourne next Friday night in Cronulla.

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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