Friday night’s clash between Sydney and South Sydney will easily be one of the biggest games of the year outside Origin and finals football. Not only was this the first Friday night back after the COVID-19 lockdown, but it was the first time that Latrell Mitchell had donned the fullback jersey against his old team – and the Bunnies’ traditional rivals. The Chooks started strong, receiving the first penalty after Liam Knight went too high on Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, and headed left on the second tackle, where Boyd Cordner made some decent post-contact metres, before Luke Keary kicked to the left again on the last. Daniel Tupou leaped over Dane Gagai in goal, caught the footy on the full, and wrestled through a trio of South Sydney defenders, setting up Kyle Flanagan for his first conversion from the sideline in Sydney City colours.
South Sydney couldn’t quite bring their next set together – Damien Cook made a searching run on the penultimate play that eventually went nowhere, and then Jayden Su’A kicked too hard on the last, resulting in a twenty-minute restart for the Roosters, rather than a South Sydney dropout. Keary was more successful with the dropout attempt, concluding a series of rapid play-the-balls, short passes, and tight attacking formations, with a deft chip that trapped Troy Dargan a metre in goal. Two plays later, Angus Crichton almost broke through a tackle from Dargan at the ten metre line, where he attempted a miracle offload to James Tedesco, but this second-phase play was a bit premature, since the Steeden simply bounced off Teddy’s chest. Flanagan scooped it up just to be safe, but the mistake was pretty obvious, and Souths were off the hook for the moment.Embed from Getty Images
Tevita Tatola was taken from the field soon after, as a result of a head injury he had sustained earlier in the game, during a low tackle on Flanagan. Meanwhile, the Bunnies got their first repeat set following an offside penalty from Crichton, but Tedesco cleaned up the last play seamlessly, while the Roosters made one of their best defensive sets so far when the Rabbits got ball in hand again. Still, the Tricolors weren’t entirely managing their energy – first, Crichton had passed prematurely to Tedesco, and now Flanagan got a bit too keen after a kick to the right edge on the final play. Seeing that Latrell had gathered the ball right on the sideline, Flanagan stormed in to finish the sequence, but by the time he arrived the South Sydney fullback had more than secured the Steeden. Instead of letting Latrell be, Flanno made a second effort to drag him into touch, gifting the Bunnies another bout of field position.
They didn’t do much with it, since Gagai lost the footy almost immediately, into a monster tackle from Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, who would go on to have an enormous evening in both attack and defence. Yet there was a sudden shift in momentum when Keary fumbled a forward pass from Jake Friend, Lindsay Collins was pinged for being offside, and Campbell Graham made it to the one-metre line at the end of the following set, thanks to some good organisation along the right edge from Latrell. Unfortunately for the away viewers, Latrell had his worst moment at fullback so far a moment later, fumbling the footy as he tried to regather it from the ground. He compensated with defence over the next few minutes, holding up Tedesco on the right edge after a sequence of escalating Sydney City plays – including a superb harbor bridge pass from Flanagan out to the right wing – to steady the ship for South Sydney.Embed from Getty Images
This was the biggest letoff all night for the Bunnies, so they needed to consolidate then and there. Instead, Tupou sent Keary through the line on the very next play. Keary got all the way to left corner, where Latrell confronted him, and provided the Rabbits with enough of a second wind to prevent the Roosters getting to their final kick. As with his mammoth effort on Tedesco, this was superb defence from Latrell, who circled around Keary for long enough to preclude him kicking to Josh Morris, until Gagai stormed in to assist with the tackle. Moments later, Souths came close to one of the more extraordinary tries of the season, as Braidon Burns chased down a loose ball, and kicked it twice towards the Sydney City try line, where Alex Johnston and Joseph Manu converged on it for an epic battle of the backliners, while the rest of their team mates watched on from the other end of the park.
Manu won the contest, but this still unsettled the Roosters, who had one of their most fragmented sets shortly after. Tedesco waited in vain for a six again call towards the end of the tackle count, and Keary’s kick bounced off Reynolds’ head before any of the Roosters could get to it. Troy Dargan had been taking on most of the kicking duties, and got another good one off the boot at the end of the next South Sydney set, before Latrell brought some big pressure when Teddy collected the ball. Still, these smaller efforts were quickly eclipsed by the most fluid sequence of passes so far from the Roosters – a pair of great balls from Radley and Keary before Tedesco made a superb catch-and pass to give Morris and Tupou a touch of the Steeden. Gagai came in for a tackle, but the Giraffe managed to fend him off and send the ball back to Morris, who caught it in the air and kicked for the posts, where Flanagan chased it down to cap off a perfect Sydney City sequence.Embed from Getty Images
Mark Nicholls immediately leaked a penalty on the restart for crowding Nat Butcher, and the Roosters seemed poised to go back-to-back, but in the biggest twist so far Keary passed to Braidon Burns, who made his way down the other end of the park. Brett Morris now offered up one of the great defensive smorgasbords of his career, and the undoubted highlight of this game – a three part effort that saw him shut down Burns, move back again to Johnston for a tackle, and then clean up Reynolds’ kick on the last to prevent South Sydney scoring. Josh Morris took over the reins on the dropout, cleaning up some big Bunnies acceleration in the right corner on the last tackle, but he was pinged for being offside, before Manu was penalised for the same reason on the other edge of the field. This was crunch time for Souths, who had to put down a try before the siren to make good on Burns’ mad run – and capitalise on this sudden spike in field position.
They made it, thanks in large part to a double pump from Latrell, who drew in Isaac Liu and opened up space on Flanagan’s inside for a short ball to Cameron Murray. The star second-rower then got down beneath Radley, Crichton and finally Tedesco, taking advantage of the weight of this combined tackle to slide the Steeden over the slippery surface for the Rabbitohs’ first try. You could see the relief and exuberance in Latrell’s face and body language when he yanked Murray up from the ground, especially in the slowed-down Bunker footage, which will be a critical rallying point as Latrell acclimatises to the fullback jersey in 2020. Souths then got one more chance when Gagai collected the next high ball in goal, but he was skittled by a monster tackle from Radley, who came in for another gutsy effort on Su’A a play later.Embed from Getty Images
It felt symbolic that Latrell made the catch off the restart to open the second half, but the Roosters were still dominant, scoring off their first opportunity – and it wasn’t even an amazing opportunity. The play started with Morris wrapped up on the left side of the field, but not without rolling the ball back to Friend, who collected it and then slipped on the ground while shifting it across to the right edge. Tedesco now flexed his muscles at fullback, sliding away from Dargan, breaking through a tackle from Murray, and finally fending off Mitchell right on the line for his toughest try in some time. Friend broke through the line on the restart, and shifted the footy across to Teddy, who for a moment looked like he might go back to back, but this time the Rabbitohs held on. Still, their energy was sapping, and Ethan Lowe lost the ball a few moments later in the face of a combined defence from Crichton, setting up Boyd Cordner for arguably the best one-man effort of the night, along with Teddy’s try a few moments before.
Cordner started by breaking through Reynolds and Tatola, getting to ground where he confronted Su’A as the last line of defence. With any other player, Su’A would have succeeded in holding his man up, but Cordner was in Blues or even Finals mode here, keeping the Steeden secured beneath his arm, and pivoting from one side of Su’A’s body to the other, effectively using him as a fulcrum to keep his elbow up, before eventually plunging down one of the most spectacular tries of his career. This was a superb way for Cordner to return to the football field in 2020, cementing the last ten minutes as a Roosters highlight reel, destined to be replayed in the sheds and at training for months to come. Conversely, the Bunnies really needed an error from Sydney City now – something to shift the rhythm – especially when Bayley Sironen was subbed off for an HIA after only three runs, forcing Liam Knight to come back onto the park earlier than expected.Embed from Getty Images
Yet Knight didn’t stay on any longer, copping a nasty head clash with JWH that saw Tom Amone trot on for the third South Sydney interchange in as many minutes. The Bunnies got a bit of extra petrol in the tank when Su’A came on for Tatola immediately after, and Dargan forced a dropout at the end of the next set, as Manu chased the footy down, and Latrell came in for a late tackle to make sure his former backline partner didn’t make it back into the field of play. Friend was the next to sub off, after copping some friendly fire from JWH, and Sam Verrills replaced him, as the Bunnies steeled themselves to capitalise on their first sustained bout of possession during the second stanza. They swept from side to side, but the set didn’t come to much, as Reynolds opted for a fairly standard pass on the last to Murray, who was cleaned up in turn by a confident Sydney City defence.
Nevertheless, the Bunnies made a bit more headway next time they had ball in hand, with Campbell Graham collecting a deft flick pass from Su’A for a rapid right edge run and play-the-ball. An equally fast left sweep ensued, and then a dropout. Burns tried to send Mitchell through on the third, Su’A glimpsed Gagai unmarked on the right, and his offload was knocked back by Tupou, giving the Rabbits the scrum feed, and another successive shot at the chalk. Finally, three tackles in, Tom Burgess slammed through from close range, making his way through Flanagan, Liu, JWH and Crichton, to reach out his right paw and get the Steeden down – just the hard-won try that Souths needed. This wasn’t quite as spectacular as either Cordner or Tedesco’s one-man efforts, but it didn’t need to be, since at this point what the Bunnies needed most was a display of strength and stamina to sustain them as they attempted their first big comeback of the year.Embed from Getty Images
They started building again a couple of minutes later, when Sironen return to the field, and had a good opportunity fifteen metres out from the line, only for Reynolds to lose the footy on his first major last-tackle run of the night. On the next set, Crichton and Verrills were restless for offloads, and Tedesco made a stunning catch-and-pass to save a bobbling ball, before a trio of Roosters defenders trapped Johnston in goal off an unconventional kick from Flanagan under considerable pressure from Sironen. Latrell kicked the dropout, and for a moment it felt like Sydney City might consolidate here, only for Keary to lob out a forward pass after Sitili Tupouniua overran the play. The no. 15 was penalised for crowding shortly after, but the next two penalties from Burns and Sironen proved crucial, paving the way for a successful Captain’s Challenge for the Roosters that confirmed Sironen’s error, and then the final try of the night from Friend, bringing the Chooks to a 28-12 lead with two minutes left on the clock.
Both teams got a chance in those final two minutes, as Tedesco made one final linebreak, and the Bunnies received a burst of field position following an error from Radley and then a hand in the ruck from Crichton. They couldn’t capitalise, though, and ended the match with a sixteen point deficit, and a bit of a wobbly start back in the fullback jersey for Latrell. That said, it’s early days, and his trysaver on Tedesco was impressive, so South Sydney will be keen for some more expansive footy when they take on the Storm next week. On the other side of the Steeden, this was just the victory over their arch-rivals that the Roosters needed after two winless weeks earlier in the year, and a rousing riposte to their disastrous loss to the Sea Eagles at Leichhardt Oval just before shutdown. They’ll be looking for an equally impressive victory when they head north to Suncorp to take on the Broncos next Thursday night, for the first game of Round 4.