The Bunnies put on a clinic when they hosted the Warriors at Bankwest on Friday night, coming away with seven tries to two by the time the final whistle blew out. Both teams spent the first three minutes completing sets, until Roger Tuivasa-Sheck missed a floating bomb from Adam Reynolds. The play went New Zealand’s way, however, as Cody Walker conceded the first penalty of the match when called offside downtown.
The Warriors now got the first surge of field position, but the Rabbitohs were staunch in defence, cleaning up a critical Tohu Harris run and offload to RTS on the fourth, before Dane Gagai ushered an overlong Blake Green grubber into touch. They got the first restart a moment later, but it immediately gave way to a forward pass and knock-on, putting New Zealand back in attack once Gerard Beale scooped it up.
This time Adam Blair succeeded in getting the Warriors some second phase footy, and Green did better too, sailing over a harbour bridge ball for David Fusitua to cross untouched, in his first appearance since the competition restart. Kodi Nikorima ricocheted the Steeden off the side of the boot, careening it away from the right post, but this was still a strong opening for New Zealand, who’ve won both games in 2020 when they scored first.
Green ended the restart with a big bomb but Latrell Mitchell was safe beneath it, slamming into Lachlan Burr at an awkward angle that forced the burly no. 10 off for an HIA, as Poasa Faamausili subbed on as a Roosters loan just after Nikorima conceded more field position with the second offside error for New Zealand. All it took was a ruck error from Blair for Souths to capitalise here, and show the visitors they could execute an equally impressive right side play of their own.
First we got a great assist from Latrell, who timed the final pass perfectly, and then a spectacular try from Campbell Graham, who collected the footy at the ten, got outside Beale, bumped off three defenders, and disposed of Peta Hiku especially brutally, before bringing it over the line. No surprise that Reynolds booted it through from the sideline as well, putting the Bunnies two ahead with twelve minutes on the clock.
They opted for a Captain’s Challenge on the first tackle of the restart to check whether a lost ball from Tom Burgess was aided by the New Zealand defence, but this was proof you can’t trust frontrowers with challenges, since the Bunker easily ruled in favour of the Warriors, who got a centre-field scrum from the twenty. They oped for a set play for Eliesa Katoa on the first, but South Sydney contained it, before Cameron Murray forced a loose carry from Blair on play two.
The game paused briefly while Katoa got his right foot strapped, and for a moment it looked like the Bunnies might have scored their best try of the season at the end of the next set. They got up the other end off a ruck error from Blair, and ended with a Reynolds grubber that RTS tried to kick into touch. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as Murray now put a superhuman effort to leap over the dead ball line, Greg Inglis-style and tap it back in goal.
The last piece of the puzzle was Braidon Burns, who also leaped back over the chalk, and tried to plant the footy down with his right hand, only to knock on at the last minute. This was a close call for the Warriors, so it was a good boost for them to get a restart off a Burns error on the next set, and then an offside penalty for Latrell as Johnston fumbled the high ball in front of the posts. Even so, they chose to play it safe, as Nikorima booted through the first penalty kick to make it six all.
Meanwhile, Burr had failed his HIA, and the Warriors hit back with the restart that should have followed their first try, putting in one of their most barnstorming sets all night, culminating with a soaring bomb from Green that Johnston had to take on his knees. New Zealand’s defence was as aggressive as their attack on their next set, but they gradually lost rhythm, as the game settled back into the to-and-fro of the the opening minutes, effectively resetting with both teams tied on the board.
The rhythm broke when the Warriors got their own almost-try – a linebreak from Tohu Harris, a contest in the air on the left wing, and then a near-putdown from Karl Lawton. They still got a dropout for their troubles, but Gagii responded with a superb intercept, collecting a short ball from Hiku and storming his way to the New Zealand twenty, where Patrick Herbert finally got to him, and Nikorima got sent to the bin for a professional foul.
It was a wasted play from Kodi, since there wasn’t a Rabbitoh in sight, meaning there was no need to slow down the play-the-ball. Souths needed to capitalise quickly here, and they did, with their simplest try of the night – a wide ball from Murray that set up Reynolds to surge through three defenders before booting through the conversion a moment later, after kicking seven goals and a field goal in his last outing against New Zealand.
They scored one more with Nikorima off the field, thanks to a penalty from Lawton for putting pressure on Reynolds after his next big kick. Unlike the Warriors early in the game, the Bunnies chose to tap and go here – and it paid off, as Walker celebrated his 100th game with an innovative last-tackle option, shifting the Steeden off his left boot for an oblique grubber that got Burns his try after all, once it skidded past Fusitua. Again Reynolds added the extras with ease, making it a twelve-point game.
For a brief period it looked like New Zealand might bounce back here, thanks to a trio of South Sydney errors that culminated with Walker being sent to the bin, making it twelve on twelve for the next few minutes. Fusitua surged at the corner on the very next play, but Latrell got in the way, reaching out his right arm for a high hit that was definitely a penalty – possibly a penalty try – before Burns came in to finish off with a tackle on the ground.
Unfortunately the Warriors left it too long for a Captain’s Challenge – and to add insult to injury, Burns broke through the line and made it to the ten next time he had ball in hand. Su’A coughed it up a play later, but the Bunnies got their next try on the cusp of half time off a pair of errors from Nikorima – his first plays since returning from the bin – as Burns sent a beautiful rainbow ball over three defenders to put Johnston across untouched in the corner.
Reynolds missed his only conversion of the night after the siren rang out, but 22-6 was still a pretty imposing scoreline for the Warriors as they headed to the sheds. There was a brief pause for the Bunnies when Tom Amone was replaced by Murray after a leg injury, but they bounced back quickly, as Damien Cook collected a quick play-the-ball, held up the defence, and popped out a short one for Walker to get a double in his century game, three minutes after returning from the bin.
Like Murray and Reynolds’ link-up, this was good, clean football – you could almost argue that the bin had worked in the Bunnies’ favour, since it had galvanised Walker without conceding any New Zealand points. Once again, the Rabbits had a brief pause off a Patrick Mago error, and once again Latrell prevented the Warriors capitalizing off a sudden shift in momentum, although this time his involvement was more legitimate, as Hiku made a burst at the line.
In slow motion this was a masterpiece of South Sydney defence, as two waves of players converged on the New Zealand centre – Burns and Walker on the inside, and Johnston and Latrell on the outside. Even so Hiku might just have got an arm away, but Latrell contorted his body so as to get a knee under the Steeden, preventing it ever making contact with the grass.
Instead, Cook went from assister to scorer on the next set, collecting a quick play-the-ball and colliding into Lawton and Faamausili, who closed in on him in a bear hug and seemed destined to hold up the play. Yet Cookie held his ground in this David-and-Goliath encounter, eventually taking advantage of a slight slip from Lawton to get the footy down as Egan came in to try and clean up the try.
Reynolds’ conversion seemed to bend ever so slightly away from the left post but righted itself as the last minute, putting the Bunnies 34-6 with 28 minutes left on the clock. Even worse for the Warriors, word now came down from the sheds that Fusitua had failed the HIA that resulted from Latrell’s high hit, while the Captain’s Challenge they should have used on Latrell was wasted to contest a lost ball from Faamausili.
Latrell saved a third try as the final quarter approached, surging in with Gagai to prevent Lawton grounding a Green kick, while the Bunnies also had another spectacular near-try – this time a chip from Latrell to Johnston, who seemed wrapped up in the corner only to pop it back to Burns, lobbing it forward in the process. Between these two missed tries, the game started to deteriorate, and sunk further when Latrell and Egan nearly came to blows in the centre of the park a set later.
In slow motion, the New Zealand hooker seemed to be rolling his fingers around Latrell’s eyes, although whether this would have been retaliation for Fusitua or the heat of the moment was anyone’s guess. The Rabbits got some joy with a seven tackle set a minute after, but a forward pass from Reynolds was further proof that the game was starting to get into second gear, as the error count accelerated for both teams.
Nevertheless the Bunnies had one last try in them, and it was a good one – a deft pass from Reynolds to Walker, followed by a beautiful left-foot chip from Walker that bounced away from Herbert and straight into the hands of Johnston, who was now equal fifth with Michael Cleary in the Bunnies’ all-time top scorers. Reynolds converted his last try of the night to make it forty, while there was a nice symmetry in Walker following his own double by assisting a double for Johnston.
A pair of errors from Reynolds and Latrell set up the Warriors for a consolation try five minutes out from the siren, when Agnatius Paasi rolled through three defenders beside the posts, but this was still South Sydney’s game through and through – a good motivator for when they take on the Panthers next Thursday night for the first part of the double-header at Jubilee Oval.