Dewy conditions raised more questions about the slipperiness of Bankwest’s surface when the Bunnies hosted the Tigers on Friday night. Both teams had won four games apiece when they met, with Liam Knight a late absence due to a warmup injury, while Michael Chee Kam was back on the interchange and Chris Lawrence was starting at right centre. Adam Reynolds would have a poor night with the boot, but even so the Bunnies came away with an eight point win, despite doubling the Tigers with tries.
Josh Aloiai got the Tigers rolling with a big run two tackles in, and Matt Eisenhuth followed suit, before Luke Brooks sailed it high for Latrell Mitchell’s first catch of the night in the no. 1 jersey. The Tigers piled on in defence, keeping the Bunnies in their own end until the final tackle, forcing Adam Reynolds to send through his first kick from the halfway line, while Brooksy booted it even deeper at the end of the following set.
That said, both teams were pretty consistent in moving the footy from one end of the park to the other. Aloiai took another strong early carry next time the Tigers had ball in hand, then, four and a half minutes in, the Bunnies got a boost out of their own end with the first penalty of the night – offside from Luke Garner. James Roberts opened up some space on the right edge for Dane Gagai, but the first big burst of field position came to an abrupt end with a David Nofoaluma intercept on Cody Walker.
For a moment, this looked like it might be an intercept try, as Nofa bobbled the ball and then managed to kick it forward for himself, but the play quickly went awry when Josh Reynolds accidentally booted Campbell Graham in the head as he dove in to defend the play. Latrell was outraged, Reynolds got pretty fiery in response, and Adam Reynolds questioned him even remaining on the park, but Grub was just penalised and put on report, and play promptly continued.
Tom Burgess put the ball down a tackle later, but it came off an illegal steal from Oliver Clark, setting up Reynolds for his only two-pointer as Bayley Sironen subbed on for Graham, who headed to the sheds for an HIA. South Sydney had some of their hardest runs so far off the restart, and while Reyno had to kick in his own end again, the aim was good, setting a strong challenge for debutant Reece Hoffman for his first take under the high ball.
Josh Reynolds opted to kick at the end of the next set, obviously raring for even more involvement after having copped a swinging arm from Latrell on the back of the Graham incident. Walker responded with a five-eighth kick of his own, only for the footy to ricochet off the defence to gift the visitors their first real field position. Luciano almost gave Moses Mbye a linebreak assist on the left, but Cameron Murray contained Lawrence on the right – the best single tackle so far from the South Sydney forwards.
Murray got his best run so far two tackles later, and yet Reynolds kicked again before the last, from within the forty, right when running the footy might have opened up some much-needed space for the cardinal and myrtle. Josh Reynolds targeted Latrell with the next Tigers kick, but the penalty count rocketed up to 4-0 as Harry Grant was called offside downtown. Murray now had another great run, opening up space for Alex Johnston on the left edge before Doueihi clinically cleaned up the kick on the last.
Lawrence almost burst through the line on the next set, and Grant came up with a clutch kick at the end of it all, as the contest tightened and each team showcased some of their best defence in weeks. Looking for an icebreaker, Brooksy tried to roll the Steeden over the sideline, and while he shanked it into touch on the full, the Bunnies didn’t do much better, with Su’A making a simple knock-on to hand the ball back one tackle later.
Still, the Rabbitohs had two key plays over the next ten minutes that gradually got them the upper hand as the half hour mark drew near. First, Reynolds ran the footy for the first time all night, and the results were spectacular – a battle of the halfbacks that he won by disposing of Brooks three times over. First he got on his outside, then he palmed him off with a deft left fend, and finally he danced over an ankle tap, leaving Doueihi as last line of defence right on the line.
To his credit, the ex-Rabbitoh came up with a sublime trysaver here, sliding in at speed to drag Reyno into touch as he gathered the Steeden in both hands and tried to roll over the line. Still, the Bunnies got another boost with a successful Captain’s Challenge to contest a supposed high hit from Hame Sele on Doueihi, so they were confident enough to sacrifice a penalty kick when Luke Garner was pinged for a dangerous tackle thirty-one minutes in, getting the first restart and a near-try from Latrell a play later.
Finally, thirty seconds later, they scored, thanks to their best sweep of the night – a cut-out pass from Damien Cook that sailed across two players to Reynolds, who sent it on through Walker to Gagai on the wing. Gags was always going to score here, accelerating so fast that he effectively crossed over untouched, since Luciano Leilua was considerably less successful than Doueihi on Reynolds, only making the slightest contact with his ankle tap.
Full credit to both halves for timing their run into the defensive line perfectly to open space for Gagai, and while Reynolds now missed the first of four conversions, the Bunnies wouldn’t have to wait long for their next try, which came off an egregious error in the play-the-ball from Nofa two sets later. Souths got another restart a set later, and Gagai put down a double, collecting a harbour bridge ball from Latrell to bump through Garner for another four points in the corner.
This was a superb assist for Latrell, who received the footy from Reynolds, shrugged off Mbye and sent out the wide ball all in one assisted motion, pivoting away from the tackle as the Wests Tigers captain careened into empty space. It was one of Latrell’s best moments since joining South Sydney, so he sent his men into the sheds with confidence, even though Reynolds missed another one from the sideline.
The Tiges needed to rehabilitate their left edge defence when they returned from the sheds, while the Rabbits needed to build on this late momentum – and they got rolling right away with a deft offload from Murray on the first set, following by a Reynolds bomb that forced the visitors to work the ball back from their try line. They were only out of their own ten by play three, and Su’A almost forced them back with the biggest hit of the night on Elijah Taylor, before Sele got the next set going with an epic run.
The Bunnies now started to get into first gear, as Walker culminated the fastest set so far by making his way to the chalk. He did well to rely on momentum to slide him in goal as three Tigers piled on him, keeping the Steeden secured under his right arm but unable to quite get it down as Nofoaluma stormed in to finish off this desperate goal line defence.
To their credit, the Tigers bounced back after Josh Reynolds came up with a terrific trysaver to prevent Walker crossing over a tackle later off a trick play from Cook. Leilua made good metres after the changeover, and Thomas Mikaele and Leilua made good offloads, but it all came to nothing when Grant shanked it awkwardly on the fourth, putting the Bunnies in good striking position once again, although the critical error came one set later, when Mbye coughed up a slightly mistimed Brooks ball.
Once again, South Sydney showed up the Tigers’ left edge defence, and once again a Reynolds wide ball was the magic ingredient – this time to Roberts, who got outside Garner and danced over a pair of low tackle from Brooks and Doueihi, while still finding enough space to curve around to ground it behind the posts. Sailing the Steeden across the front of the uprights, Reynolds had now missed more conversions than in the last eight weeks, but the Bunnies were still 14-0 with a little over half an hour on the clock.
In other words, it was exactly the right time for Benji Marshall to sub on, as Grant headed to the bench, Reynolds slotted into dummy half, and the king of Leichhardt took on five-eighth duties for the next passage of play. He made an impact immediately, scooping up the Steeden when Patrick Mago dropped a Cook pass, barging into Walker and Ethan Lowe for the Tigers’ third tackle in the South Sydney twenty, and then reaching down to collect a poor pass from Reynolds on the last.
Grub continued to falter with a ruck error midway through the next set, but the other Reynolds couldn’t open up space for Latrell on the right edge, or secure a dropout despite his best grubber of the night. The footy ricocheted off the side of the posts, where Nofualuma showcased some scintillating footwork to bring it back over the try line, so it was pretty dire when Chee Kam bobbled the play-the-ball twenty seconds after trotting onto the field.
No surprise that Mago targeted Chee Kam on the next tackle, nor that Souths capitalised off this sudden shift in momentum, as Cook almost sent Walker over with a bullet ball beside the left post. Burgess continued his momentum, nearly carrying three defenders over the line beside the right post, and it all came together when Reyno sent Gagai over for a hat trick – this time totally untouched.
It had been a resplendent night for the Rabbitohs’ right edge attack, despite another missed conversion from their skipper, and yet the Tigers would mount a fairly respectable comeback over the final quarter, putting down two tries in quick succession. Gagai’s first career hat trick outside a Maroons jersey looked like a training run – one of the rare games when Gags was able to channel his sublime Origin energy in club colours – so it was impressive that the Tiges prevented any more points too.
Luciano got them rolling by stripping the footy from Mago on play one of the restart, and Mark Nicholls was pinged for a crusher tackle on Aloiai a play later. For a moment it looked like the big prop might leave the park, but he got to his feet, and actually settled into his hardest period of the game, which coincided with the best field position for the Tigers all night, starting with a Reynolds kick that falconed off Brooksy’s forehead.
This was a lucky break for the Tigers, but they made the most of their luck, as Doueihi sent a wide ball out to Hoffman on the left on the first tackle and tried to break through the right edge on the last, conceding the changover but showing his men they could sweep from side to side as dexterously as the Rabbitohs. Luciano totally skittled Tevita Tatola two plays into the next South Sydney set, and Su’A lost it on the third, paving the way for a Garner linebreak that tempted a high shot from Latrell.
Josh Reynolds was overjoyed to see his sparring partner put on report as well, barking out some banter to get his men in the mood before his enthusiasm got the best of him with an overlong kick on the last that was nevertheless saved by an offside penalty from Walker. With such a rapid and lucky acceleration of field position the Tigers needed to score here – and score they did, as Aloiai climaxed his hardest few minutes of the night with the big one-man effort his men needed to believe in themselves again.
Grant had just come back onto the field, and seemed renewed in his focus and vision, popping a short ball across to Aloiai at just the right moment for the big no. 8 to burrow deep into the defence, and dispose of Burgess, Latrell and Su’A on his way to the chalk. Aloiai isn’t always on, but when he is he can lift the whole team, and that happened here, as Mbye booted through the first conversion of the night, Burgess was pinged for holding down on the restart, and the Bunnies started to lose a bit of headway.
They completed their next couple of sets, but came undone with a ruck infringement from Tatola that set up Benji for his best sequence of the night – passing to Clark, and then collecting an offload from Clark, before shifting the footy across to Brooks, who responded with a sublime long ball across three players that set up Mbye to elude a Roberts intercept and put Hoffman across in the corner with the best short-range assist of the game.
From Benji to Hoffman, this was precisely the combination of veteran and young gun that can regalvanise a losing team – a perfect sequel to Aloiai’s one-man run – even if Mbye didn’t make the sideline conversion. The Tigers could probably have mustered up another try or two with a few more good sets her, but instead Nofoaluma deflated a strong night with a diabolical knock-on under the kickoff, in what felt like the last great turning-point of the game.
Five minutes out, the Tigers got one last burst, and Souths were forced into their most desperate defence of the night, as Latrell made an epic effort to prevent Grant breaking through the line, and Chee Kam grounded the Steeden in the right corner for what initially looked like yet another late try for his highlights reel. But the replay clearly showed that his putdown had been preceded by a knock-on from Nofoaluma, who weirdly became the Tiges’ biggest liability in these last ten minutes.
The game got pretty messy as the siren approached, with Mikaele joining the players put on report for dangerous tackles, and Gagai making a mistake thirty seconds out from the end. Still, this had been a relatively consistent night from both parties – and a solid win for the Bunnies, who’ve made it five from nine as they prepare to take on the Knights at Bankwest again next week, while on the other side of the Steeden, the Tigers will be raring to make it five when they host Brisbane at Leichhardt next Friday.