ROUND 10: South Sydney Rabbitohs v. Newcastle Knights (Bankwest Stadium, 18/7/20)
Both Saturday night fixtures had massive second half twists in Round 10. After putting in their best first quarter of footy in 2020, the Sea Eagles had to work hard to withstand Parra in the back twenty, while the Knights kept South Sydney scoreless until the final fifteen minutes of their fixture at Bankwest, only to scramble against a late comeback for a mere two point win. As a result, while the Bunnies were hosting at Bankwest, this often felt more like a Newcastle home game, thanks to the voluble away crowd.
The Bunnies had won nine of their last ten games against Newcastle, while the Knights had conceded the least number of tries in the first nine rounds since the tail end of the Johns era in 2002. Kalyn Ponga hadn’t scored a try in his last three games, and had only made a single linebreak and 77 average run metres, although he got some joy tonight, while the Newcastle side were bolstered by the return of Mitch Barnett for his first football since sustaining a nerve injury against the Wests Tigers in Round 2.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Rabbitohs had some big shifts to their backline. Latrell Mitchell was suspended for his encounter with Josh Reynolds last week, meaning Alex Johnston had his 57th match at fullback, while Campbell Graham was out with a facial fracture, pushing Dane Gagai to the centre, where he supported a new wing pairing in Corey Allan and Jaxson Paulo, who had a great night for his NRL debut.
Tom Burgess took a massive run to get things rolling, but the Rabbitohs didn’t get to the second half of their set after a bobbled play-the-ball from Ethan Lowe. Adam Reynolds slowed down Newcastle’s attacking pace with a sterling tackle on Mitchell Pearce halfway through the tackle count, and the Bunnies got their second shot three minutes in. Burgess was huge again, making about ten post-contact metres, before Cody Walker slotted through the first kick, to Hymel Hunt, who contained it well.
Pearce tried to recover Newcastle’s early momentum with a harbour bridge ball out to Enari Tuala halfway up the field, but with the Bunnies effecting another turnover, the game effectively restarted, and returned to a level playing-field in terms of possession and position. Reynolds was the next to flex, booting through a soaring bomb that the Newcastle backline had to let bounce, Damien Cook prevented David Klemmer getting an offload away, and Jaxson Paulo leaped up to collect Pearce’s next bomb on the full.
Tuala stormed in on James Roberts to force the first error of the game a moment later, and Cam Murray followed Cook with a terrific tackle on Klemmer, as the Knights’ brief advantage turned into a quick tap from Dane Gagai, who brought the footy all the way back to the Newcastle forty before the visitors caught up to him. This was the best field position so far, and Jaydn Su’A added to it by dragging four defenders towards the line, while Gagai continued his run with a made dance along the ruck two tackles later.
Yet the Knights now had their own chance to draw on the opposition momentum, thanks to Lachlan Fitzgibbon, whose attacking pressure led to an overlong kick from Reynolds, and a seven tackle set for the away team. Walker managed to withstand a Ponga fend and get the Newcastle fullback to ground, but he held on too long in the process, as the Knights now matched and exceeded the Bunnies’ field position. Jacob Saifiti had a shot at close range, but it took a left sweep for Newcastle to score here.
This was just the try they needed after such an early arm wrestle – a calm, clinical and well choreographed sequence of passes. Pearce shot it out to Kurt Mann, who in turn popped it across to Bradman Best for the assist – a fend on Roberts and flick offload out for Enari Tuala to cross over untouched. Ponga added the two, and the Knights had six on the board, confident in their track record with winning off opening tries in 2020.
Andrew McCullough got them a restart on the restart, by catching Walker not square at marker, and Best followed his assist with a near-linebreak on the left edge, disposing of Roberts and clearing up space for Pearce to pop a short one out to Mann. With so much eyes-up footy behind him, Mann had enough speed and strength to simply bump off Johnston at short-range on his way to the line – his fourth try in five games – although the Knights stayed at ten after Ponga sailed the Steeden away in front.
Newcastle now had 61% of position, and Souths hadn’t touched the football in about five minutes, while Pearce got his men even more position with a superb 40/20 on the restart. Herman Ese’ese almost barged his way through five defenders right on the line, but his energy ended up overtaking him, resulting in a mistake in the play-the-ball. It was a tough call, given the replay, but the Knights’ defenders got through the next set with no real troubles, despite a late offload from Murray to Burgess on play three.
Mann and Fitzgibbon made forty metres combined up the middle on the next set, breaking through seven or eight tackles between them, before Tautau Moga continued their movement on the right edge, getting Hymel Hunt into open space, where he cleared up room for Aidan Guerra to get the footy down just shy of the line. This had been the best acceleration of the night, so South Sydney desperately needed the breather that came when Tevita Tatola left the park for some left shoulder attention.
Tatola hadn’t missed a game in over a year, so at a deeper level this was a big blow for the Bunnies, even if Bayley Sironen added some fresh blood to their attack, making a mark immediately by charging straight into Ese’ese and Jacob Saifiti. Yet Tuala caught the next kick on the full, and the Knights got rolling once again, playing like it was a home game on the Hunter. Murray looked for an offload again on the following set, but couldn’t find it this time, while Ponga cleaned up the ball just as clinically as Hunt.
With the second quarter well underway, the Rabbitohs needed to find some kind of opening, or force a Newcastle error, to get themselves back in the game, since the red and blue didn’t show any signs of slowing down as Best made yet another brilliant surge up the left edge. Instead, it was Roberts who conceded the mistake, almost setting up a Newcastle try then and there, and remaining offside for a dangerous period of time as McCullough barged a full metre over the line out of dummy half.
The Bankwest crowd started chanting “Newcastle” as the Knights got stuck in again, but the Bunnies finally got their break when Moga forced a no-look offload out to the right wing that Hunt couldn’t clean up before it tumbled over the sideline. Burgess got a spell on the bench, and Hame Sele subbed on, before Reynolds came up with a potential game-turner – an even better 40/20 than the one Pearce had delivered, and his first of the year. The Bunnies got a set restart on play one, and dug into the line.
Although Reyno’s next pass hit the ground, Corey Allan managed to gather it up without losing too much pace, but the Bunnies weren’t as lucky at the end of the set, when Grant Atkins requested a Bunker review to confirm that Murray hadn’t been tackled by Fitzgibbon before he spilled the fooy forward right on the Newcastle line. On a happier note, word came back from the sheds that Tatola would be set to return soon, as Connor Watson subbed on for his first stint since Round 3 against Penrith.
South Sydney now had their worst end to a set so far, as Reynolds only just saved a messy Sele offload, and so ruled himself out of position to take the final kick, forcing Walker to boot a left-footer on the wrong side of the field. Watson charged it down easily and the Knights got a set restart a second later, off a ruck error from Walker, elasticizing out to the right edge, where Ponga danced over Walker at the twenty, and then Johnston at the ten, before curving around for his first try in three matches.
In one of the more iconic moments of the Newcastle season, Ponga gave Pearce a quick kiss on the cheek before missing the easiest conversion angle of the night from right in front. Still, it was his first ever try against South Sydney, who were being subjected to a blue and red clinic by this point in the game. Full credit goes to Mann, Pearce and Klemmer, too, for the left edge attack that set up Ponga’s splendid run to begin with.
The Bunnies now faced their third post-try restart of the game without having scored a single point themselves, although this was probably the least threatening, ending with a McCullough kick on the fourth, out of dummy half, that was designed to ensure field position rather than create an opportunity for back-to-back tries. The Knights’ mindset seemed to shift slightly here, as they opted for more careful and conservative plays, as if determined, above all, to keep South Sydney to zero right up to the siren.
That said, they still had plenty of spark in them – especially Mitch Barnett, who celebrated his return to the NRL with a huge hit on Johnston a minute later. Reynolds tried to regather with a second 40/20 attempt, but Ponga was in position to collect it, while Jaydn Su’A mirrored Barnett with a massive shot on Watson a few sets after. Souths got one more big chance before the break, but a certain try went begging when Allan was unable to take control of a superb Reynolds wide ball out to the right wing.
Bayley Sironen got the second stanza rolling with a big opening hit on Pasami Saulo, who lost the footy on the next Newcastle set, giving the Bunnies a big let-off after Reynolds’ first bomb attempt had gone awry on the right edge. The home team looked more methodical now, marching up through the middle of the field, while Reynolds’ second kick, a grubber, was stronger, and found Su’A, who twisted and spun into the biggest pack effort of the night from the Knights, who managed to hold him up in time.
Cook and Sele followed Sironen by slamming Hunt onto his back early in the next set, but Ponga still got to a leisurely kick, splitting the difference between winger and fullback ten metres out from the South Sydney line. Allan eventually came up with it, as Bunny after Bunny tried to bring the footy back into Newcastle territory. Roberts was the man to carry it over the halfway line, but his speed got the better of him, leaving him vulnerable for a second Newcastle pack to drag him over the side.
The Knights looked restless in the scrum, and finally returned to their first half form during this next set, starting with a superb wide ball from Ponga out to Tuala, who did well to stay in the field of play against a legs tackle from Allan. Ponga was just as good with the boot, threading the needle one play later to trap Walker behind the line for the first goal line dropout of the night, setting up Pearce for a great kick chase as well.
Guerra took another shot at the chalk on the third, before Pearce came up with his second sublime low kick – this time a try assist for Best, who outpaced Allan to put the footy down. The set was far from complete, and the Knights had only started to spread out to the left edge, so this was a superb show of leadership from Ponga – and a pretty dire moment for Reynolds, who was unable to even reach out a boot and deflect the grubber as he slammed into Fitzgibbon and tumbled to ground, Best speeding ahead.
Goal kicking was Ponga’s Achilles heel this evening, since he missed it again from an easy angle, sending the Steeden sailing past the right post to make it 1/4 with the kicks. The Knights had settled back into their opening groove, so you would never have expected they’d only have two more points in them – or that South Sydney would match their current score of 18 by the time the final siren rang out over Bankwest.
For the moment, though, the Knights were still on top, getting a restart on the restart when Tatola held onto the footy for too long. Souths hadn’t won a game after being kept to nil in the first forty for eight years, so they needed to dig deep for a special sequence here, but instead Tatola conceded yet another penalty, on the back of a near-linebreak from Ponga, for taking out Barnett without the ball. Ponga added the penalty kick, and South Sydney had just under half an hour to commence their late comeback.
John Sutton ran out the kicking tee for Reynolds to get things rolling again, and the Bunnies came away with a good three-man effort to drag Saulo back again. Roberts had a good run on the next set, and for a moment it looked like the Bunnies might consolidate on the left edge, where Walker shot out a flat pass for Johnston to sent it on to Paulo, but Paulo’s grubber ricocheted off Ponga and into touch, giving the Knights the feed, while Johnston was lucky that his forward pass wasn’t noticed by the refs.
Johnston slightly midsjudged Ponga’s next bomb, and had to get down on his knees to collect it, as Mark Nicholls came off the bench to add some more grunt to the Bunnies’ attack. Play was paused for Paulo to get an HIA, after a big fifteen minutes in defence, but Nicholls steadied the ship with his first big run of the night, and got a penalty off Best (strip) for his troubles. Yet even here Souths couldn’t capitalise, as Johnston coughed up a Walker pass while awkwardly curving around Reynolds to collect it.
South Sydney now had 11 errors to Newcastle’s 4, and zero on the board on the cusp of the final quarter. Meanwhile, Klemmer got another offload away to McCullough, who booted it over the sideline for a breather as Roberts went down in backplay after overextending his arm during a Kurt Mann tackle. It only took a brief strength test for him to return to the park, while the Knights got another boon with a successful challenge to prove that a supposed strip from Klemmer was a loose carry from Nicholls.
Barnett drew in five Bunnies to hold him up over the line, Best slipped out of tackles from Cook and Su’A and Hunt collected a short one from Moga to take on another South Sydney pack, prompting some heated words with Gagai in the corner. Surviving this set seemed to steel the Rabbitohs, especially since they matched the Knights with their own successful challenge a tackle later, deflating the biggest Newcastle huddle of the night to prove that Tatola never lost the footy in the midst of an huge Barnett hit.
The replay was extraordinary in showing the strength and dexterity with which Tatola had retained control of the Steeden as he ricocheted from one Newcastle prop to another – and seeing this resilience in slow-motion was the final motivation that South Sydney needed to finally get into a tryscoring groove. Fifteen minutes out from the end Reynolds lost the ball cold, but the Bunnies proved why they lead the comp with intercepts a moment later, when Allan took the football straight back from Mann.
In a way, Reynolds’ mistake was an asset, since it made the turnaround all the more galvanising, accelerating the Rabbits into their most volatile set of the night – a sequence of big runs and quick play-the-balls that ended with a Reynold run and a strategic kick from Cook off Ponga to get his men six again. The crowd was well and truly arrive now, and two tackles later they roared even louder when Nicholls received the footy off Cook and steamrolled through McCullough to break a 60-game drought.
Reynolds added the extras, Murray leaped over the edge to tap the kickoff back into the field of play, and the Bunnies seemed to have channeled Newcastle’s opening momentum, spreading it from side to side until Johnston collected a Murray offload, spotted a hole in the line and got all the way to a Saifiti trysaver twenty metres out. The try wasn’t saved for long, as Johnston played it rapidly to Cook, who accelerated further out of dummy half to put down another four, on the other side of the posts.
Reynolds put Ponga’s goal-kicking to shame with a second conversion in nearly as many minutes, and suddenly the Rabbitohs had the upper hand – and seemed determined to condense an entire game’s intensity into the next eleven minutes. Hunt made a terrific tackle on Walker on play four, halting the set enough for Reynolds to kick a spiraling bomb from within his own half that Ponga managed to gather on the full.
Yet the Knights never got to the end of the next set, effectively granting the Bunnies another shot at their restart when Klemmer lost the footy midway through the tackle count. Nicholls had scored off Cook, Cook himself had scored, and for a brief second it looked like Burgess had also scored off Cook, as he received the footy from his hooker and twisted through a maelstrom of Newcastle jerseys beneath the uprights, getting his ball-carrying arm free but spilling the Steeden down his wrist at the last minute.
It only took South Sydney a set to recover, since they made good on their left edge combination next time they had ball in hand – a short ball from Gagai to Paulo, and then a sublime kick from the debutant back in field, where Cook chased down the footy to put down his first career double. The replay showed just how dextrously Paulo had evaded the sideline, while Gagai’s set-up was equally impressive, culminating a brilliant three-try streak that had all revolved around dummy half in one way or another.
Newcastle held on for the last six minutes, despite an unsuccessful challenge and a Walker linebreak, but this was still a pretty rude shock after their incredible start to the match. They’ll be looking for a far more decisive win, then, when they host the Dogs back in Newcastle on Sunday afternoon, while the Bunnies will be keen to take the intensity of this last fifteen minutes, and spread it across the entire match, when they rock up to take on the Raiders at GIO Stadium for cold climate football.
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