The Raiders had won five of their last seven games against South Sydney, and were sixth on the ladder with twelve competition points, when they met at GIO Stadium on Saturday night. On the other side of the Steeden, the Rabbitohs were sitting at five wins and five losses, and still adjusting to the absence of James Roberts and Ethan Lowe, out with pec and neck injuries. Campbell Graham was back from his facial fracture, and Bayley Sironen was starting, as Latrell looked on from the sidelines.
Tom Burgess was also celebrating his 150th match, and had a monster night, dominating run metres and executing a series of sublime plays later in the second stanza that, amazingly, didn’t result in any South Sydney tries. Despite the low scoreline – a 18-12 win to Canberra – it was a pretty punishing game, with three fullbacks taken off the park for HIAs, and Alex Johnston absent for most of the night, forcing Corey Allan to shoulder the fullback jersey as the rain grew heavier and heavier.
Semi Valemei started his second match with a good take under Adam Reynolds’ first bomb, and the Raiders got the first penalty of the night when Cameron Murray made a dangerous tackle on Josh Papalii, but Jack Wighton didn’t find touch with the subsequent kick. South Sydney then had their first set entirely in Canberra’s half, as Cody Walker’s grubber ricocheted off the defence and back into the arms of Alex Johnston, getting his men a fresh set of six in the process.
Murray came close to breaking through the line on play two, and everything seemed to be coming together on the left edge, only for Corey Allan to find himself out of position when Walker popped a bullet ball back to the sideline. Finally, five minutes in, the Raiders got to the end of their second set, and then came up with their best defence so far, spearheaded by a massive hit from Papalii on Johnston. Walker’s next bomb was as big as Reynolds’, but Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was still safe beneath it.
Murray now went from conceding the first penalty to conceding the first restart, and the green machine scored at the end of the same set, thanks to a superb bomb to the left corner from Wighton, who made up for his botched penalty kick with a terrific try platform here. Jordan Rapana leaped up to tap it back with his right hand, and the footy ricocheted off Nick Cotric’s head, before the big no. 4 scooped it up and put in a superhuman effort to get on the outside of Dane Gagai and slam it down.
Croker didn’t get the sideline conversion, sailing it off to the left of the posts, although this didn’t feel like too much of a problem, since the Raiders had won five out of six times they’d scored the first try in 2020. Siliva Havili made seven metres up the middle early in the next tackle count, but Wighton lost the footy on the very next play, gifting South Sydney a set in Canberra’s end for the second time in the game. Once again, the Bunnies got six more – and once again it ended with a botched play on the wing.
This time it occurred on the left edge, where Johnston followed Walker with a quick cut-out pass that Jaxson Paulo couldn’t quite secure before the Steeden sailed over the sideline. Papalii responded with his best run on the next set, dragging Damien Cook and Bayley Sironen three post-contact metres, while Wighton did well to collect Reynolds’ next kick, which careened away from Valemei at a crazy angle. The Raiders got a restart, and Walker deliberately gave away an offside penalty to save a try.
Nevertheless, Canberra scored on the repeat set, which started with Rapana showing South Sydney how to save a tricky ball (from Williams) on the wing. Williams almost smashed over on the fifth tackle, and Croker got four more on the last, scooping up and slamming down the footy after Reynolds ricocheted Wighton’s kick back towards the in goal area. This was a bad move from the South Sydney halfback, since the Steeden was going dead for all money, meaning he effectively assisted Wighton’s try.
Croker now added the first conversion of the night, and the Raiders were 10-0 with fifteen on the clock – a pretty worrying situation for South Sydney given how last week’s game against Newcastle began. Canberra were fast and focused on the restart, as Kai O’Donnell followed Papalii with big post-contact metres up the middle, and Wighton challenged Allan with a big floating bomb. Allan rose to the challenge though – or kneeled to it, getting right down on the ground to collect the footy on the full.
Reynolds floated it just as precariously on the next set, and Johnston came up with it, landing hard on his head when CNK wrapped him up a second later. He was sent off for an HIA, as Jack Johns came onto the park for his NRL debut and Allan shifted to fullback. Johns was vocal from the moment he joined the park, barking out motivation to his men, and getting his first run a couple of tackles later – straight into the right shoulder of Josh Papalii.
Galvanised by the need to regather around Johnson’s absence, Souths came up with their best defensive set of the game so far a minute later, keeping Canberra to seventeen metres, and then translating this big push into their first try as the second quarter arrived. It came off the third Canberra error in their own end – a flick offload from Croker that Whitehead put down without any real pressure from the Bunnies, who got the scrum, and moved methodically up the park for their first few tackles.
Gagai then got some joy after Cotric’s try, concluding a silky left sweep by collecting a short ball from Sironen and barging into CNK, struggling to get the footy down, and actually benefiting from the weight of Papalii tumbling on top of him, which finally helped him find the turf, bringing the Bunnies to only a four-point deficit once Reynolds booted through two from the side. Souths now got multiple restarts on the restart, as Havili put a hand in the ruck, and Whitehead followed with two straight ruck errors.
Three tackles later, Reynolds popped out a short ball to Jaydn Su’A, and then collected the offload to slide through the Canberra defence, ducking away from CNK to come to ground untouched – and then get to his feet again so he could curve behind the crossbar, setting himself up for the easiest conversion of the night. It was a milestone kick for Reyno, who become one of only 21 players to reach 1500 career points, as well as the equal seventh South Sydney pointscorer with Jack Rayner.
This was such a rapid and plosive period from the Bunnies that an even bigger comeback seemed inevitable, and yet these turned out to be the last points that they would score all night, while the Raiders would never quite respond in kind either, only managing to rack up another penalty kick and one more converted try over the next fifty minutes. Meanwhile, Souths got two more big blows five minutes out from the sheds, losing a Captain’s Challenge as word came back that Johnston had failed his HIA.
Canberra glimpsed a third try just before half time, when Whitehead crossed over, but it was held back for an obstruction on Cook by Sutton, so Canberra started the second stanza with a two-point deficit to make up. Once again, they got an early burst of position, as Paulo came in early for the slightest of touches that nevertheless prevented Croker getting the footy on the left edge. Yet Williams followed Whitehead by knocking on an offload, this time from CNK, as it started to sprinkle over GIO.
Both teams seemed to be searching for momentum over the next few minutes – looking for a way to draw on their respective pair of tries – as plays came apart and formations failed to gel. Reynolds tried to reset the rhythm with a towering bomb, but Charnze was safe beneath it, while Cotric and Lui made good metres up the middle on the following set, albeit without Wighton managing to do much special with the kick, which made it even more frustrating for Souths when Mark Nicholls came in late.
Croker slotted through his second penalty kick to wrap it up, and Young, Lui and Tapine got the green machine back in first gear on the restart, only for CNK to join Johnston on the sideline with a broken finger that looked dangerously like a compound fracture, after Paulo slammed in for an awkwardly angled ball-and-all tackle. Johns was the next to head off the field, following his fullback to the sheds just as after Harley Smith-Shields took his first carry in first-grade football.
Souths had their strongest set since the break next time they had ball in hand, as the rain grew steadier. While it all ended with a pretty bad ball out of dummy half, Croker had got a boot to it before Reynolds had a chance to lose it, gifting the Bunnies a scrum feed at the ten. Reyno offloaded out of a low tackle from Croker, who was pinged for a differential offside, so it was frustrating for South Sydney when Cook came up with a second poor play out of dummy half, lobbing it forward to Burgess on tackle two.
This was the shift in momentum that Canberra needed, and the Rabbits seemed to sense it, crowding in for a fracas on the next tackle after Murray slamed Smith-Shields to ground. The Raiders got six again off a terrific opening run from Tapine, Papalii made a huge impact after subbing back on for Lui, Rapana came up with a big left-hand fend on Reynolds, and Tapine offloaded back to Starling on the fourth, before the Raiders ended by showing Souths how to really consolidate off a rapid burst of field position.
For the second time in the game, a Rabbitoh provided an unofficial try assist, as Campbell Graham reached out a boot to deflect a short ball from Whitehead out of dummy half on the left wing, only to ricochet it right into the arms of Valemei, who crossed over in the corner for his first NRL try. Croker rocketed through the best sideline conversion of the match, and the Raiders were at 18-12 – the final scoreline of match, despite some really big plays from both teams over the final quarter of footy.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as Burgess now stepped up for a truly monstrous period. He started by barging through a sea of defenders and reaching his arm out from the maelstrom to get the Steeden to ground without a bounce, but brought it down just short. For a brief moment, it looked like the Raiders had regained the upper hand, since Gagai lost the footy as the rain got really torrential, thanks to a low tackle from Starling, and a big follow-up effort from Tapine on top.
Yet Burgess disposed of both players with the biggest run of the night, bumping off Tapine and then Starling to make more metres in a single run than any forward so far, bringing him to 165 in total, compared to Allan’s 121 and Papalii’s 118. Amazingly, though, Rapana came up with an equally good trysaver – almost a game-saver – on the very next play, preventing Reynolds crossing over on the right edge before Whitehead, Papalii and Wighton regathered to hold up Burgess from close range a tackle later.
Walker was cleaned up on the last but the Bunnies still had one more spectacular sequence in them – a sublime crossfield kick from Reynolds that slid and spun along the sodden turf, defying Valemei, and forcing Croker to wrap it into his chest and tumble over the try line. Rapana had also came in for the play, and collided into Valemei for a plosive head knock, so he became the second Canberra fullback to leave the field, as the Raiders dug in to defend their six point lead over the last ten minutes.
This final sequence of the game had all the intensity of golden point, since golden point felt imminent at every moment, but the Rabbitohs remained scoreless during this second stanza – a testament to the Raiders’ resolve in defence during this critical final period. They’ll be pumped for a big win, then, when they rock up to play the Cowboys in Townsville next week, while South Sydney will be digging deep to restore some consistency, and make more of their great plays, when they meet St. George.