The first game of Indigenous Round this year was a Charity Shield rematch, with Latrell Mitchell back for Souths, Jordan Pereira and Tariq Sims back for the Dragons, and Tristan Sailor making his first NRL appearance of the year. The Rabbitohs had lost their last two games to Newcastle and Canberra, while St. George were coming off the most frustrating loss of the season since Manly’s last-second try against the Eels was called back in Round 10. Add to that Ben Hunt starting at halfback for the first time since Round 4, and this felt like it could be either team’s game, depending on who got the upper hand early on. Matt Dufty allowed the first kick from Adam Reynolds to bounce, but Pereira came up with it, making his way back to the Bunnies’ forty on his very first run. Zac Lomax made good metres up the right edge, Jackson Ford tumbled through the middle, and Paul Vaughan arrived five metres out on the fourth, before Hunt grubbered on the last, trapping Alex Johnston in goal for the first dropout of the night three minutes in. There was a brief pause while Cameron Murray was examined – he had taken the main brunt of the low tackle on Vaughan, and sustained a head clash with Bayley Sironen in the process – but he remained on the park for the time being.
The next set was less convincing from the Dragons, as Corey Norman barged into Andrew McCullough, and Lomax dropped a terrific offload from Tyson Frizell on the right edge. Souths got the first penalty a play later, when Ford was called offside, but St. George enjoyed a second sublime run downfield as another Reynolds kick ricocheted away. This time Reyno recovered the footy, but a big shot from Tariq Sims forced it free, leaving it open for Norman to scoop it up and run all the way to the Rabbitohs’ forty as Pereira had before him, before shifting it over for Dufty to score. It was an awkward tackle for Reynolds, whose right arm smashed into the ground as Sims tumbled over him, and who remained on the ground as Lomax missed the conversion, leaving a minute after to have some nerve damage examined. He was replaced by Liam Knight, who had a nasty head clash with Blake Lawrie almost immediately, although, like Murray, he seemed to remain just shy of an HIA. The Dragons came close to breaking through on both edges next time they got a hold of the football, and Lomax actually got a deft offload away on the last, but Damien Cook came up with it, only to lose it again a second later thanks to some tough pressure from Hunt on the right edge.Embed from Getty Images
Lomax took the first carry for what was effectively a repeat set, and Dufty stepped into the spotlight, making a brilliant run up the left edge, before finding himself with the footy again a few tackles later, when he sent a bullet ball out to the left wing that Euan Aitken almost seemed to intercept before it could arrive at Pereira in the corner, curving around behind the posts to set up Lomax for the first conversion. Souths received a much-needed penalty a minute later, thirty metres out, off a Lawrie strip, but Latrell dropped the ball on his boot on play two, and Hunt responded by scooping it up to effect the biggest turnaround all game. Not only did St. George get a restart a play later, but Aitken got past Bayley Sironen and Jaxson Paulo to send the Steeden across to Dufty, who swerved away from Jayden Su’A for another try right behind the posts. With Lomax adding his second conversion, the Red V were almost a point per minute, and although Latrell caught Hunt’s next kick on the full, St. George were strong on the kick chase, keeping the Bunnies bunched right on the line until an offside error from Norman got them out of their own end with a 0-3 penalty count.
The Rabbits had a communication breakdown towards the end of the next set, but regathered when Cody Walker received the footy on the last, dummying and skidding away from two tackles – Vaughan and McCullough – as Aitken had before him, to slam down the first South Sydney try of Indigenous Round. With Reynolds off the park, and with his team mates flagging, this was brilliant leadership from Walker as sole remaining half, while Latrell also stepped up with the conversion, narrowing the deficit to ten points. The next Souths set was even stronger, starting with a terrific run from Murray that cleared space for Cook to send Walker up the left edge, where he popped the ball out to Johnston, who was pinged for putting a boot on the sideline just before flicking the footy back in field, but who had actually remained – just – within the field of play. This was a tough call for the Bunnies, who would probably have scored here, but Johnston would get another sideline run soon enough, while his team mates got their fourth penalty of the night – in almost the same position as the third – next time they got ball in hand, this time due to an offside error from Hunt. Walker meanwhile continued to shine, chipping over the defence and forcing the first South Sydney dropout of the night.Embed from Getty Images
The Rabbits got a restart on the first tackle, but the Dragons stayed strong in defence, surging in to hold up Sironen off a potential Walker try assist, and then stopping Tevita Tatola in the same spot. In the end, Souths didn’t get to their kick, as Su’A coughed up the ball off a Cook pass, while St. George got their first penalty, twenty-seven minutes in, when Tatola was called offside. Frizell made big contact with Murray for the first hit-up, Latrell made a mistake a moment later, and the Dragons looked set for another surge of points, only for Johnston to restore South Sydney’s momentum with an even more spectacular one-man effort than Walker ten minutes before. Intercepting a pass from Dufty to Lomax right on the Bunnies’ line, Johnston ran the length of the park to turn the Dragons’ fourth try into the Rabbitohs’ second try, before making an equally brilliant seventy-metre effort a minute later. Receiving a brilliant wide ball from Latrell, Johnston made his way up the sideline, and kicked at speed from the Dragons’ thirty, setting up one of the most beautiful sequences of football this year – a dance between Walker, who curved around the Steeden in a semicircular motion, and Latrell, who surged in like a secant, stealthily collecting it as the Red V converged on Walker, and then carrying it over the sideline to score the third try for South Sydney.
From the speed of the putdown, to the strength evident in the face plant, to the roar of release as he raised himself up from the turf, this felt like a genuinely cathartic moment for Latrell after the turmoil of the last six months – a passionate moment of selfhood in the midst of Indigenous Round that was cemented further when he booted the conversion off the uprights to level the scoreline at 16-16 on the cusp of half time. Souths got rocking again after the break with a successful Captain’s Challenge that proved Murray hadn’t stuffed up the play-the-ball, while Keaon Koloamatangi crashed over beside the posts a minute later for what would have been his first NRL try if there hadn’t been an obstruction. The Bunnies were hungry for points, though, and made the most of a weird Norman kick that went out on the full, responding with a left sweep that ended with Walker drawing in Lomax with a cut-out pass across Latrell’s chest to Dane Gagai, who sent Johnston across on the wing to put South Sydney ahead for the first time. They got another restart on the restart, and looked dangerous in every part of the field, but Dufty came up with the ball at the end of the set.Embed from Getty Images
The Dragons responded with an acceleration of their own, and continued their comeback next time they had possession, as Frizell and Johnston chased down a Hunt kick, for what initially looked like a knock-on from Tyson, but in slow motion clarified itself as slight downward pressure with the forearm. Once again the game was locked up, now at 20-20, after Lomax missed the conversion, settling into the longest set-for-set rhythm so far, as both teams searched for the upper hand as the final quarter approached. Both halves contributed big bombs, and both backlines remained safe beneath them, with Latrell making a good call to pull back a pass on the ground after seeing the kick chase converge on him. Finally, the Dragons got the scrum feed off a dropped ball from Paulo, but the game simply shifted from set-for-set to error-for-error when Tyrell Fuimaono lost the footy just as quickly. The Bunnies regained the upper edge when Latrell sent Gagai into space on the left edge, where only an epic trysaver from Hunt prevented him scoring then and there, before Mark Nichols found a hole for Walker on the next play, putting Cody into open space for a double behind the posts. Walker was just as brilliant a minute later, when he collected an offload from Murray on the ground, and kicked off the right boot with McCullough around his waist.
Dufty managed to clean up the ball this time, while Tristan Sailor came onto the field thirteen minutes out from the end, taking the kick on his first set as the game settled into what felt like the last great arm wrestle before one team inexorably took control of the conclusion. Sailor drove the Steeden over the sideline ten minutes out, Josh Kerr added some fresh blood to the St. George attack, and Liam Knight made the first error in over ten minutes, but Johnston turned everything around with his second brilliant steal of the night, cementing this as one of the best games in his recent career. This time he intercepted a pass from Sailor to Lomax, running most of the field to score a hat trick, before capping off this sublime display with an Indigenous dance. Latrell swerved away another conversion, but the Bunnies had still scored six after conceding three, while the ex-Rooster got a chance to make it a converted try lead after Lomax was pinged for an offside error a minute later. Mikaele Ravalawa scored a minute out from the end, but any chance of a rapid comeback fizzled when Lomax’s kick agonizingly ricocheted off the uprights, making this the second time the Dragons have conceded a 16-point lead, and an almost identical scoreline to the first time, setting up South Sydney for a massive game when they take on the Broncos next Friday night.