ROUND 15: South Sydney Rabbitohs v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (ANZ Stadium, 22/8/20)

The Bunnies put forty on Manly when they hosted them at ANZ on Saturday night, despite losing Dane Gagai to a mild hamstring strain during training the day before, opening up room for Steven Marsters to make his NRL debut in the South Sydney centres. Adam Reynolds had a masterclass with the boot, slotting through eight of eight conversion, before Latrell Mitchell took the final kick in the dying minutes of the match.

Yet you would never have guessed such a dramatic win margin from the first seven minutes, since both teams went set for set, and the Sea Eagles actually made some good headway, from an early offload that almost became a linebreak assist for Brad Parker, to a pair of strong bombs from Daly Cherry-Evans at the second and fourth minutes. One minute later, DCE dummied and tried to offload a rainbow pass to the left edge, and while the Bunnies cleaned him up, Manly got a letoff when Latrell collected the next high ball and reached his boot back for a seven tackle set but couldn’t find the chalk.

Finally, South Sydney got the first real advantage when Jake Trbojevic put down a Danny Levi ball cold in the middle of the field. The little hooker had been momentarily sidelined with what appeared to be a hand complaint, but this was still mainly Trbojevic’s mistake, since he should have been able to contain this one, even if it was a little forward and low. Seizing their first big chance, the Bunnies accelerated immediately, settling into a groove that would bring them to a 26-point lead before the Sea Eagles next got their hands on the football.

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The first big play was a superb catch-and-pass from Latrell to Jaxson Paulo on the right edge – cleaned up, admittedly, by Parker, but not deterring the Bunnies from making another play in the same part of the field a tackle later. This time it all came together, as Cody Walker drifted into the line, and set up Latrell for another great pass to the right – a short ball to Marsters, who barged through Cade Cust and put down the Steeden ten minutes into his first game of first-grade football.

Reynolds booted through the conversion and the Rabbits got rolling again on the restart, when Tom Burgess broke through the line off a Cameron Murray offload, shrugged off three or four tackles in the middle of the field, and then hesitated with the footy, as if overwhelmed by the plethora of South Sydney attacking options opening up around him. In the end, his men went for another rapid sweep, this time to the left, although Walker was the anchor once again, starting a silky sequence of passes that saw the Steeden move through Bayley Sironen and Campbell Graham for Alex Johnston to pop down the next four.

There was nothing special about this play – just good timing, passing and game management – and that made it even more powerful, since it proved that the Bunnies could put down points on both sides of the field, off both a debut player and veteran tryscorer, without having to flex their muscles too much. Reynolds, too, was just as superb from the other sideline, as the glimmer of a smile broke over the face of Wayne Bennett, who seemed to intuit the splendid match to come.

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Again, the Rabbitohs scored on the restart, which became a trio of restarts thanks to successive ruck infringements from Taniela Paseka and DCE, and then a double for Johnston, who crashed over off an almost identical left side play, except that this time the vision came from Latrell, who paused, dummied and then sent the Steeden through Graham to his wing man. Paseka tumbled over Johnston as he came to ground, and while his concern was admirable, and while their was no malicious intent, he was still sent to the bin for conceding a penalty try.

Reyno also showed that he could converted from either sideline, as the glimmer of a smile broke over Wayne Bennett’s face, and the Rabbitohs one again scored on the restart, which became a trio of restarts, thanks to successive ruck infringement froms Taniela Paseka and DCE. With Reynolds nailing both the sideline conversion and the penalty kick, the Bunnies were an astonishing 20-0 with only sixteen minutes on the clock – far more than a point per minute – and amazingly they scored again a minute later, this time without the help of any further ruck errors.

Damien Cook almost ran twenty metres on the third tackle of the restart, Burgess followed with another ten on the fourth, and Reynolds forced Jorge Taufua to collect the footy deep within the Sea Eagles’ left edge. Manly seemed to relish having their first touch of the footy since the score had been 0-0, but they couldn’t do much with this set, as Graham scooped up a low DCE kick with no troubles. Murray, Latrell and Siroen all took strong runs, and Cook added the icing by popping a perfect cut-out pass across Murray and Walker for Graham to score in the same spot as Johnston.

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This was a pretty scary prospect for Manly, since the Bunnies could conceivably clock up a hundred points at this rate, especially since Reynolds showed no signs of slowing down with the kicking, adding another conversion to put South Sydney beyond the quarter century. Another try here and they might have built up enough momentum for the century – and they nearly got it off a Reynolds bomb on the restart.

In possibly the deftest South Sydney sequence of the night, Marsters tapped the ball back for a pair of brilliant flick passes – from Su’A to Paulo, and then from Paulo back to Reynolds, who got on the inside of Garrick, and looked set to score, only for Waddell and Parker to combine for the first really decisive defensive gesture from Manly so far. The replay confirmed they’d kept the star halfback short, marking the end of the first great tryscoring sequence, although the Rabbitohs were still next on the board, after thirteen minutes without points that, in the context of this particular match, marked a defensive victory for the Sea Eagles.

Nevertheless, seven minutes out Marty Taupau made a damaging error, scooping up the Steeden and losing it out of his left hand as Walker stormed in for a tackle on the left. Trying to limit his losses, he tried to scoop it up, but Cook got their first, lobbing it over for Latrell to shoot out a fifteen metre harbour bridge pass for Graham in the corner.

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This would have been Johnston’s fourth if he hadn’t been taken off for an HIA following his contact with Paseka, but Graham did a good job in his winger’s place, getting beneath Garrick to plant the footy down before Reyonds booted through his best conversion of the year – a beautiful ball that curved around at the very last moment to make it 5/5 from the sideline. Tevita Funa fumbled and recovered Reynolds’ next kick, and seemed to do better with the Walker kick after that, only to offload it directly to Latrell, who went from try assister to try scorer, leaping in front of Garrick to conclude a superb kick chase with Souths’ sixth.

This had been a rough period for the stand-in fullback – a painful reminder of Turbo’s absence – and a rough period for Manly full stop, since the Bunnies had put in an absolute clinic, clocking up the biggest halftime lead of 2020 when Reynolds added another two points to make it 38-0 on the cusp of half time. Even Bennett was smiling, and continued to smile after the Bunnies returned from the break, when they forced the Sea Eagles into another six minutes off defence, thanks in part to another error from Funa, this time a dangerous hit two minutes in.

Nevertheless, the Sea Eagles scored their first try of the night at the fifty minute mark, building field position quickly with a pair of good linebreaks – the first from Taufua on the left side of the park, and the second from Sironen on the right, where he collected a brilliant wide ball from DCE, slid through Murray and Campbell and popped a short one out for Jack Gosiewski to slam down the first four.

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This was a good try, but the critical difference was that Manly couldn’t capitalise or build momentum, as Garrick missed the conversion – a pretty stark contrast to Reynolds – and DCE seemed spooked by the scoreline, making an error early in the restart after taking a falcon from Cust a couple of minutes before. A bad ten minutes now ensued, who was put on report for a dangerous tackle, and then made a further handling error, eventually heading off the field for Mark Nicholls, right as Funa made another mistake on the back of a much-needed Manly restart.

Once again, though, the Sea Eagles seemed to pull a try out of nowhere, as DCE stepped up by shaping to kick short only to chip the footy out to the right wing.  A simple miss from Graham was all it took for Garrick to catch it on the full and weave his way behind the posts to guarantee himself the conversion. DCE should have been going head to head with Reynolds in the battle of the halfbacks, so this was a good rallying point for the Sea Eagles, even if they were still 28 points behind with a little under a quarter of the game to go.

Yet the Bunnies hit back hard, putting down a terrific trio of tries to rival their string of points in the first quarter. The floodgates opened again when DCE booted through the highest bomb of the year, only to find the bounce favouring Paulo, sliding away from any of the oncoming Manly defenders and giving the Bunnies some breathing-space as they packed the scrum.

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They got a restart midway through the next set, Cook took a strong carry on the third to get his men eleven out, and Reynolds recovered a ricocheted Walker kick to establish a fresh set right on the line. Latrell now stepped into the spotlight, ferrying the footy across the field, and almost scoring beneath the posts, before Cook built on his momentum to snatch the ball out of dummy half, head left and then flick it back to Tevita Tatola, who burrowed through four Manly defenders to slam down his first try of the 2020 season.

Reynolds slotted through his easiest conversion of the night, and booted through a 40/20 attempt that Taufua tried to pop back into touch with the tips of his right hands. Everything started to collapse for Manly after he missed it – DCE’s frustration started to show when he made a blatant professional foul on Bayley SIronen, the Bunnies got a restart, and Tatola tried to twist and spin exactly where he had just scored. Walker nearly broke through the line on the third play, Burgess drew in four defenders on the fourth, and Funa made his last mistake of the game by knocking on a Cook grubber in goal.

Four tackles later, Mark Nicholls collected a short ball from Cook, and basically used Funa and Cust as padding for an offload that saw Latrell gather the Steeden into his chest and slam through two more defenders to score. Reyno added his last conversion, and came off the park at fifty points, as Patrick Mago subbed on for the last seven minutes, which started with the final South Sydney try.

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This was all Walker, who kicked on the last and then recovered the footy from Waddell to get yet another fresh set for the Bunnies, eventually finding himself on the left edge, where he considered going it alone, but instead opted for a short grubber that offered Murray some of the best ball handling of his career. Watching the slow motion replay, it was even more incredible that he managed to get a hand to the ball with Garrick trying to knock it out, bring Souths to a staggering 56 when Latrell added the tenth conversion.

The Bunnies of 2020 had now scored the most points by a South Sydney outfit against Manly in 1954, and their biggest win margin since 2005, while this also marked the first time since 2005 that a Des Hasler coached side has conceded more than a half century. By the last two minutes, they had 41 tackles in the opposition twenty, as opposed to just 3 from the Sea Eagles, and had clocked up 1569 to 1048 run metres.

Manly got a bit of joy when Latrell coughed up a late DCE kick, packing the scrum as quickly as possible so that Daly could kick immediately – a deft chip over the South Sydney defence that set up Garrick to beat both Walker and Murray and then convert his own try with less than a minute left on the clock. Even this consolation try probably wouldn’t have stopped the flow of points, however, if the Bunnies had any more time to play with, so the end couldn’t come soon enough for a sorry Sea Eagles outfit who are missing the key playmakers in their backline more than ever.

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They’ll need to dig deep when they take on a Storm outfit desperate to prove themselves after being held scoreless by Parramatta earlier in Round 15, while the Bunnies’ match against Parra will be a brilliant litmus test for how well both teams can play finals footy in 2020.

About Billy Stevenson (488 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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