With Newcastle beating the Sharks earlier the same evening, the Rabbitohs were sitting on 7th, and had a chance to make it to 5th, when they hosted the Storm at ANZ on Friday night. Melbourne only had one loss in their last ten matches, and Souths had won their last four, so it was anyone’s game, coming down to a single converted try with an eventual 16-24 win to the purple army, after an opening quarter where neither team managed to score a four-pointer.
Dane Gagai had been ruled out after training, with Steven Marsters in his place, while Alex Johnston was cleared from his head knock to don the fullback jersey after Latrell Mitchell had been ruled out of the season following his ruptured hamstring against the Eels last week. On the other side of the Steeden, Kenny Bromwich was back from a calf injury, and Nelson Asofa-Solomona was out with a calf injury, bringing Tino Faasuamaleaui on in his place, while Brenko Lee was at centre with Marion Seve out.
The South Sydney forwards flexed their muscles on the first set, rolling down the middle third, and the Storm did the same, despite Josh Ado-Carr collecting Cam Murray’s boot in the eye for the first carry. Melbourne drifted towards the right side of the park late in the tackle count, where Corey Allan let the first kick bounce, but the Bunnies didn’t lose too much headway, as Adam Reynolds forced Ryan Papenhuyzen to accelerate unexpectedly to avoid a potential 40/20 on their own right edge.
Souths got the first restart on their next set, off a ruck error from Jahrome Hughes, and then the first penalty, when Cam Smith was pinged for a high hit on Cam Murray. They opted to take the two, and Reynolds booted it through, while Jesse Bromwich was take off for an HIA, after copping some friendly fire from Christian Welch, forcing Darryn Schonig on earlier than expected. Things got worse for the Storm when Smith’s kick went wide, and Johnston stretched out a boot over the sideline to get it on the full.
The Bunnies thus had another burst of field position, and continued to work it up the middle, where Melbourne continued to concede more metres. Some hesitation from Cody Walker about whether to shift the footy right cost them some momentum, but they recouped it on the left edge, where Damien Cook grubbered to trap Papenhuyzen in goal. Full credit to Tom Burgess and Bayley Sironen for the last two tackles too, where they disposed twice of Welch, who now had blood streaming down his face.
Burgess took the first hit-up of the dropout, and Cook found twenty metres down the middle, as the Bunnies shifted all this speed and strength to the right wing, only for Cam Munster to spearhead a massive pack effort to drag Jaxson Paulo into touch. The purple army got their first penalty on the very next play, when Murray was called offside within the ten, and settled into their first big attack, as Schonig followed Bromwich off the field for an HIA of his own, and Albert Vete came off the bench.
Papenhuyzen managed to secure the kick, the Bunnies were waiting for him in defence, getting their next penalty by forcing an offside error from big Tino, although Papi proved just as good at the end of the next set, cleaning up Reynolds’ grubber amidst a sea of South Sydney jerseys. Fifteen minutes had passed without a try, and then twenty, as each team searched for the mistake, moment or one-man effort that would break the game wide open.
For a second it looked like Melbourne had found their chance when Munster effected a one-on-one strip on Allan at the twenty-metre mark. Papenhuyzen surged up the right edge, and Lee competed with Johnston for a Hughes grubber, claiming that the South Sydney fullback had knocked it forward for Isaac Lumelume to score in the corner. Yet the replay showed Johnston had applied the pressure perfectly, inducing the ex-Bulldog to knock the footy on ever so slightly before his winger got to it.
This was the biggest turning-point of the game so far, and Souths made the most of it, with Walker finding space for Johnston up the left sideline, before Cook grubbered to the left corner, where Lumelume followed his missed try by conceding one to Campbell Graham. In his best single play of the year, Graham overtook Lumelume from ten metres behind, and reached his hand down beneath Lumelume’s knees, applying just enough downward motion to ratify the on-field call of try before tumbling into touch.
This was also one of the most spectacular South Sydney tries all year – almost unbelievable in slow motion, as Graham seemed to defy gravity to swim beneath Lumelume right at the death. Reynolds made it 21/22 with the ANZ kicks in 2020, but had to leave the park a moment later for an HIA. Meanwhile, the Storm were really starting to scramble, as the cardinal and myrtle received their second six again on the restart, and focused their attention on their left-side attack once more.
Finally, Lumelume got some joy, combining with Papenhuyzen to drag Johnston into touch, and so steadying the Storm as Mark Nicholls and Keon Koloamatangi subbed on to add some fresh blood to the South Sydney side. There was a brief pause in play after Justin Olam went down, and for a moment it seemed to favour the Bunnies, as Graham leaped up to knock Walker’s kick back to him, only for Papenhuyzen to position him perfectly to contain Walker’s second shot with the boot.
The Storm got a restart shortly after, off a ruck error from Liam Knight, and Papenhuyzen stayed in the spotlight, starting a left sweep on the second play, before putting down exactly the elastic try his men needed to get back in the game. Ado-Carr received a no-look catch-and-pass from Kenny Bromwich, and accelerated out of a Marsters ankle tap before curving back inside and popping the footy back in to Papi, who culminated this splendid sequence by defying Sironen to cruise over untouched.
After a slow start, the game escalated quickly, with two more tries in the last five minutes. Smith got another kick wrong with a grubber that initially looked perfect for a dropout, but turned out to be overlong when Paulo had the courage to shepherd it into touch. The South Sydney halves now stepped into the spotlight, starting with Reyno, just back from his HIA, who danced into the line and shifted the Steeden mercurially from palm to palm before getting it over to Walker seventeen metres out.
Walker hit the ball at speed, accelerating past low tackles from Hughes, Papenhuyzen and Welch for a putdown that fused the best of a long-range and short-range try, before Reynolds booted through another two to restore the Rabbitohs’ eight point lead. With this try, Walker had now scored against every team in the competition – a good rallying point for the Bunnies on the brink of half time, as the rain started to pour down over Sydney Olympic Park.
The slippery Steeden got the best of Liam Knight, and prevented the Rabbits getting to the end of their restart, as the Storm we all know and fear stepped up, scoring in the final forty seconds with a reprise of their previous left-side raid. This time Papenhuyzen went from scorer to assister, burning up the left, dummying inside to Marsters, and fending off Reynolds with his right palm, before shooting the footy back across Marsters’ chest for Olam to trample through Allan and smash down four more.
Smith missed the conversion but it was still only a four point game when both teams returned from the sheds to a sodden field, and an even heavier Storm. Allan started with a spectacular slide-and-catch beneath the first high ball, and Reynolds got another penalty goal to get the back forty rolling, off another dangerous tackle, this time a crusher effort from Welch. Yet these would be the last points Souths scored all night, as Melbourne kept them out from here, and put down two more tries of their own.
As with the opening half, though, we had to wait until the twenty-minute mark – or near enough – for the first try, as Melbourne spent the third quarter waging a war of attrition, gradually wearing down a South Sydney defence that had remained pretty staunch until the last minute of the first forty. Koloamatangi had a particularly rough patch just after the penalty kick, losing the Steeden to a Jesse Bromwich strip and becoming the fifth player to go off for an HIA after ricocheting off Welch’s hip.
Yet the tipping-point was a pair of penalties from Reynolds (offside) and Murray (hand in the ruck), along with a dropout for the Storm fifteen minutes later. Chris Lewis and Jesse Bromwich didn’t pose huge problems for the South Sydney defence, so the next big man’s run was a testament to Smith, who sent a beautifully timed pass out of dummy half to big Tino, bending to his knees just as he sent the ball in front of Tevita Tatola so that his lock could collect it low and burrow his way through through Sironen.
Tino took the first hit-up on the restart, but even a huge combined tackle from Burgess and Jaydn Su’A, and a follow-up effort from Su’A on Jesse Bromwich, couldn’t prevent the Storm consolidating here. Tino went down hard to Reynolds, Sironen and Burgess on the last, and became the next player to receive an HIA a minute later, bringing Welch back onto the park, but the Storm now had enough cohesion to survive the reshuffle, which was fortunate as Jesse Bromwich was subbed off at the same time.
Su’A wasn’t as strong in attack, knocking it on next time the Bunnies had ball in hand, bringing them down to 44% completion – just four sets in the second half – compared to the Storm’s 92%. Graham regathered by dragging Papenhuyzen over the sideline on play one of the next set, for what should have been play on for Johnston, but the Storm hit back just as hard, as Lee cleaned up Walker casually on the left edge, and Reynolds bombed too far for Papenhuyzen to collect the footy on the full behind the chalk.
Allan had another great clutch effort on the grass a moment later, and while Reyno’s kick was better this time, the Fox brought it back from the thirty with ease, holding his own up the middle to clear up space for the big men. Chris Lewis made five post-contact metres on the third, Munster had a half-break on the fourth, and Papenhuyzen built on a sublime dummy half pass from Smith to send his five-eighth through Patrick Mago to score on the final play, putting Melbourne ahead for the first time all night.
The Bunnies got their last big chance ten minutes out, when a driving tackle from Knight rattled the footy out of Welch’s grasp. Graham made two great surges at the line, Hughes conceded an offside penalty, and the Rabbits shifted left, where Johnston flung the ball back inside for the Storm to intercept in goal. Successive errors from Walker whittled away what little South Sydney momentum remained, despite a successful Captain’s Challenge, and they were unable to take the game to golden point.
While Melbourne had dominated the second half, this was still a sobering game by Craig Bellamy’s standards, so they’ll be looking for earlier points, and more consistent scoring, when they host the Cowboys on the Sunshine Coast next week. The Bunnies will be looking to do the same, and bounce back from an agonizingly close loss, when they host the Tigers at Bankwest for the first match of Round 18 on Thursday night, since they would have won here if they’d continued the tough stuff of the first half.