ROUND 18: Wests Tigers v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (Bankwest Stadium, 10/9/20)
The Tigers had a remarkably close game against the Rabbitohs on Thursday night, since both teams put down four tries and four conversions, with only an Adam Reynolds penalty goal making the difference for a 24-26 win to South Sydney. It was an even better result in that the Tiges had conceded more than 30 points in four of their last five fixtures, and had reshuffled their backline with Moses Mbye and Joey Leilua out for knee and ankle injuries, forcing Adam Doueihi to return to the fullback jersey.
On the other side of the Steeden, Dane Gagai was back from a hamstring injury on the wing, and Souths had a slight change in the forward pack, with Tevita Tatola out, Liam Knight starting off the bench, and Keon Koloamatangi also on the bench pending HIA results. The Bunnies had to win this game to cement their finals football push – and they had a good boost with Alex Johnston committing to the club for another two years during the week, even if he didn’t score a try during this particular match.
Luke Brooks got to the first kick pretty easily, and Gagai cleaned it up just as easily, while Asu Kepaoa did well under a considerably harder opening bomb from Adam Reynolds. Benji Marshall took the next Tigers kick, and this time Gags allowed it to head into touch rather than contend with a tricky bounce, resulting in the first scrum three minutes in. Gagai was big at the end of the next set too, forcing Kepaoa to knock a Reynolds grubber into touch for a South Sydney scrum at the ten.
Tom Burgess charged into Harry Grant and Alex Twal at the left padding, and Liam Knight drew in five defenders on the right, but Cody Walker knocked on a Cam Murray pass on play three, and, while Chris Lawrence scooped it up, he didn’t quite have the agility to go all the way. Still, this was a pretty consistent opening for what would be a pretty consistent game, as Brooks consolidated with a half-break midway up the park, before hoisting it high once again, putting big pressure on Corey Allan to secure it.
Reynolds showed he could run the footy on the next set too, shifting it right for a short side play that ended with Tommy Talau making the clutchiest catch of the match to clean up a Walker grubber. Gagai caught another Brooks bomb, and Kepaoa secured another Reynolds bomb, as the ten minute mark came and went, and both teams searched for the mistake or moment that would break this early deadlock wide open.
It turned out to be a loose carry from Alex Twal, followed by a ruck error from Grant, and the first restart for South Sydney. This was all the Bunnies needed, as Gagai consolidated a big opening ten minutes by scoring the first try in his return match, receiving a catch-and-pass from Walker to get on the outside of Talau, at the end of the Rabbitohs’ first right sweep. Full credit goes to Reynolds and Jaydn Su’A for the pair of passes that set it all up, bringing them to six once Reyno add the extras.
The Rabbits really accelerated through the restart, but Reynolds took it too quickly, aiming for a 40/20 but instead sending it out on the full – a rare error with the boot that resettled the more consistent rhythm of the opening ten minutes. For a moment it looked like the Tiges would replicated South Sydney’s right-side raid then and there, only for Lawrence to put down a flat pass from Doueihi under big pressure from Liam Knight, as Benji decelerated with an apparent leg problem out on the right edge.
Reynolds compensated for his last kick with one of his highest and sharpest so far, trapping Doueihi right on the line and allowing the chase to build up enough steam to almost drag David Nofoaluma into touch on the second play. Brooks couldn’t get it too far on the last, and Burgess had already run over fifty metres by the time he took the ball again, after nearly skittling Benji on his previous run. With Walker assisting another right-side run from Gagai, this looked like it might be a consolidation set for Souths.
Instead, Nofa collected Reyno’s chip without much difficulty, and got the first Tigers offload to Doueihi two plays later, cleaning up space for Brooksy to give Aloiai more metres up the middle. Brooks’ kick was also better this time, but Johnston was safe, and so the game returned to deadlock once again. Ironically, the winning penalty kick also broke the stalemate here, although not immediately, ushering in two Souths tries in the next ten minutes, and two Tigers tries in the ten minutes before half time.
Reynolds booted through the two after a ball strip from Aloiai, and the Bunnies finally got into first gear on the next set, thanks in large part to a scintillating pair of runs from Liam Knight on the first and third carries. Murray followed his momentum up the middle on the third, laying a good platform for Walker to break through Luke Garner, accelerate past Benji, and shift the Steeden across to Allan five metres out from the chalk, as Doueihi surged in as last line of Wests Tigers defence.
After struggling to find consistency in the first stanza, the Bunnies now scored again on their second successive restart. This time the critical play came up the left edge, where Allan caught-and-passed for Johnston to make forty metres up the sideline before popping it back in for Graham, who crossed over untouched to make it seven tries in five games – the best tally of his career. Reynolds added the third goal of the night, and so South Sydney skyrocketed from a six point lead to an eighteen point lead.
Yet the Bunnies didn’t build so well on the next set, as a Steven Marsters offside and then a Koloamatangi error set up Wests to consolidate into the first dropout of the match. Marsters helped them out again by conceding the second South Sydney penalty as well (dangerous tackle), while Brooksy’s decision to run the footy on the fourth paid immediately dividends, since his close-range attack set up Garner to get some joy after letting Walker through, by putting down his own four-pointer on the right edge.
It was a good hard run from the big no. 11, who collected the footy from Grant and went in low on Graham, using the brunt of the tackle to keep the Steeden secured under his right arm before finally come to ground. Doueihi would have a very strong night with the boot, adding the first of four conversions here to narrow the deficit to twelve points, before the Tigers showed South Sydney that they could score just as clinically off the restart, this time with the help of a Patrick Mago ruck error three tackles in.
Benji was the key playmaker here, culminating a left sweep with a beautiful cut-out ball to Talau, who also read the play perfectly, taking advantage of a decoy run from Leilua to build up enough speed to defy Gagai right on the line, rolling through the big no. 5 and then over the line to put down the second Wests Tigers try. Both players who had conceded tries to the Bunnies had now scored tries of their own, so there was an air of a Wests Tigers comeback here, especially give their win over Manly last week.
It was a small victory for the Tigers, then, that the first ten minutes back from the break mirrored the first ten minutes of the game, as the Rabbitohs failed to find a way to extend their eight point lead any further. As with the first half too, we reached a tipping-point ten minutes in, but the adrenalin overtook the pointscoring here, momentarily quenching each team in one of the most volatile sequences in weeks.
Nine minutes in, the Tiges were just relaxing into their most promising set since the sheds when Gagai executed the best intercept of the 2020 season, reaching out a fingertip to collect a Talau pass, and actually fumbling it far forward, only to stretch his whole body out to catch it on the turf. This was high ball skill translated directly into intercept skill, as Gags built on his brilliance in the backline to pull off the play of the game.
From there, Gagai made his way up the right sideline, swerving back in field to elude Doueihi, and bumping off Grant before coming to ground under pressure from Nofoaluma. All that adrenalin had to go somewhere, though, and so Twal was sent to the bin for holding down a moment later, while Gagai took out his frustration by sending the Steeden off Brooks’ head midway through the next Tigers set, inducing the normally mild-mannered halfback to aim a punch square at his chin.
For a second it looked like we might be in for thirteen on eleven, but Gagai was also sent off the park for his troubles too. If he’d redirected his energy more productively, he might have galvanised South Sydney into a spectacular try despite not going all the way himself, but his absence from the field absorbed some of the Bunnies’ volatile momentum over the next couple of sets, meaning they were unable to follow the first half by consolidating at the ten minute mark here.
If anything, they needed a clean, clinical try to restore their cool – and they got it after a Murray linebreak set up their first dropout of the match. The halves now stepped up and steadied the ship, as Reynolds shifted it right after a big dummy out the back, and Walker followed with a deft double pump, positioning Graham to sail around Talau to put down a try in the corner. Just as the Gagai-Brooks punch-up had introduced a new atmosphere fifty minutes in, this superb play had a calming influence sixty minutes in.
Brooks wasn’t going to stand for that, though, continuing his rage with a try under the posts just after returning from the bin. His big playmakers sense his drive and stepped up to support him, starting with a superb play from Benji, who ran deep into the line, and got the kick away just as Walker made the tackle – so close the Bunker had to check whether it was played at – before scooping up the Steeden again and flicking it out to Nofoaluma, who headed back in field and kicked at speed towards the crossbars.
As the Steeden split the difference between Allan and Reynolds, Brooks stormed in, bumped it off the right knee, and scored the fifth try of the game, building beautifully on Nofa’s assist while also providing a little self-assist of his own. This was one of Brooksy’s best sequences in weeks – he should get this fired up more often – and cemented this second stanza as a carbon copy of Wests’ epic comeback against the Sea Eagles last week, as Souths dug in to withstand the last passage of their attack.
In keeping with the spirit of this particular game, the Tigers scored again quickly – not on the restart, but on their very next set, when a dangerous tackle from Knight allowed Benji to make good on the left-side raid his men had been raring for all night. Doueihi’s earlier wide pass had bounced through Kepaoa’s legs, but Benji’s no-look harbour bridge ball found his no. 5 on the chest. Despite last-ditch tackles from Cartwright and Allan, Kepaoa managed to keep both legs in the air as his right arm slid over the chalk.
Doueihi capped it off with his best ever conversion from the sideline, curving the footy away at the last minute, while the Tiges got another boon when Johnston put down a certain try after Graham intercepted a Nofoaluma pass two sets later. The second field intercept try of the night from South Sydney should have fueled the home team into another four points on the restart, but Brooks’ adrenalin got the better of him now, as he booted Burgess in the hand after failing to secure an Elijah Taylor offload.
Neither team would get another try, although the Tigers came agonizingly close right on the brink of full time, when Talau collected another wide ball from Benji, broke through the line, and skittled Reynolds, only for Gagai to storm in and save the day by rattling the ball free. When the siren sounded, the Tiges had missed a second sublime comeback with their eleventh loss of 2020, while the Bunnies had their eleventh win, and a more secure handle on finals footy as they prepare for the Dogs next Thursday.
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