Josh Jackson became the thirteenth Bulldog to play 200 games for the club when he led his men into battle against the Bunnies on Thursday night, galvanising them into a 26-16 win from the bottom of the ladder. Nick Meaney was out an hour before kickoff and Dean Britt a day before kickoff, while the Rabbitohs had Hame Sele back on the bench and Jaxson Paulo on the wing to replace Dane Gagai, who was still suspended following his fracas against the Wests Tigers.
The Dogs started with a series of big hit-ups, and a Lachlan Lewis bomb halfway down the park, as Corey Allan continued to prove his mettle in Latrell Mitchell’s absence by catching it on the full for the Rabbits’ first carry. Adam Reynolds hoisted it even higher at the end of the set, and the Bunnies amped up their defence, dragging Dallin Watene Zeleniak back about five metres, and preventing Jackson moving too far up the middle.
Cameron Murray got his men some more field position with a late offload to Cody Walker a minute later, but the Bulldogs survived, albeit trapped in their own end the entire set, forcing Lewis to improvise a nice kick on the go from just outside the forty. Finally, Souths got a significant burst when Jeremy Marshall-King was pinged for a hand on the footy, and shifted left two plays later, where another late offload, this time from Steven Marsters, got Alex Johnston within a metre of the line.
Reynolds ended with an overlong kick for Walker that Will Hopoate was able to shepherd over the dead ball line – a good letoff for the Dogs, who received the first restart off a Murray ruck error a tackle later. Hoppa sailed a harbour bridge ball out to Okunbor on play four, but the visitors still had to rely on a crossfield kick from Lewis. Marsters leaped up and fumbled it, and Chris Smith scooped it up and crossed over, but try turned into penalty when Walker was pinged for an escorts on Reimis Smith.
Last week the Dogs lost momentum by opting for two penalty kicks against Manly, so it was strange to see Jake Averillo set up the tee now. Yet it didn’t do much to dent Canterbury’s momentum, since they followed with one of their best sets, from a huge collision between Aiden Tolman and Luke Burgess on the first, to a terrific kick and chase from Lewis that trapped the Bunnies right on the South Sydney line.
Tolman was just as strong in defence, barging into Campbell Graham at the start of the next set to force the Rabbitohs’ first error. Reimis Smith got a neat offload away to Hoppa just after the call of held, and Tolman took another huge tackle on the third, only for Averillo to crumple into the defence a play later. Canterbury had to rely on Lewis’ boot again – and it delivered, as another dangerous crossfield kick forced Johnston to pop it into touch with DWZ at his heels.
No surprise that Tolman took the first hit-up, or that Raymond Faitala-Mariner built on his momentum by almost bursting through Damien Cook on the line, before Tim Lafai scored off another kinetic sequence beneath the high ball. Paulo made contact first, knocking it back past Okunbor to Lafai, who collected it on the full and pivoted over Paulo, while Reynolds and Graham piled on top, somehow managing to get a palm free to slam down his 50th try in his 170th match.
This was tough stuff from Canterbury, capped off by a beautifully weighted sideline kick from Averillo to put them eight-nil. Luke Thompson almost smashed straight through the defence on play one of the restart, as the Bulldogs grooved into their fastest set so far – too fast, as it turned out, since Graham got revenge for conceding the first error by stripping the footy from Lafai in his first touch after his try.
Souths channeled the speed of this set when Murray brought the footy right to the line – and channeled the misplaced speed when Burgess got too eager a play later. Receiving a short one from Cook, the big man pivoted around an ankle tap from Tolman, and twisted through a combined tackle from Lewis and Jackson. He should have ended it there, but reached out his right hand and lost the footy in the process.
Meanwhile, JMK had copped an elbow in the face from Raymond Faitala-Mariner during the tackle on Murray, and left the park for an HIA as Sione Katoa subbed on earlier than expected. Lewis was the next to go down, thanks to an utterly bone-rattling tackle from Jaydn Su’A that would have been one of the hits of the season if the big second-rower hadn’t been sent to the bin for dangerous contact, while Lewis followed JMK with an HIA as Brandon Wakeham came off the bench.
In real time, it looked like Su’A and Lewis had gone shoulder to shoulder, and that the damage had been done when the Canterbury halfback’s head hit the ground, but it was a bit more ambiguous during the Bunker replay. In any case, the Dogs didn’t take long to capitalise on Su’A’s absence, as Thompson popped a late offload for Averillo to almost plough through Walker, and Johnston tried to intercept a decelerating wide ball from Katoa to Hoppa, but knocked it on instead.
The Dogs now set up their second tough putdown, as Reimis Smith received the footy out of the scrum, barged through Walker five metres out, and then continued his momentum as Marsters joined the tackle. By this stage he was running hard and fast enough to make it to the try line, getting the footy down clean under his right elbow before Averillo booted through his second conversion and third kick of the night.
Canterbury were now in peak flow, settling into their fastest and cleanest restart yet. Jackson got them rolling by shifting the footy on play one to Okunbor, who got away from Reynolds, bumped off Allan, and was at the Bunnies’ forty by the time that Paulo and Cook got to him. Okunbor came up with another good decision under the high ball – collecting it clean this time and then popping it across to RMF to scoot around Reynolds and bring the Dogs to a twenty-point lead once Averillo converted.
This was a real indictment on South Sydney’s right edge defence, especially since the Dogs were escalating again as Su’A came down the tunnel. Yet the rhythm changed when RMF went for the latest offload of the game, only to turn the ball back to the Bunnies, who got a restart immediately, and another a tackle later. With Wakeham pinged for a dangerous tackle, the Bunnies had their best accumulation of field position all night – at the very moment that Su’A returned to the park.
They needed to score spectacularly or clinically here, and went for clinical – a rapid right sweep from Reynolds through Su’A for Paulo to get on the outside of Lafai. The touch judge didn’t raise any concerns, so the try was awarded, but the replay showed Paulo’s right boot sliding over the sideline before he got the footy down, begging the question of whether the Bunker should have denied the try, as Reyno missed his first conversion to keep the Bunnies to four.
Johnston stepped into the spotlight with the next collect, making his way to the thirty and booting the footy at speed, as Allan and JMK converged on it in goal. This would have been one of the most memorable South Sydney tries of 2020 if it had come off – an assist off the high ball – but the replay clearly showed that Allan had obstructed JMK with a push in the back, and had knocked the ball on anyway before turning around and getting it to ground.
The Dogs almost had another prodigious moment under the high ball when Okunbor tapped a Wakeham kick back to Lafai, who responded with a deft chip that Tolman chased down. Allan’s ability to secure it galvanised Souths into one of their best sets so far, as Jed Cartwright almost broke through the line, Jackson made a heroic effort to prevent a Walker offload, conceding a penalty in the process, and Mark Nicholls got his men a restart before Reynolds commenced another rapid shift to the right.
This time the try was legitimate, as Graham became the first Bunny in five years to score in six successive games, following his doubles against Manly, Parra and Wests with a try on the cusp of half time. Full credit goes to Allan, too, who scooped up the footy from his bootlaces for an offload that ensured his no. 3 had enough space to effectively cross over untouched. This time Reynolds added the extras, making it a ten point game as both teams headed to the sheds.
After such a dense second quarter the tryscoring dried up in the second stanza, partly because South Sydney came back much stronger, relying heavily on second phase phase to spook Canterbury with two missed tries. First, Graham twisted and spun through a swathe of blue and white jerseys, reaching out his right arm but bringing the footy down on the boot of Hoppa, who inadvertently provided one of the most critical trysavers of the match.
Murray was the next to almost crash over, finding himself with the footy right on the line and only Jackson left as last line of defence. Twisting and spinning through the Canterbury captain, he only made contact with the upper torso, meaning that Jackson didn’t have much to work with, which made it all the more incredible when he managed to prevent the four points – especially since he only conceded a penalty rather than a professional foul.
Nevertheless, it felt inevitable when the South Sydney spine secured the next try, as Reynolds started with a clinical pass to Walker – just enough steps to engage the inside defenders – who responded with the best cut-out pass of the game, sailing the Steeden across the chests of Cartwright and Hopoate, who never stood a chance of stopping Johnston from crashing over for his 50th try at ANZ. Reyno capped it off with his best sideline conversion of the game, which hung in the balance with only a try difference.
The Bunnies had two big challenges over the next seven minutes, starting with what initially seemed like a serious injury for Walker, who slid onto the turf to collect the ball as Thompson tumbled over his left leg, twisting it away from his body at an awkward angle. Luckily, it was only a cork, but Walker had to get back into first gear immediately, since the Dogs now accelerated into their first real excursion into South Sydney’s half since returning from the break.
It started with Okunbor collecting a parabola ball from Hoppa halfway up the park and making his best metres along the sideline since Jackson sent him into open space in the first stanza. Allan finally brought him to ground, but with a restart the Dogs were in the ten by the first tackle, where JMK tried to smash over out of dummy half, and Reynolds made the first of several big efforts on RMF during this last part of the game to prevent the big second-rower from crossing over.
This was the best scrambling defence of the night and yet the Bunnies couldn’t replicate it when the Dogs got their next burst of field position off a handling error from Su’A halfway up the field. On two successive sets the big men found it hard to make metres and Wakeham’s boot saved them both times – first by trapping Johnston right behind the line for a dropout, and then when Johnston leaped up to pop the football back in goal, where it bounced a metre out from the dead ball line.
Chris Smith had missed a try in the first stanza but he wasn’t going to be denied his debut here, somersaulting the Steeden down before careening over the dead ball line into touch. It had been a bad pair of plays on the South Sydney line from Johnston, who had also tripped while trying to beat Smith to the ball at the last. Conversely, it had been a testament to Wakeham’s organisation from the halves, as he took over goal kicking duties to bring the Dogs to their final score of 26-16.
South Sydney came close to a spectacular comeback a minute later, when Allan broke through the line and shifted the Steeden across to Cook, who offloaded on the ground for Cartwright. It was all open space as Cartwright made a beeline from the ten, as Hoppa came up with the trysaver of the game, slamming in from the left edge for a last-ditch tackle that rattled the football free, denying the big no. 15 his first NRL try.
With six minutes left on the clock, the Bulldogs had completed 32/35 – 91% – and were peaking in defence, and while Johnston broke through the line seventeen seconds out, the Bunnies never scored another point. With only their third win of the year, Canterbury have jumped over the Broncos to 15th on the ladder. Like 2019, they’re ending the season with a glimmer of what they can achieve next year if they manage to consolidate during the off-season.