ROUND 20: South Sydney Rabbitohs v. Sydney Roosters (ANZ Stadium, 25/9/20)
No side had scored more points since Round 12 than Souths, and no team had scored more over the regular season than the Roosters, when these traditional rivals met for wet-weather footy on Friday night. The Bunnies proceeded to put in an absolute clinic – the first in a trio of underwhelming Sydney City performances, and a trio of slightly subpar performances from James Tedesco in particular, that would doom their premiership hopes.
That said, the Chooks were the first to score three minutes in, when Angus Crichton stripped the footy from Campbell Graham early in the Bunnies’ second set. Graham clashed heads with Jake Friend in the process, forcing the Sydney City hooker off for an HIA (replaced by Lachlan Lam). Sydney regathered immediately after the pause in play, with Crichton adding attack to defence with a hard run at the posts, and Josh Morris collecting a short ball at Teddy to make a beeline for the corner.
This was a superb try in slow motion – a big right hand fend to deflect Graham, and then an equally big left arm action to get the footy away from Jaxson Paulo when Morris came to ground a metre and a half out. Kyle Flanagan shanked the kick away to the left of the posts, but this soft defence from Souths suggested we might be in for a reprise of the Roosters’ win in Round 3, possibly with an even bigger win margin, especially since the Tricolours had now scored first in 10/11 against South Sydney.
They did well at the end of the restart, with Luke Keary getting to a second kick after the Rabbitohs stuffed up the first high ball, forcing Alex Johnston to take it into touch on the right side of the park. Crichton’s offload on the second tackle was loose, but Jared Waerea-Hagreave’s was tighter on the fourth, opening up space for Keary to thread it through the line for a second successive dropout once Paulo made a clutch play to tap it over the left sideline before Morris could put down a double.
This time Adam Reynolds went short and the Bunnies got it back, setting them up for a tryscoring sequence that would last the rest of the match, even if Cody Walker started with an awkwardly timed pass that Johnston only just cleaned up. They only made eleven metres this set, but Reynolds got a pretty good kick at the end, while the match swung further back their way when the Roosters had an agonizingly spectacular near-try at the end of their next bout of possession.
This would have been a consolidation moment if the Chooks had pulled it off, since it was effectively an intensification of their previous play. Tedesco ran even further and deeper into the line, this time from long range, and got an even shorter pass across to Morris on the wing. The difference this time was a beautiful one-handed pass from Morris that soared out of the left palm, arcing over Corey Allan’s head to put Keary over the chalk, only for the pass to be called forward.
So dramatic was this reversal that it galvanised Walker into the first South Sydney linebreak, and the fastest play from the Bunnies all night, allowing him to send Graham deep into the right corner. Walker bookended this play on the third, collecting a good ball from Reyno, who had run deep into the line, and completing Graham’s trajectory to cross over on the right edge and curve around behind the posts for the fiftieth try of his career.
With Reynolds adding the first conversion of the game the Bunnies were two ahead, and while six on the board looked pretty good after the Roosters’ strong start, they’d magnify that by a factor of ten by the time the match was over. Speaking of sixes, they got six again on the restart, forcing the Chooks to work the footy back from their own end next set, as word came back from the sheds that Friend was out for the night with a possible cheek fracture.
The Bunnies scored on their next set with an elegantly direct play – a strong run up the left edge from Johnston, who looked set to go all the way the moment he received the footy from Dane Gagai, popping it inside to Bayley Sironen for the split second it took to slice past Teddy before recovering it to cruise across in the corner. The buildup was also great from Walker, who shifted it across to Gagai under immense pressure from the defence, for what was effectively a long-range try assist.
Reynolds added the extras from right in front and came up with his best kick to finish the restart – a long-range effort that looked set to slide over the sideline only to careen back in field, forcing Teddy to really scramble to clean it up. Graham almost scored a moment later, rolling through Keary and Daniel Tupou to get a hand out and down for what looked like a certain try, only for the Bunker to deem he’d lost possession into the Giraffe just before he made contact with the turf.
Walker didn’t take long to come up with another terrific try assist, stopping in the attacking line and actually retreating slightly to force Mitch Aubusson to come right in for the tackle – a distraction mechanism that paved the way for a beautiful cut-out pass to Johnston, who leaped up to catch it on the full and danced away from a Flanagan ankle tap in the wing. Walker had his 50th try, and now Johnston had his 100th, as Reynolds added another conversion and Sonny Bill Williams got ready to sub on.
South Sydney scored again on the restart, when Allan made his most decisive gesture at fullback to date – a barnstorming break down the right edge, where he kicked at speed off the left boot, sending the Steeden soaring over Tedesco into a sea of Rabbitohs, with Graham securing the bounce in both hands to get his try after all. Again, Reyno converted, and the Bunnies continued to build field position off a dropped ball from Nat Butcher, and then their first dropout of the night.
They got another hard call at the end of this set, when Walker shaped another terrific try assist, this time for Mark Nicholls, only for Keary to come in for an early tackle that ricocheted the footy out of the big frontrower’s grasp. Nevertheless, the ball only came off Keary’s shoulder, meaning that it was still live when Nicholls wrestled out of the tackle to ground it after it dribbled over the line, for what should have been a spectacular consolidation point just before half time.
Instead, this was called no try – and even more incredibly, there was no professional foul and sin bin, even if Reynolds’ penalty goal made this the most first half points that the Chooks have conceded since 2016 (also against the Rabbitohs). Even worse, Hame Sele made an unforced error after collecting the ball from Allan on the first tackle of the restart, while Nicholls made a ruck error to give the Roosters one last burst of field position before they headed to the sheds.
Just as Keary’s near-try had deflated the Tricolours in the first half, so this frustrated end to the first stanza put a pin in the Bunnies’ momentum for the first ten minutes back. Cam Murray knocked on a wayward pass from Cook, who made up for it with a superb no-look flick pass right on the line a set later, only for Nicholls to knock on. South Sydney are one of the worst in the comp for errors per game, and had a history of strong starts and poor finishes in 2020, so they needed to rebuild quickly now.
Six minutes in Reynolds chose to kick the ball over the sideline to get his men some breathing-space – and it worked, since they defended the next set well, holding up SBW in the middle halfway through the tackle count before Johnston came up with a brave take under the high ball, running smack into Matt Ikuvalu. Meanwhile, Sironen was taken off the field with an ankle injury, replaced by Jed Cartwright as the Rabbits started to glimpse the momentum that had carried them through the first half.
Walker’s next kick allowed Johnston to get his own back on Ikuvalu right on the Sydney City line, while a big combined effort from Graham and Keaon Koloamatangi forced a knock-on from Tedesco on play three. Seeing the star fullback make a rare error galvanised the Bunnies into their next try, off two great offloads from the halves. First, Reynolds stood in a Tupouniua tackle and fended off Butcher to get it out to Walker, then Walker twisted around a Cordner ankle tap to send it on for Allan to score.
Pirouetting around the Roosters’ big men, Reyno and Walker looked more like ballerinas than footy players here, dancing their team into a 32-4 lead once Reynolds added another conversion from right in front. They got six again on the restart, but Keary charged down Reynolds’ kick, only for Josh Morris to put it down a second later. If the next South Sydney tryscoring formation had come off I don’t think the Chooks would have scored again, as Cook and Paulo both fell short of a Reynolds grubber.
Crichton started with a deft offload out to Flanagan, who got it on to Tedesco in turn. Cartwright prevented Teddy getting a tackle bust on the back of it, but Faamausili still mirrored Crichton with a flick pass out the back, starting a rapid right sweep that ended with Tupou and Morris converging on a Keary grubber. Morris curved around to take stock of the play, but the Giraffe got the chocolates, reaching out his arm to get the footy down before both tumbled into touch.
With Flanagan missing the sideline conversion, the Chooks had doubled their score, going from four to eight, but incredibly the Rabbitohs responded by effectively doing the same, moving from 32 points to 60 points over the final quarter. Sonny Bill, Tedesco and Lam made muscular runs up the middle on the restart, and Cordner finished with a good kick off the left boot, yet Allan remained in the field of play, while the Bunnies got out of their own end with a high hit from Faamausili on Paulo a second later.
The game now paused briefly for Cook to get some attention after copping SBW’s knee in the face. He was good enough to take a big carry on tackle two when play resumed, and South Sydney scored on this same set, ushering in a clinic that lasted the rest of the game. Reynolds shaped to kick, only to shift it across to Graham, who took the kick instead – a grubber from the twenty that Walker scooped up at the ten and dummied out of Tupou’s reach to slam over in the right corner for a well-deserved double.
The Roosters had one last burst fourteen minutes out – a pair of one-handed passes that initially looked like it might be as remunerative as their previous pair of offloads. It all started with a rapid right sweep, as Keary popped the footy out of his left hand to Ikuvalu on the wing, and Lam sent it back just as quickly out of his left. Keary now opted for a two-hander back in to Tupouniua, who tapped it across to Flanagan, but the pass was called forward, as the Bunnies now settled into their best passage of play all year.
With only twelve minutes on the clock and four tries ahead of them, they scored two points per minute once the Chooks made their final concession with a trio of stuffs that reflected their poor game management this evening – an error in the play-the-ball from Crichton, an unsuccessful Captain’s Challenge to contest it, and a ruck error from Jared Waerea-Hargreaves that paved the way for arguably the freakiest try in South Sydney’s 2020 playbook.
It started with a Reynolds grubber that Josh Morris had two opportunities to scoop up and contain. He knocked it back both times, leaving the play open for Murray to slam in on top of him and make two efforts of his own to ground the footy. The first time he was still clambering over J-Moz, but the second time he achieved the seemingly impossible, reaching out both arms while the Sydney City centre was still square beneath him, and grounding the Steeden for the best try of his career to date.
If this spectacular play had come off a trio of Roosters chokes, the Bunnies showed that good things can come in threes on their next set, when a sublime sequence of offloads – from Knight, Tatola and Allan – set up Johnston for his third try of the night, putting South Sydney forty points ahead once Reynolds booted another one through the posts. Johnston wasn’t done either, putting down two more tries over the next five minutes to outpace Kyle Feldt as the top tryscorer in the 2020 season.
The restart saw South Sydney tighten even further, as Reynolds and Walker sent out a pair of bullet balls to find space for Allan on the left edge. Speeding down the sideline, he popped it out to Johnston, who couldn’t go all the way, but still managed a sublime offload back to his fullback as Ikuvalu tried to drag him into touch. Cometh the hour cometh the man, and Allan now cruised over the try line, but waited for Johnston to catch up, passing it back in goal to ensure his winger got a fourth four-pointer.
With Reynolds adding the conversion the Bunnies now had their highest ever score against the Roosters, and with Keary penalised almost immediately they chose to run at the line to give Johnston another shot. He got it, collecting the footy off a left sweep from Walker and Gagai to burrow his way through Ikuvalu and finally move past Feldt as the top tryscorer of the year – such a profound rallying point for the Rabbitohs, especially against their nemesis, that we seemed to be flash-forwarding to the GF.
The belief of the Bunnies was incredible in these last ten minutes – a peak flow that felt like they could keep on scoring indefinitely, so strong was their synergy and spirit. With barely a minute left on the clock they only had time for one more penalty goal – due to another Keary error – as Reynolds closed off one of the best South Sydney games of the decade in style, and the Roosters looked on with grim determination to make up for this shock loss when they take on the Panthers in finals footy next week.
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