The Knights were back in the finals for the first time since 2013, and South Sydney were keen to show that their barnstorming win over the Roosters was no fluke, when they met at ANZ Stadium to close out the first round of finals footy in 2020. Forty seconds in, Lachlan Fitzgibbon was pinged for a strip on Bayley Sironen, but a daring early Captain’s Challenge from Mitchell Pearce got the call reversed.
Newcastle swept left on the first play, and headed right on the second, where a rainbow ball from Kalyn Ponga set up Hymel Hunt for the first try of the afternoon. The vision from Ponga was great, but the run and putdown were sublime, as Hunt somehow withstood a low tackle from Alex Johnston to pivot his knees along the sideline as he planted the footy down.
A few minutes later, Damien Cook almost found space for Cody Walker up the middle, but the last play marked the start of a string of poor kicking options from Adam Reynolds, who sent it over the sideline instead of taking advantage of the glare to trap Hunt. With their next touch of the Steeden, the Knights showed Souths how a linebreak was done, as Pearce sent Fitzgibbon straight past Campbell Graham and into open space.
From there, the big prop popped it back outside to Bradman Best, who stormed down the eastern edge and fended off Corey Allan to score in the corner. Both Newcastle tries had come off South Sydney errors, putting them twelve ahead once Ponga showed he could convert just as elegantly from the other sideline. A third error followed quickly when Allan lost the ball on the first tackle of Souths’ next set.
For a moment Pearce and Walker exchanged some heated words with their team mates packing around them, and while tempers flared again when Herman Ese’ese came in to try and separate them, the Knights packed the scrum peacefully thirty seconds later. Walker was still worked up, however, and compounded Allan’s knock-on with an offside penalty.
Once again, Newcastle points came off South Sydney sloppiness, as Ponga added the first penalty kick of the afternoon to put his men fourteen points ahead. Jaxson Paulo was lifted and carried ten metres on tackle two of the next set, but at least the Reynolds got to the kick, although it ricocheted off Fitzgibbon, who charged it down and started the next Newcastle attack from the thirty.
Daniel Saifiti almost broke through the line on the third, but the Bunnies got a much-needed let-off when the Knights conceded their first error – a knock-on from Enari Tuala on the right side of the park. Just as the Knights had capitalised on successive South Sydney errors, now the Bunnies capitalised on their first mistake, as Allan made up for his knock-on, and for letting Hunt through, with a tough try on his own left edge.
Walker’s assist was amazing – a huge dummy that gave Dane Gagai time to make the decoy run look really convincing, opening up the half metre Allan needed to get around the defence and slam over for the first cardinal and myrtle points. Reynolds’ boot was still shaky, though, since he missed the conversion here despite kicking it through at almost 90% during the regular season.
It took Walker’s boot to pay early dividends for Souths – a great kick to the right edge that was perfectly placed to exploit Ponga’s comparative weakness under high balls in the corner. This was the Knights’ first unforced error, since there was no challenge from the Bunnies as Ponga lost the footy in the air, with only Paulo watching on as the Steeden spilled over the sideline and Kalyn tumbled to earth.
Finally, Reynolds got into full gear on the next set, syncing up with Walker for the best try of the afternoon so far. Collecting a rapid play-the-ball from Cook, he sent a short pass into an enormous hole that was quickly filled up by Walker’s best run of the game – a mad dash from the left side of the field that replicated his superb try against the Roosters in the Bunnies’ barnstorming game last Friday night.
No surprise, then, that the Bunnies finally congealed, as Reyno added the conversion and reduced the deficit to four. While Walker dropped the ball off the kickoff, Johnston slammed over next time the Rabbits had it in hand. Again, the halves synergized, as Reynolds mirrored Walker’s Allan assist with a huge dummy that drew in Pearce and opened up space for another Walker assist to send Johnston over in the corner.
The Bunnies had scored three tries in six minutes, while the Knights had barely got a hand to the footy in about ten minutes. Nevertheless, the next twenty minutes didn’t result in the same barrage of South Sydney points as last week, as Pearce made his second Captain’s Challenge to secure a knock-on from Graham, and the Knights got a pair of restarts off ruck errors from Keon Koloamatangi and Reynolds.
They looked set to score off their next dropout, especially with a Graham error, but instead Cook made a dazzling run out of dummy half, fending off Mitch Barnett and shooting the footy across Ponga’s outstretched hands to Cameron Murray, who outpaced Best to score untouched beside the posts. With Reynolds booting it through, the Bunnies headed into the sheds a converted try ahead after trailing 14-0 in the first quarter.
The tryscoring dried up in the next quarter, which started with a momentum-quashing sequence from Newcastle two sets back from the break. Ponga almost broke through on play one but was stopped by a terrific ankle tap from Sironen, and while Daniel Saifiti lobbed out an offload late in the tackle count, Barnett coughed up a Pearce pass a moment later. The Knights survived Reynolds’ chip to the right edge, but Kurt Mann followed Barnett by putting it down three plays into the subsequent set.
Yet Newcastle now rallied with their best defensive effort so far. The Bunnies looked set to score when Walker found space for Johnston on the wing, but Tuala got there in time and forced him to dump it back in field. Gagai cleaned it up, and Walker came close to breaking through the line off a restart, only for the Newcastle pressure to force an error. In the worst call of the game, however, Barnett now copped a penalty for supposedly not being square at marker.
Reynolds added his first penalty kick to bring South Sydney to an eight point lead, and followed with his biggest bomb of the night, albeit not quite long enough for Edrick Lee to reach a boot back in goal as he caught it. The Bunnies got lucky again at the tail end of Ponga’s next bomb, when Paulo and Allan let it bounce in goal, for what initially looked like a certain dropout but instead became a seven tackle set after the footy dribbled into touch.
Pearce showed Reyno he could bomb just as far two sets later, before the game paused twice, for both Sironen and Cook to get up from mild injuries, and Paulo made the Bunnies’ first error of the second half. Cook proved he was OK with a near-linebreak on the next set, while Sironen showed he had recovered by preventing another Ponga linebreak next time Newcastle had ball in hand.
Two tackles later the Knights got some revenge for the penalty on Barnett when Jacob Saifiti lost the footy under two Rabbits without either the touch judges or ref catching it. As the final quarter approached, the match was starting to settle into a real slog, with the rapid tryscoring sequences of the first stanza receding to a distant memory as both teams wrestled their way towards the elusive next four-pointer.
Edrick Lee galvanised his men with a one-handed catch beneath a Reynolds bomb, and Gagai responded with a one-handed catch four tackles into the next South Sydney set, on the back of Allan’s best kick return of the night. Lee won the battle by bringing an unexpected Reynolds grubber back into the field of play after preparing for what looked like a certain bomb, but the Bunnies won the war when Ponga lost it cold a tackle later.
This felt like a critical turning-point, as both teams took a breather while Mann had a finger injury examined. Sure enough, Junior Tatola crossed over a minute later, collecting the footy from Cook and rolling through Guerra, Chris Randall and Sione Mata’utia beneath the posts. These three men should have been able to stop him, but instead the ex-Tiger simply reached his right hand out of the maelstrom and put down the simplest and toughest try of the match.
A Kurt Mann linebreak looked promising shortly after, especially when Pearce shifted the play left through Best, and Lee ended up with it, staying in play despite the biggest pack defence from South Sydney all night. Yet he was penalised for not being square at marker, and while this wasn’t as bad as the call on Barnett, it would have still been worthy of a Captain’s Challenge if it hadn’t been a discretionary decision from the ref.
Newcastle still had a slight chance at a comeback if they could recover the momentum of their opening ten minutes, but that all vanished when Johnston went over for a double. This was even simpler than Tatola’s try – a regulation left edge sweep that saw the Steeden move through Cook, Walker and Allan before Johnston ran over a low hit from Tuala to make it a ten point lead once Reynolds added the extras.
Walker was the pivotal piece, running into the line to draw in Pearce, but even he didn’t need to work very hard. In fact, the whole game was starting to look like a South Sydney training run – pretty incredible after the opening quarter – especially once Tatola mirrored his previous try. This time Cook sent the footy from the left, as Tatola received the ball flat and now disposed of Barnett and Randall on his way to the line.
After two terrific assists, Cook crashed over five minutes out from the end, with a long-range effort that capped off this sublime South Sydney performance as a worthy sequel to their rousing win over the Roosters last week. Breaking through the line at the Bunnies’ thirty, Cook surged up the middle, was downed by a Best tackle, but got back to his feet and made his way to the chalk, fending off Tuala to put down the most spectacular try of the afternoon.
South Sydney now had 46 straight points on the board – an intimidating result for Parra, who struggled to keep up with the Storm’s momentum last night. Gagai might have missed the final kick, and Hunt might have scored a consolation try right on the siren, but it hardly mattered, since this game was proof that the Bunnies, like the Panthers, are peaking at just the right moment, and may just have what it takes to go all the way in 2020.