The Eels had an uphill battle on their hands when they squared off against the Bunnies for Friday night’s Elimination Final, with Maika Sivo and Blake Ferguson already ruled out, and then Michael Jennings eliminated following allegations of doping that very morning, forcing brother George Jennings and NRL debutant Hayze Dunster to take on the burden of the backline.
No surprise, then, that Jaydn Su’A and Tevita Tatola flexed their muscles immediately, driving back Shaun Lane, who lost the ball at an awkward angle fifty seconds in. The Bunnies got the first restart a moment later, when Corey Allan charged into Brad Takairangi, before Lane got some closure by charging down Adam Reynolds’ first kick, albeit not without an accidental offside from Reagan Campbell-Gillard in the process.
The Rabbits got another restart two tackles out of the scrum, off a second Reed Mahoney ruck infringement, and then the first penalty of the night when Mitchell Moses was called offside within the ten. Reyno booted two through the posts, but at least Parra had eluded a try, although the cardinal and myrtle didn’t show any signs of slowing down as the big men moved the ball up the middle.
Junior Paulo put enough pressure on Cameron Murray to slow down his play-the-ball on the fifth, and finally the Eels got the ball back, as Dunster put in his first NRL touch to clear up a hurried Reynolds bomb. Parra didn’t make any real impact with what was effectively their first set, and only made some headway when Su’A was pinged for an offside error a couple of minutes later.
Their first restart followed in due course, and then another, as Lane continued to compensate for his opening error by barging through three defenders on the fourth tackle. He didn’t quite get the footy down, but this was still a strong statement of intent. It didn’t faze Dane Gagai, who leaped up to kick Dylan Brown’s kick in goal, and then broke through the line to get his men over the thirty by the second tackle.
Everything seemed poised for South Sydney to score on this set, which started with Cody Walker channelling Latrell Mitchell as he slid around the play, only for Parra to make a small step towards a comeback with their first big one-man defensive effort of the night – a low tackle from Jennings that dislodged the Steeden from Walker’s grasp,
They got their fourth restart late in the subsequent tackle count, but now it was Lane’s turn to cough up the footy, in his second handling error of the night. Seeing Lane come full circle could have reversed Parra’s tentatively built momentum, so it initially seemed like a boon when the game paused for Su’A, who twisted awkwardly to ground beneath a combined tackle from RCG, Brown and Jennings.
Yet the pause worked better for South Sydney, who accelerated into their next try after their second-rower returned to his feet. Clint Gutherson was safe under the next high ball, but Dunstan coughed it up a moment later, leaving it live for Damien Cook to shoot in and bat back for Murray to secure in goal. By contrast, the Bunnies’ own rookie winger scored a moment later, as they swept through Walker and Allan for Jaxson Paulo to get outside Gutho and slam the Steeden down in his 12th NRL fixture.
Reynolds added a typically strong conversion from the sideline to put the Rabbitohs eight ahead, but the Eels now hit back hard with three successive tries in the next ten minutes, bookended by a double from Gutherson. The first came off a Murray error, a superb flick from Takairangi to Lane, and then a Lane kick that ricocheted off Allan and over the sideline.
Allan was deemed not to have played at it, and Souths elected to withhold their Captain’s Challenge – a decision that momentarily looked like it might have cost them the premiership. Finally, Parra consolidated into their strongest set so far, sweeping the ball from side to side until Paulo spun blue and gold magic over on the right wing.
This was a classic Paramatta try, galvanizing them into their best passage of play in weeks, as Moses added the extras from in front, and Gutho broke through the line again on the restart. This time he collected an offload from Lane and almost made his way to the chalk for a double, only to pop it out at the very last minute for Jennings to get the chocolates.
It was a sublime run from Gutho, who outpaced Reynolds, swivelled away from Allan, and then defied both Reyno and Paulo on the line, before Moses booted through an equally sublime sideline conversion to put Parra ahead for the first time all night. Full credit has to go to Lane too, who twisted his body gymnastically around both Su’A and Campbell Graham to get the footy out to his fullback in the first place.
Something about the casual assurance of Brown’s pass to RCG on the first tackle of the restart suggested the Eels were going to keep sailing here, and sure enough Allan fumbled Moses’ next kick. The vision here came from Waqa Blake, who reached out his right arm in the air above Allan’s head, gifting the blue and gold army yet another scrum at the ten.
They continued to compress and condense, as the first pass from Moses became the next try for Gutho, who dummied and then simply stormed through Paulo, Allan and Reynolds in the corner – an act of sheer determination that was confirmed as try after Gerard Sutton sent it upstairs to check the grounding.
Finals footy is so intense that sometimes teams can transcend a rough couple of weeks in a single passage of play – and for a moment it looked like this might be that kind of sequence. All of sudden, in ten superb minutes, the Eels seemed to have recovered the vision and concision they were showcasing during the first part of the 2020 season.
Moses was always going to boot through the next kick from the sideline, putting his men ten ahead in less than ten minutes. If Parra had added one or two more tries here, they might just have proceeded to the next round of finals, and yet the next ten minutes gave South Sydney some much-needed breathing space, even if they didn’t score – or even if they didn’t quite get back into first gear before the siren.
Fatigued by so much defense, Reynolds sent the Steeden over the sideline with a lopsided kick eight minutes out from the break. This was prime time for Parra to put down their next try, but instead Gutho came up with a risky long play that wasn’t really necessary given how clinically and methodically his men were consolidating once again.
In retrospect, this was probably the critical let-off for the Rabbits, who got a pair of restarts off a pair of ruck errors from Ray Stone, which themselves bookended a Paulo linebreak beneath Moses’ biggest bomb of the night. Parra got their last big chance when Blake dragged Bayley Sironen over the sideline from fifteen metres in field, but the Bunnies recovered their opening rhythm with a dropout on the brink of half time.
Thirty seconds more and the Bunnies might have consolidated, but the rush of it all produced a forward pass from Liam Knight, alhough the cult frontrower made up for it after the break. A few minutes in, he offloaded to Cook, laying the platform for Walker to poke his nose through the line and pop the footy through Johnston to Gagai. Reynolds’ kick then trapped Jennings in goal for the first dropout of this second half.
Knight took the second tackle of the repeat set, and then collected it again from Cook on the fourth, surging in at a diagonal angle as he glimpsed a big hole opening up on the right edge, where he smashed through to get down his first try of the year untouched. Keon Koloamatangi continued to make big runs on the restart, harkening back to his huge game against Parra in Round 16, but the Eels still managed to get the Bunnies back to their own try line thanks to a huge hit from Paulo on Johnston.
The blue and gold supporters in the ground were on tenterhooks when Gutho almost lost the next ball, tapping it forward with his left hand but still regathering it before it hit the ground, and then shooting out a wide one for Jennings to make big metres up the left edge. Parra got a restart a moment later, but this turnaround came to nothing when Ryan Matterson coughed up the Steeden on the right side of the park, getting South Sydney in place for their best comeback of the year.
Admittedly, Reynolds was pinged for a strip on Gutherson a moment later, after kicking on the fourth, but a great read from Su’A on Moses prevented the Eels doing much with the following set, which ended with Johnston recovering a Moses kick under big pressure from Blake and Matto in goal. Reyno shaped to kick again on the fourth, but instead chose this moment to showcase his running game, busting through Davey, Lane and Dylan Brown before dummying and sending Graham through the line.
This was one of the biggest plays all night, and Graham mirrored it with another dummy and pass to Murray, who slammed over untouched to level the score, before Reyno slotted through the conversion to put the Bunnies in front for the first time since the 25th minute. A forward pass from Walker let them down at the end of a big restart, but it wouldn’t take them long to score one of the most spectacular tries of their season – ironically, off a Damien Cook flop at the one hour mark.
Moses lined up the penalty kick that should have levelled the score, but the ball ricocheted off the left posts, and the Rabbits came up with it, making their way to the Parramatta thirty before the Eels knew what hit them. They got their defensive line in order by the last tackle, but it was too late, as Cook bookended this incredible sequence with the closest he could possibly come to a botched drop kick, while still having it ratified as a regulation grubber.
Gutho actually collected the footy, but opted to follow Johnston by trying to bring it back into the field of play, rather than just conceding the dropout. It was a risky move, and the risk didn’t play off, since a collision with Walker left the Steeden live for Bayley Sironen to score the most painful try of the night for Parramatta – a powerful ending to a sequence that had begun with Cartwright and Paulo, the two other young guns, ferrying the footy down the sideline to lay the groundwork for Sironen’s four-pointer.
Paulo went from strength to strength over the next five minutes, playing a critical role in the Bunnies’ next almost-try – a Reynolds-Allan-Paulo-Allan combo – and then going it alone with ten on the clock, when he clinically intercepted a long ball from Dylan Brown to Takairangi. He barely had to get into first gear to sail down the park and score untouched, after already running 217 metres over the last seventy minutes.
To their credit, the Eels hit back pretty quickly, thanks to a well-timed pass from Matto and a big offload from Paulo that established a deft left sweep for Jennings to cross over in the corner. Moses booted through arguably his best sideline conversion of the night to make it an eight point game with four on the clock, but a missed catch from Dylan Brown prevented Parra capitalising with back-to-back tries.
Souths probably had enough to win here, but they played their hearts out until the very last second, as Cook gathered up Moses’ last grubber of the season and broke through the line to make it a thirty point lead once Reyno added the extras. The Bunnies are now the first team since Melbourne in 1999 to come back from double digit deficits in successive finals matches, so they’ll be looking to draw on the Storm’s ’99 result when they rock up to meet Penrith at ANZ on Saturday night.