CHARITY SHIELD: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (Glen Willow Oval, 27/2/21)

South Sydney had won every Charity Shield since 2013 when they met the Dragons at Glen Willow on Saturday afternoon, but they managed to top every single game in that superb streak, coming away with the biggest ever win in Charity Shield history – a 48-16 drubbing of the Dragons, who are always the home team in Mudgee. The last time any team came close to this kind of win margin was in the mid-2000s, when St. George won 34-8 in 2004, and the Bunnies responded with a 30-6 comeback the next year.

Not only was this a spectacular win for South Sydney, but it was the perfect prelude to their season – a premiership statement before the Bunnies had played a single regular game. Latrell Mitchell shone in the first act, producing a sequence of try assists and carrying Cody Walker to a hat trick, before scoring on the brink of half time to cement his comeback from last year’s injury against the Eels in the most spectacular manner.

The second stanza was just as impressive, as the Bunnies rotated their young guns and new players onto the park, effectively fielding a new team, but still managing to retain the upper hand over St. George, even if they let in a few more tries here. Just as Latrell had capped off the first half, so Josh Mansour celebrated his first Charity Shield in ten years by putting down his first four points in South Sydney colours. Between these first and second rotations, the Bunnies proved that, in 2021, they have depth to spare.

The Bunnies had the first carry, and Adam Reynolds capped it off with a dangerous floater, but Matt Dufty was safe beneath it, only fumbling for the slightest of beats before regaining control to get the Dragons rolling up the park. Latrell was just as secure under Ben Hunt’s first kick, while Reynolds went for a longer effort the second time around, forcing Dufty to take it in the ten. St. George got six again on their next carry, off a ruck error from Tevita Tatola, and so had their first real attacking chance.

They casually drifted left, where a deft grubber from Corey Norman drifted past Reynolds, and then Latrell, to trap Jaxson Paulo behind the line, as Jack Bird and Jordan Pereira converged to prevent him making it back over the line. Latrell went short with the dropout but the Bunnies didn’t get the ball back, as Hunt now stepped into the spotlight, driving the footy deep into the line, late in the tackle count, only for Norman to mistime a harbour bridge ball to the left wing and send it soaring over the sideline.

South Sydney accelerated on tackle four of the next set, with a rapid left sweep that saw the ball change hands four times before Reynolds gave Dufty his biggest challenge yet under the high ball. The Dragons could have done with six again now, since they struggled to get out of their own end, forcing Hunt to kick on their forty. Cody Ramsey was good under Reynolds’ next bomb, although South Sydney were winning the battle of field position, and only needed a small opportunity to break the game wide open.

They looked promising on the next set, sweeping right on the fourth again, this time to the right, before Reynolds’ boot finally paid dividends. Ramsey leaped for it, Dane Gagai collected it, and the Bunnies got six again within the Dragons’ ten. Tom Burgess got his first short-range charge of the match, and Latrell showed Norman how to do the wide play to the wing, holding up the pass to force Jordan Pereira to commit to Campbell Graham, before shooting a superb cut-out ball for Paulo to score the first try.

It was a rousing moment for Latrell’s first stint in the fullback jersey since the Round 16 win over Parra last year, and while Reynolds missed the conversion – his first bad kick – the Bunnies had scored rapidly, clinically, and decisively off their first field position, so the game was theirs if they could continue this momentum. They rolled up the middle on the restart, and Reynolds ran the footy up the right edge, but Walker came up with an awkward overlong kick on the last to let St. George off the hook.

Souths didn’t have to wait long to get the ball back, as Josh Kerr coughed it up on tackle four of the next set, giving them a chance to make good on the speed of their restart. Latrell now replicated Reynolds’ run up the right edge, but with even more dexterity and elasticity, before coming up with his second straight assist to trick Pereira once again – dummying to the right and then fending off Norman on the left, and dummying once more to get Bird out of the way so he could offload through Norman’s low tackle.

In one sublime play Latrell had disposed of both sides of the St. George defence, giving Walker clear passage to receive the Steeden and cross over, while setting up Reyno for his first and easiest conversion of the match. Once again, the Dragons didn’t get to the end of their set, as Zac Lomax fumbled the footy while rising out of a Cam Murray tackle. Once again, the Bunnies made the most of it – specifically Walker, who put down two tries in two minutes off another sterling opening charge from Tom Burgess.

This time Reynolds came up with the assist, drifting across to the right edge before shooting the Steeden out to his halves partner. Walker had more work to do this time, but responded beautifully, pivoting off his left boot to slice through three defenders and slam down four more. Reynolds had his first sideline conversion, straight into the setting sun, and while he reached up his left hand to compensate for the glare, he still couldn’t slot it through, sailing the ball away to the right to keep the score set at 0-14.

Still, this had been a brilliant first quarter for the South Sydney spine, and for Latrell in particular, putting the visitors right on track to continue their eight game streak against St. George, and their three game streak in Mudgee. They didn’t even need an error for their next try, scoring after the Dragons’ first completed set in about seven minutes, off a superb left edge play – a no-look pass from Reynolds to Walker, who got it out to Alex Johnston, and then gathered it again to dance over Lomax for a hat trick.

The play was so fast that Johnston had to jump over Lomax too, since he couldn’t decelerate after popping it back to Walker. With Reynolds adding another conversion, the Bunnies were almost a point per minute, four minutes into the second quarter. This was starting to feel like a training run, as the Dragons conceded yet another error, but this time when South Sydney had the footy, wasting their Captain’s Challenge to try and dispute that Josh Kerr had knocked on a late offload from Cameron Murray.

Like clockwork, the Bunnies got stuck in to score, as Walker got them rolling up the left edge, Murray set up Burgess for another powerful run, and then a restart to boot, and Reynolds started a rapid left sweep that ended with Gagai collecting the footy right on the ground. They were looking sharp on all parts of the park, as Tatola now offloaded with one hand for a second Burgess run, and Gagai came up with another clutch collect right on the turf, knocking it backwards for Latrell to scoop up with real panache.

For a brief moment, the sun went behind the clouds, and the effect was like the spotlights dimming for a pre-emptive try celebration, as Gagai received the footy back from Latrell, tucked it under his right arm, and slammed through Hunt to put it down on the left wing. The Bunnies had turned their messiest set into their toughest try – and once again Latrell had been a critical factor, the pivotal figure both in this set and in what was already the strongest Souths opening in the history of the Charity Shield.

With the sun now firmly behind the clouds, Reynolds had enough visibility to get the conversion – and with the Bunnies more or less keeping pace with the clock at 28 minutes, they already felt like a premiership prospect for 2021. In other words, the Dragons had to score here to come away with any semblance of dignity – and they got their chance off a second overlong kick from Walker, and then a terrific run from  Ramsey, who grubbered at speed up the right sideline to trap Paulo behind the chalk.

The Rabbitohs regathered pretty quickly in defence, so the Dragons needed a tough effort here – and they delivered with the toughest left sweep of the game. Andrew McCullough had his first big play as St. George hooker, shifting the footy out to Dufty, who followed with a flat ball to Bird, who was staunch in turn as he slammed into Graham and Paulo, and then managed to offload out to Pereira for the first four points for St. George. Lomax missed the kick, though, so South Sydney were still 22 ahead.

The last act was all Latrell, who scooped up the Steeden just as Ramsey was circling around it, and headed back in field once he got to his own end, where Dufty took out Murray just as he was shaping to receive the footy. Murray was fine, though, and almost crashed over beside the posts, before Latrell got his fairytale finish, collecting a cut-out ball from Walker, dummying and slamming through Pereira to cement this forty minutes as his clinical comeback – and not just a comeback, but a consolidation.

Reynolds ended with a practice field goal attempt outside the forty (unsuccessful), and the Bunnies effectively had a new team when they returned from the sheds, experimenting with a new pair of halves in Troy Dargan and Dean Hawkins, while bringing Marsters, Arrow, Mago, Nicholls, Benji, Moga, Mansour, Taaffe and Sele off the bench. No surprise the points dried up a little over this back forty, but even so the Bunnies remained dominant, in a testament to the sheer depth of their lineup in 2021.

On the other side of the Steeden, Adam Clune had come on in place of McCullough at dummy half, although the rest of the St. George squad was unchanged, giving them an advantage, at least in terms of club experience, when they got the first scrum off an opening error from Marsters. Mikaele Ravalawa burst down the right side of the park, and Hunt helped ferry the footy across to the left edge, where Ramsey smashed over a play later, only to lose the Steeden down his forearms just as he came to ground.

This should have been a try, since Hunt’s assist gave Ramsey ample space and time to regain possession, but instead the Bunnies once more capitalised on a St. George error. They might have had a totally new spine in Dargan, Hawkins, Taaffe and Benji, but they were just as clinical here as in the first stanza. All it took was a second mistake from Lomax for Benji to shine in his first real gesture in the no. 9 position – a well-timed pass out to Mark Nicholls, who slammed through three defenders to put down another four.

Taaffe booted it through from right in front, and the second-tier Rabbitohs looked just as confident as the big stars, while Tigers fans might have winced to see another ex-clubman on the cusp of getting a second wind at South Sydney. Nicholls followed his try by tempting a grapple from Kaide Ellis early in the restart, and then took a big hit-up a tackle later, so this next set had consolidation written all over it, especially when Benji burst out of dummy half to clear up space again for Nicholls in front of the posts.

Nicholls built on Benji’s energy for the fastest and toughest short-range run from any frontrower so far, but the very speed of his charge worked against him, at least when Norman and Dufty matched it with the hardest trysaving effort, ricocheting the footy out of his grasp just as he reached out both hands to get it to ground, when a more conservative effort under the arm might have done the job. This was the strongest defence all night from St. George, and ushered in their only really dominant period.

They got started on the very next set, scoring for the first time off a South Sydney error, thanks to a rapid left edge play that ended with Dufty floating a harbour bridge ball out for Ramsey, who did better with this longer pass than with Hunt’s near-assist from short range. Not only had Ramsey made good on his previous fumble, but Dufty had made good on Norman’s overlong pass to the left wing during the first stanza, while Lomax added his first conversion, giving the Red V their first consolidation all evening.

Even if a comeback seemed unlikely, it was paramount that the Red V score here to stamp their ownership on a portion of the game. Lomax and Ravalawa came close a minute later, thanks to a superb linkup on the right edge, where Lomax fended off Moga and flicked a no-looker outside to Ravalawa, who probably could have gone it alone but instead fed the footy back to his no. 4 to take the tackle from Murray, tempting an offside from Dargan in the process – the chance that the Dragons needed.

Their third and last try was all grunt – a hard run from Paul Vaughan, who channeled Nicholls’ gutsy burst at the line, but learned from Nicholls too, taking it slower and more deliberate as he churned into three Rabbitohs defenders, and relied on sheer attrition to carry him over the chalk, eventually reaching out of a low, last-ditch tackle from Keon Koloamatangi to pivot the Steeden down. Lomax converted as the sky turned purple over Glen Willow, and the Dragons had the smallest deficit all game.

For a moment it looked like they might narrow it further, as Hunt broke into space late in the restart, receiving the footy from Clune and splitting Nichols and Mago. But Benji was just as fast, storming up on his right, and then reaching out a hand to dishevel Dufty as he took the pass, forcing a knock-on right when St. George should have gone back to back. Combined with his assist for Nicholls, and then his near-assist for Nicholls, this was stunning from the ex-Tiger – as impressive, in its own way, as Latrell’s return.

The Rabbits had two more tries in them, despite taking a blow when Taaffe left the field for an ankle issue. The next four  came eleven minutes out from the end, and were arguably the simplest, as Koloamatangi collected a wide ball from Hawkins and smashed through Clune on the left side of the park, marking the first time that either team had made it to forty during the Charity Shield. Hawkins’ kick looked set to miss the posts, but bent around at the last minute, bringing the Bunnies to a 16-44 lead.

They used up their Captain’s Challenge trying to contest that Benji had caught the footy before putting his boot on the line, and conceded a dropout in the process, but Jacob Host got them rolling again by slamming Jacob Alvaro to ground on the next set – a warm greeting to the ex-Eel for his first major play in St. George colours. Graham made big contact with Poasa Faamausili a moment later, but Benji came up with the goods, drifting into the line on his next carry to set up the left sweep that sent Sauce over.

The assist came off two deft catch-and-passes – first from Dargan, then from Mansour, putting Mansour across before Ravalawa could get to him. Hawkins missed the conversion, so the Bunnies didn’t quite get the half century, but this was still a fairytale start to their year as the full moon rose over Mudgee. It’s technically a trial, but the Charity Shield always seems closer to the regular season, so Souths should feel pumped for their opening night against the Storm, while the Dragons will already have something to prove when they rock up for a local barny against Cronulla on Sunday.

About Billy Stevenson (557 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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