It’s been nearly a decade since the inaugural Rabbitohs-Bulldogs Good Friday clash, and in 2021 the Bunnies were very much the in-form team. D-Day might have been looming for Adam Reynolds’ contract negotiations, making his final try and conversion especially bittersweet here, but South Sydney were cohesive and motivated as a whole, thanks in part to their stellar win over the Roosters a week before, along with a Bulldogs outfit that have started to make NRL history in the worst possible way.
Canterbury were facing a 0-4 start to their season for the first time since 1971, and had only won one of their last twelve matches – ironically against Souths – but still failed to score a single point here, making them the first team since Glebe in 1928 with only sixteen points after four games. Jeremy Marshall-King and Josh Jackson were casualties of last week’s game against Brisbane, for a foot fracture and crusher tackle respectively, Nick Meaney was back in the no. 1 jersey, and Lachlan Lewis was at five-eighth, although he would only play a couple of minutes before failing an HIA.
Dylan Napa took the first hit-up, and Jack Hetherington the second, before Sione Katoa made a strong burst out of dummy half, and Nick Meaney got six again on the fourth. Lachlan Lewis kicked from the ten, and Josh Mansour was staring straight into the sun, but he still managed to secure the Steeden, and get Souths rolling for their first set. They didn’t make many metres, but managed to hold up a left-side play on the next Canterbury set, thanks to an early pass from Nick Cotric that undercut the timing.
Tevita Tatola got an offload away to Damien Cook midway through the next set, but the Bunnies still struggled to make metres, as Cody Walker followed Reynolds with a kick in his own end, and Meaney collected a tricky bounce with absolute precision. Kyle Flanagan was confident enough to kick before the last, culminating a dominant opening five minutes from the Bulldogs. For the third time, the Bunnies looked set to be trapped in their own end, but Canterbury got a blow when Lewis was concussed.
It came as he was surging in for a low tackle on Mansour, making contact with the ex-Panther’s legs and then tumbling under him, before staggering groggily to his feet for what was clearly going to be an HIA fail. Amazingly, he remained on the park, albeit only for a minute, as Jackson Topine came off the bench at the seventh minute. Meanwhile, Corey Waddell and Renouf Atoni got the Dogs some more position with a pair of successive offloads, but more mistiming meant Meaney was caught on the last.
Latrell Mitchell had his first really decisive run to begin the next set, and the Bunnies got six again off a Topine ruck error, setting up Walker for their first close range – or at least medium-range – kick of the afternoon. They consolidated further on the next Bulldogs set, keeping the blue and gold army trapped down their own end, and forcing Flanagan to kick from the thirty. Latrell now followed Meaney with a superbly effortless collect, as the Rabbitohs gradually started to accelerate into first gear.
Mitchell continued to warm up too, double pumping and almost sending Keon Koloamatangi into open space, before building off another restart to send Alex Johnston over the line, only to drift the footy slightly forward. Still, this was a good sign for Souths, especially since the Bulldogs already looked out of their options on the next set, despite some decent post-contact metres from Hetherington on the fourth. Flanno sent it deep, Johnston caught it on the full, and the Bunnies got rolling once again.
Campbell Graham and Cook followed Latrell with some good acceleration up the ruck on this set, and Graham continued with a superb left hand fend on Cotric, but Corey Allan read his ex-teammate well, coming in for a terrific tackle that forced the footy free. Once again Mansour did well to secure the high ball while looking into the sun, but this time he was dragged into touch by a combined tackle from Adam Elliott and Katoa, who kept him on the ground to get their men the first dropout of the game.
This was the best field position for the Bulldogs in weeks, so that they had to do something special here – and Hetherington got them rolling with another post-contact strut. Having glimpsed some vulnerability on the left edge, Allan booted through a left-foot grubber early in the tackle count that Latrell was forced to pat down in goal for a second straight dropout. Latrell went short with the kick this time, but the Bunnies didn’t get it back – instead, they conceded six more with a ruck error from Cook.
Two tackles later, Atoni nearly smashed over beneath the posts, coming to ground with the footy on his chest, and drawing in the combined bulk of Jaydn Su’A and Thomas Burgess to just prevent him twisting it around behind his head. The Dogs stayed on the left side of the park, until Katoa chipped it to the right on the last, and Johnston and Katoa contested it in the air. Both players were facing their respective try lines, so the replay took some time, until it was deemed to be a Hopoate knock-on after the fact.
This marked the big turning-point in the match – the first step in a torrent of South Sydney points that began with two consecutive restarts on the next set. Mansour got them to the ten by breaking through a couple of tackles and making his way from the wing back in field, and then continued this momentum with a compressed version of the same run two plays later. Once again, he started on the wing, and once again he headed back inside, collecting a Latrell pass to smash over for the first four points.
Mansour effectively crossed over untouched, thanks to a last-ditch slip from Cotric, and so the Bunnies had six on the board after Reynolds smashed it through from the right edge. Koloamatangi was raring to bust through the on the restart, and lost the footy in the process, but the call when South Sydney’s way, as Waddell conceded the first penalty of the afternoon for a ball strip. Hetherington slowed down the set with a huge hit on Reynolds, and then slowed down Tatola to make for a pretty drab ending.
Latrell botched a clutch grubber on the left edge, and then took out his frustration with a hand in the ruck – although the Bulldogs had to challenge it to confirm it – leading to a brief fracas that took the game up a notch. Tatola and Murray regained some ground by dumping Ofahiki Ogden on his back, but the big second-rower was fine to take the next tackle, while Katoa had the best kick of the night – a grubber that initially looked slightly overlong, only to stop at the very last second to trap Latrell behind the line.
Canterbury now had their third dropout, and a perfect completion rate, as Hetherington made his best carry yet, and the entire blue and white army seemed to exude a new energy. Yet their momentum collapsed just as quickly on Hetherington’s second run – a short-range effort into Cook, Mark Nicholls and Jai Arrow right beside the post that saw the footy come free. This was the second big turning-point of the game, as Souths absorbed the adrenalin of both the dropout and Hetherington’s surge.
Sure enough, they got six again early in the next tackle count, as Mansour came up with another spectacular run at the twenty, and while Topine secured the kick, Cotric knocked on a tackle later, and Hetherington took out the frustration of his aborted try with an overeager effort on Murray right beneath the other crossbar. He was put on report (his sixth charge in twenty-eight games) and it was a sign of respect that the Bunnies opted to take the two, as Reynolds booted a penalty goal through the posts.
Meanwhile, Murray left the park for an HIA, and Benji Marshall subbed on at the 28th minute – the earliest he’s come off the bench for the Bunnies – after only playing five minutes last week. Hetherington doubled down with a shoulder charge on Nicholls, missed his mark, but still got the penalty, as Grant Atkins gave Hopoate a formal warning about his no. 10’s conduct. By all accounts the Bunnies should have scored here, but oddly they faltered, epitomised by pair of very different plays from Benji.
The first was strong, as the ex-Tiger managed to turn a loose carry from Arrow into an offload, and the second was the weakest grubber since Latrell’s effort. In the first case Benji had plugged a weak spot, and in the second he’s been the weak spot, but in both plays Souths didn’t quite manage to capitalise on one of the most vulnerable passages for the Bulldogs so far. Cook changed all that a set later, though, breaking into space up the middle and then shifting it inside for Walker to cruise across untouched.
Finally, the Rabbitohs had a play, and a try, that was commensurate to the dominance they should have showed from the outset, and from this moment they felt totally in control of the game – all the way down to the final siren. Reynolds was always going to make the conversion from right in front, but nobody could have expected Topine to strip the footy back two tackles into the restart after an enormous pair of opening runs from Nicholls and Arrow.
With only fourteen points on the board, the Dogs had a brief chance at a comeback here, but Elliott got too excited, and put the footy down before they could get to a kick. Mansour scooped it up, and while Koloamatangi was put on report for a dangerous tackle a couple of minutes later, the entire sequence was bookended by a second Elliott error, and then an unsuccessful challenge from the Dogs to contest it, putting them back on the back foot as they headed to the sheds for some soul-searching.
Murray returned after the break, and took the second hit-up, as the Bunnies got stuck into building field position early on during this back forty. Cotric responded with one of his best runs so far, the Rabbits got six again on their second carry, and Mansour did well to wrap his body around a wayward Latrell pass and curl himself up to remain in touch right on the western sideline. Latrell made good with a massive kick return next time he was under the high ball, and Waddell was pinged for a high tackle shortly after.
In other words, both teams were re-energised since the break, but the Bunnies were doing more with their energy – from a short surge at the line from Koloamatangi on the left, to a second great save on the right from Mansour, who collected a risky offload from Graham before it saw the sideline. No surprise, then, that Reynolds booted it towards Mansour’s wing at the end of this set, getting his men their first dropout when Latrell landed on Meaney and dragged him ball and all backwards over the chalk.
Arrow and Nicholls were more patient but more effective than Hetherington at the start of their dropout, laying the platform for two early sweeps to the right – first from Graham who almost broke through the line for the second straight set, and then from Arrow, who would have opened up more space if he hadn’t tripped over himself at the last minute. They resumed their rhythm on the next set, though, with a Su’A offload that ricocheted off the Dogs before Reynolds regathered and offloaded out to Graham.
South Sydney got six again a tackle later, Arrow offloaded to Cook, and the Bunnies looked set to score for all money, only for Flanagan to intercept a Cook pass, and then get bungled up with Walker in backplay, resulting in a full-blown fracas that saw Walker penalised for his troubles. Cody’s aggression had worked well for the Rabbitohs so far, but it backfired here, getting the Bulldogs a mini-reprieve, and another brief glimpse at a try, as Reynolds kicked it overlong at the end of the next South Sydney set.
Flanagan found space for Cotric on the left edge midway through the following set, and the ex-Raider broke into space and kicked for speed. Katoa nearly came up with it, but instead Mansour came down on the footy, albeit knocking it on in the process. Exhausted from so much defence, the forwards couldn’t make much headway, so Canterbury had to rely on a shift to the right edge – a double pump and wide ball from Flanno to Tuipulotu Katoa, who was cleaned up pretty clinically five metres out.
Once again, Cook resumed the Rabbitohs’ momentum, breaking through the line out of dummy half in his own thirty, and shifting it across at the Bulldogs’ thirty to Walker, who danced over an ankle tap from Hopoate to put down a double. It was a carbon copy of their previous combination, except that they both ran longer, elasticizing into an even more fluid pairing as the Canterbury defence continued to wane. The pass was sharper this time, at greater speed, and almost a no-looker as Cook flicked it back.
Reynolds added another conversion from in front, and the Bunnies were at 0-20. The Bulldogs kept them in their own end at the beginning of the restart, prevented an offload from Murray, and managed to get men at marker just in time to stop a linebreak from Walker. Even better, Cotric found space again on the left edge, and kicked at speed for a second time – this time a chip back inside – although he didn’t get the timing right, allowing Johnston to collect it easily on the second bounce.
Conversely, the Bunnies capitalised immediately on the next Canterbury error – an early tackle from Ogden – as Tatola nearly break through the line and Mansour had his third save on the right, pulling the footy up his right leg after a rapid sweep almost went awry. Walker now assisted as clinically as he’d received Cook’s two assists, chipping a perfectly poised ball to the left that Johnston barely had to leave the turf to catch square on the chest, sliding into the corner as he scored another four for Souths.
Katoa never got a hand to him, Reynolds booted through a superb sideline conversion, and the Dogs were starting to stare down three consecutive weeks without points as the final quarter arrived. It felt like every South Sydney try had been scored untouched, so gossamer-thin had the Bulldogs defence become. Meaney and Cotric got it wrong at the end of the next South Sydney set, and only just recovered the footy, while Cotric mistimed a pass to Allan and sent the Steeden straight over the side two tackles later.
Ogden took out his team’s frustration with a big hit on Tatola, and the Dogs got a rare reprieve when Latrell sent a tap-on over Johnston’s head. Mansour caught Flanagan’s next kick easily, and Benji came on for a second stint, but Canterbury got another chance when Gagai lost the ball into a Napa tackle. The blue and white army needed to score for pride here – and ideally score two tries to avoid having the worst start to a season since Glebe in 1928. Instead, Sione Katoa lost the ball early in the count.
Latrell responded with one of the most daring runs of the night, smashing his way up the left edge and spilling it backwards to Johnson, before Arrow almost broke through an Adam Elliott tackle. The Dogs had yet another opportunity when Cotric intercepted a Su’A pass, but Allan was no match for a pack effort spearheaded by Graham, who rallied the troops to drag him over the sideline, before Souths got another boost when Napa was pinged for an illegal strip.
Tatola and Su’A laid a good platform, Sione Katoa conceded six more, and Benji shifted it left, where an enormous pass from Reynolds, and a deft tap-on from Walker almost put Gagai into space. Benji opted to stay in the same part of the field, collecting a flick offload from Koloamantangi and grubbering back towards the uprights, where Latrell chased down the footy to cruise past Cotric for a try. This was beautiful stuff from Benji – his best play at Souths so far – as he drifted, dummied and timed the assist perfectly.
Reynolds had another easy conversion, and then nabbed the last try of the afternoon in the final minute of the match, when he charged down a Flanagan kick, scooped it up at the South Sydney forty, and had the entire Canterbury end to himself as he flew through acres of open space to score. Even in a game where every Rabbitohs try had seemed to come untouched, this was still a spectacular play, while Reyno added the icing with a final conversion, after the siren, to bring his men to a 38-0 line.
It was a bittersweet moment for the South Sydney faithful given next week’s contract negotiations, and Reynolds knew it, kissing the Bunny on his jersey in a gesture of love for the club that has made him a NRL superstar. Whatever his future over the next two years, the Rabbits will be looking for a similar landslide when the take on the Broncos for the first match of Round 5, while the Bulldogs will be desperate to score, and to avoid making history even more drastically, when they meet the Storm on Saturday.