It had been fourteen years since the Tigers hosted South Sydney at Leichhardt when they met on Sunday afternoon. Yet that just made the post-lockdown emptiness feel drabber and dourer, as both teams ran out in front of a deserted grandstand with “Eye of the Tiger” blasting from the speakers. Absent crowds are always more tangible at small grounds, but especially at Leichhardt – perhaps why this felt like a training session for long portions, lulling the Bunnies into a complacency that saw the Tiges win the second half despite losing 22-38.
The Tigers did pretty well, all things considered, not to concede more points to South Sydney, making this a bridging game between their disastrous 66-16 loss to Melbourne last week, and the last segment of their 2021 season. Moses Mbye was celebrating his 150th NRL game, while Adam Doueihi was back after missing the Storm match due to his concussion sustained in the Round 14, 40-12 loss to Parramatta, scoring two of the Tiges’ four tries and converting three. On the other side of the Steeden, the Bunnies now sit at third after getting the points here.
Latrell Mitchell took the kickoff, and Luke Brooks the first carry, as the Bunnies swarmed in for a strong defensive set, forcing Brooks to make his first kick in the Tigers’ thirty. Conversely, the Tigers’ defence seemed non-existent, since the Rabbitohs crossed over on their first sweep – a trio of wide balls from Cameron Murray, Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker that sent Taane Milne across for his second try of the year. Daine Laurie got there in time to attempt the tackle, but didn’t have the strength or speed to prevent Milne from scoring.
Reynolds’ conversion attempt bent away from the posts, buoyed to the left by the wind coming off Iron Cove, but even so the Bunnies were over a point per minute – the worst possible sequel to the Tigers’ loss last week, which had started in almost exactly the same way. They got six again on play one of the restart, off a ruck error from Alex Seyfarth, and Damien Cook made fifteen metres up the middle when nobody was waiting for him at marker, but Laurie collected Reynolds’ floating bomb, and the Tiges now had their second set.
They didn’t complete, though, as Luciano Leilua collected a Jacob Liddle offload, only for Latrell to disorient him with a big tackle, before Murray dislodged the footy with a follow-up effort. Johnston received the ball from Latrell, and set his eyes on the corner, but Laurie wasn’t going to concede a try on this wing as well, especially since Johnston seemed set on simply slamming through (or past) the Wests Tigers fullback. Instead, Johnston’s complacency galvanised Laurie into the first really decisive play from the Tigers, and their second full set.
It was a pretty standard affair, apart from a deft offload out the back from Seyfarth to David Nofoaluma, especially compared to the next South Sydney set. Again, Johnston received the footy on the edge, and this time he’d learned his lesson, looking away from Laurie and kicking back inside for Walker, who scored the Bunnies’ second try pretty easily, arriving at the ball an age before Nofa, and only taking the tackle in an attempt to ground it closer to the posts. Reynolds was always going to convert in front, and the Bunnies had ten unanswered points.
Nofoaluma already looked dejected at the start of the next Tigers’ set, after Laurie took Reynolds’ next kick – and nobody put up their hand for a carry a tackle later. Still, they got to the kick, and had one of their more consistent sets, making their biggest incursion yet into South Sydney territory, but even so this was clearly a team lacking in morale and self-belief. Brooks charged down the next kick, the Bunnies had a repeat set, and a good series of runs, so it was hard to believe they wouldn’t score here – until Reynolds flicked out a forward pass.
Yet the Rabbitohs regathered immediately, as Cook and Campbell Graham levelled Ken Maumalo on the first tackle, preventing the Tigers making metres early in the count. James Tamou, who had done well to force Reynolds’ error, returned the favour with a huge tackle on Milne on play one of the first set, coming as close as possible to a crusher without actually being pinged for it, but Luke Garner got too enthusiastic a moment later, holding down Murray for the first penalty of the match, before the Bunnies got another set restart.
They capitalised immediately and seamlessly, thanks to a Walker kick on the last that Luciano Leilua stuck out a boot to contain, only to ricochet it up and back to Johnston, who crossed over on the left edge. Johnston was now four points shy of top tryscorer of 2021, after Josh Ado-Carr’s hat trick against the Roosters on Thursday night, and quoted LeBron James in his celebration to the empty stadium. Even more momentously, Reynolds’ sideline conversion put him equal with Eric Simms for the most number of two-pointers by a South Sydney player.
As the second quarter arrived, the Tigers needed some luck to build momentum – let alone score – and they got it when Sele was penalised for a ball strip early in their next set. Nofa continued to look demotivated, appearing to throw the footy forward early from the tap, and audibly groaning as he made very little effort to continue the play when the ball came back to him. Yet the Tigers were doubly lucky to recover here, making their first foray into the Bunnies’ twenty as Mbye collected a bouncing ball, and Dane Gagai was pinged for an escort.
The Tiges now had four tackles in the South Sydney twenty, their first repeat set, and their first decent field position of the afternoon. Joe Ofahengaue took a decent run in front of the posts, Brooks shifted it left, Joffa took a hospital pass on the other side, and Nofa was driven back by Gagai and Johnston as he tried a run up the wing. Finally, Brooks booted it from right to left, and Mbye collected it, but was no match for a clean and concise tackle from Reynolds.
The next penalty came from Joffa as well, for an early tackle, but Reyno wasn’t having the most consistent day with the boot, missing the two points here to keep it a sixteen point game. In the most embarrassing moment of the game so far, however, Reynolds made up for the missed kick by collecting the footy from Murray and not even bothering to dummy before he sliced through the line without Mbye, Leilua or even Laurie getting a hand to him.
Yet in one of the most bizarre South Sydney moments this season, Reynolds’ complacency got the best of him, since he waited just a little too late to get the Steeden down, putting a boot on the dead ball line before the four points were secured. This was a big let-off for the Tigers, but it also reiterated the pervasive sense that this wasn’t a top-tier football game for the Bunnies, and for Reynolds, who could afford to make careless efforts that would never hold against better teams – and sure enough, Nofa’s next kick just tumbled into touch.
The Rabbitohs got a restart midway through their next set, when Stefano Utoikamanu infringed the ruck, and had six tackles to play with in the Tigers’ thirty. Johnston now got his try, receiving a cut-out ball from Walker, and setting his sights on Laurie, albeit realising he couldn’t go along the ground again. Instead, he launched himself into the air, putting down the footy the second before he lost possession – the original call was no try – to become the first Rabbit since Arthur McKay in 1910 to score more multiple tries in four straight games.
This also placed Johnston equal with the Foxx for top tryscorer of the season, while Reynolds’ kick put him beyond Simms for top goalkicker ever for South Sydney. The Bunnies got even more field position when Thomas Mikaele was pinged and put on report for a high shot on Murray, and while Brooks did well with a ankle tap on Graham, the wiry no. 4 burst through an identical tackle from Doueihi on the last play, before shrugging off Laurie at the line for another try. Reynolds missed again, but even so the Bunnies were 26 with five minutes left.
If there was any small consolation for the Tigers here, it was that Gagai hadn’t scored an even more embarrassing try on the previous play, when he’d received the footy at the end of a left sweep started by Benji Marshall – who’d just come onto the park – and danced back along the defence so dexterously that he almost crashed over right beside the left post. The Tigers also survived the restart, but they were still in their own fifteen on tackle three, so virulent was the South Sydney defence, forcing Brooks to boot it a mere twenty-five metres out.
Their last bout of luck came with two minutes to go, when they received the scrum feed off a Graham error. Again, they were struggling to get out of their own end, so their first restart of the game, off a Tom Burgess error, was very welcome, even if they only had a minute to build on it. Utoikamanu got them rolling with an offload back to Joffa, and Leilua poked his nose through the line a tackle later, only for Cook to collect his offload with twenty seconds left.
Liam Knight took the first run back, and the big men carried the Bunnies through a decisive set before another weird moment of exhaustion ensued from Nofoaluma, who reached out his left arm to get a touch of the ball without making sure his right boot was on the sideline. Benji fed the footy for Burgess to crash at the line on play one, then started a right sweep on play two, before continuing the ball-playing with a second pass to Burgess, who put it down on play three, and sent the decision upstairs for a Challenge, claiming a strip from Brooksy.
Burgess hasn’t always been lucky with Captain’s Challenges in the past, but he had the right idea here, since the replay clearly showed Brooks stripping the footy with two in the tackle. The Bunnies got a set restart on play one, the Tiges had to scramble to hold up Burgess beneath the posts a set later, and yet once again the Rabbitohs didn’t complete, as Knight lost the footy into a big tackle from Mikaele on play three. Garner busted through the line midway through the next set, and for the first time the Tigers had a little bit of momentum.
They almost lost it immediately, a play later, when Mbye offloaded without looking, and Luciano Leilua dove on the ball, only to lose it into a tackle from Benji, who knocked on and probably could have challenged the decision. He chose to let it go, the Tigers got the scrum, and Doueihi made up for letting Graham through by completing a terrific left side play. Receiving a wide ball from Brooks, the ex-Rabbitoh pivoted away from Milne and barely had to accelerate to get outside Murray, slamming over untouched for the first Wests Tigers try.
Doueihi was unable to convert his own try from the sideline, keeping the deficit to 22, but this was still a critical rallying-point for the Tigers. Brooks followed with his best kick of the night, sending it spiralling and floating through the air, and utterly defying Latrell to get his men a second straight scrum feed. Keon Koloamatangi prevented Brooks from offloading and began another left sweep on the second play, and while Mikaele took it to the corner a tackle later, Brooks was in the way, turning this run into an obstruction penalty and turnover.
Just like that, the Bunnies had contained the Tigers’ recent rhythm – and they absorbed it further on the next set, when Burgess broke through the line off an early restart, brushing past Garner and dancing over a Laurie ankle tap to give South Sydney five tackles to play with in the Tigers’ ten. Luckily, Liddle slowed the set down with a big hit on Cook, and the Tiges got a 20-metre restart when Walker kicked early, and too far, to send it over the dead ball line.
If the Tigers could execute a good set here they had a shot at recovering their momentum. A quartet of messy offloads from Liddle, Leilua and Roberts (twice) did nothing to increase their field position, but Brooks compensated with his second truly dangerous kick, again to Latrell’s side of the field. This time Latrell managed to contain it on the bounce, and did even better to make his way back in the field of play when the Tigers kick chase descended upon him, before the Bunnies got an augmented set when Ofahengaue was pinged for excess crowding.
After the Tigers had glimpsed their first dropout, it was agonising to concede a dropout on this next set, which ended with Walker almost losing the footy on the fourth, before Latrell got some joy with a well-weighted grubber that Nofa had no choice but to bump into touch. Brooks sent it long, Jai Arrow took it at the South Sydney forty, and the Bunnies were within the Tigers’ thirty by the first tackle. They accelerated quickly up the left, where the Tigers challenged a Shawn Blore knock-on to prove that he’d actually come up with a clean collect.
This was an affirming moment for the Tiges, and probably steeled Brooks into spearheading a pack effort to prevent Milne reprising his try next time the Bunnies had ball in hand. Johnston didn’t do any better on the other wing, grubbering too far for himself despite having acres of space to direct and chase down the footy. Graham broke through the line shortly after, but the Tigers got more position off a dangerous tackle from Gagai – and then a restart off an error from Arrow, who was also unable to prevent Laurie from scoring a moment later.
This was a real David-and-Goliath effort, as Laurie collected a short ball from Liddle and brushed off Cook before winning the battle with Arrow right on the line. Doueihi added his first conversion, and the score was 10-26, begging the question of whether the Tigers might just exceed their best ever comeback, which came after they were down by 24 at halftime. They didn’t do much with their restart, which ended with Latrell collecting a more standard kick from Brooks, although Joffa may face scrutiny for a shot under the ribs on Damien Cook.
Joffa made a similar effort on Latrell a few sets later, forcing him onto his haunches as Roberts stripped the footy from Host at the other end of the park. Roberts knocked it back into Host a second later, giving the Bunnies the scrum feed – and they nabbed the next try straight out of the scrum, when Graham tucked the footy under his right arm, bumped off Utoikamanu, and showcased some of the best footwork so far, pivoting from right to left before he finally tumbled through Liddle and Mikaele to restore the 22-point lead, once Reynolds converted.
In a sudden shift in momentum, Joffa tapped back the kickoff, denying the Bunnies their restart, before the Tigers got six again when Koloamatangi was called offside. Brooks danced along a staggered line, and almost glimpsed an opening, before Doueihi strolled through for a relaxed try on the third tackle, right where Laurie had popped over a couple of minute before. Like Laurie, Doueihi effectively crossed over untouched, shrugging off an extended arm from Reynolds and dancing over an ankle tap from Murray to curve behind the crossbar.
He was always going to convert from this ankle, but as he set up the tee the try was sent upstairs, following Murray’s claim that he had been obstructed by Mikaele. Yet the try was ratified a second time, and Doueihi booted through the extras to put the Tigers half South Sydney at 16-32. It was agonising, then, when Mikaele knocked on the first play-the-ball. With nothing to lose he requested a Challenge – but the replay clearly showed him making the error. Just like that, Souths had the scrum feed again, and then six again on the very first play.
They scored another effortless try, too, as Murray made up for his miss on Doueihi by skipping over Mbye right on the line, putting any question of a Tigers comeback to bed – all off a dropped ball from Mikaele. Reynolds added the extras, the Bunnies were at 38, Murray came off the park for Benji, and his men got a penalty midway through the restart, when Joffa failed to clear the ruck. Joffa took out his frustration with a shove on Benji, who looked bemused, before Latrell brought in three Tigers defenders to hold him as he crashed past the left post.
More South Sydney points felt inevitable now, so it was a genuine consolation try when Nofoaluma finally got to stretch his legs. Intercepting a Walker pass that looked set to assist Johnston’s third try, he ran ninety metres, heading gradually towards the posts but veering back to the wing at the Tigers’ twenty to get the footy down without a South Sydney chaser within five metres. Nofa had his own milestone with this run, which put him at equal top Wests Tigers tryscorer, along with Benji and Chris Lawrence, while Doueihi converted again.
The Bunnies chose to tap and go off a Joffa error on the next set, but Nofa did well to prevent Johnston capitalising on a wide ball from Latrell, before a pair of pack efforts stopped Nichols and Benji scoring from close range. The Tiges had won the second half, and halted the surge of South Sydney points before it became too embarrassing. Call it a bandaid solution after last week’s loss to the Storm, since they’ll need a decisive win over the Broncos, after next week’s bye round, to really recover some pride and passion heading into the back end of the season.