Last time the Bunnies played in the wet they were smashed 50-0 by Melbourne, but they put down a torrent of tries against North Queensland in Newcastle on Friday night. Five South Sydney players were out for Origin and three for North Queensland, but the Rabbitohs had their halves pairing intact, with both Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker out of the NSW Blues squad. Cameron Murray was missing, but the younger players stepped up, with both Blake Taaffe and Pete Mamouzelos enjoying pivotal games in their first-grade football evolution.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Cowboys had lost 38-0 at this same venue the week before against a rollicking Knights outfit. They had six wins and nine losses to show for their season, but they hadn’t beaten a top eight team, and weren’t as confident in their spine, with Tom Dearden playing his fourth game in North Queensland colours, and Scott Drinkwater periodically moving out of his five-eighth designation to assist Daejarn Asi with fullback duties.
Still, the Cowboys did well in the first half, taking the lead with their second try, but wilting from there, as the Bunnies hit back with a trio of tries before the break, along with a trio of incredible Walker assists, each more silky subliminal than the last. They put Walker ahead of Mitch Moses for most assists and Alex Johnston ahead of Josh Ado-Carr for most tries, galvanising the Bunnies into a brilliant back half flow that saw them reach 46 points before Kyle Feldt finally posted a consolation try in the dying minutes of the match.
Coen Hess took the first hit-up, channelling his earlier Origin appearances into a strong opening run, and Jason Taumalolo added good post-contact metres on the fourth, before Tom Dearden took the kick for his fourth game in North Queensland colours. This wasn’t a bad set, but the Bunnies still started with good field position, reaching the twenty by tackle four, and the ten by the last. Taaffe and Mamouzelos fed it out to the right wing, where Taane Milne managed to offload back inside to Reynolds, who was met by a brick wall of defence.
The visitors had survived the first assault on their goal line, and while Javid Bowen barely broke the ten on tackle two, he tempted a ruck error from Jaydn Su’A. Even then, though, Dearden shad to kick from just inside the forty, as Taaffe brought it back to his own thirty, and Braidon Burns followed with a good run, to ensure that half the set still unfolded in North Queensland territory. Once again, they enterprised on the right edge, where Walker almost sent Milne through the line thirty out – and this time Reynolds finished on his terms.
Reyno wasn’t at the end of the sweep, but built on its momentum with his first great kick of the night – a crafty grubber to the left edge that Scott Drinkwater took on the dead ball line, where he pivoted a couple of times before finally succumbing to a big Tom Burgess tackle. A moment later, he went short with the dropout, and it paid off, since Kyle Feldt got the ball back, even if Dearden found himself booting it from the forty for the third time in a row – and ricocheting it off the side of his boot to sail it out on the full.
With Shane Wright penalised for a ball strop on the next play, the Bunnies basically had an entire set in the twenty, so they’d come off better, long-term, from Dearden’s short dropout. In any case, they got another dropout now, following a huge charge beneath the posts from Hame Sele, as Walker mirrored Reynolds’ grubber on the other side of the park. Drinkwater could probably have let it drift into touch, but he didn’t have time to rue his mistake, since he made a more egregious error on the dropout, when he opted to send it short once again.
Instead, he booted it out on the full, making this the second Cowboys’ kick in two attempts to find touch. Reynolds showed him how it was done by popping through an easy penalty kick, and South Sydney had the first two of the 46 points they would pile up over the evening. Mark Nicholls and Burgess took a pair of hit-ups to commence the restart, and it was weird to see the Bunnies down this end of the field, so long had they spent on the Cows’ goal line, as Reyno restored the balance with a huge kick that forced Drinkwater right back to that line.
Drinkwater also took the kick this time, rather than Dearden, but he still booted it inside the forty, while Taaffe responded to this repetition with innovation, sliding across the slippery surface to take the Steeden on the full. The Bunnies now had 11-0 tackles in the opposition half, as Su’A did what Taumalolo should be doing, carrying three men over the halfway mark to get South Sydney even more position. His run seemed to finally wake up big Jason, who drove Reynolds, Nicholls and Campbell Graham ten metres at the end of the following set.
This was easily the best run of the game so far – and proved how quickly a good run can change the rhythm of a game, especially when it’s executed by a powerhouse like Taumalolo. After spending the first fifteen minute struggling to break the opposition half, the Cowboys now got a quick escalation of field position, as Burns fumbled the footy, and Drinkwater mirrored Reynolds’ grubber to trap Taaffe on the dead ball line, but ended up kicking through a penalty goal instead of fielding the dropout, when Nicholls was called offside within the ten.
The Bunnies could sense the mood was shifting, wasting their challenge to contest the Nicholls error, while the Cowboys’ decision to take the two suggested we might be in for a low-scoring game. That couldn’t be further from the truth, although the Rabbits couldn’t know this yet as they piled in to defend a North Queensland outfit that were starting to extemporise. Reece Robson popped their first offload out to Drinkwater on tackle four of the restart, and Dearden escalated into one of his tightest sequences since arriving in Townsville.
He got to the halfway line for his kick, and that extra ten metres of position seemed to galvanise his game, as he booted it long and high, and then chased it down to take advantage of a great contest from Hess, who leaped above Taaffe, and prompted a knock-on, without making contact with the footy himself. Lemuelu scooped it up and shifted it back inside to Dearden, who barely registered Graham or Burns as he slid under the crossbar, setting up Drinkwater for the easiest conversion of the game – the same basic kick as his penalty goal.
Taking the two only made the try resonate more, since it seemed to promise that the Cowboys could activate their playmaking if they were prepared to be patient. Sure enough, they spent the first half of the restart on a series of conventional charges, before Taumalolo, whose post-contacts had set this last period in motion, broke into space up the middle of the park. Even better, he busted through two of the biggest men on the park, Nicholls and Burgess, suffusing his team with so much momentum that they built their second try on the very same play.
Taumalolo disposed of the halfway line once and for all by making his break right on it, slamming his way thirty-five metres up field where he offloaded out of a Walker ankle tap, marking the start of North Queensland’s best period of second phase all year. Robson now took the reins, offloading to Daejarn Asi and then receiving Asi’s offload in turn for a final second phase pass out to the wing – a beautiful ball that split the difference between a harbour bridge assist and regular short-ranger, setting up Shane Wright to cross untouched.
The Bunnies hit back pretty concisely, building steady field position over the start of their next set, before making their first foray on the left edge, where the veterans set up Taaffe for his debut NRL try. Reynolds got them rolling, shaping to kick but passing instead to Walker, who responded with a crisp cut-out ball across the chest of Taaffe to Johnston on the wing. Realising he didn’t have room to cross, Johnston booted it back inside at just the right angle for Taaffe to beat Dearden and slide onto the Steeden in goal for a rousing four-pointer.
Reynolds was converting at 72% from the left sideline in 2021 but ricocheted it away from the posts now, while Keaon Koloamatangi became the first big casualty of the slippery conditions by knocking on early in the restart. For the second time, the Cows got a sudden burst of field position, as Jordan Maclean dragged Mamouzelas and Sele to the twenty, where Reynolds couldn’t find a good point of entry to the tackle, and Liam Knight found himself offside within the ten, only for Robson to become the next player to succumb to the sodden Steeden.
Whereas Koloamatangi’s error was a knock-on, Robson’s came from trying to preclude a knock-on – holding on a little too long out of dummy half, in order to maximise ball control, meaning that the pass was forward by the time Hess took it before the crossbar. To their credit, the Cows didn’t hand momentum back to South Sydney immediately, rallying some of their best defence a set later to force Knight to offload to Sele to get his men over the halfway line – and even then, Reynolds was only able to collect the kick at the back of his own forty.
However, in one of the sudden reversals that was starting to characterise this game, the Cowboys now suffered their worst period of play so far. Drinkwater had done well to take Reynolds’ bomb in his own ten, and probably could have made it to the twenty, or even the thirty, but instead tried to elasticise too early, shooting an early pass out to Lemuelu and completely missing the mark. By the time Taluagi had had regained possession, the Bunnies had pinned him in his own left corner, where Reynolds’ kick had taken on a second life.
Even worse, Feldt lost the footy at the ten, where he tried to play it with Mamouzelos, Host and Koloamatangi all in on the tackle. With such a rapid reversal, the next Bunnies try felt preordained, just as their pivots between the left and middle parts of the field seemed like they were just going through the motions, eroding the North Queensland defence before they scored as soon as they shifted out to the right on the last. It was as clinical as their try on the other edge – Reynolds into the line, beautiful ball from Walker, Milne over untouched.
Just to add a little more consolidation to this second try, Walker had now notched up his twentieth assist for the year, Reyno booted it straight and true through the posts, and Milne had made good on the Bunnies’ earlier experiments up the right edge. Even so, the Cowboys were leading the VB Hard Earned Index, with Taumalolo (45), Hess (36) and Maclean (36), while the Bunnies had only levelled the score. If they could nab another try or two in the last six minutes before the siren, North Queensland had a real shot at getting back in the game.
What they didn’t need was for Reynolds, Walker and Milne to repeat their combo on the restart, after a pair of ruck errors from Heilum Luke and Lachlan Burr boosted the Bunnies back down the park. This time, Reynolds showed it for Su’A, giving Walker space for a subliminal shift in speed to allow Milne to cross untouched again. This was also a great set for Mamouzelos, who tempted the first six again from Luki, and took the brunt of the defensive line on the left edge before the Bunnies pivoted back to the right for the tryscoring sweep.
Reynolds missed the kick, but the Rabbitohs were on fire now, so intent on their next try that they barely registered the Steeden shanking away from the posts. Walker was equal to Mitch Moses for most try assists of the year (one above Nicho Hynes and two above Tom Trbojevic), and exceeded him a minute later. For the second time in two restarts, the Bunnies got two six agains, off a ruck error from Burr and a touch from Dunn, while Mamouzelos continued to add to his highlight reel with fifteen metres up the right after a deft offload from Su’A.
Finally, they shifted left, where Walker delivered the last and most mercurial in this trio of assists. Running deep into the line, and squaring up Dearden, he passed at the very last moment, and still managed a perfect parabola ball for Johnston to become the top tryscorer of 2021, with 20 four-pointers to Josh Ado-Carr’s 19, Jason Saab’s 16 and Maika Sivo’s 15. Reynolds booted through the two, and the Bunnies headed to the sheds ten ahead – a decisive comeback against North Queensland, who would only score one more converted try.
Souths were unbeaten in every game this season when they’d taken the lead – at any time – so the Cowboys had a big job on their hands when they returned from the break. Mamouzelas took the cardinal and myrtle over the halfway line on the first set, Su’A carried three Cows into the ten, and Drinkwater fielded the high ball, while the visitors struggled to make South Sydney territory once again, with Asi taking the kick at his own forty. Conversely, Reyno booted his next ten metres back, at the Cows’ thirty, sending it deep into the right corner.
Drinkwater prevented the dropout, but only just, coming to ground beneath three defenders right on the try line, meaning Dearden didn’t even break the thirty for his first kick back. Koloamatangi made seven post-contacts to reach the same thirty, and Mamouzelos responded with a great dash out of dummy half, tempting a high shot from Luki, who was sent to the bin for his troubles. Meanwhile, Knight was put on report for pressure on Dearden in backplay, although the Cows didn’t get a penalty for it, and now had to compete with a man down.
Mamouzelos left as a free interchange, Reynolds booted through the penalty goal, and Benji Marshall made his first stint off the bench, as the visitors steeled themselves for what could easily become a landslide of South Sydney points over the next ten minutes. Benji made an impact immediately, taking a Knight offload and feeding it out to the left, where the Bunnies made a rare timing error in the sweep, as a Burns pass missed Johnston and headed over the sideline – a critical opportunity for the Cowboys to generate some decent position.
They were at the halfway line by tackle four, and made ten metres into Souths territory by the time Asi took the kick, while Graham started another rare sequence for the Bunnies during this game – working it out from deep in their own end. Burns couldn’t do much to make up for his poor pass with Feldt up in his face, meaning it all came down to Reynolds, who delivered his trickiest torpedo of the night. Still, Drinkwater was up to it, reaching out both arms to take it on the full fast enough without copping too much from the Rabbitohs chase.
Taumalolo was standing on the sideline and must have been wondering when he was going to come on, especially since it only took one more set for Burns and Johnston to get some joy on the wing. Reynolds started the play by driving it deep into the line, where he flicked it out for Walker to put Burns in open space all the way to the twenty. There, he popped it across for Johnston to continue his momentum by pivoting back inside to elude Drinkwater, before Dearden slammed in with an ankle tap that would have held up a lesser man five metres out.
Yet Johnston showed that he can do more than speed up and pop it down on the wing, managing one of the gnarliest putdowns of the South Sydney season as he and the ex-Bronco rolled over each other on the chalk. Bouncing off his left arm and elbow, he kept the footy raised above his body under his right, only bringing it down when he was certain of having enough momentum to slide over the chalk, and ground it with both hands, without any risk of a double movement. Reyno added the extras, and the Bunnies hit thirty with thirty to go.
This was yet another milestone try, since Johnston now became only the second player in the NRL to score a double five games in a row, along with Semi Radradra in his watershed 2015 season. Su’A continued to cause chaos up the middle, building big post-contacts a set later, when he laid the platform for a near-break from Taaffe on the right edge. The Cows were really looking desperate now, and struggling to match South Sydney’s pace, epitomised by Lemuelu trying to intercept a Koloamatangi pass a few plays later, but losing it on the ground.
By this stage, the Bunnies only needed a single error from the Cowboys to build significant field position. Knight and Kolamatangi made huge charges beside the left post, while Walker came up with his most mercurial play yet, taking a poor pass from Benji right on the ground, and almost losing it in the process, before managing to reshape it as one of the best grubbers of the game – a silky trajectory off the left boot that totally defied Dearden before Feldt slammed in to punch it into touch.
Drinkwater had learned his lesson with the dropouts, and sent it long and hard now, although a trio of good charges from Sele, Knight and Koloamatangi meant the Bunnies were back in the red zone in no time. Graham, like Walker, had to contend with a rare poor pass, this time from Reynolds, but he regathered by pivoting the play back inside from the right edge, as the Rabbitohs started a sweep to the left that felt like the consolidation point of the set – until Burns offloaded to the wing and flicked it over the sideline instead of finding Johnston.
While this was technically Burns’ second error on the wing, Johnston hadn’t been in place last time the footy went into touch, whereas Burns now put up his hand and took the blame. In the context of this game, it was tantamount to a small rhythm-shifter for the Cowboys, who had proved that the Bunnies didn’t have to score every single time they were in the twenty. Maybe just every second time, since Souths hit back with their simplest try – a conversation-stopper, as Burgess took a short ball from Sele and just barged his way beneath the crossbar.
Once again, Mamouzelos got the play in motion with a nice pass to Sele from dummy half, but from there it was all Burgess, who brushed off Hess, trampled over Wright and outpaced Drinkwater to score. In a sense, it was one of Burgess’ least spectacular tries, since he didn’t even have that much of a defensive line to contend with – more memorable for the way it summarised the strength of the Bunnies’ big men, who had now reclaimed the VB Index with Koloamatangi at 57, Knight at 54, Burns at 52 and Su’A four above Tamualolo at 48.
The Cowboys got a very brief reprieve a set later, when they put Reynolds under pressure, forcing him to shank the kick out at a strange angle that bought them space to clear the twenty on tackle one. Yet Drinkwater put down the footy a play later, under the combined brunt of Benji and Host, while Jake Granville left the bench too late to reverse the flow of Rabbitohs points. Sele was back in the ten by tackle two, Koloamatangi was on the line by tackle three, and Taaffe shifted right, where Tualagi got the Cows’ second botched intercept.
With a repeat set in the twenty, it was inconceivable that South Sydney wouldn’t score now, but the Cowboys got a second letoff in as many minutes when Walker grubbered on the first, out on the left, but couldn’t slice it through the line. You could tell the Bunnies were slightly stunned by this outcome, as Mamouzelos conceded six again early in the restart, although these two lulls just laid the platform for the best possible hitback – a trio for Milne, on the back of a sequence that encapsulated all of North Queensland’s frustrations this evening.
Asi started with a decent midfield bomb, Maclean took it on the bounce, and Drinkwater offloaded on the ground, only for Asi to swing his boot straight past the ball as he went for a second kick. Souths put a fresh spin on the tried-and-tested formula, as Reynolds ran deep into the line, shaped to kick, and passed to Walker, who took a brutal hit from Lemuelu but still managed to tap it on to the wing, where Milne had his first encounter with the defence on the way to the line, although you wouldn’t have known it from how he disposed of them.
The two casualties of North Queensland’s last sequence were the two casualties here, as Milne fended Drinkwater to ground, then slammed through Asi, before rising to a Conor McGregor-inspired try celebration that said everything about South Sydney’s confidence here. They very nearly scored again on the restart, when Reynolds continued his superb streak up the left edge, running, dummying and shaping once again, but with a slightly different rhythm and inflection, meaning the Cowboys were just as unable to contain this sweep.
This time Reyno bypassed Walker, flicking the footy out to Burns, who found space for Johnston to repeat his chip assist back in goal, where Dearden did well to reach out his right boot, rein it in, and ground it behind the line for what looked like a dropout, but turned into a restart when Feldt was pinged for an early tackle. Feldt’s night got worse on the next set, when Benji offloaded out to Johnston, who defied the cult Townsville winger to reach out his arm and score the eighth hat trick of his career – and his third in the last five weeks.
In fact, Johnston was well on his way to reaching the top try tally for South Sydney at 128 points, well ahead of Ian Moir at 105, and within distance of Nathan Merritt and Benny Wearing at 146 and 144 respectively. Reynolds booted through the two, and the Bunnies reached their final scoreline of 46, while the Cowboys rallied to score their final six points of the night, 59 minutes after they’d seemed to be building serious momentum in the first stanza.
They didn’t come immediately, as a Lemuelu linebreak gave way to a Dearden error, but Feldt finally got some joy at the end, off a Taaffe knock-on. Taumalolo laid the platform with such a late offload that Drinkwater had time to draw the defenders in from the right corner, and then kick straight to it, where Feldt basically strolled over – a good burst for the Cowboys as they prepare to take on the Roosters next week. Meanwhile, the Bunnies are cruising towards what should be a pretty easy meeting with the Bulldogs on Sunday afternoon.