ROUND 18: South Sydney Rabbitohs v. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (Cbus Super Stadium, 18/7/21, 32-24)

The Bunnies had a run for their money when they hosted Canterbury at Cbus on Sunday afternoon, almost losing control of the game at several moments despite having trounced the Dogs with 38 unanswered points back in Round 4. Latrell was waterboy, Jayden Okunbor celebrated his first match since Round 20 last year with a second-half try, and Lachlan Lewis delivered one of the all-time Canterbury-Bankstown highlights with a tackle on Cody Walker at half time – albeit not quite a brainsnap, since it helped galvanise the Dogs into a sporadically spectacular half, even if they conceded six more points while he was in the bin.

Luke Thompson took the first carry, and the Bulldogs moved through a series of fast, hard tackles, flexing the forward pack before Lachlan Lewis shot through the first kick of the night. Blake Taaffe took it, after scoring his first try against the Cowboys last week, and Adam Reynolds went bomb-for-bomb, while the Bunnies made the first big defensive play to drag Jayden Okunbor five metres back on tackle one. Lewis was forced to boot his next one behind the forty, while Reynolds responded with the first genuinely challenging kick of the evening.

It was a deft chip to the right edge, with a dangerous bounce that Nick Meaney caught in the air, leaving space for a Rabbitohs pack to get beneath him and drag him over the sideline for a repeat set on the Canterbury line. Mark Nicholls was held up over the chalk on the first play, and the Bunnies swept left on the second, where Alex Johnston was contained on the edge after a tap-on from Taaffe. Nicholls took another run on the fourth, but the set came apart when Reyno was obstructed by Cameron Murray on his way to the line beside the right post.

This was a big let-off for the Dogs, so it was an equally big let-down when Josh Jackson fumbled the footy on the penultimate play of the subsequent set. The Bunnies had the first scrum feed, and then the first restart when Will Hopoate infringed the ruck, finding space for Taane Milne on the left edge, only for the Bulldogs to revenge themselves for the pack effort on Meaney a few minutes before. Meaney started the play, wrapping himself around Milne’s ankles, before Lewis came in to smash Milne over the line before he could get the ball down.

Hoppa took the first hit-up of the next set, working his way out of his ruck error by tempting a ball strip from Tom Burgess on Thompson, and the Dogs now had their first play-the-ball in the Bunnies’ half, eight minutes into the match. Yet this turned out to be one of the most fragmented sets so far, due to three potential obstructions that progressively decelerated the Canterbury attack, before Lewis booted it out on the full. Cody Walker’s next offload to Damien Cook was awkward, but he made up for it with the biggest bomb of the game so far.

Okunbor’s night got harder when he lost the footy into a combined tackle from Campbell Graham and Jaydn Su’A, and the Bunnies got a penalty immediately when Lewis was called offside. Nicholls, Burgess and Murray now forced the Dogs to showcase the best of their goal line defence – at least until Corey Waddell was pinged for a crusher tackle on Murray, gifting South Sydney a fresh set of six, ten metres out from the Canterbury line. Sione Katoa did well to stop Reynolds on the edge, but this time the Bunnies made good on their right side sweep.

It was still a pretty near thing though, both in terms of the assist and the putdown. Graham provided the assist, receiving a wide ball from Walker and almost fumbling it into a Corey Allan takle, before flicking it one-handed out to Milne, whose grounding looked pretty safe in real time, but turned out to be much clutchier in slo-mo, which showed the tip of the Steeden coming dangerously close to contact with the corner post. Adding to that slight sense of precarity was a rare miskick from Reynolds, who sent it wide to keep it a four-point contest.

Even so, the Dogs had to take some risks to reassert themselves here, and Okunbor got them rolling with a daring offload to Katoa a set later, only for Meaney to make an unforced error a tackle after. Conversely, the Bunnies had played the restart safe, aiming mainly for field position, but they got flamboyant again here, scoring their second try off a sweep to the other side of the park, as Reynolds ran deep into the line – so deep that Dane Gagai didn’t have to lift a boot for the assist, simply standing in place as he lobbed it out to Johnston on the wing.

This time Reyno added the extras, bringing the Bunnies to ten unanswered points as the second quarter arrived. Once again, they used the restart to gain field position, but with considerably more acceleration this time, as Meaney found himself dragged over the line for the second time – the try line now, rather than the sideline, as he tried in vain to bring back a Walker kick with Gagai and Johnston piling on top. Souths now had 60% of possession, and moved through the big men, only for one of their biggest men to bomb an almost-certain try.

Reynolds grubbered on the last, putting it on a string for Jaydn Su’A, who had ample time and space to ground it on the bounce, but thought a little too much like a forward now, slamming into the Steeden like it was a front-rower, and bouncing it to ground in the process. This was the biggest let-off so far for Canterbury, and yet South Sydney reabsorbed the rhythm almost immediately when Thompson coughed up the footy into a combined hit from Murray, Cook and Su’A. Meanwhile, Graham left the park for an HIA as Braidon Burns came off the bench.

The Bunnies had to regather immediately here to compensate for Su’A’s error, and they got rolling with a restart straight out of the scrum, thanks to a Waddell ruck infringement. Burns tried to replicate Graham’s try assist with his first touch, but he left it too late, and was almost bundled over the sideline by the time he flicked it back inside to Milne, giving Meaney time to get in position for the intercept. With a second successive let-off, the Dogs had a chance to build momentum here, but instead play was paused as Katoa left the field for his own HIA.

Bailey Biondi-Odo was the free interchange, while Ava Seumanufagai also came on for Thompson, giving the Dogs some fresh blood as they set in to defend a barnstorming kick return from Taaffe. This had potential to be one of the fastest South Sydney sets in some time, and yet Canterbury got a third chance when Keon Koloamatangi lost the ball into a Jackson tackle early in the count. The blue and white got a restart on their first carry, off a ruck error from Gagai, but Milne settled the score with a monster hit on Waddell a play later.

The Bunnies reprised some of this momentum on their next set, making good metres up the left edge, only for Reynolds to follow Koloamatangi with a messy error, booting it over the sideline to gift Canterbury another augmented set. The game was starting to deteriorate –  you sensed that the next team to take control would maintain control for some time. So it was, with the Doggies scoring on the next set, thanks to some dazzling vision out of dummy half from Biondi-Odo, who collected a play-the-ball at the thirty and turned it into an assist.

Dummying to Meaney, BBO made the most of some uncharacteristically sloppy marker work from Murray, then stormed past Su’A, making it all the way to the ten, where he flicked the footy across for Schoupp to leap into the air for pure showmanship, since he was always going to get it down untouched. Jake Averillo added a superb sideline conversion, while the Bunnies’ woes intensified on the next two sets, from the worst right sweep of the game, to a head clash between the two interchange forwards as they converged for a low hit on Jackson. 

Host, who was penalised for holding down, remained on the park, while Knight came off for Patrick Mago, culminating a fragmented period for South Sydney that opened up space for Canterbury to take the lead for the first time. As if in a riposte to the diabolical right sweep from the Bunnies a few sets before, the Bulldogs shifted the footy across the entire field now, gradually shortening the passes until Hoppa tapped it on for Corey Allan to crash over the line – the ex-Rabbitoh spearheading this shock comeback – before Averillo added his second kick.

Averillo hasn’t been especially successful from the sideline in the past, so seeing him boot it through from both sides really bolstered the Doggies’ belief here, cementing their sense that, like their kicker, they might just achieve the improbable if they doubled down. For the next few minutes, the were unable to deliver, and yet no sooner had Meaney and Hoppa made successive errors than they combined to prevent another South Sydney try at the very death – offloads from Gagai and Johnson, followed by a mad dash down the left sideline by Walker.

Tensions spilled over into an Origin-like fracas as the siren blew out, and Walker was clearly fuming after being denied the try, shooting some salty banter to Lewis, who responded, Conor McGregor-like, with a wrestle as both teams were leaving the field. The fracas now came back for a second wave, as a sea of Bunnies defenders – if you could call them that, now we were technically into the break – came into support their five-eighth as he tumbled to the ground.

Lewis was sin binned, but in he end he retained the upper hand, since the sheer flamboyance of this brainsnap – the irrational spontaneity of it – was the show of spirit the Doggies needed, a motivator for a second half where they’d need to bring all of their attitude and aggression into play if they were going to continue this improbable resurgence against South Sydney. Even so, the Bunnies took advantage of the twelve-man opposition as soon as they returned from the sheds, when Johnston made good on their left-edge energy from before the break.

The Dogs didn’t even get to a set before they conceded the lead, since Katoa was pinged for an escorts as Okunbor prepared to get stuck into his first carry. Koloamatangi made a crash play on the first, and then, like clockwork, the Bunnies sent it left, through Reynolds, Walker, Gagai, and once again Walker, who curved around behind Gagai and sent Johnston over in the left corner. This was just the clinical, effortless sweep that South Sydney needed to reassert themselves – a stark contrast to the totally unnecessary escort that laid the platform.

Even a terrific sideline kick from Reynolds couldn’t eclipse the dour spectacle of Johnston heading up the tunnel with what appeared to be a hamstring injury – the second big playmaker to leave the park after Graham, who’d failed his HIA and wouldn’t be returning. Mago left the bench for a second time as Reynolds attempted a 40/20 on the restart, and didn’t quite nail the bounce. The Doggies had brief glimpse of position, only for Okunbor to cough it up into a Burgess hit, leading to a failed Captain’s Challenge and South Sydney scrum.

The Bulldogs had paid for Lewis’ time in the bin, and yet the spectacle of his rage hung over the game, slightly muting the Bunnies, and inducing them to take the two when Jackson was pinged for a hand in the ruck early in the following set. Walker’s subsequent kick also felt like a concession of sorts, as he slid it over the sideline, instead of keeping it in play, or hoisting it into the air, and by the time Lewis returned to the park ninety seconds later, the Dogs had only lost a converted try, while their half could only be energised by his time on the sideline.

The South Sydney halves had to respond immediately, and Walker got them rolling with what initially looked like a dropout assist – a deft grubber that trapped Meaney in the left corner – only for Canterbury to get the ball again off a Gagai obstruction. Katoa won the battle of the kicks at the end of this set, striking the Steeden pretty ungainly, but garnering enough of a roll to lay down the first 40/20 of the night, utterly defying Burns as he tried to scoop it up. Still, the Bunnies got a chance to reset their line when their captain was examined for an HIA.

He stayed on the park, claret running from his nose, as the Bulldogs’ big men surged in to make up for lost time, putting down the platform for the best left edge try of the game – good enough to totally eclipse Johnston, Gagai and Walker’s linkups of the last fifteen minutes. The play started with Averillo, who flicked it across to Waddell, for what initially looked like another crash play, as the ex-Eagle drove low into the line only to offload at the last to Lewis.

All Lewis’ attitude and aggression crystallised now, as he reached out his left hand, was unable to gather the Steeden, and so tapped it up and back, using his hand as a tennis racket to assist Okunbor, who finally got some joy, and celebrated his first game in twelve months, with an untouched try in the corner. Averillo bookended this sublime sequence by making it three from three, and just like that the Doggies had wrapped it up at 18-18, putting the bin behind them as they got rolling for one of the most barnstorming and brutal restarts of the evening.

It wasn’t all grunt, though, since Jack Hetherington opened up space with a quality offload to Jackson, while Lewis ran like a forward on the third, shoving a palm into Reynolds’ face and copping a shove in return. Lewis didn’t opt tackle the other South Sydney half out of play, but he still booted a typically leisurely bomb on the last, floating it down to Taaffe, who had to contend with a strong chase when he collected it. There was no doubt the Dogs were now dominant, even if the Bunnies got a restart early in the next set, off an error from Schoupp.

South Sydney absolutely had to get through the next set, and Reynolds did well to recover a juggle in the face of Averillo, while offloading to Cook a moment later for some much-needed second phase play. Milne was forced to kick on the last, and while he and Walker chased hard, Meaney was safe in front of the crossbar, as the Dogs ground in to defend three straight tackles on their ten-metre line. Little by little, the Rabbitohs were recovering field position, getting another restart midway through their following set, when Jackson infringed the ruck.

It had been a big night for Canterbury let-offs, though, and the visitors got another one when Mago fumbled the play-the-ball a tackle later. Averillo’s next bomb summarised the mood on the cusp of the fourth quarter, spinning and accelerating maniacally in the air, but without going very deep, just as both teams were escalating in intensity but were still unable to execute that crucial break through the line – at least until Hoppa infringed the ruck on the subsequent set, since three restarts turned out to be too much for the Bulldogs to defend.

The try came off a superb Walker kick, the latest instalment in his rivalry with Lewis – a beautifully weighted grubber that split Katoa and Jackson, bouncing perfectly for Host to grab it, bump off Hopoate, and slam onto the grass for his first four points in Rabbitohs colours. Reynolds added the extras, and booted through one of the biggest bombs of his career at the end of the restart, utterly defying Meaney, who spilled it to ground for Walker to scoop it up.

From here, it was like a South Sydney training run, despite the pack of Dogs in Walker’s immediate vicinity – offload to Jaydn Su’A, and then wide ball from Su’A to Murray, who barely had to accelerate as he charged up the right edge to mirror Okunbor’s untouched try on the other side of the park. Reynolds almost deserved a handicap on his next kick, so dramatically had he extended his boot for this towering bomb, which easily overshadowed his missed conversion now, as did the most dramatic try of the evening a mere minute later.

By this stage, the Bunnies had almost entirely regathered, so in the wake of Reynolds’ mind-bending bomb the Dogs needed an unforced error. They got it midway through the restart, when Cook lobbed a wayward pass out of dummy half to Host, who had to bend right down to collect it on the ground, and even then only made contact with his right hand, parlaying his contact into an attempted offload to Gagai. Yet in the stuff debut dreams are made of, Biondi-Odo intercepted and scored against the run of play before celebrating it with a terrific dance.

Meaney booted through the extras from right in front, and we were back to a four-point game, so it must have been agonising for Canterbury supporters when Hetherington was put on report for a dangerous tackle next time the Bunnies had ball in hand. Milne nearly plunged over again in the right corner, and the Rabbits ran it just as quickly to the left edge, where Burns put his left boot on the sideline, under pressure from Hoppa, just before grounding it.

This was the last big let-off for the Bulldogs, with ten minutes on the clock, but they didn’t do much with the subsequent set, when Gagai got lucky with a lost ball that trickled backwards for Host, who was also lucky not to reprise the error that led to Canterbury’s breakaway try. Murray flicked it over the sideline on the last, while looking for a flick pass to Milne, as the game settled into a final peak of volatility, with both teams searching for the elusive try – it felt like there was only one try left by this point – that would get them the competition points.

Burgess got the Bunnies rolling with three post-contact metres on their next set, laying the platform for Walker to win the battle with Lewis – not with a kick, but with a sharp pass out to Burns, who hoped more than aimed for any one player as he lofted it back infield. The Steeden sailed over Hoppa, missed Gagai, and headed for Host and Nicholls, with Nicholls seizing it to crash over the line for the fourth try of his career – in his 100th game, after scoring his very first try against Canterbury nine years ago, when he was sporting Canberra colours.

The poetry of this try was enough to propel the Bunnies into a 32-24 win, as they kept out Canterbury for the last five minutes, withstanding both an Allan linebreak and final dropout to maintain their eight point lead. It was a rousing win, in the end, but a real shock for South Sydney that it even had to be this rousing, so they’ll be looking for a big one when they host the Warriors next weekend. On the other side of the Steeden, though, the Dogs can hold their heads high after this contest, a big motivator for their game against the Sharks next Sunday.

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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