ROUND 19: South Sydney Rabbitohs v. New Zealand Warriors (Sunshine Coast Stadium, 24/7/21, 60-22)
The Bunnies piled sixty points on New Zealand when they hosted them at Sunshine Coast on Saturday afternoon, settling into some of their silkiest and most mercurial passages of play during their entire 2021 season, along with one of their most galvanising tryscoring grooves. Josh Mansour stepped seamlessly into Alex Johnston’s boots on the left wing, where he scored his tenth career double and his third against New Zealand, while Adam Reynolds’ leadership was so superb you barely noticed Campbell Graham and Liam Knight off the park.
This was also a terrific afternoon for the South Sydney forwards, with Tom Burgess and Jaydn Su’A both scoring doubles – Su’A in his 75th NRL game, after having only notched up five tries in his career to date. Nevertheless, for a team that scored 60, the Rabbitohs shouldn’t have conceded 22, or left key passages of play open for New Zealand to resurge – most notably the end of the first stanza, when Marcelo Montoya and Kodi Nikorima scored back-to-back tries.
We didn’t know it at the time either, but this would turn out to be the last game with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck on the New Zealand roster before his early retirement announcement. He was off the park, along with Tohu Harris, meaning that Addin Fonua-Blake was captaining for the first time, and yet RTS’ presence always infuses the team, who’ll feel like a different outfit without him around. There was also a bittersweet quality to the Bunnies’ match, with Dane Gagai on the way back to Newcastle, and Reynolds reminding them how much he’ll be missed.
Matt Lodge and Addin Fonua-Blake took the first two carries, as if to channel their heroic game against the Panthers last week, while Lodge took another hit-up on the third, before Jaxson Paulo brought back Chad Townsend’s opening kick. The Bunnies responded in kind, with Gagai making good metres up the right, and Keon Koloamatangi charging straight up the middle, while Reece Walsh bobbled the kick before securing it right on the New Zealand line.
Three kicks determined the next passage of the game. First, Walsh ended a decent second set with a good trajectory and an unlucky ricochet, setting up South Sydney for further field position. Then, Adam Reynolds opted for a deft grubber into the right corner that Marcelo Montoya was forced to ground in goal. Finally, Walsh went long with the dropout, booting it over the halfway line, and so forcing the Bunnies to elasticise early to bring the football back.
As a result, Walker spread it left early in the set, but he overplayed the pass, sending out a bouncing ball that Dallin Watene Zelezniak scooped up. Running the length of the field, DWX got it down before Damien Cook could get a hand to him, putting the Warriors at a point per minute once Walsh added the extras. Walsh ended the restart with his first bomb of the afternoon, only to sail it clear over the sideline as Latrell casually pulled back from the play.
The Bunnies were just as casual as they consolidated over the next set. They got the first restart, off a ruck error from Addin Fonua-Blake, and Cameron Murray took a big charge in front of the posts. He was held up, and dribbled back a fairly slow play-the-ball – almost an inadvertent play-the-ball, since the footy seemed to simply come free and roll backwards. Cook resumed the speed of play immediately, grabbing it out of dummy half and shooting out a short pass for Tom Burgess to barge through Bayley Sironen, before Reynolds made it six.
Walsh was overlong again on the kickoff, but this time Latrell was considerably more spectacular at the end of it, crouching right down on the grass and sliding a boot back over the line to augment the restart. Yet the Bunnies didn’t need gymnastics for their next try, which came off a simple and professional sweep – Reynolds showing it and then drifting across to the right edge, where he hit Walker, who assisted Paulo on the wing. Montoya came in fast and hard in defence, but only got a few fingertips to Paulo as he raced up the sideline.
Reynolds missed the sideline conversion, but the Bunnies had already settled into a tryscoring groove, so smooth, silky and simple had these first two efforts been. The Warriors survived the restart, and played for field position on their next set, although Josh Mansour laid the platform for the next Rabbitohs try a set later. He started by getting six again off a Tevaga error, and followed by culminating the first big left sweep from South Sydney – cut-out from Reynolds to Gagai, who stormed up the sideline and shifted it out for Sauce to finish the play.
Mansour swerved back inside, and made it right to the line, where Walsh spearheaded the best goal line defence of the game so far – and the first genuine trysaver. Nevertheless, Mansour had laid a platform for Walker, who grubbered on the other side of the park, and could conceivably have scored the try himself. In the casual spirit of the game, however, Cody was content for Montoya to reach out his right hand and bat it into touch for another dropout.
Mark Nicholls now bookended a series of big runs by big men, taking the first carry at the halfway line after Reyno collected Walsh’s kick, and then again on tackle four, when he brought it right to the line. On the next play, Burgess got a double, off another short ball from Cook, and this time Walsh and Tevaga were the two casualties. Reynolds added another elegant conversion, and the Bunnies had a double-figure lead, while Lodge and Jack Murchie were determined not to let Nicholls build the same forward pack momentum on the restart.
Unfortunately, Murchie copped a head knock, and was sent off for an HIA, bringing Eliesa Katoa off the bench earlier than expected. This dented the rhythm of the restart, until Murray resumed it with a linebreak, flicking the footy across to Walker at just the right moment, only for Walsh to deliver his second trysaver by knocking it down. South Sydney still had the scrum, but Murray must have been disoriented by the way this last set played out, since he made a rare handling error a tackle later, losing the footy while trying to execute a rapid play-the-ball.
The Warriors needed to get creative – and they tried on their next set, but couldn’t quite get the combination right. DWZ offloaded to Katoa early in the tackle count, when he would have done better to just run the footy, as he seemed to acknowledge by barging straight up the middle when he took a second carry. Walsh ended with his third overlong kick of the night (although he got a bit unlucky with the bounce) before Jai Arrow made his first appearance since his Origin indiscretion, and took a couple of strong runs to get South Sydney up the park.
They got a fresh set off an Adam Pompey error, using the extra field position to score their first genuinely gymnastic try, although it didn’t look any less effortless than their first three. Cook delivered another short-range assist, although this time Latrell interceded for the best second-phase so far. Receiving the footy from his hooker, he twisted into Walsh, and then a pack of New Zealand defenders, ducking under the tackle to arc the ball vertically into the air. Murray read it perfectly, seizing the Steeden and crossing untouched in a sea of defenders.
Reyno added the extras, and Latrell continued this powerhouse performance on tackle four of the restart, when he culminated a right sweep by busting through two tackles, shifting the footy to both hands for a dummy out to the wing, and then returning it to his left palm as he chose to go it alone, bringing the play into the New Zealand ten and relying on a rapid play-the-ball to continue this splendid momentum. Reynolds responded in kind, driving the footy deep into the defensive line, until he was held up by a big pack of Warriors right on the chalk.
He opted to offload, flicking the footy back as players from both teams constellated around him. For a moment, it was like watching volleyball, as one hand after another reached up to tap it, until the Rabbitohs got six again and Koloamatangi bumped it back to Murray. Fresh off his try, Murray was pumped for an assist, drifting left, and showing it a couple of times, before popping it back inside to Walker, who had run a sufficiently hard, diagonal line to hit the Steeden at speed and dispose of the New Zealand defence as he scored beside the posts.
Reynolds took it into the line at the end of the restart, and the Bunnies again scored off his vision, but this time it was a considerably simpler play, which isn’t to say that it was any less accomplished. After the freakishness of his last offload, Reyno now demonstrated his utter mastery of the basic ingredients of footy – timing and handling – double pumping at just the right time, and just the right speed, to defy Sironen and send Su’A over for an untouched try.
He was just as calm with the conversion too, booting it through to bring the Bunnies to the most first-half points they’ve ever scored against New Zealand. The Warriors survived the restart, and finally got a touch of the footy after this disastrous period of South Sydney possession, but they couldn’t complete, since Townsend showed he was still getting used to the New Zealand combinations with a messy pass to the right that Euan Aitken knocked on.
The Bunnies looked set to score on their next carry, or at least secure a dropout, especially after Latrell offloaded to Cook right on the line, but Cookie’s grubber was too long. After an age without a full set, the Warriors now had seven tackles, and the prescience of all that possession was perhaps what propelled them into their next tryscoring position. Kodi Nikorima got them rolling by creating a break in the line for Pompey, who plunged into open space, and shifted it across to Townsend as the South Sydney defence closed in around him.
Townsend now got some joy after his mistimed pass with a spectacular offload on the ground out to Montoya on the wing. Even then, this was no sure thing, as the ex-Bulldog bobbled the ball a couple of times, running backwards at speed to try and contain it, and only ground it by backflipping over the tip of his head. Walsh missed the conversion kick, but the Warriors didn’t have time to really register it, since they showed they could also go back-to-back on the restart – the last set of the first half – thanks to the best synergy from their halves so far.
Townsend got them rolling by driving the footy deep into the line, clearing up space for Nikorima to shoot a wide ball out to DWZ, who danced along the tightrope of the sideline, defying Mansour’s effort to slide him into touch before shooting it back inside to his five-eighth. Gagai now mirrored Sauce by coming in low, but he didn’t even touch Nikorima, who cruised over the line and set up Walsh for an easy conversion on the very brink of half time.
The Bunnies might have scored six unanswered tries, but the Warriors had rallied heroically here, dominating the last bout of field position and bookending the first forty. At the end of the day, they were only eighteen points behind, so the first few sets back would prove critical. In particular, it was critical that New Zealand withstand South Sydney’s first set, and they looked good for the opening tackles, coming in hard and fast with the defence. That all changed, though, when Pompey slammed into Latrell and knocked it on to concede six again.
After a series of silky tries, and a few gymnastic tries, the Bunnies needed a bulkier and more brutal display of strength here to reassert their control of the game. That’s just what they delivered, thanks to a pair of mammoth runs from Patrick Mago, who made four post-contact metres on the first carry after Pompey’s error, and then Jaydn Su’A, who received the footy at the ten, set his sights on Walsh and Leeson Ah Mau, and simply disposed of them as he muscled his way over the try line, matching Burgess as the second forward to score a double.
In its own way, this try seemed as effortless as the Rabbitohs’ earlier putdowns – so effortless that it was denied on field, but quickly ratified by the Bunker. Reyno added the conversion like clockwork, and the Bunnies got stuck into their restart, only to concede a brief period of position back to New Zealand, off a Taane Milne error and a Latrell penalty. Milne made another mistake shortly after, at the end of a right sweep, and yet this turned out to be the last chance for the Warriors during this period of play, since Souths scored on their next set.
Walker was down in backplay, but you wouldn’t have known it as Murray glimpsed a break in the line midway up the park. He would have broken into open space, and probably scored, if Townsend hasn’t grabbed the back of his jersey, twisting him round as he offloaded to Cook. This second-phase play proved critical in laying the platform for a sweep out to the left edge, where Reynolds sent a cut-out pass for Gagai to reprise his previous combination with Mansour – this time with better results, as Sauce crossed in the face of Nikorima and DWZ.
Reyno was at 1814, and Eric Simms at 1841, when he teed up the conversion, and booted it through, coming that little bit closer to cementing himself as South Sydney’s top pointscorer during this last part of his tenure as a Rabbitoh. By this stage the Bunnies had scored their most ever points against the Warriors, and settled into a sublime state of calm, an awareness of greatness, and a bittersweet awareness of Reyno’s greatness, that cast a hush over the game, as the sun turned golden over Kawana Waters, and the park was sunk in deep shade.
Su’A crossed over again on the restart, tucking the Steeden under his right arm and barging into the line, but this time Nikorima did well to keep it off the ground. Afoa and Ah Mau followed their five-eighth by stopping a pair of charges from Murray and Koloamatangi in front of the posts, and yet the Warriors were no match for the subsequent left edge play – wide ball from Cook, wide ball from Walker (who appeared to have recovered from his ankle injury) and then a short assist from Gagai to Sauce, who scored a double on back-to-back sets.
There was the slightest shift in momentum as the last quarter arrived – Reynolds left the park for a rest, and Latrell bobbled a Townsend kick as he tried to collect it on the ground. The Warriors didn’t capitalise immediately, since Jazz Tevaga lost the footy, and his team lost their Challenge trying to contest it. The replay showed this was clearly a cold drop, as Tevaga tried to offload in the face of a Burgess-Cook tackle, while the slo-mo drew out the utter exhaustion of a New Zealand side who’d made over a hundred more tackles than Souths by this point.
Still, the Bunnies had lost a bit of momentum here – or perhaps they could just afford to be complacent – as Murray conceded six again, Burns lost the ball, and Jacob Host was pinged for crowding, setting up the Warriors for their final try. To their credit, this was a terrific pair of plays – first a sharp crossfield kick from Townsend, and then a mercurial grounding from Walsh, who decelerated and circled around the footy, took it on the second bounce, and scored so soft it was like he’d simply put his hands on the Steeden as it scored the try for him.
The Rabbitohs exhausted the last, residual part of this recent spottiness a minute later, when Murray stripped the footy from Ah Mau, and then knocked on while securing it on the ground. Reynolds sent it upstairs, and the Bunker denied it, but the Warriors didn’t do much with the scrum feed, since Sironen knocked on a Walsh pass midway through the subsequent set. By contrast, the Bunnies consolidated with yet another Cook-forward short pass combo – this time Koloamatangi, who took it on the line and brushed off Townsend to put down four more.
Reynolds added his eighth and last conversion of the night, and yet South Sydney still had one more try in them. It came off a lost ball from Tevaga, and started with the Bunnies showcasing their big men one final time before the game wound down. Su’A took the opening carry, charging into the line, and Koloamatangi followed, before taking a second hit when Arrow offloaded in front of the posts. They now swept left, where Host continued to grind down the New Zealand line, before heading back in field, where Mago made another run at the posts.
By the time the footy reached Latrell on the right wing, he had the combined force of the biggest South Sydney players behind him, so it was no surprise that he played like a front-rower himself now. Receiving the footy from Burns at dummy half, he put his head down and ploughed into Sironen and Montoya, busting through the line and scoring, before rising to his feet and slamming the Steeden down a second time in utter ebullience at this sublime scoreline. Even if he didn’t get the conversion, this was a quintessential South Sydney image.
These were the last points of the game, bringing the Bunnies to a spectacular 60-22 win, and 32 competition points – equal with Penrith, although they’re stll third on the ladder. Still, it was a bit worrying that they leaked 22 points, especially with the Eels, Panthers and Roosters to contend with on their way to finals, bookended by two games against St. George-Illawarra. They’ll need to use the first of those games to really tighten up their defence, while the Warriors will be keen to make the most of a dejected Wests Tigers outfit on Friday evening.
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