ROUND 20: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (Suncorp Stadium, 1/8/21, 14-50)
Sunday afternoon’s blockbuster between the Panthers and Storm was touted as the must-see watch of Round 20, but the Rabbitohs-Dragons showdown was just as good – partly because St. George courageously hit back at key moments, and partly because of the sheer dexterity of South Sydney, who had another bumper night after their 60-22 win over the Warriors last week, putting a half century on the Red V at Suncorp. By this stage, the Bunnies are close to their best ever tryscoring season, while Adam Reynolds is only eight away from Eric Simms.
On the other side of the Steeden, Tariq Sims was belatedly celebrating his 200th NRL game, a heroic milestone given his injury history, and Ben Hunt cemented his best season at the Dragons with one of his strongest passages with the boot in the second quarter, culminating with a 40/20 that put him at three for the season alongside Daly Cherry-Evans. Yet this was a depleted St. George side, still smarting after their barbecue fiasco, with three people in the backline playing in only their third game, and Gerald Beale still barely back from retirement.
Despite their heroism at key moments, then, this Dragons outfit were no match for the South Sydney push. They had their last big chance about fifteen minutes out, when Tyrell Sloan followed Chase Stanley by becoming only the second player in red and white to score three from his first three appearances. From there, the Rabbitohs condensed into possibly their most scintillating sequence of tries this year, putting down twenty more points, off a superbly timed chip-and-chase from Reyno, and one of the best runs of Latrell Mitchell’s entire career.
Kaide Ellis was starting, and took the first hit-up, before Tariq Sims took the second to celebrate his milestone match. Jaxson Paulo slid to the ground to try and collect Ben Hunt’s opening kick, and lost it backwards, although Corey Norman’s subsequent slide wasn’t any more dexterous. Not only did he fail to gain control of the footy, but he knocked it back into Paulo, meaning it was dead by the time that Mathew Feagai scooped it up and crossed over.
The Dragons needed a fast start to contend with a top four team – they’d given up 32 points in their last two games against the Bunnies, who’d scored a minimum of 32 in their last five fixtures. Yet Souths had the scrum now, and moved fluidly through their set, with Tom Burgess eating some post-contact metres early in the count, and Adam Reynolds hoisting it high on the last. Tyrell Sloan mirrored Feagai with a fumble beneath the kick, and Norman again compounded the error by conceding the opening penalty – an escort on Latrell Mitchell.
Yet St. George got a scrum feed of their own when Cody Walker made a simple knock-on, while Hunt’s next kick slid over the sideline, meaning we were yet to see a clean take of a last-tackle option. Burgess now took two hits in an effort to get the Bunnies back on track, although Sims and Ellis did well to hold him up on the second, and this time the Red V managed a clean changeover, as the game stabilised into a more regular set-for-set rhythm.
Josh Mansour took Norman’s next kick on the full, Reynolds poked his nose through the line on play three, and Burgess tried to continue his momentum, but he was held up by the St. George defence. Even so, this acceleration was enough for Latrell to cross over a play later, when he received the Steeden from Walker as both Keon Koloamatangi and Dane Gagai were calling for it. That double decoy dishevelled the Dragons, leaving space for Latrell to dance over an Amone ankle tap, bump off Corey Beale and get to ground as Sloan tumbled over him.
Reynolds’ conversion was also a decoy, sailing away from the left post only to self-correct at the last moment. The Bunnies got a pair of restarts on the restart, of an error and ruck infringement from Andrew McCullough, but St. George were let off the hook when Reynolds ran it deep only to find that Jaydn Su’A hadn’t timed his line right. The two Rabbitohs didn’t exactly collide, but they were close enough that the Dragons were able to shut down the play and force the error – frustrating given Gagai had broken through the line a moment before.
Yet the Dragons didn’t do much with their next set, and misread the best kick of the game so far a set later – a deft Walker chip deep into the left corner. Beale was running parallel to the sideline, and could have taken it safely, so it was perplexing when Sloan came in perpendicular, collecting it clean but leaving himself open for Mansour to slide him over the edge. The Bunnies now had their first close-range attack, and Latrell almost did it alone on the right edge, bumping off several waves of defence before he was held up right on the line.
Unfazed, Damien Cook took advantage of a rapid play-the-ball to start an equally fast sweep to the other wing. Reynolds dummied beautifully, clearing up just enough space for Walker to both draw on Latrell’s energy, and reprise his tryscoring sequence – jumping over a missed tackle from Amone and bumping off Beale at the death to slam the Steeden down right where his grubber had landed a couple of minutes before. In other words, Walker had bookended the best Bunnies sequence, which brought them to twelve once Reynolds booted it through.
The Dragons survived the restart, and got a much-needed call of six again a set later. Even better, a knock-on turned into a Gagai offside, getting them their first incursion into enemy territory, only for Jayden Sullivan to flick forward a questionable Ben Hunt ball. Their woes just continued as Ellis was brought from the park for an HIA, forcing Josh Kerr off the bench earlier than expected, so they had to consolidate their defence on the next South Sydney set.
That’s just what they did, surviving two Burgess runs before Amone came in low, and hung on tight, to force a knock-on from Koloamatangi – a David-and-Goliath effort if there ever was one, and a good motivator for the young centre after letting through two tries on the wing. They got back-to-back penalties on the next set, from Burgess (holding down) and Mark Nicholls (strip), and Sullivan made up for his error with a good run to secure attacking position.
After so little time in South Sydney’s end, the Dragons needed a simple, strong, individual effort now. Hunt stepped up, taking his chances on a big grubber – almost too big to be a grubber – midway through the set. He sent it straight down the middle, and Billy Burns rose to the occasion, chasing it down and scoring just before the dead ball line, while Latrell and Norman converged on it as well. In fact, Norman was lucky that Latrell deflected his line, since he was a mile offside when his halves partner got boot to ball, although he did add the extras.
Su’A took out his frustration on the restart with a late shot on Hunt, who just repeated the formula from the last set – kick straight and hard from close range. He forced a dropout from Latrell, and it made a trilogy of terrific kicks at the end of the repeat set – a chip to the right side that was just a little too high for Walker, who leaped a metre to collect it, got both hands to it, and then lost it. Tyrell Fuimaono took it on the bounce, clutched it into his chest, and then smashed through Jacob Host to put down his first try of the year against his former club.
While Norman’s kick ricocheted off the right post, Hunt’s golden period continued with his third 40/20 of the year on the restart, putting him equal with Daly Cherry-Evans, and then came to an end with a forward pass out to Norman on the left wing. The Dragons didn’t quite wilt here, as Beale caught Reynolds’ next kick on the ground, Kerr followed with a mercurial offload to Sim – maybe his best to date – and Hunt opted for another decent kick, shaping to run the footy on the right only to aim for some more grubber magic at the very last minute.
This time Latrell was waiting, and yet for a moment Sloan seemed to have steadied St. George with his first custodian-like play of the evening – waiting an age for a Reynolds kick to bounce over the sideline, while withstanding the most threatening chase of the night so far from Gagai. Nevertheless, Fuiamono lost the footy a few plays later, and took out his frustration with a high shot on Davvy Moale – a bad flashback to his seven-week brainsnap on Ryan Papenhuzen, especially since he would be put on report a second time for a possible hip-drop.
The Bunnies now delivered with two close-range tries on their right edge, both of them organised, if not directly assisted, by Reynolds. First, Taane Milne broke through the line, showing Fuimaono he could also score against his former club. The critical ingredient here was a bullet ball from Reynolds that set up Walker for the short assist – such a sharp and precise pairing from the halves that Norman seemed to be tackling in slow motion, as last line of defence. Reyno was always going to boot through the extras from this angle, making it 18.
The South Sydney halves were just as deft on the restart – especially Walker, who received a Reynolds ball and popped it out to Paulo just as he was smashed to ground. This gave the Bunnies space and pace to make a good shot up the right wing, but they exhausted this particular drive when Su’A was held up just shy of the try line. Cook now stepped into the spotlight, parlaying his speed and dexterity by bringing the footy fifteen metres back, and mirroring Hunt’s grubber to the left, just as Beale mirrored Latrell by bumping it into touch.
Reynolds now regathered on the right edge, following his secondary assist for Milne with a direct assist for Su’A, who was able to continue his barnstorming run after all. Norman was as tough in defence here as he’d been soft on Milne, bundling Su’A into two twist-and-spins – the first vertical, and the second horizontal, as the two men rolled around in goal for what seemed an age before Su’A finally wrenched the footy free and got it to ground. The tackle continually seemed on the cusp of completion, but each time Su’A kept up the momentum.
Hunt tried to contend that Latrell had played a backup role in shepherding the Dragons away from the ball, but the try was approved, Reyno converted, and the Bunnies headed to the sheds with their biggest lead so far at 10-24. They’d got a bit complacent during that second quarter, but they’d recovered pretty well, and just needed to continue this drive when they returned from the break, while the Dragons had to tap into Hunt’s magic with the boot again.
Sure enough, Hunt opted to send it long on the fourth tackle back, but Latrell managed to bring it back to the thirty. Mansour now copped two big hits – the first when Jackson Ford was pinged for lifting him about the horizontal, and the second when he took a no-look cut out ball from Latrell that sailed straight across the chest of Gagai. This was a superb potential assist, but Amone wasn’t going to let another try through on the wing, laying his whole body on the line as he came in low to compound Ford’s tackle with another bruising hit on Sauce.
The Dragons had the scrum, and Latrell had his second great kick return since the break, taking it on the full when Ford sent it off the left boot. The Dragons now frustrated another left side attack, where Gagai broke through the line, but couldn’t link with Mansour in the face of a tough tackle from Hunt. This time the Bunnies regathered more rapidly, as Walker chipped to the other side, where Su’A executed a barnstorming chase to trap Feagai in goal.
We were now treated to the most precarious, volatile and beautiful South Sydney combo of the night – a trio of balletic catch-and-passes from Reynolds, Walker and Mitchell that only came apart for Milne on the final bounce. This was a consolidation moment, galvanising the Bunnies into arguably their toughest and fastest set of the game next time they had ball in hand – starting with a monster kick return from Paulo, who collected the footy right on the line and was over the halfway mark before McCullough steered him into a tackle from Sloan.
A play later, South Sydney finally got their left edge try, but they had to elasticise their approach to make it happen. On the one hand, they swept left from much further away, and much further out, starting with Koloamatangi, and depending on a pair of wide balls from Latrell and Walker to get Gagai into position. On the other hand, Gagai swept back in from the corner now, relying on Mansour to come up from his inside and score closer to the posts. It worked, Sauce crossed over untouched, and Reyno booted the extras to make it a clean 30.
This was a brilliant vision of improvisation under pressure – start the sweep from further away, and then back off from the wing at the last minute – since it was clear that the conventional Gagai-Mansour combo wasn’t going to work at this moment in the match. Yet the Dragons survived the restart, and got their first linebreak of the game five minutes later, after nine successive linebreaks from the Bunnies, who’d busted through at regular intervals.
They didn’t score here, but they did eventually capitalise off the first really lacklustre period for South Sydney, which began with a Latrell-Paulo forward pass that turned into a penalty for verbal dissent when Latrell gave the touch judge a piece of his mind. Sullivan saved an awkward pass on the last and booted it deep in goal, where Mansour took it on the full, and brought it back to the twenty. Yet the Dragons did well with their defensive line now, preventing Milne and then Burgess from breaking through, or making metres post- contact.
Walker’s chip on the last was pretty uninspired, leaving it to Latrell to get the Rabbitohs rolling with one of his best kick returns of the game. He started so light and limber on his feet that the Dragons were unprepared for him to dipose of Adam Clune, Sullivan, Sloan and then Ellis, laying a platform for South Sydney to sweep to the right edge. Walker, like Latrell, had a redemption play here, with a heroic hospital pass out to Gagai, but the play came apart, leaving Reynolds in an awkward position to orchestrate the final-tackle option back in field.
The best he could do was an uncharacteristically messy ball to Milne, who knocked on, and yet once again Latrell was calm and collected behind the kick, waiting for a long Norman ball to sit up right on the chalk. He still exuded control, and again laid the platform for metres up the middle, where Burgess made his first big impact during this St. George resurgence, only to misfire the offload back to Cook, who conceded six again with a ruck error a tackle after.
The Dragons had to score now, after so much South Sydney messiness, or concede the momentum back to the visitors – and Burns delivered with an assist that was even better than his opening try. Standing in the combined tackle of Su’A and Reynolds, he waited until the last minute to flick the footy across to Sloan, who broke away from Milne and put down his third try in three games– only the second Dragon to achieve that feat since Chase Stanley in 2007.
But all it took was Sullivan missing the conversion, and Norman booting it out on the full, for the Bunnies to bounce back. In fact, this brief period of St. George confidence likely worked to South Sydney’s advantage, galvanising them into their most scintillating passage of play all night. The first four-pointer was all Reyno, who now broke a twelve-game drought with a sublime chip-and-chase, transforming this supposedly simple play into a masterclass in timing.
Running the Steeden into the line, Reynolds shifted it subliminally from hand to hand, dummying as if to dummy, before hovering it over his boot for a split-second, and then sailing it through the St. George defence. He sliced past Sims before the defensive line had regathered, and went neck and neck with Clune, reading the bounce brilliantly to collect it into his chest and slam it down on the line. He was that much closer to surpassing Eric Simms as top Rabbitohs kicker, so it was a bit of a letdown when he didn’t add a simple conversion.
Put that down to the focus and intensity it took to score this try, which lifted South Sydney’s spirits in the way that four-pointers always do when they come from their captain. In any case, the Bunnies didn’t have time to miss the conversion, since they scored again on the restart, off Latrell’s best run of the night, one of his best of the year, and one of the best of his career. Receiving the Steeden on the left edge, he disposed of half the St. George defence as he careened in field. By the end he had 10 tackle busts; nobody else had more than five.
This was a sequence that looked even better in slow motion, as Latrell skipped away from Amone, palmed off Hunt, broke out of a Sims tackle, only permitted Hunt to get a hand to him the second time, stormed through Sloan, and nearly dragged the combined tackle of Hunt, Clune and Sloan with him over the line. He played the ball as soon as he got up, and Cook sent it back out to the left, where Walker followed his linebreak assist for Latrell with a linebreak assist for Arrow, who was in position to cross over for a try that Reyno converted.
Latrell had followed Reynolds’ masterclass with one of his own, elasticising the Bunnies’ left edge in the biggest one-man effort of the entire game. For the briefest of moments it seemed to exhaust him, since he only just got the kick away at the end of the restart in the face of an oncoming tackle from Amone. Yet he came back just as strong a second later, executing a mammoth hit that forced Sloan to go low to retain the Steeden as he took it on the sideline.
Both edge forwards had scored in last week’s game and Koloamatangi joined Su’A again on the Bunnies’ next set, which came sooner than expected when Ford lost the ball midway through the count. The key was a deft dummy half assist from Cook, who fed the footy for big Keon to barge his way through Sullivan and Burns, leaving Sloan unable to make an impact as third man. Full credit to Reynolds too, for the preceding play, which had seen him drive the Steeden deep into the line and almost send through Milne, who played it quickly for Cookie.
Reynolds added the extras again – he was now only eight points behind Simms – and it would have been a barnstorming Rabbitohs victory if the siren had rung then and there. Yet the Bunnies had one more big play left, starting with a break up the middle from Burgess, who had been raring for open space ever since South Sydney slumped in the buildup to Sloan’s try. Sloan was alone to contend with the tackle now, in a David-on-Goliath effort where Goliath won, as Burgess stormed his way to the try line before he met Clune as last line of defence.
This was a terrific trysaver from Clune, who came in low and decelerated Burgess at just the right time – another inch and he could have continued to slide over, or reach out his arm and plant the footy down. Yet the Bunnies had too much speed to back off now, parlaying Burgess’ mad charge into a sweep from right to left that ended with Walker’s 27th try assist of the season, rocketing him past Nicho Hynes at 24, and Jahrome Hughes and Mitch Moses at 21 apiece. Even better, he assisted Latrell, who now got a chance to finish off his right side run.
This was the ideal sequel to Latrell’s mammoth effort in the buildup to Arrow’s try – a fusion of that run with the supreme relaxation he’d showed for the kick returns that momentarily held off Sloan’s try. Taking it from Walker, he dummied left, denied Beale, and broke past Amone to cap off one of the most rousing and moving matches of his career. No matter that Reynolds missed the extras – the Bunnies had made it a half century, off one of their best and most compressed endings this year, putting them in great form to take on the Eels next week.
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