South Sydney and Parramatta couldn’t have come away from Friday night’s game feeling more different. On the one hand, the Bunnies had jumped to second on the live ladder, and stood a shot of reaching the top rung if the Storm lost the Battle of Brooky and the Panthers succumbed to Sydney without Nathan Cleary on deck. On the other side of the Steeden, Reed Mahoney left the park in agony in the closing minutes of the match, while Mitch Moses’ back fracture relegated him to his bombing game, despite one superb try-assisting run at the end.
Mark Nicholls took the first hitup, and Tom Burgess the second, garnering six again off a ruck error from Nathan Brown, as Oregon Kaufusi was taken off for an HIA less than thirty seconds into the game. Shaun Lane came on in his place, and the Eels made the best of this breathing-spaces to keep the Bunnies bunched in their own end, forcing Adam Reynolds to boot his first kick just outside the forty. It was then Parra’s turn to get six again on tackle two, this time off a ruck error from Latrell Mitchell, although they lost space with a poor Junior Paulo offload.
Isaiah Papali’i scrambled to collect it, but by the time Parramatta had regathered Mitchell Moses also had to execute his first kick in his own end. Finally, the Bunnies entered Parramatta territory midway through their next set, and the Eels returned the favour, thanks in large part to a deft pass from Lane that got Waqa Blake some metres up the right edge. Once again, though, the Rabbitohs spent most of their next set in their own end, despite strong charges from Nicholls and Jai Arrow, so Cody Walker tried to reset by kicking it dead.
We were only five minutes into the match, and it had already become an arm wrestle, giving no real hint of the South Sydney drubbing to come. Dylan Brown hoisted it high at the end of the following Parramatta set, and the footy falconed off Tom Opacic and over the dead ball line, giving the Bunnies a twenty-metre restart and seven tackles to play with. Nicholls was raring to break through the line on the next set, yet was foiled by a Reed Mahoney ankle tap, and then nearly sliced through a second time before Walker opted to run it into the left wing.
Dylan Brown stepped up now, slamming in for a tough tackle to prevent his quarry scoring, passing or offloading – the best individual defensive play so far. Latrell collected Moses’ next grubber right on the line, and so the Bunnies had to work their way out of their end again. They got a big boost when Nathan Brown infringed the ruck early in the count, and Damien Cook continued the momentum with his first decent run of the night, laying the platform for Reynolds’ best kick too – a chip to the left that Souths couldn’t quite match with the chase.
The footy ricocheted off Brown, and Haze Dunster missed it, before Clint Gutherson finally secured it, in his first really decisive gesture as captain. Latrell and Mahoney shared a few heated words at the play-the-ball a few tackles into the Bunnies’ next set, injecting a little more adrenalin into the match. This fuelled Josh Mansour into a burst up the left edge, and then a deceptively relaxed kick from Walker that almost defied Gutho as he faced the chase.
Gutho collected a terrific offload from Blake a few plays after – very late, and right on the ground – and Moses came up with his longest kick and toughest bounce, while the Eels got their defensive line organised as Mansour scrambled to contain it. Parra went for the same formula to start the subsequent set, when Gutho collected a more precarious offload – a bouncing ball from Ryan Matterson – before it came apart with the Eels’ drabbest ending yet.
This time the kick came from Mahoney, who became the second player to send it dead in goal, gifting South Sydney another seven tackle set. The Bunnies had to deliver here, or else concede some momentum back to Parramatta, but the Eels did well with the defence, ending with a tough tackle from Opacic on Dane Gagai, and a gymnastic display under the high ball from Blake, who leaped above Keon Koloamatangi to pop the footy in the air, and then caught it as he tumbled onto the ground. The Eels had survived, and got a restart on their next tackle.
The Opacic-Gagai feud continued a few plays later, and Moses ended with the highest bomb so far, forcing Jaxson Paulo to land square on his back to collect it – so quickly and deftly that Papali’i had no choice but to careen over him, giving up the first penalty of the game for a dangerous tackle. The Eels rallied their defence in response, but Latrell survived a big pack effort to drag him over the left edge, and Mansour racked up some metres on the other side.
This was the first really elastic set from South Sydney, and they capitalised at the end of it, parlaying Sauce’s run into a pivot out from the wing and then back in again – a deft pass out of dummy half from Gagai to Walker, and then a mirroring sweep from Walker, through Gagai, to Mansour, who had enough space to just cross over untouched before Opacic landed on him. Again, Mansour was doing well in Alex Johnston’s boots, bringing the Bunnies to six on the board when Reynolds added a beautiful, deliberately low conversion from the sideline.
Nicholls got the restart rolling with another tough carry, and Koloamatangi followed in his footsteps, only for Murray to make the first South Sydney error by putting down a regulation pass from Cook. Parra now had a chance to hit back, and an augmented set when Taane Milne was put on report for a high shot on Moses. Matterson took the first tackle in the Bunnies’ twenty, Lane the first in their ten, and the Eels got six again, off a Murray ruck error, as Moses came off for an HIA, only to return a moment later, as Parra were shaping into a right sweep.
Everything hung in the balance over the next couple of tackles, as Will Smith (who had come on for Moses, and stayed as Lane left) glimpsed space off a Paulo pass, and Blake caught a parabola ball from his halfback and made a mad dash at the left try line, where Arrow came in for the first great trysaver of the afternoon. You could see the Bunnies’ determination on Jaxson Paulo’s face as he barraged into a big Parra pack for the first carry, and the big men followed suit, clearing space for Walker and Sauce to make space for Gagai up the left wing.
This time, though, Matto got in place, charging up behind the ex-and-future Knight after he collected the offload from Mansour, and tackling him over the try line for a second dramatic shift in possession. Yet the Bunnies got the ball back immediately, and effectively had an augmented set, when Gutho coughed it up a moment later, making their way to the Parramatta ten with two tackles up their sleeve. Tevita Tatola took his first hit-up in two weeks, and Mansour crossed over for a double off a sublime combo from Walker and Latrell.
Once again, Walker set up the assist, shifting the footy out to his fullback, who did just what a fullback should – showed his intuitive and instinctive awareness of exactly where his teammates were, since Latrell didn’t take his eyes of the try line as he flicked out a no-look pass that caught Sauce directly on the chest. Full credit to Mansour for the putdown as well – a sublime soar into space that encapsulated the newfound state of flow that the Bunnies had wrested out of the last volatile period of play. Reyno converted, and Souths were at 12.
This conversion was a subtle counterpart to the previous one – just as low, initially, but gradually ascending until it ricocheted off the right post and back above the crossbar. It was as if Reynolds were gradually orchestrating his kicks in anticipation of making South Sydney history when he surpassed Eric Simms as the club’s greatest pointscorer during tonight’s match. Still, the Eels did well, defensively, on the restart, while Moses seemed to rally them with a big play – coming in hard and fast on Reynolds, dumping him ball-and-all onto the turf.
Moses’ aggression got the best of him here, however, since he tempted Marata Niukore into a second effort, setting up South Sydney for the first dropout of the night. A few plays later, Reynolds shaped left and sent it right through Latrell to Paulo, who broke through the line up the wing and kicked at speed, spinning the Steeden back in field and over the chalk, where Mahoney only just managed to clean it up before a pack of Rabbitohs descended upon him.
Arrow took it hard and fast up the middle on the first play, only to knock into the biggest combined effort from the Parramatta big men so far – Matto and Paulo on top, Niukore around the bottom, desperate to make up for his penalty by forcing a loose carry here. The Eels had the scrum feed, and the potential to effect the biggest momentum shift so far, as Niukore translated his defensive determination back into the first tackle, and Matto did the same on the third. Parra looked sharp now, ending with another towering bomb from Moses.
Still the Bunnies survived, as Mansour took the kick, and effected a late offload for Gagai to make an additional ten metres on tackle one, only for Latrell to slightly mistime a cut-out ball to Mansour midway through the set. Sauce lost it, and the Eels had another let-off, experimenting with some elastic ball play up the middle third, including a sharp pass from Gutho, before Moses booted it deep into the left corner. Paulo and Sivo went for it, and Reyno knocked it dead, so this initially looked like a dropout, or a restart off a potential Paulo error.
Yet the replay showed that Sivo had made the error, meaning the Bunnies finally had a turnaround of their own. Mansour was atop the VB Hard Earned Index at 58, light years above Junior Paulo on 39, while Latrell rattled the defence with a strong carry on play two, so Souths had enough in their arsenal to capitalise now, even with thirty-five minutes of football behind them. They completed their set without doing anything special, and then got another shot when Mansour took a fairly standard Moses bomb on the bounce, right on the Bunnies’ line.
Finally, three minutes out from the end, they got a Mahoney offside right in front of the posts, and an early rest as Reynolds, who was now only three shy of Sims, booted through the two. He missed a second penalty kick on the siren, but got his chance to make history shortly after he returned from the sheds. Parramatta had the first set, and didn’t do much with the position, despite Papali’i’s strongest charge of the night, ending with a soaring bomb that Mansour managed to collect on his chest despite Opacic grounding him with a strong chase.
South Sydney also didn’t do that much with their first carry, with Reynolds opting to kick early from his own forty, and they even gave Papali’i another charge at the line before Sauce got his men back into first-gear with a top-tier tackle on Gutho. Papali’i was forced to take the kick, and did well, although the challenge of securing it just seemed to galvanise Latrell, who broke into space up the right edge, and elasticised his team mates into a really dynamic set.
They were at the Parramatta ten by the pentultimate play, where Reyno opted to run the footy, shifting it out to Walker who executed a kick so shallow it was more like a pass – the nexus between a kick and pass, read perfectly by Gagai, who scooped it up, pivoted off the left boot and cantilevered over Gutho on the line, standing in the tackle for a good two or three seconds, and using the Parramatta custodian as a fulcrum before he finally tipped over.
It was a scintillating South Sydney try, the perfect appetiser for Reyno’s historic conversion, which put him at 1842 points, the most ever scored by a Rabbitoh, since Eric Simms set the current record in 1975. It was sad that it didn’t occur in front of a South Sydney home crowd, or at a South Sydney home game, and yet the silence of the stadium spoke to Reynolds’ modesty as well, since there were no heroics here – just determination to get on with the job.
Parramatta survived the restart, and the Bunnies got yet another twenty-metre restart when Moses booted it too deep, shaping the kick from so far back that Mansour didn’t have any chase to contend with as he casually waited for the Steeden to slide over the dead ball line. The Rabbits had pivoted to and from the left wing to set up Sauce’s first try, and they did the same on the right here, starting with a cut-out ball to Latrell, straight across the face of Su’A.
Latrell shifted it out to Taane Milne, who bumped off Moses and offloaded back to Reynolds. Three defenders piled on, so Reyno was right on the ground, and the tackle on the very cusp of completion, when he offloaded back for Latrell to assist Paulo with a superb harbour bridge ball – a mirror image of the Reynolds-Latrell cut-out pass that set it all up. Even Reynolds’ conversion was perfect here, straying from its trajectory only to curve back for the final arc.
Mahoney gave them an accelerated restart with an error early in the tackle count, while Niukore personified his whole team when he came in for a monster tackle on Tatola, and emerged with blood streaming from his face. He was pinged for a high shot, and the Bunnies chose to tap and go, getting a fresh wind as they waited for Niukore to get his face bandaged. Two tackles later, Koloamatangi glimpsed a space on the right edge, where he twisted into a Papali’i tackle, looked right, looked left, and lobbed it back to Murray, facing his own goal line.
Murray seized the moment, getting some joy after a spotty opening half by burrowing his head down for a wall of Parramatta defenders that never really came. Instead, he only had to contend with a last-ditch ankle tap from Gutho, setting up Reynolds for his easiest conversion of the night. The Bunnies now had 32 unanswered points, and the Eels had to ground a little over a point per minute if they were going to have any shot of even rivalling that scoreline.
This sequence was also a testament to South Sydney’s decision to tap and go, instead of taking the two, in the wake of Niukore’s error. They were in a groove, and didn’t feel the need to do anything special on the restart, when Reynolds simply opted to kick well before the last for additional field position. By this stage, Moses wasn’t doing much but bombing, and his next boot did the trick, landing with a dangerous bounce that Latrell only just cleaned up in goal.
The Eels now had the most significant turnaround since the break, so they had to make the most of the dropout here. Niukore and Matto got them rolling with a pair of strong carries, and Gutho set up some metres for Blake on the left edge, before Nathan Brown took a strong run in the same part of the park, and flicked out the offload that finally set up Parra’s first try. Bryce Cartwright collected it, and lobbed the ball out to Blake, who set up Maika Sivo’s seventeenth try of the year – a mad dash back in from the wing as Latrell stormed in on him.
Gutho added a sharp sideline conversion and the Eels got stuck into their restart, while Sivo relished being in the top five tryscorers of the year – one below Turbo and Jason Saab, four below Josh Ado-Carr, and seven below Alex Johnston at 24. Moses took the kick, Gutho withstood a big combined tackle that almost lifted him off the grass, and Nathan Brown was strong up the middle, but Mansour was safe beneath Moses’ bomb, and Souths had the ball.
Moses looked truly animated for the first time as the final quarter arrived, barking out orders to his men, and involving himself more in the organisation of play. That seemed to galvanise the Eels on their next touch of the footy, when Gutho responded with some searching footwork on the first tackle, and Moses ended with yet another bomb to Mansour, who took it clean, but was clearly starting to feel the burden of all these high balls directed at his wing.
Reynolds sent it end-over-end at the end of the next set, in what was starting to feel like a bomb-off between the two kickers. Paulo tried to steady the ship with a bullocking carry two plays into the next set, making more metres post-contact than any forward so far, and laying the platform for a strong Gutho run that tempted a desperate high tackle from Milne, who was put on report for his effort. This was a big boost for Parra, who had their first full set inside the South Sydney twenty, and their most pummelling series of tackles from close range.
The big men laid the platform, but the critical play was a Niukore offload out to Dylan Brown, which loosened and stimulated the attack until Moses capped it all off with a superb grubber that threaded through the defence and appeared to sit up right in Matterson’s hands – to the point where it looked like an optical illusion, at least from some angles, when Walker stormed in to ground it. This was the very definition of not giving up on the play, and the single most determined defensive effort of the night, even if the Eels scored their second on the dropout.
After a game where his fractured back had largely relegated him to kicking duties, Moses opted to run the footy now – and ran it sublimely, tucking the Steeden under his right arm and pivoting off his left boot to break into space and condense this barnstorming energy into a delicate grubber right on the ten. Blake collected it, and smashed over untouched, with Latrell only getting a hand to him in goal, before Gutho added another kick to make it twelve.
This should have been a consolidation moment for the Eels, and probably would have been if Moses was operating at full capacity, since his eyes were wild with leadership, as he continually sized up the defence and barked out orders at his men, in total command of the park, at least at the organisational level. Sure enough, he grubbered on the last, and Blake followed with a chip kick that very nearly defied Latrell, who managed to get his boot over the sideline as he made contact with the Steeden, making this a much-needed Souths scrum.
They may have been twenty points ahead, but the Rabbitohs still had to come back big here – both to keep Parra out and to steel themselves for their finals push over the next couple of weeks. Moses was forced to kick from his ten at the end of the next blue and gold set, while Latrell was back over the halfway line on the first tackle, such a dramatic disparity in field position that the Bunnies felt destined to put down four more here. Mansour couldn’t quite make it on play four, but they got six again in the Parra ten when a Gagai pass was played at.
They got even more position when Gutho stripped the ball from Burgess with Mahoney in the tackle, directly in front of the posts. The big men responed with a series of hard charges at the line, only for Burgess to take a second shot beneath the crossbar, where he lost it into a low hit from Carty. Su’A may have infringed the ruck a few tackles later, but the Bunnies were back on the Parramatta line when Blake lost the footy, and Mahoney was pinged for a hand in the ruck – the latter thanks to a Captain’s Challenge to prove the error wasn’t from Nicholls.
Reynolds booted through the penalty, and the Eels got two final heartbreaks in the last six minutes. The first was the most shattering, as Mahoney came to ground awkwardly beneath Latrell as he was being tackled by Sivo, and arose clutching his left shoulder, leaving the park immediately, in clear distress, still crouched on the sideline as Paulo chased down a Benji Marshall grubber out of the scrum to score the final South Sydney try deep in the right corner.
There hasn’t been a bleaker moment this year for the Eels, who also have the toughest end of the season – a finals run just to get to the finals, as they face off the Sea Eagles, Storm and Panthers, with only the Cowboys as a breather in two weeks time. Mahoney’s face spoke volumes as Reynolds booted through the conversion, concluding a critical game for the Rabbitohs as they prepare for what should be a straightforward win over Gold Coast before facing the Panthers with Nathan Cleary back on the park, and the Roosters the week after.