ROUND 23: Sydney Roosters v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (Suncorp Stadium, 27/8/21, 12-54)

Clashes between the Roosters and Rabbitohs are probably the one local derby that can generate an Origin intensity on a regular basis, and Friday night’s game immediately enters the canon and lore of this oldest of rugby league rivalries. Latrell Mitchell was responsible for most of that animosity, turning the match into a full-blown spite fixture after an egregious shoulder charge that saw him return to the park only ten minutes after he’d sent Joey Manu to hospital for a fractured cheekbone, resulting in the most volatile fourth quarter this year.

During this last period, we came closer to a full-on fight that any game this year, all three Origin matches included, as Ash Klein really struggled to contain the aggro, culminating with both Dane Gagai and Sitili Tupouniua being sent to the bin on the brink of full time. Add to that the Suncorp backdrop, and this was like an Origin-Roosters-Rabbitohs mashup, a terrific antidote to the lingering malaise of lockdown, and surely a cathartic match for both clubs too.

Still, this was clearly a landslide night for the Bunnies, who suffered their first loss in almost three months to the Panthers last week, putting a pin in the comeback they’ve created ever since their fateful first game against Penrith, when they came away 12-56 in Dubbo. Any residual regret was completely quelled tonight, though, as they beat the Chooks in three consecutive matches for the first time in 33 years. A key part of that drive came from Mark Nicholls, who bounced back from a lacklustre game against the Panthers to score a double.

Even so, this game, like so many others in the last few months, belonged to Reynolds and Latrell. You couldn’t have asked for a tighter demonstration of Reyno’s worth to the Rabbitohs than this match, since when he was off with a knee injury during the third quarter, the Bunnies didn’t score, and came close to mirroring the second stanza slump that hampered their Round 3 match against Sydney City. This was also the period when Teddy and Sam Walker peaked against the Red V last week, so for these twenty minutes the game truly hung in the balance. 

Yet as soon as Reynolds returned to the field, the Bunnies got going again, while Latrell, in particular, achieved a white-hot flow, a state of pure rage, that was always on the cusp of spilling over again and becoming too volatile, but never quite crossed that line. Add to that Walker’s superb organisation with Reyno in the halves, and the Rabbitohs had a tryscoring celebration – thirty in the last twenty, culminating with a Johnston hat trick right on the siren.

Of course, the Roosters could have fielded a top eight team with their injury bench, especially since Ben Thomas was taken off as soon as he careened into the first tackle of the second half. Even though they were playing for a top four place, and even though some of their young guns put in a heroic effort, they just couldn’t compensate for the amount of talent on their sideline, especially when they had to deal with Manu’s absence, and the way it went down.

Daniel Tupou took the first tackle, and Isaac Liu followed with five post-contact metres on the third, clearing up space for the Giraffe to make some early headway up the left edge, including the opening offload of the night. Drew Hutchison collected it, and got set to drive back infield, only for Tevita Tatola to spearhead a big pack effort to drag him over the sideline. The Bunnies started their first set at their own thirty, and were in Roosters territory midway through the count, though Teddy was safe under Reynolds’ first bomb in the face of a punishing kick chase.

Siosiua Taukeiaho now followed Liu with decent metres after contact, and the Chooks got to the end of their set with a deft Sam Verrills kick under pressure. Nevertheless, Souths had another augmented set, thanks to a swinging arm from Taukeiaho on Alex Johnston, while Jai Arrow showed he could make post-contact metres too, bringing the Bunnies into the Roosters’ red zone for the first real attacking position of the game. Cody Walker made the most of it, running right to the line for a well-weighted grubber Teddy had to ground in goal.

Tedesco didn’t go all that far with the dropout, keeping it within the Roosters’ end, so Dane Gagai was inside the twenty by tackle two, where he assisted Johnston off the Bunnies’ first left edge raid of the game. This was brutally clinical timing, as Walker ran deep into the line, bringing in Sam Walker for a collision with Arrow, and then fed it out to Gagai, who waited until the last minute to tempt the tackle from Joey Manu, before sending it on for Johnston.

With such a brilliant sweep, Brad Abbey was only ever going to get fingertips to his quarry, sliding across the dewy ground as Johnston curved around to effectively score untouched. Reynolds was comfortably on top of the goal-scoring ladder when he lined up the conversion – 105, compared to Reuben Garrick at 97, and Nathan Cleary at 74 – and he added another one here to put the Bunnies a little under a point per minute. It was a potential rhythm-changer, then, when Fletcher Baker prevented Reyno getting his kick at the end of the restart.

That’s not to say that the Bunnies were any less brilliant now, but that the Roosters grew a little more confident in containing them, thanks to two strong returns. The first came on the next set, when Tupou took the high ball cleanly, and the second a set later, at the end of one of South Sydney’s best segments of attack so far. They travelled seventy metres up the middle in a few economical tackles, heading left once again, where Latrell pulled back beautifully from the play to ensure that Walker could reprise his earlier combo with Gagai and Johnston.

This time Abbey and Tupouniua converged on Johnston, meaning Walker got the Steeden on the last, back in field, where he danced from foot to foot, on the cusp of translating all this mercurial left edge magic into something really special with the boot. Yet he eventually wrong-footed himself, waiting just a beat too long for a grubber that should have at least set up a dropout, but ended up being taken clean by Verrills, who burrowed the ball into the turf.

Play now paused while Tatola was attended for an HIA. He stayed on the park, but had his head bandaged, and this breathing-space remotivated the Rabbits, galvanising them into some really punishing defence when the Roosters resumed. A pair of big pack efforts kept Tupou in the ten and Liu in the twenty, and while Egan Butcher compensated with big metres down the middle, and even reached out an arm for the offload, no one was waiting in support.

The Chooks lost more headway when Fletcher Baker was put on report for a crusher tackle on Arrow, as this last period of South Sydney football came full circle. Last time they were down Sydney City’s end, Tatola was getting an HIA; now he took the first carry, laying the platform for the Bunnies’ first real surge on the right edge, where Campbell Graham stood for an age in the tackle before offloading for Latrell to bump through several defenders. He got within five metres of the try line, burning with the energy we’d see in full force later on.

Meanwhile, Souths parlayed that passion into a pivot back in field, where Cameron Murray came up with the offload of the game, withstanding a legs tackle from Tupouniua and high contact from Verrills for a one-handed offload to Tatola a millisecond before he hit the turf. Tevita claimed the footy came off his left leg before he regathered and ground it , but with a call of no try the Bunker had to decisively prove that there had been no knock-on here – and they couldn’t, exhausting all available angles to deny the second South Sydney try of the night.

Reynolds still added the penalty kick to make it an eight point lead, and this had undoubtedly been a brilliant Bunnies set, but even so the denied try fed back into the gradual Roosters’ resurgence (relatively speaking) that had been bubbling prior to Graham and Latrell’s linkup on the right wing. Sure enough, they congealed two tackles into the next South Sydney set, when Taukeiaho came in low, and Tupouniua piled on top, to force Nicholls into a loose carry.  

The Roosters now had their first good attacking position of the night, and focused most of their early playmaking on the right wing, where Teddy elasticised with a deft ball to Abbey, and Manu cleaned up a flat pass. They drifted left towards the end of the count, where Tedesco was confronted with a suffocating tackle from Reynolds, before Hutchison chipped back to the right for an absolutely spectacular one-man display from Manu beneath the kick.

First he ran past Walker, then he bumped off Gagai, pulling in the footy with his left hand, and securing it into his chest as he tumbled to the grass, where he managed to ground it securely – the very definition of an individual clutch play. This was a testament to Manu’s vision and leadership in the backline this year, but credit goes to Hutchison for the kick too, since his precision ensured that whoever caught it could basically fall down for the try. Taukeiaho booted across the extras from in front, and just like that we had a two-point game. 

The Bunnies didn’t waste any time responding, as Su’A absolutely skittled Baker with the hardest hit of the night a tackle later – a hit to the ribs as Murray and Nicholls piled on top, before supporting Cook as he drove deep into Tupou on play two. Once again, Egan Butcher was the man to make metres after a slow start, but Latrell took the kick easily and got his men rolling from the thirty, although Tupou now came back with a big riposte to the tackles from Cook and Su’A, slamming into Graham to force a knock-on as Reynolds barked for six again.

In any other game, on the cusp of the second quarter, and with only a two-point difference on the board, this might have well been a tipping-point. Yet the Bunnies took it in their stride when their Captain’s Challenge came back inconclusive, lulling Tupou into a false sense of security as he parlayed his hit-up into the first tackle out of the scrum, before Murray came up with his second split-second effort of the night to steal the footy from Manu at the very instant that Cook and Arrow pulled back from the tackle. Just like that, the Bunnies were back.

Tom Burgess marked his presence on the park by taking the next hit-up, Arrow reined in a challenging pass from Walker, Nicholls got his men a restart late in the count, and Latrell reprised his right side raid. He didn’t get any further this time, but he did require more Roosters to hold him up now, with Hutchison and Lachlan Lam doing most of the heavy lifting. Finally, the two key playmakers of this set combined, as Murray built on his strip with a stunning assist for Nicholls, who drew on his forced restart by taking the footy over the line.

Tupounoiua tried to intercept him with a legs tackle, but Nicholls simply careened over the contact and reached the full length of his body to slam down Steeden-first, consolidating what was already a terrific comeback game after last week’s lacklustre performance against the Dragons, when he’d only managed 8 runs for 40 metres. Now he had 10 runs for 85 metres and a try, after barely a quarter of football, and he’d get more joy before the match was out.

Meanwhile, Reyno had tripped on the dewy surface before feeding it out to Latrell, who added the extras from right in front as his captain got his right leg attended to on the turf. It looked like a potential hyperextension, but Reyno was only limping slightly when he returned to his feet, and rallied his men with his most towering bomb so far at the end of the restart, before playing a central role in South Sydney’s next period of consolidation and acceleration.

Tupou hadn’t conclusively stripped the footy from Walker, Murray had responded with a clinical strip on Manu, and now Reynolds stripped it from Tupou after he’d received it from Manu, garnering his men a full set within the Roosters’ red zone. Even better, he repeated the run to the right edge that saw him slip in the first place, driving the footy deep into the right corner himself instead of relying on Latrell, before Latrell gathered that displaced energy into a monster run on the other wing, clearing up room for a big Burgess charge up the middle.

From here, everything ran like clockwork, and seemed preordained, as Cook scooped up a rapid play-the-ball from Burgess and shot a bullet ball back across Tom’s face for Nicholls to shrug off Verrills and crash over for his second try in as many minutes. He’d only scored four tries in 105 games before tonight’s double, and that accelerated pointscoring lifted Souths to a new flow, as Latrell added the conversion and they got rolling again with 64% of the football. 

Burgess took a big run, and Arrow made big metres after contact, offloading out the back for Jacob Host to add more muscle up the middle, as Murray followed in his slipstream. With so much drive from the big men, Walker was content to kick midway through the set, and though Teddy took it, he was absolutely swamped by Gagai, Johnston and Walker himself, who ran thirty metres to join his left-edge buddies for the best and toughest chase of the night, while  Souths survived the next set so seamlessly it was as if Sydney City never had the Steeden. 

Burgess’ next run on the third said it all, embodying a Rabbitohs outfit in a state of pure flow, from a Su-A-Graham offload, to a beautiful harbour bridge ball from Latrell to Johnston that Manu only just cleaned up. Latrell delivered an even more daring ultra-wide bullet pass to Murray a moment later, so it was curious when Cam came up with a fairly limp grubber to concede possession back to Sydney – especially since he leaked a restart a mere tackle later.

Even so, this set was over in the blink of an eye, as the Bunnies got stuck into more punishing attack, determined to just keep driving it up the middle until they got a chance to cross over. Lam knocked down a Latrell ball, and Latrell finally made good on his silky right wing forays out of the subsequent scrum, thanks to a scintillating run from Reyno, who carried the Steeden deep into the line and shifted it out to his fullback. From there, Latrell popped it out to Jaxson Paulo, and never gave up on the play himself, running a strong hard line in tandem.

As a result, he was right in place to regather the footy when Paulo careened into touch, ducking under Hutchison to score four more before rising to his feet with a roar of triumph. His exuberance is always a sight to behold, but he was especially amped up now, with his first ever try against his former club, exuding a raw passion that would eventually spill over into volatility in the second act. Desperate, Tupouniua tried to quench the Bunnies’ adrenalin with a big shot on Burgess at the start of the restart, and while Tom survived, Arrow coughed it up.

Last time the Rabbits knocked on, the Roosters scored, and it was paramount they did the same now, since they’d only had eight tackles in South Sydney’s half, compared to fielding 35 in their own. In other words, five minutes out from the siren, the Bunnies had a tackle per minute in the Roosters’ end, so the Chooks had never needed Teddy more than they did now. Graham knew it too, barging into him to force the knock-on ten metres out from the chalk.

This was a critical motivator for Souths, since Reynolds now came off the park with that ankle injury – a worrying sign, even if it was precautionary, and even if the Bunnies had the luxury of bringing on Benji Marshall in his place. Nothing much more happened in this first stanza, apart from Liu being put on report for a high shot on Su’A, although this was the calm before the storm, as the Bunnies would score 30 more after the sheds and escalate the game into some of the most dramatic sequences between these two traditional rivals in recent memory.

Ben Thomas was down on the first tackle back, after copping Knight’s arm in his face, and taken off for an HIA, as Egan Butcher returned early for a second stint. Host now drove Manu and Walker a few metres back to restore some pace after this opening pause, but Benji couldn’t put much depth on the kick, which Tupou collected easily to usher in the most evenly paced part of the game – a literal arm-wrestle, as Hutchison nabbed an around-the corner offload for Tedesco, and Host did the same next time the Rabbitohs had the Steeden in hand.

In fact, the next quarter was redolent of the Roosters’ Round 3 comeback, as Souths suffered a series of upsets that culminated with Latrell being sent off the park on the cusp of the final quarter. That’s not to say that Sydney City were perfect immediately, though, as Walker slightly mistimed his next ball to Tuku Hau Tapuha, who was on the park for his second time since his eleven minutes against the Eels in Round 9, and was unable to rein in the pass here.

A battle of the big men now ensued, as Burgess got the Rabbits rolling on tackle three out of the scrum, Tatola surged at the line on play four, and Knight copped a big hit and attempted to offload back to Cook, only for Taukeaiaho to seize it instead. This ushered in the one dominant period of the game for Sydney City, as they got their third restart off a ruck error from Tatola, and came off tops from another Tupou play on the edge – this time on the left, where the Giraffe popped the footy back inside just as Paulo was dragging him over the line.

Graham played at it, and Tapuha made up for his error with a muscular offload through a Knight-Burgess-Tatola combo. While the Roosters didn’t make much headway into the South Sydney ten, they got six again off a Graham error, and settled into their first goal line attack in some time. Play paused immediately, though, when Knight joined Tatola and Burgess for a another combined hit-up. Taukeiaho was the target this time, and Knight’s contact was illegal – a hip drop that saw the big prop taken off as Naufahu Whyte joined the Chooks rookie crew.

After a period that had been so dominated by forwards, Verrills’ try felt like a sleight of hand, especially since he had almost the entire South Sydney forward pack to contend with. Receving the Steeden out of dummy half, he came in low and ricocheted off Tatola, landing on his back, as the Rabbitohs’ big men crowded around him, only to reach back the footy and plant it behind his head, for a sublimely soft grounding given the intensity of Tevita’s contact.

This was exactly the try Sydney needed, a vision of calm in the midst of the South Sydney maelstrom, and yet Walker’s conversion would be their last points of the night. No sooner had they commenced the restart than they were defending their own twenty, thanks to a no-look Butcher offload that Walker collected – and no sooner had they stuck into their goal line defence than they effectively got their restart after all, thanks to an overlong Walker grubber.

The game now hung in the balance, between Walker’s superb intercept and botched kick, as Manu tipped it a little further in Sydney City’s favour with the best run by a Rooster all night – straight up the right touchline, where he busted through Burgess, Gagai and Host before offloading out of a Johnston tackle back inside to Abbey. Even better, Taukeiaho was cleared to return to the park a moment later, so this was the tipping-point for the Roosters – Reynolds conceivably off for the rest of the second stanza, and only a twelve-point gap to contend with.

It was about this time last week that Teddy and Walker really found their flow against the Dragons – and sure enough Walker trapped the Bunnies on their own line with his best kick of the game, while delivering his fastest dart out of dummy half a set later. Souths might have got a let-off when Lam knocked on a wide ball from Gagai to Paulo, but even so they were looking desperate for the first time all night – epitomised by a hasty, anxious and unnecessary Walker offload on tackle two of the subsequent set, that Cook was always going to put down.

Everything converged on the cusp of the final quarter, when Taukeiaho proved he was fine by standing in a combined tackle for at least five seconds, clearing space for his men to execute four tackles in the Bunnies’ red zone. They got six more when Latrell slammed in to prevent a Tedesco-Manu linkup on the right edge, but he got too enthusiastic a few plays later, laying an egregious shoulder charge on Manu that saw the normally placid playmaker escalate into a rage while his right cheek swelled just as quickly, ballooning out by the second.

Things very nearly escalated into a full-on fight from here, but even so this was one of the most volatile sequences all season, as Manu was immediately taken off the park, and from there to hospital for a broken cheekbone, while Latrell was sent to the bin. The Bunnies were now without the two most pivotal members of their spine, and initially looked set to be that way for the next couple of weeks too, since this is Latrell’s third stint at the judiciary this year.

The Roosters responded with a rapid right sweep, and if they’d pulled off the points they might have controlled the last part of the game, but Abbey was unable to withstand a tough pack of Rabbitohs defenders who dragged him over the line. That pack spoke volumes about South Sydney’s grit over the final quarter, when the loss of Latrell galvanised them into one of their densest passages of pointscoring this year – 30 in 20 – cementing this as another addition to the canon of Roosters-Rabbitohs rivalry matches that make the NRL so exciting. 

In other words, it was well and truly personal, as Butcher was pinged and put on report for lifting Host above the horizontal, giving the Bunnies their first real attacking chance in some time. Reyno was back on midway through this set, his right knee heavily bandaged, and he started a tryscoring sequence on his very first touch, organising a right sweep that saw the footy move through Su’A and Graham for Paulo to cross untouched. Graham assisted, but the real vision here came from Su’A – a no-look flick offload out of a punishing Hutchison tackle.

Over the last two months, Reynolds had found a new way, with each game, to prove just how invaluable and irreplaceable he is at South Sydney. Yet the age-old rivalry with the Roosters made his significance starker than any match so far, as the Bunnies went from languishing without him in the third quarter, to a tryscoring bonanza as soon as he returned in the fourth. No surprise he added the extras now, as South Sydney hit thirty, and the Chooks failed to get out of their own end – or even get to a kick option – next time they had the football in hand.

Reynolds now linked up with his halves for the first time since returning to the park, popping a crafty wide ball out to Walker, who ducked away from Liu, made a few more metres after Hutchison stormed in, and fed it back to Reyno at the ten. This synergy from the halves forced the Chooks to scramble, and then concede six again, and so the Bunnies found themselves with a full set in the Roosters ten off the back of Reynolds’ organisation, which also seemed to galvanise Walker into a renewed focus with the boot over the next couple of sets as well.

Walker’s next grubber was a flashback to the opening minutes of the match, forcing Teddy to concede his second dropout of the game. Just in case this wasn’t a sufficient indication that the Bunnies were back on track, Walker grubbered again – same spot, same weight – as Tupou followed Teddy by chasing it down, but opted to bump it into touch rather than assessing whether he could ferry it back into the field of play. With Latrell returning to the park, the last piece of the puzzle was in place, as Souths had 13-on-13 for their second successive dropout.

They shifted the Steeden out through Walker and Gagai, reining it back in when the combo didn’t work, and then correcting late in the tackle count, when Reynolds held up the line, hovering subliminally to clear up space for an equally poised pause from Walker, who finished with a beautiful cut-out ball that sailed across the chests of Abbey and Gagai for Johnston on the wing. The aim was so true that the cult winger crossed over untouched, and curved around behind the posts, setting up Reynolds for one of the easiest two-pointers of the night.

Even with his time off the park, Johnston has started to reassert his supremacy on the tryscoring table. He’s now sitting at 26, compared to the Foxx at 23 and then three Sea Eagles – Garrick and Saab at 20 apiece, and Turbo just behind on 19. This was also a significant assist for Walker, who has 36 for the season now, the same as Brett Finch in 2004, and Johnathan Thuston 2014. He’s only one behind Thurston in 2015 and Benji in 2012, two behind Cooper Cronk in 2012, and four behind Tim Smith in 2005, the highest to date in the modern NRL.

Reynolds was always going to add the extras from this angle, and the Rabbitohs congealed further on the restart, coming as close to pure flow as we ever see in footy. Nicholls took a big carry to get them rolling, and then put in some strong post-contact metres further up field, laying the platform for a sublime acceleration that started with Walker busting through a Walker tackle and flicking the footy to Gagai, round the corner of an impending Tupounia hit.

Gags couldn’t get it out to the wing, but he still brokered the speed into a rapid play-the-ball to Cook, who fed it on to Latrell to storm the last twenty metres before the Roosters had even reset their defensive line. Latrell slammed it down, roared to his feet in triumph or rage – the two were indiscernible by this point – and threw the Steeden on the ground, right next to the head of Baker, who hadn’t yet risen from the last-ditch defensive pack. Teddy, like Latrell, is normally placid, but he was clearly irritated now, admonishing his Blues mate behind the line.

The Blues connection didn’t mean much though, since this was the moment where the game actually eclipsed Origin for intensity, to the point where JWH, Crichton and Radley looked set to bust on from the bench and take a part in the action. Once again, it genuinely felt like a regulation fracas might segue into a full-blown fight, since the Chooks were clearly outraged that Latrell even had a chance to score with Manu now on his way to hospital. Both Reyno and Teddy got a warning, and Latrell tried to calm himself down as Reynolds booted the two.

To add insult to injury, he collected the footy at the end of a short kickoff, making forty metres before shifting it across for Cookie to execute the first play-the-ball of the restart within the Sydney City ten. Souths now played hot potato with the Steeden, sending it all over the park, elasticising and improvising with each fresh play, confident in their flow, confident something would come of it all. Walker ended the set with a short ball to Johnston, who Teddy bumped into touch, but the Bunnies still got the ball back after Verrills was penalised for being offside.

Tupou was pinged for knocking down a pass a moment later, and the Rabbits packed the scrum, at the most volatile moment in the whole match, meaning that Ash Klein had to really police the contact between the players as they jostled for the football. By this stage, Souths were dominating the VB Hard Earned Index – Nicholls at 83, Arrow at 77 and Su’A at 74, compared to Taukeiaho on 61 – and felt destined to score, as Walker headed to the left again.

This felt like the real sequel, or at least the potential sequel, to the Battle of Brookvale, as Sam Walker and Tupouniua got stuck into the tackle, and Klein barked at Gagai to stay away, but to no avail. In another rugby league era, this would have been a fight for the ages, but even now Gagai and Tupouniua came in hard enough to both get sent to the bin, leaving us 12-on-12 with a few minutes left. The aggro galvanised Souths, who were all flow, starting with Murray, who poured through the defence and plunged down just short of the crossbar.

From there, they headed right, where Latrell delivered the best offload of the game, Murray’s included, flicking it back to Paulo as he hit the ground, and seeming to transmit some of his magical energy to the young winger, who got to ground with Baker on his back, just shy of the line, and yet still managed to score without promoting the ball. Put that down to his restless leg movement, as well as his ability to broker the momentum of the Roosters as they piled on one by one, in a kind of spiritual sequel to Verrills’ soft grounding and grace under pressure.

Reynolds added the extras, continuing his perfect record with the boot to bring the Bunnies to 48-12, 24-6 in both halves. That symmetry would have been a poetic end to the game, but so was South Sydney’s ability to actually exceed the first stanza here, culminating their fourth quarter comeback in the last thirty seconds, when Benji built space on the left out of the final scrum, and Johnston ran forty along the sideline, eluding Teddy to score a hat trick – the perfect ending to one of the best derbies in years, more than enough to keep the grudge alive.

About Billy Stevenson (614 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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