The Bunnies had locked in their position in the top four for the sixth time in a decade when they hosted the Dragons at Kawana Waters on Saturday night, sandwiched between Penrith and Manly, who had jumped up to fourth place after their spectacular win over the Cowboys earlier in the day. For the first time in team history they closed out the season with a twentieth win, conceding fewer games than any South Sydney outfit since 1989, and desperate to avoid a fourth straight preliminary finals exit for their stint against Penrith for the first week of finals.
The win was all the more impressive in that this was a relatively inexperienced team with Latrell Mitchell suspended and Adam Reynolds rested. The spine was largely young guns, with Peter Mamouzelas at hooker, Lachlan Ilias on debut at halfback, and Taaffe returning to fullback after his custodian work in Round 17 and 18. Ilias was five when Benji’s flick pass won the 2005 Grand Final, and with so many younger players on the park, Benji’s game management was everything – until he left the park in the closing quarter with an arm injury.
At this point the Dragons mounted an incredible comeback, putting down three tries in nine minutes after having been kept scoreless for the first sixty-eight minutes of the game – and with Josh McGuire in the sin bin for the first two. Benji’s absence was the final catalyst, but the Bunnies lost their groove a bit earlier, when Jaxson Paulo got too complacent in the face of Tyrell Sloan on the wing, decelerating and ultimately botching the try that would have taken South Sydney to 24-0 – a slightly worrying sign for Souths as they prepare for Penrith.
This was one of the better comebacks of the 2021 season but overall it was a pretty drab night for the Dragons, who were still in the top eight when they met the Bunnies five weeks ago, and had now closed out their year with eight straight losses. It was an especially hard night for the two iconic players who might well be playing their last game in St. George colours here – Corey Norman, who ended three years with the Dragons by dropping the ball in the critical final set, and Tariq Sims, who was whisked to a plastic surgeon for a damaging lip laceration.
There was a breeze from the north blowing over the park, and it favoured the Rabbitohs during the first stanza of the night. Junior Tatola got them rolling with a deft offload for Mark Nicholls, and Jaydn Su’A followed big metres up the middle on their second set. Benji Marshall kicked for the second time, taking pressure off Ilias, and his aim was even better now, trapping the Dragons right on their line. They elasticised a bit on the right edge though, and crossed into Rabbitohs territory on tackle four, only for Taane Milne to take Norman’s kick with ease.
Ilias took his first kick at the end of the next set – a short-range effort from the Dragons’ thirty that Tyrell Sloan was able to collect pretty cleanly. Even so, the Red V were struggling to make metres, so Norman’s next kick was an important step – a long one that forced Taaffe to take it right on the South Sydney line. Nevertheless, they were back in the red zone at the end of the set, where Ilias got a dream debut sequence – a grubber from just inside the twenty, and then his first NRL try when he chased it down and capitalised on a Mikaele Ravalawa mistake.
Ravalawa had two shots at the ball, trying to scoop it up in both hands and then attempting to reclaim it as he tumbled to ground. Both efforts failed, leaving the footy live for Ilias to storm in and bang it down with both hands, bringing the Bunnies to just under a point per minute when Taaffe teed up the sideline conversion. This was his first ever attempt, and he was unlucky, ricocheting it off the left post, but at such an angle that it ricocheted back into the field of play, rather than clearing the crossbar. Still, this was a pretty rousing opening try.
Tevita Tatola took his fifth run to anchor the restart, and Mathew Feagai was forced to take the high ball right on the chalk, as the Dragons began yet another struggle to work it out of their own end. They got a boost now with the first restart of the game, off a ruck error from Braidon Burns, and finally made it inside the South Sydney forty, where Norman came up with a fairly easy kick for Jaxson Paulo. Nicholls continued to be massive post-contact on the next set, as Ravalawa became the next player to take it on the line, in the face of big Souths chase.
By this stage, the Bunnies were seven from seven and error free, so this was the right time for them to accelerate into some more enterprising plays, especially since Norman’s next kick was the most dangerous from any half so far. Bouncing back at an awkward angle, it totally defied Taaffe, and rolled around treacherously as Milne tried to avoid the knock-on, giving St. George time to mount a convincing kick chase, only for Jack Bird to cough it up in the process.
Even worse, the Dragons seemed to have conceded a try on the very next set, when Burns crossed over off a superb clutch assist from Milne on the cusp of being bundled over the left wing. Burns caught it clean, but bobbled it ever so slightly from his right hand to his left arm as he momentarily made contact with Nicholls on his way to the line. The onfield decision was no try and the footage wasn’t clear enough to overturn it, although this was probably the right decision in the end, since there was a chance that Milne’s pass was marginally forward.
Nevertheless, this was a consolidation moment for the Bunnies, even without a try – and another notch in the belt of Ilias, who set it all up with a confident no-looker out to Milne on the wing. Norman’s next kick slid over the sideline, the Rabbitohs got a brief breather, and so St. George didn’t seem to have absorbed much momentum from Burns’ denied try either. For the first time in this game, South Sydney found it hard to get out of their own end, but Benji did the job with a terrific long kick on tackle four that put the Dragons back on the back foot.
Benji’s effort was a salient reminder of just how conservative this game had been for both sides – and how eventful it was when Josh McGuire conceded a penalty for a late hit on Tatola late in the next South Sydney tackle count. With only four points on the board, and given the Bunnies’ proclivity for penalty kicks – they lead the league – Benji marshalled his men into taking the two. Taaffe slotted it through and the Rabbitohs had a converted try lead on the cusp of the second quarter, while the Dragons also got a chance to take a break and regroup.
Jacob Host was the next South Sydney forward to carve up the middle, getting Benji in place to bomb from the thirty, while Paulo and Campbell Graham delivered a strong chase to force St. George to struggle for field position yet again. For the second time, however, the Red V got a restart to piggy-back them out of their own end, this time off a ruck error from Peter Mamouzelos, but the set totally backflipped on them two tackles later, when Norman opted for a cut-out ball that Gerald Beale really should have taken clean instead of spilling it forward.
Graham seized the moment, scooping the Steeden up, tucking it under his right arm, and outpacing Feagai easily to put down the second cardinal and myrtle try of the night. It was a bit worrying that Taaffe missed the conversion here, since he had an easier angle this time around, but even so the Bunnies had ten unanswered points on the board with a (relatively) inexperienced side. They got more position on the restart too, when Amone became the next young gun to show his greenness, slamming into Taafe two seconds after he passed to Burns.
South Sydney now had an augmented restart, accelerating into the first real goal-line attack of the night, as Mamouzelos nearly crashed over on the right, so it was frustrating that Benji finished with his first mistimed kick, making it easy for Norman to clean up the play. Sloan flicked it forward two tackles later, but the unforced error was eclipsed by a Host offside. This was the chance that the Dragons needed, especially when they got six again in the Bunnies’ thirty, giving them a full set to play with in the red zone, and their own shot at the goal line.
All of a sudden, this relatively long-range game had turned into back-to-back goal-line attack, but the long range element returned with a vengeance three tackles later, in a reprise of two of the key moments from the game so far. It started with a Norman cut-out ball towards the right wing, where Bird spilled it forward as Beale had before him. Milne scooped it up, and reprise his left-edge assist for Burns, but this time at the opposite end of the field, flicking the footy back into his winger just before a big Dragons pack dragged him into touch once again.
Burns now broke into space, running three-quarters of the park before Sloan finally got to him, forcing him into a messy offload them Amone managed to clean up in time. Yet these two flashbacks to the Beale error and the Milne-Burns combo were mere preludes to the repeat performance that probably won South Sydney the game – a second Campbell try on the back of a St. George error. It started with what seemed like a second poor kick from Benji too – an overlong effort that Sloan seemed destined to take effortlessly right on his goal line.
Instead, he was defied by the sheer power of Campbell’s chase, although you could also make a case that the wiry centre had pushed Feagai into Sloan. Sure, he hadn’t been able to avoid the contact, but he’d also led with the hands, precipitating the tumble backwards that prevented the St. George fullback from taking the Steeden, and so leaving it open for him to dive on it and score. Yet the Bunker cleared it, putting the Bunnies fourteen ahead when Taaffe missed another conversion. With the kicks, they would’ve had 20 unanswered points.
In fact, we were reaching the point where Souths needed a big one-man effort to make up for Taaffe’s issues with the boot – and Benji provided it soon after, with a terrific 40/20. Yet this ended up working against the Bunnies, since their failure to capitalise on the subsequent close-range set gave the Dragons a brief burst of energy before the break, thanks in part to a pair of ruck errors from Ilias and Mamouzelas, the youngest Rabbitohs in the squad. Yet St. George were their own worst enemies, cascading into a string of errors as the siren arrived.
That said, the Bunnies had a near-miss four minutes out from the break, when Campbell nearly made it a hat trick off Red V errors – and a double off Sloan errors. The young fullback missed the footy right on the line, and Paulo knocked it on, when he could have conceivably left it for Campbell, or flicked it up to his centre to score. This was a frustrating moment, but it also suggested that South Sydney were well placed to continue their lead after the break.
Instead, they would only score one more try, while the Dragons would mount a heroic comeback that turned this into a four-point game by the eightieth minute. They got rolling on the first set by accelerating towards the Bunnies’ forty, but the speed overtook Sims, who opted to run the footy on the last, only to flick it over the sideline while looking for a winger. Just like that, South Sydney were back in the Dragons’ red zone by play four, and scored a tackle later, with a spectacular left sweep that saw the three key young guns finally congeal.
Mamouzelas got them rolling with strong service out of dummy half to Host, who fed it on for Ilias to reprise his no-looker from the first half. This time he had more space to really lock eyes with the St. George defence, almost shaping as if to run the footy himself, before flicking it on for Taaffe to assist Milne out on the wing. To cap it all off, Taaffe booted through his first conversion, bringing the Bunnies to twenty unanswered points. These might have been the last they scored, but seeing their newer players sync buoyed them up for the rest of the game.
This try was also a testament to Benji’ leadership, both on the park and in the sheds, where he had apparently been very vocal in encouraging the younger players to step up and carry the day. Back on the field, play paused a few sets later, when Sims slammed into Host for one of the more brutal head clashes of the year – so bad it initially looked like the most egregious kind of high shot, as Sims was downed instantly, blood pouring off his face onto the Steeden.
Amazingly he stayed on the field, and so became a figurehead for a Dragons outfit who had to really defy the odds to come up with such a close scoreline by the final siren. Sloan had one of his better takes a few plays later, getting away from a couple of South Sydney defenders, and clearing up space for a good run from Bird on the second, only for Poasa Faamausili to lose it into the face of a big Nicholls-Ilias hit a play later to concede the scrum.
The Bunnies should have scored off the following sequence, which saw them execute two enterprising plays on both wings. First, we were treated to a variation on their last tryscoring sequence, as Ilias sent a cut-out ball to Milne, who popped it back inside for Taaffe to go to ground, confident of receiving six again. Benji then drove it deep into the right edge, clearing up space for a fast pass from Taaffe and a catch-and-pass from Graham that gave Paulo adequate time to get past Sloan and slam down another try – but not all the time in the world.
It was a weird show of complacency, then, when Paulo actually decelerated on his way to the chalk, so confident of beating Sloan that he allowed the St. George fullback to bump him into touch. There was a brief fracas, and a few words, shortly after, since the Bunnies seemed to sense that something had shifted here – that Paulo’s play had opened up the door for a late Dragons comeback. Things got worse when Taaffe let a Norman bomb slip through his hands, while Jack De Belin set up a challenge with a tough run to the line on play one off the scrum.
Yet the Red V didn’t even make it halfway through the set, as Ilias came in for a hit to knock the footy out of Tyrell Fuimaono’s grasp, while word returned from the sheds that Sims wouldn’t be returning from the park. He’d left five minutes after the clash with Host, and apparently failed the HIA and had a pretty bad lip laceration to contend with as well. Sims had been a figurehead for the Dragons’ staunchness earlier in the night, so it was pretty dispiriting to see him take the bench for what might well prove to be his final game in the Red V jersey.
As the final quarter arrived, St. George still hadn’t scored a single try, while the Bunnies were at a point for every three minutes of football. Play briefly paused when a three-man tackle from the field officials brought down a streaker, with a fourth hi-vis jacket piling on for good measure, while the Bunnies waited to complete the last tackle in their latest close-range assault on the Dragons’ line. They swept left rapidly, as if trying to recoup the momentum, they’d lost, but Benji’s cut-out ball was too long, sailing past Burns and far over the sideline.
Conversely, the visitors got six again at the start of their next set when Cartwright infringed the ruck, and got away with a forward pass midway through, before Norman capped it off with a spiralling bomb that Milne did well to contain. Paulo was the next player to get away with an error before McGuire stepped into the spotlight with the mammoth one-man effort the Red V needed – a huge hit that totally skittled Cartwright. Once again, the Dragons got six again on play one, off a ruck error from Nicholls, and finally seemed to be finding some flow.
As a result, their next set felt like a minor consolidation, as McGuire followed his tackle on Cartwright with a strong run up the middle, and Jayden Sullivan made more metres when he didn’t find anyone waiting for him at marker. Yet Norman’s grubber failed to cross in goal, just when a dropout might have secured a St. George try, while McGuire’s recent enthusiasm got the better of him on the next set, when he swung an arm into Mamouzelos as De Belin brought him to ground. He may have been falling, but he had an age to pull back from contact.
No surprise, then, that McGuire was taken off the park, while Ilias returned from the bench as Mamouzelos got an HIA, putting even more pressure on Benji to lead from the halves. There would have been a certain poetic justice in Cartwright scoring now, but he couldn’t quite make his way to the line, as the Dragons survived the first close-range attack with twelve men. In fact, they’d go on to score two tries with McGuire off the park, while managing to keep South Sydney scoring again – a pretty impressive result given the last seventy minutes.
Part of that comeback was undoubtedly due to Benji leaving with a hand injury, leaving the young guns without a really stored veteran to guide them around the park as Patrick Mago trotted off the bench. The moment Benji left, Sloan crossed over, getting some joy after a tough night when he chased down a Norman kick and managed to secure it in the face of two South Sydney misses – first from Dean Hawkins, and then from Milne. Put that down to the brilliance of the grubber from Norman, who was always going to convert from in front as well.
This was a decent consolation try, but it did come off a kick – the Dragons still hadn’t breached the Bunnies’ line in a convincing or compelling way. Still, it didn’t seem too far off now, since they were galvanised by their first restart of the night, even if the Bunnies did well to regather their defence in the closing tackles. Norman reprised the backwards bouncing bomb that almost defied Taaffe and Milne in the first half, although this time Taaffe was equal to it, while Ilias matched it via a freaky kick that landed just in the field of play and ricocheted back inside.
The Dragons survived, and worked their way straight up the middle, thanks again to a tough run from De Belin, but the ball handling wasn’t as strong, as Davvy Moale made an impact off the bench with a big hit to rattle the footy free from Amone. Burns was at the Dragons’ ten by tackle three, eluding the other Burns with a fast dance across the defence, and yet Billy had the last laugh, landing on a Hawkins grubber before there was any chance of a dropout. Meanwhile, Sims was directly on his way to a plastic surgeon to deal with that lip laceration.
By this stage, all the Bunnies really needed to do to maintain the 20-6 lead was hold their line and grind in for the last six minutes, so it was frustrating when Tautau Moga was pinged for a shoulder charge on Beale. A few tackles later, Sloan nabbed his first career double, and made the first really scintillating break in the South Sydney. No surprise that De Belin laid the platform, flicking it over for his fullback to take it thirty-five out, get away from Su’a and outpace Taaffe at the death to put it down with fingertips a millisecond before he lost control.
Norman sliced the kick away to the right but this was quickly turning into a decent scoreline after such a luckless seventy minutes of Dragons football. One more try would be enough to hold their heads high during the off-season, and they got a boost when McGuire returned from the sheds with four manures to go, while Cartwright concluded a pretty rough night by copping a second big blow – not from McGuire this time, but from Lawrie, whose contact was completely legal, but tough and hard enough to seem like it may have broken Jed’s sternum.
In these dying minutes of their season, the Dragons had finally taken control of the game, keeping the Bunnies down their own end when Paulo slipped after collecting the high ball. All of a sudden, Souths’ main priority had been to complete their regular season without conceding any more tries, which meant they had to withstand what might have been the Red V’s last full set, two minutes out from the closing siren Yet this was just when St. George struck, thanks to their best right sweep of the park, and another long-range putdown to boot.
Amone and Bird got things rolling with a pair of superb fast passes to Ravalawa, who stormed his way up the sideline and simply trampled over Taaffe to plant the footy down. Norman converted as quickly as possible, and the Dragons had one more set to put down the converted try that would win the game. After seventy minutes of one-sided football, and three tries in nine minutes, we suddenly had a grandstand finish, and a taste of finals energy.
In the end, though, South Sydney stayed strong, containing some enterprising play on the left edge before it all finished with an unforced error from Norman, who coughed up the footy in the middle of the field. And that was St. George’s season in a nutshell – moments of brilliance undermined by a lack of global discipline and consistent handling – closing out their year with eight straight defeats. On the other side of the Steeden, the Bunnies are well placed to welcome Adam Reynolds back, as they prepare for his final finals appearance with the club.