On paper, Friday night’s preliminary clash between the Bunnies and Sea Eagles was a hard one to call. South Sydney put in the best defensive performance of their season to beat Penrith in Week 1 of finals footy, meaning they’d had a fortnight to rest and recuperate. They didn’t have Latrell Mitchell, and Blake Taaffe was only playing his seventh first-grade fixture against the Panthers – yet he’d been consistently brilliantly after a short spotty start. Cody Walker was staring down his first grand final as a Rabbitoh, and Benji his last game in the NRL.
On the other side of the Steeden, Manly had started the 2021 season with four successive losses, but were now one game away from the grand final – a testament to the amazing resurgence that Turbo has helmed since his return. During the finals season, they’d easily beaten an injury-depleted Roosters outfit, but they’d been disposed of just as comprehensively by the Storm, meaning it was important, above all, that they maximise their star fullback if Kieran Foran and DCE were going to return to their GF halves pairing of 2011.
As it turned out, Manly’s performance was somewhere between their last two finals fixtures – they were able to activate Turbo, but not early enough or consistently enough to come away with the chocolates. While they scored two straight tries in the last ten minutes, both with Josh Aloiai in the bin, and while they won the second half, they let in a torrent of South Sydney tries in the first half that made it too difficult to claw their way back – an important rhythm-builder for the Bunnies as Adam Reynolds appeared to be struggling with a leg or groin issue.
Taaffe dropped the kickoff again this time, but managed to recover it and pop it back to Tevita Tatola for the first run of the night. Dane Gagai and Cameron Murray made up for this early glitch with some powerful energy up the middle, before Tatola combined with Mark Nicholls to drive Jason Saab back a couple of metres when he took the first kick on the full. Taaffe took his next kick deep in his left side of the field, in the face of a tough chase from Turbo, and the hosts tried to take advantage of this shift with some elastic left play a couple of tackles later.
While Manly contained them, Adam Reynolds followed Nicholls and Tatola to drag Reuben Garrick back ten metres – an important show of leadership given he hadn’t put ball to boot so far. DCE regathered some field position by driving it low and hard to Taaffe, who was stopped in his tracks by Sean Keppie, before Jake Trbojevic halted Gagai to prove that Manly could contain the South Sydney charge as well. Once again, Cody Walker took on kicking duties, and this time Nicholls and Keon Koloamatangi stopped Saab making any metres at all.
Five minutes into the game, you had to wonder whether Reynolds was having leg or groin issues, even though his speed and precision seemed good when he took advantage of the first error of the game – a dropped ball from Keppie – to speed his men into the Manly red zone with a full set up their sleeve. Walker dummied to Koloamatangi out on the left edge, and took the ball back just as quickly, shifting the play out to the right, where the Eagles had to summon their most scrambling defence so far to prevent Jaxson Paulo plunging over for four.
Meanwhile, Keppie had been stumbling ever since the tackle that saw him lost the Steeden, and was now taken from the field, six minutes in, for an HIA, as Marty Taupau came off the bench much earlier than expected. Souths still had two plays in the ten, and got the first dropout off a well-placed Walker grubber that Turbo had no choice but to take into touch. DCE went relatively long with the kick, sending it almost to the halfway line, and Reynolds reached the red by play two, before Taaffe headed for the corner and popped it out to Paulo.
As if trying to expel the memory of Reyno’s ten-metre tackle, Garrick stormed in for a big one-man effort and very nearly dragged Paulo into touch, but Jaxson managed to flick the footy back inside at the last minute. Josh Schuster and Campbell Graham converged on it, and while Schuster did manage to drag his quarry over the sideline, he’d already knocked on during the contest, meaning the Bunnies got a scrum on Manly’s line. They made it a repeat with the first six again of the match, off a Jake Turbo ruck error, only for Taaffe to lose it a tackle later.
This was a critical early moment for the Sea Eagles, who had to score quickly and clinically here to make up for so much goal line defence, especially now that word had returned from the sheds that Keppie wouldn’t be returning. DCE opted for a spiralling bomb that didn’t pose any problems for Walker, although even getting to the kick was a relative achievement here. Nicholls was back over the halfway line midway through the set, and from there the Bunnies shifted left, as Walker ad libbed with a fifth tackle kick that put Turbo under some pressure.
While Tom managed to clean it up, the Sea Eagles were trapped in their own end now, forcing DCE to boot it well within his own forty, even as the Bunnies had cleared theirs by tackle two of the subsequent set. Again, they shifted left as soon as they cleared the halfway mark, and this time they received a restart off a Morgan Harper touch, securing themselves a full set within the ten. After so much goal line defence from Manly, something had to bend here – and it did, thanks to the most enterprising play on the left edge so far from Gagai and Walker.
The first half was all Gagai, who improvised a deft kick that ricocheted off Saab before Turbo reached out his left hand to contain it, only to send it back onto the goal line. DCE tackled Gagai before he could collect his own kick, meaning he was only able to tap the Steeden back in field, past Harper and Lachlan Croker, but any question of a penalty try was put to bed by a superb one-man effort from Walker, who seized the footy, gathered it into his chest, somersaulted it into touch, then kicked it triumphantly into the crowd all in one fluid motion.
This was exactly the individual effort Walker needed to bring to his troops, since any doubt about Reynolds’ kicking health was put to bed when Taaffe opted to take the conversion – a curious situation given that the little general didn’t have any strapping on his leg, and didn’t seem to be in any evident discomfort either. The Bunnies commenced the restart with 64% of possession at 315 run metres to Manly’s 163, but the didn’t get to the kick, as the Sea Eagles bounced back with what could and should have been the first comeback of the game.
Everything looked good when DCE dummied a couple of times to open up space on the right edge for Harper, but by the time he popped it on to Saab, there were three Rabbitohs waiting to drag him over the sideline, prompting one of Des Hasler’s most animated moments of the year in the coaches’ box. Manly got a restart on their next set, thanks to an offside error from Damien Cook, and a fresh Dylan Walker to boot, but Paulo only had to stand beneath DCE’s bomb to get it, while Cook made up for his error with a twenty-metre run to the halfway line.
Still, the Sea Eagles got another burst of field position when Murray accidentally swung an arm into DCE’s face as he was coming to ground beneath a low tackle from Graham. On the cusp of the second quarter, Manly had only played the ball five times in Rabbitohs territory, so they needed to make good here – and they initially seemed to have done just that, in the best possible way, by drawing on Turbo’s sublime speed to make space for Garrick to dance along the sideline and slide over. In another blow, though, Suli obstructed Reyno in backplay.
The Sea Eagles had gone from a near-try to conceding a penalty – and defending Murray as he made up for his error by crossing into the twenty on tackle three. Walker was just as restless a play later, laying the foundation for a rapid Cook grubber that Turbo had no choice but to clean up in goal, conceding his second dropout of the game. The spectacle of Taupau’s face streaming with blood said it all, and the dropout was delayed for a brief beat as he got some bandaging to cope with copping Walker’s knee during the mad dash that set up Cookie.
Taaffe now slid to his knees to take the kick, Jai Arrow made solid metres up the middle, and Cook sped things up on the third, almost busting through a Croker tackle before shooting it out for Tom Burgess to barge at the chalk on the right and secure a set restart for his troubles. Su’A stayed in the same part of the park, prompting a heroic trysaver from Foran, before the Bunnies abruptly shifted right, where a beautiful cut-out from Taaffe sailed right across Gagai’s chest and caught the chest of Alex Johnston, who outsped Saab for four in the corner.
With this try, Johnston became the highest ever tryscorer in the modern NRL era with 28 to his name, while his two main competitors were on the park – Turbo, who was one behind, and Saab, who was two behind, the only other contender being Nathan Blacklock on 27 for the Dragons back in 2001. You wouldn’t have known Taaffe wasn’t the top-choice goalkicker either, as he booted through another two and the Bunnies got stuck into another restart with 15/17 completed to 6/10, only for Manly to get a surprise shot with a loose carry from Arrow.
Turbo took the reins again at the end of this set, culminating a right-side raid by carrying the Steeden over the chalk with a putdown that was initially called a try but rescinded when he lost it in goal beneath a combined and cascading tackle from Taaffe, Walker and Paulo. Just as quickly as the Sea Eagles had regained their rhythm, they’d lost it, since the longest Bunker scrutiny so far failed to prove that Taaffe had executed anything like a regular stripping action.
In retrospect, this was probably the key turning-point of the night – certainly the first-half –as Turbo glimpsed the game-changing try he so often keeps under his belt but failed to contend with the South Sydney wall of defenders. That said, the Bunnies were slightly muted at the start of their next set, as if sobered by the beginning of their last restart, and anxious not to repeat the error – and that caution continued with the second half of the set, despite a strong burst from Graham up the right, finally paying dividends with six again on the last.
In its own way, this was one of the best sets from the Bunnies so far – testament to their ability to reshape and regather when they were on the back foot. Everything now crystallised on the right edge, starting with Murray coming to ground in front of the right post, and almost reaching out his arm to put the Steeden down. He wisely chose to take the safe option, leaving room for Taaffe to put in his best footwork of the game, defying two defenders before Graham completed the right-side surge that started it all by spilling over in his fullback’s wake.
For a moment, this looked like a certain try, and Graham was already celebrating it when he rose to his feet, but the on-field ruling was no try, while it was impossible to see the footy in the replay, let alone an angle to confirm the putdown. All in all, it seemed like Croker and Foran had done the job well here, keeping their quarry off the ground, his legs spinning in the air, as Croker, in particular, contorted himself so that the Steeden could only land on his chest.
This was a disappointing moment for South Sydney, but they bounced back in the best possible way a set later – with Reynolds’ first kick of the game, a superb bomb that ushered in a miniature team try as Murray leaped up to tap it back to Cook, who parlayed his escalating speed in a deft run through a low tackle from Harper and a pitch-perfect left-footer that sat up perfectly for Walker to scoop and score, as Turbo surged in as last line of defence. In one play, Reyno and Walker had rediscovered their synergy, elasticisng their team between them.
In other words, you couldn’t have asked for a better consolidation play here – or a more enterprising second kick from Cook, who cemented this as a congealment moment for the South Sydney spine in particular, as Taaffe added the extras as confidently as he had all night. It was a pretty dire spectacle for a Manly outfit who had crossed twice, and had both tries denied, especially since Reynolds had now warmed up enough for a second kick all the way to the sideline, determined not to let this preliminary final go the way of the last three years.
To his credit, DCE responded in kind, mustering one of his biggest boots of the night to give Souths a taste of working it back from their own line, but even then Reyno hoisted it high from the right edge, denying Turbo any chance of a kick return as he weathered the fifth chase from Campbell to come to ground on his own ten. DCE wasn’t as staunch this time, feeding it out to Haumole Olakau’atu and receiving the offload again to tumble over the sideline – not on the back of a pack effort or hit, but after losing his balance to make his way round Johnston.
Benji Marshall trotted onto the park a moment later, as Murray headed to the sheds for a well-earned rest, while the Sea Eagles pivoted around a characteristic no-looker from Schuster to build metres on the left and secure a restart in the process. Yet that just made Walker’s loose carry a tackle later more destructive, as the Bunnies effectively resorbed their momentum, making their way clinically back to the ten, where Graham continued to dazzle on the right, taking a low Reynolds ball beautifully to assist Paulo for four more on the wing.
Taaffe missed his first conversion of the night but this was still a resounding passage to send the Bunnies into the sheds, while the Sea Eagles would bounce back after the break to win the second half (if not the game) 16-14. They got on the board on their second set, which started with Turbo sticking a boot over the sideline as he took a Walker kick on the full, providing his men with the field position they needed to spend most of this set in the twenty.
Tom had the first big run in the red zone as well, not making many metres, but still bouncing out of enough tackles to dishevel and exhaust the South Sydney defence, so that one play later they were totally unprepared for the clinical left sweep, and no-look pass from Schuster, that put Garrick across on the left wing. While Johnston’s try had been a record-breaker, Garrick wasn’t doing too badly either, reaching 328 season points with the kick – well ahead of Brett Hodgson at 308 in 2005, and creeping further towards Hazel El Masri’s 342 in 2004.
This had the potential to be a rhythm-changer if the Sea Eagles could score again soon, and Taupau got them rolling with a huge run to commence the restart. Admittedly, he didn’t make many metres, but the rollicking energy of his charge scattered the South Sydney defence enough for Suli to almost break through the line a play later, laying the foundation for a second wind that saw the Rabbitohs working it back from their own chalk on their next carry.
Harper consolidated further with a deft offload to DCE on play one of the next set, so it was agonising when Olakau’atu’s effort at second-phase play ended up as a loose carry. Burgess’ effort wasn’t much better, but the Sea Eagles were suddenly too deflated to try and contain the footy as it rolled back along the turf and into Arrow’s hands. In another game, Haumole’s error might have just been a blip on the radar, but it was so reminiscent of the Sea Eagles’ wasted opportunities in the first half that it ended up denting their momentum more here.
Luckily, Turbo stepped up to contain Reynolds’ first grubber of the night, right in front of the posts, and yet even this made it more frustrating when he was unable to replicate Schuster’s no-look dexterity with his worst pass of the night to Harper a couple of plays later. The Bunnies were back in the twenty with five tackles up their sleeve, and this time Graham got his try on the right edge, thanks to an effortless assist from Benji, who took it at the ten, built on Reynolds’ timing, and paused for a subliminal moment to send Campbell into open space.
Only Garrick was in position to defend him this time, and while he made a valiant low tackle, the wiry backliner was still able to twist and spin a full 360 degrees, cantilevering so rapidly off Benji’s short ball that Foran only got fingertips to him on the curve. Taaffe added another two, cementing himself as Reyno’s successor with the boot next year, bringing the Rabbitohs to a 28-6 lead with just under thirty minutes on the clock. They looked lean and hungry on the restart, working their way up the middle with a dexterity Manly simply hadn’t mustered.
To be fair, Croker did come up with a heroic tackle on Burgess, but it barely registered at this stage in the match, not unlike the Sea Eagles’ subsequent sweep to the left, which ended with more big contact between Reynolds and Garrick – not a drive-back, but a clinical tackle that prevented the Manly goalkicker from garnering any more position up the sideline. Meanwhile, Gagai was raring for position early in the next set, while Johnston offloaded so effortlessly to Walker you could have forgotten it was one of the best one-handers this year.
Conversely, the Sea Eagles had really lost motivation here, sinking back into a lethargic passivity that felt quite surreal after their brief opening burst, so their next six again couldn’t come soon enough when Burgess infringed the ruck at the start of their next set. DCE’s next bomb was well-placed, soaring high above the middle of the park, but again, the visitors just didn’t have the energy for the kick chase that should have forced a handover when Taaffe failed to take it on the full. Instead, the Bunnies regathered it and went on the attack again.
Reynolds marked this shift in energy with a flourishing flex of a spiral kick. Barely clearing ten metres, it couldn’t possibly be classed as a bomb, although it had the same destructive and dispiriting impact – not by forcing a Manly error, but by further decelerating and demotivating them, leaving only DCE to steady the ship with a spiral of his own. This was one of Daly’s best kicks of the night, so it was agonising for the away crowd to see Taaffe learn from his opening error against the Panthers and back off from the play for Cookie to take it clean on the bounce.
Even South Sydney’s vulnerable moments were working in their favour, since they’d now built such a sterling sense of flow that they were able to take small blips in their stride. Sure enough, when Graham lost the footy backwards a few tackles later, it was no big thing – Walker scooped it up, Reynolds got to his bomb, and Paulo leaped above Garrick to take it clean, before moonwalking backwards to dispose of Turbo and score the next Rabbitohs try.
Taaffe missed the conversion with his worst kick of the night, but it barely mattered, since this was the moment when it became clear beyond any doubt that the Bunnies were heading to the grand final. Even better, the Bunnies had got this critical try off a Reynolds bomb after their star halfback hadn’t kicked for the first 25 minutes, while Reyno continued to shine at the end of the next set, when he careened into Aloiai to force the footy loose on Souths’ line.
The next Manly set had an air of desperation about it, as Aloiai tried to make up for his error with early post-contact metres, and Garrick shanked the Steeden at such a weird angle that it travelled a good ten metres back, on such a odd trajectory that even Turbo was unable to save it. Wayne Bennett had his own moment of anxiety when Walker rose gingerly from a dangerous Olakau’atu shot, but he looked fine a moment later, making the most of the extra field position to almost break past Harper up the left edge, before clearing space for Johnston.
With the win all but secured, Johnston opted for an ambitious play that didn’t quite come together – running at the wing, leaping in the air when it became clear he wasn’t going to break through Harper, and lobbing the footy back inside on the off-chance it would find Gagai. It didn’t, although with a 32-6 scoreline this could barely be called a letoff for the Sea Eagles – just a slight break in pressure as they struggled to make metres out of the scrum. In the end, DCE had to boot it in his own thirty, and the Bunnies got another penalty, for more position.
This time the dangerous tackle came from Aloiai, who took out the indignity of being disposed of by the littlest man in the South Sydney pack by coming in low and hard to lift Nicholls well above the horizontal as Benji waited on the sideline. Again, a weak moment for Manly also had some precarious potential for the Bunnies, who surged in from all sides to give the big prop a piece of their mind. Luckily, nobody in the cardinal and myrtle ruled themselves out of next week’s clash against the Panthers, while Aloiai was on report and in the sin bin for ten.
At the same time, Nicholls was taken off for an HIA, bringing Benji onto the park as a free interchange, while things got worse for the Sea Eagles when they lost their Captain’s Challenge a moment later in an effort to contest a Harper error. As if spooked by these last two high shots, Bennett brought Reynolds off the field now, which worked nicely anyway to accommodate Nicholls, who’d passed his HIA and was ready to join Benji back in the battle.
The Bunnies set up another dropout a minute later, as DCE opted to go short, and while nobody managed to get the footy back on the kick, Daly himself recovered it a couple of plays later – a sobering reminder of just how much this Manly outfit had dissociated, by this late stage, into its key playmakers, who were themselves struggling to hold it all together. Sure enough, Garrick broke into space up the left edge on the next set, and booted it inside for DCE to converge on it, but these two big plays didn’t produce the try you might have expected.
Instead, Taaffe absorbed their energy into an intercept and fifty-metre run, laying the platform for a Harper crowding penalty and a fresh set right on the Manly line. Yet it was now the Bunnies’ turn to lose a challenge, in an effort to prove that Tatola hadn’t knocked on a Murray offload five out from the chalk. The replay clearly showed him getting a hand to it, so the question was whether the Sea Eagles would be able to do something with Garrick and DCE’s two last individual moments – not to get the victory, but just for some off-season pride.
They tried to coalesce their collective focus through some gruntwork up the right edge, and it did the job, clearing up room for Suli to break into space on the other side of the park and assist his fullback to break the record for most tries in a season for a Manly player – and match Johnston for most tries for a modern NRL player. This whole sequence was so effortless that it was a bittersweet reminder of the kind of flow Turbo has galvanised this season – too little, too late now, especially as Garrick somehow shanked the Steeden away from the right post.
Walker got the restart rolling with the kind of rollicking run that comes when you’re playing for pride above all else, taking the footy again on play three and feeding it across for Schuster. Josh may be great at executing no-lookers, but he’s not as strong at receiving them, and he coughed it up here, gifting the Bunnies almost an entire set back inside the Manly red zone. Everyone was tired by this point, though, and Tatola followed his knock-on with another loose carry here, handing the scrum feed back to Manly, along with their last real shot of the night.
The Sea Eagles delivered too, scoring their second straight try with twelve on the park – and a near carbon copy of their previous four-pointer to boot. Again, Suli burst into space, except that this time he shifted his attention to the wing rather than the middle third, giving Garrick the opportunity to reprise his recent mad dash up the left sideline but with a try and conversion this time around. Strange as it sounds, South Sydney really had to score again here to consolidate their belief heading into next week, so quickly had Suli assisted these two tries.
To their credit, that’s just what they did, surviving the restart when Turbo capped off one of his spottier nights of the year by lobbing the Steeden over the sideline midway through. Aloiai returned from the bin a moment later, but he wasn’t on the park long enough to make much of an impact, while the Bunnies scored out of the final scrum of the evening. Nicholls worked it up the middle, Cook set up Murray for more metres, and they swept left, where a sublime tap-on from Taaffe assisted Johnston to score in the wing for a concluding scoreline of 36-16.
This was the perfect way for South Sydney to reclaim the narrative after Manly’s late surge. Not only had Johnston jumped ahead of Turbo again for most tries in a NRL season, but Taaffe’s pass was every bit as good as anything that Latrell could have provided, even as it seemed to channel Latrell’s dexterity out on the left edge this year as well. They’re heading for the big dance next week, a prospect that immediately eclipsed Taaffe’s missed conversion, while the Sea Eagles will be looking to build on Turbo again when they return for 2022 footy.