CHARITY SHIELD: South Sydney Rabbitohs v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (Glen Willow Oval, 26/2/22, 10-16)

The Dragons have come away with their first Charity Shield in a decade, taking advantage of a South Sydney outfit smarting from the loss of Adam Reynolds and Latrell Mitchell to nail down a hard-won converted try victory, despite not securing a single conversion over the course of Zac Lomax and Tyrell Sloan’s kicking stints. Put that down, in part, to a terrific period of leadership from Ben Hunt, who had a hand in virtually all of their major sequences, and condensed their vision after the break, when the Rabbitohs failed to score a single point.

That’s not to say the Bunnies were lacking either, though, since their next generation clearly have what it takes to start building a new dynasty at Redfern – especially Blake Taaffe, who was solid tonight, stopping a critical Sloan try late in the piece, and Lachlan Ilias, who marked himself as halfback in Reyno’s absence with the second 20/40 in the modern NRL after Brandon Smith’s strike against the Panthers in last year’s Prelim Final. Undergirding all that new blood was terrific vision from Cody Walker, especially on a few key last tackle plays.

The Rabbitohs had the first touch and spent the whole set in their own end, with Ilias taking his opening kick just over the halfway line. Jaxson Paulo and Jacob Host summoned a huge tackle to drive back Jaydn Su’A early in the first St. George set, meaning Hunt had to take his own opening kick a little further back, just over his own forty. Between the absence of Reynolds for the Bunnies’ kick, and the action on Su’A in Dragons colours, the Rabbitohs already felt somewhat haunted by the departure of two of their key 2021 players.

It was a good motivator, then, when they got the first penalty on their next set, off a Jack Bird second effort, allowing them to break the Red V’s red zone for the first time, where Walker finished off the count with a slightly misplaced grubber that the visitors were able to clean up after Hunt stuck out a boot to deflect it. They went penalty-for-penalty early in the next set, when Ilias became the next Rabbitoh to target Su’A, and Paulo came in for another shot on the big man too, doing just enough to get himself pinged for a flop.

Now it was the Dragons’ turn to take a shot at the opposition twenty, and they delivered immediately, thanks to a steadying run up the middle from Talatau Amone, followed by a clinical left sweep that saw Hunt flick a short one to Sloan, who followed with a cut-out assist to Cody Ramsey across the chest of Moses Suli. The young no. 2 didn’t have enough space on the ground, so he found it in the air, leaping outside Josh Mansour, and almost clearing the corner post, to put St. George four ahead once Lomax missed the kick.

Aaron Woods, Su’A and Jack De Belin got the restart rolling with the strongest trio of Dragons charges so far, and while Campbell Graham did well to shut down Suli, Hunt decided to enterprise on the last play with a flick out to Sloan. Everything accelerated from there, as the young fullback offloaded round the corner to Bird, who had to reach out his full wingspan to take it facing his own goal line, before popping it basketball-style across for Suli to send it on to Ramsey, who condensed the flow of his last try into a barnstorming break up the left edge.

He almost could have gone it alone here, but opted for the sensible play, popping it back inside for Bird to smash through Walker and score. Lomax might have missed his second conversion, but the Dragons had gone back-to-back in the first ten minutes, channelling Parra’s superb performance against Penrith in a statement of intent: surely, this would be the year that they broke the Charity Shield hoodoo. It was a small victory, then, when the Rabbitohs survived the restart, although took another hit in field position pretty quickly

It came from Walker, who compounded both his missed tackle on Bird, and the Bunnies’ anxieties at seeing Su’A in St. George colours, with a slap on Souths’ former enforcer in the midst of a mild fracas at the thirteenth minute. The Dragons now had their first full set in the twenty, so the cardinal and myrtle needed a special play as soon as they got the ball back, since they were dangerously close to unleashing a torrent of Red V points now. Alex Johnston was the man in defence, cleaning up a Hunt grubber right on the line and avoiding a dropout.

Even better, Ilias translated that defensive acumen back into attack with his first great play at halfback – the first 20/40 of 2021 to get his men their first really sustained stint in the Dragons’ twenty. Hame Sele almost reached the line midway through the count, forcing a bone-rattling trysaver from Andrew McCullough, while Woodsy did the same on Keaon Kolamatangi, before play shifted to the left of the posts, where it took the combined heft of Hunt and De Belin, and a ruck infringement from Hunt, to shut down another huge charge from Tatola.

All of a sudden, with these three barrelling runs, the Bunnies had woken up – and it only took them one more tackle to put down points. Cook fed the footy out to Walker, who echoed Bird’s buildup to the second Dragons try by turning around to face his own goal line as he twisted away from Lomax and flicked it on to Paulo. The young backliner almost fumbled it, but managed to regain possession, dodge away from Su’A for good measure, and slam through Sloan at the death without having to rely on Johnston barking for it out on the wing.

Taaffe added the extras, so we were down to a two-point game, despite that early surge of St. George energy, and all of it came off Ilias’ 20/40 kick, something Reyno never achieved during his time with South Sydney. The Dragons survived the restart, the late afternoon sun re-emerged over Glen Willow, and Sloan tried to reprise the left-edge combo with a harbour bridge ball to Ramsey, but found the Rabbitohs ready to shut it all down, before Josh Kerr hit Taaffe a milisecond before he landed from taking the high ball.

The Bunnies wasted no time in consolidating up the right edge, and got a fresh burst of field position when Ramsey knocked on a Koloamatangi offload, while Tom Burgess trotted on to join the subsequent scrum, facing off brother George for the first time in his first-grade career. He didn’t stay on for long, putting in a professional foul on Amone at the end of the Dragons’ best burst in a while, as Hunt hit back against Ilias’ boot with an inspired kick on the third, clearing up space for Sloan to toe it even further down the park.

Ilias got there first, but didn’t secure the bounce, leaving it open for Sloan to clean up, while conceding six again to give St. George a much-needed stint in the South Sydney twenty. As Burgess left the park, Hunt continued to organise the play beautifully, shaping right twice only to give Ramsey another crack at the line on the left, and George a strong charge to assert himself as the only Burgess on the park. By the time the Dragons finally headed right, then, the Rabbitohs were completely unprepared for how rapidly and elegantly they consolidated.

It all came down to arguably the best individual play of the game – a mercurial piece of footwork from Lomax, who dodged around Walker, Paulo and Johnston, and then condensed all that choreographed complexity into the pure simplicity of the one-handed bullet ball that sent Mikaele Ravalawa across untouched. It was slightly marred by his third missed conversion, meaning the Dragons were only a converted try ahead despite being 3-1 for tries scored, but this was still a rousing display from a Red V desperate to break the Bunnies’ streak.

Again, this was one of those moments when a torrent of tries felt imminent, so a Kerr mistake on the restart was especially damaging, deflating the game as a whole as both teams settled into a error-for-error rhythm as the half hour point came and went. Still, the Dragons had the upper hand in terms of momentum – the Bunnies had scored their best try off an Ilias kick, and conceded the best St. George try off an Ilias error, so it was critical they step up now to prove that they could start the year with a bang even in Reyno and Latrell’s absence.

They started to make headway at the 34th minute, when Siliva Havili hit the ten, and Lomax bumped Paulo over the sideline, but not without a belated sin bin for Jaiyden Hunt for a late tackle on Graham early in the count. Letting the whole set unfold before the penalty probably played to Souths’ advantage, since Lomax’s contact was likely necessary to galvanise them into their next try through two sets that drastically decelerated before Walker saved them with visionary last-tackle plays.

This first set started fine, with a pair of offloads from Paulo (to Walker) and Arrow (along the ground to Burgess) but Ilias couldn’t make it a hat trick, and spent an age playing the ball in the face of a Bird-Kerr tackle. Realising he had to escalate immediately, Walker delivered a deft grubber that Sloan had to clean up, and yet the dropout was plagued by the same sluggish rhythm Ilias had showed in getting to his feet, as Host, Burgess and Arrow struggled to make decent metres, or to summon the barnstorming contact that was needed now.

Finally, Koloamatangi glimpsed space on the right wing, and brought the requisite energy. While this prompted a heroic David-on-Goliath legs tackle from Hunt, the big second-rower had generated enough slipstream for Walker to save the day again, this time by ducking out of dummy half and only just getting the Steeden on the line in the face of a crunching combo from McCullough, Bird and Ramsey. Taaffe missed the conversion, but the Bunnies had narrowed the gap to two points when they headed to the sheds, despite being a try behind.

Mathew Feagai had a rough first touch after half time, allowing the kickoff to slide past him and over the sideline. The Dragons had a dropout to contend with instead of their opening set, while Burgess was right on the line midway through the count, off a stunning lead-up run from Kolamatangi, who continued to shine with a short-range charge on the fourth. This time, however, Walker couldn’t nail the final play, and was cleaned up without a kick or charge on the right, while Feagai took the first carry of the next set to reset the Red V spirit.

Woodsy followed by standing for an age in the tackle, McCullough almost broke up the middle, and Hunt booted it long to recoup field position, before delivering the chase of the night to ensure that Taaffe didn’t clear the ten. It marked the start of a particularly strong period for Hunt, whose aim from short range was just as good, a set later, when Bird opted to run it on the last, and popped out a short ball for Suli to offload on the left edge for his halfback, who struck it so true that Sloan very nearly scored the next try then and there.

Instead, Cookie arrived just in time to knock the Steeden dead, but the Dragons had restored their rhythm on the dropout, which started with a terrific run from Amone, who wove around two lines of defence and almost made it to the line on the right. From there, the Red V seemed to have an endless supply of charges in their arsenal, with McCullough putting in an especially barnstorming effort, while the Rabbitohs had to dig deep to withstand this assault, as Sele was called offside within the ten, and Ilias was penalised for a high shot.

Despite this plosive attack, however, the Dragons were just waiting for Hunt to deliver the playmaking – and he brought the second stanza (and the game itself) full circle by basically reprising St. George’s opening try on the left edge, while giving Feagai some joy by sending him over in Ramsey’s place. All it took was a short ball to Suli, who flicked it out for Feagai to sail over on the wing, bringing the Red V to their final scoreline of 16 once Sloan took over kicking duties from Lomax and missed it as well, putting them 0/4 with the conversions.

Hunt wasn’t quite done yet, condensing this superb period of playmaking into his most mercurial moment so far. Finding himself with the footy right in front of the posts, he pivoted subliminally from side to side, sizing up the full import of the field before flicking a stunning offload out for Sloan to collide into Taaffe, who heroically stood his ground, but couldn’t prevent his fellow fullback from wrestling his way to ground. Sloan lost the Steeden on the way, but regathered it, and had clean possession as Ilias joined this battle of the young guns.

In the end, Sloan lost it, but not due to any direct action from the South Sydney defence. Instead, he denied himself, cradling the football so precariously in the crook of his elbow that he was unable to find the grass as the tackle coalesced around him. The Dragons still had four plays up their sleeve, and yet this was a momentum-killer, fracturing their right sweep out to Jack Gosiewski, and ushering in an Amone knock-on, in the same part of the park, to bring this golden period of Hunt-inspired attack to its final stages.  

Neither team would score again over the final quarter, although Hunt came close a few minutes later, when he condensed this scintillating sequence into one last dash at the line. Pivoting even more dramatically off the right boot than he had for Sloan, he bypassed the middle man and took on the line himself, only to lose the Steeden as soon as he made contact with Taaffe and Cookie. A try here might well have galvanised the Dragons into a last quarter torrent, but instead the cough-up marked the end of Hunt’s period of peak flow.

Sure enough, Hunt’s next chip was taken by Dean Hawkins, while his third decision to run it on the last didn’t pay the dividends of the first two, fizzling the St. George attack further. The Bunnies now had a mini-surge, as Romano Cook made up for a forward pass by combining with Sele to drag Gosiewski back ten metres early in the count, and Taaffe managed to swerve away from a barnstorming chase from Ravalawa as he took the ball deep in his own ten, before Mikaele paired with Ramsey for another agonising almost-try for the visitors.

Ramsey started with a speculator on the first tackle of the subsequent set, flicking the footy out to Ravalawa, who seemed somewhat taken by surprise, almost fumbling it in the air, but quickly channelling the frustrated contact of his charge on Taaffe into a near-break up the right edge. He still got the offload away, right on the ground, and if Ramsey had taken it clean, the St. George wingers would have set up one of the most scintillating tries of the night. Instead, he lost it onto the turf, keeping it a six-point game as the final ten minutes arrived.

Souths got their last shot off a pair of errors from Jaiyden Hunt and Connor Muhleisen, the last of which saw St. George lose their challenge. Settling into one final bout of goal line attack, they shifted left on the fourth, as Hawkins struck a grubber hard enough to go over the dead ball line, but injected enough spin for it to sit up at the last minute, forcing Ravalawa to bump it dead. A converted try here and we might have been in for the first Charity Shield draw since 2015, but instead Terrell Kalo Kalo put down a messy pass from Walker.  

The Dragons thus came away with their first trial win over South Sydney in ten years – perhaps not all that surprising, given the absence of Reyno and Latrell, albeit a slightly worrying sign for the cardinal and myrtle as they prepared to (possibly) meet their ex-captain when they take on the Broncos in a fortnight’s time. On the other side of the Steeden, this is a terrific motivator for the Red V when they take the Warriors midway through Round 1 – a vision, in miniature, of their determination to work their way back from a decade of disappointments.

About Billy Stevenson (750 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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