The 270th instalment of the oldest and most passionate rivalry in the NRL was especially emotional when the Rabbitohs hosted the Roosters at Accor on Friday night. The Bunnies had won their last three against Sydney, and were looking for four straight victories for the first time in three decades, while Jason Demetriou was still chasing down his first dub as South Sydney coach after last week’s agonising golden point loss to the Storm. The Roosters, too, were keen to stay in the eight, following their stunning comeback game against Manly.
Damien Cook was celebrating his 150th game, and Cam Murray was huge, with a hand in the first three tries and the highest score on the VB Hard Earned Index, but there was no doubt this match was always going to be about Latrell Mitchell and Joey Manu, who were meeting for the first time since the shot that landed the cult winger in hospital, and cost the Chooks their full finals flow. There had been a lot of talk before the game, especially from Latrell, who had oscillated between expressing remorse and refusing to change his hard-hitting attack.
That drama escalated in the second half, which started with Manu crossing over off the first South Sydney error (a knock-on from Burgess) and intensified further when Latrell seemed to hit back right away with a try that was denied due to an Alex Johnston non-kick. Yet that made it all the more magnificent when Latrell scored untouched up the wing twenty minutes later, rising to his feet and rallying the crowd in what may have been his best ever engagement with the Rabbitohs faithful – a superb sequel to his Reynoesque two-point field goal last week.
The Bunnies almost drove Sio Siua Taukeiaho back to his own try line on the first carry, while Lindsay Collins barely cleared the twenty on tackle three, and Luke Keary was forced to kick well inside the forty. On the back of that excellent defensive set, Latrell bumped off Manu and almost made it halfway on his first charge, and Lachlan Ilias booted it from the Roosters’ thirty, drawing in Collins for a pretty mild penalty while his leg was in the air. Souths now had a full set inside the Roosters twenty, as Keaon Koloamatangi took it straight up the middle.
They swept left on play two, where Cody Walker made a shift from the last two games by taking a hard, early run at the line, before pivoting out to the right, where a Latrell dummy couldn’t produce a break. Walker was the key playmaker on the last, back on the left, where he translated that big barge at the defence into an overly weighted kick to gift the Chooks seven tackles. They elasticised up the left edge a couple of plays later, and Daniel Tupou almost broke through the line, before Collins compounded his penalty with a late cough-up.
South Sydney got their next penalty a play later, when Taukeiaho wrapped an arm around Tevita Tatola’s head, and while Tatola couldn’t manage the offload midway through the set, he got his men six again when Nat Butcher infringed the ruck. For a second time, the Bunnies had a full set inside the Roosters’ red zone, sweeping once again as Walker corrected his previous grubber with a well-threaded boot that Billy Smith had to clean up in goal. With two sets on the line, and now a dropout, the Bunnies had to consolidate immediately.
Tatola, Mark Nicholls, and Damien Cook brought them to the ten, where Sam Walker was called offside, as the Roosters stared down another set on their line, and Cameron Murray slammed through on tackle one. Dummying for another left sweep, he simply sliced past Taukeiaho and bumped off Victor Radley to score untouched beside the left post. Latrell added the extras from right in front, after not kicking a single conversion against the Storm, while Koloamatangi got the restart rolling with staunch post-contacts on the second tackle.
Ilias was just as insatiable on the fourth, taking an age to come to ground before Walker booted it to the left corner for another completed set. Four defenders piled on Manu for the next Roosters carry, and while he momentarily glimpsed redemption with a sharp run up the right and a very late low offload through Taane Milne, Tedesco was unable to contain it, as the completion rate sunk to 33%/100%. Jai Arrow dragged Manu and Walker ten metres to hit the ten midway through, and Walker put down the kick for yet another close-range set.
By this stage, the Roosters were at risk of unleashing a torrent of South Sydney points if they didn’t get their defensive line in order. They started by holding up Nicholls, who not only got the ball, but his whole body, over the chalk, as Tatola took yet another carry, and Tupou surged in to force the first error from Latrell, who didn’t have enough space to properly tap an Ilias ball out to Jaxson Paulo on the wing. This was the momentum shift that Sydney needed, and yet they didn’t break halfway before Walker booted through his next bomb.
Arrow built on his earlier charge with a near-break on the third, and Cook followed in his slipstream, before Walker channelled both runs into a dangerous chip to the left edge, where Smith caught it but claimed he was taken high. He didn’t get any joy, though, and had to content himself with taking the first hit-up of the next set, before Tupou almost broke through Koloamatangi, and played the footy quickly for his men to accelerate up the right edge, where a beautiful Taukeiaho-Butcher offload downed Latrell as Walker nabbed a dropout on the left.
Tom Burgess infringed the ruck to hold up Taukeiaho on play one, and in any other game, everything would have come together for the Roosters here. Yet they now suffered two poor plays from their veterans – a flick pass from Teddy to Paul Momirovski that went forward, and then a rare misfire beneath the next high ball from Tupou, who missed it in the air and let it careen over the sideline. Again, the Bunnies were back on the Sydney line, but with the added motivation of those two errors behind them, as Ilias hoisted it high to the left corner.
No sooner had Manu saved the day by taking it on the full and bringing it back into the field of play than Teddy made an even more egregious error. The moment he put the footy down, Murray scooped it up, and delivered an assist that was every bit as scintillating as the first try. Sizing up a Roosters outfit that was still too stunned by their fullback’s mistake to reform themselves defensively, he drifted to the left and popped it out for Alex Johnston to cross on the wing and curve around the posts, ensuring Latrell a slightly better angle to add the two.
All night, the Bunnies had been targeting Tedesco, and it was starting to show, since both of these errors had been rushed plays, desperate efforts to restore the Tricoloured flow. It felt like the game had been nothing but South Sydney restarts as Burgess took it on tackle one, the Bunnies shot to 80% of possession, and Smith got a reprieve with a good bounce on Walker’s next kick. Even better, the Chooks got out of their own end with their first penalty of the night, an offside from Murray, and capitalised immediately off a Manu-Teddy offload.
This was a critical calming sequence for Tedesco, who surged up the right edge, and could have conceivably driven deep into the line then and there, but instead opted for the patient play, popping a short pass out for Manu to slam into the defence and offload back for him to cross untouched from fifteen metres out. Walker added the extras, the Chooks had seen their captain come good, and the Tricolours had scored off their first penalty. Still, Souths survived the restart, and got an early penalty of their own when Manu made a second effort.
The Bunnies were just as hungry as they hit the Roosters’ red zone, surging up both sides of the field, and ending with an Ilias grubber that bounced too dangerously for Keary to do anything but secure it behind the line. Murray got them rolling with a monster run, Arrow took another massive shot at the defence, Walker found himself trapped on the left, and Ilias showed his inexperience on the last, when he attempted a double-dummy but instead found himself cleaned up by Teddy, caught in a no-man’s land between kicking and running the ball.
Walker wasted no time booting it from his forty to build position, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves came on to give Taukeiaho a rest, Cook almost broke past Butcher, and Ilias sent it end-over-end from the forty, forcing Momirovski to resort to a volleyball-like move to send it back to Tupou. The Chooks consolidated on the next set, as Walker broke through the line, the Bunnies conceded six again, and Teddy made it a trio of errors, but got lucky this time when Walker was called offside in the ten, getting the visitors their first full set in Souths’ twenty.
After so much Rabbitohs pressure on their own line, the Roosters had to show that they could make good on this field position now. Instead, Teddy came up with a shocking grubber on the right, where Walker curved around to dive on a footy with no propulsion behind it. Even as Ilias sunk into a spotty period, fumbling the play-the-ball to gift the Chooks the scrum feed, and sticking out a boot to deflect Walker’s next kick into touch, Koloamatangi made up for it, shutting down a huge Tupouniua run and then clearing up Walker’s grubber a tackle later.
The Bunnies were just self-correcting more clinically than the Roosters by this stage, and continued that trend for the last big play before the break, when Walker chipped the kind of chaotic ball that can produce a late try, and Latrell lost it on the line, only for Paulo to recover it, and stand his ground in front of the crossbar to avoid a dropout. Still, the Roosters bounced back big after they returned from the sheds, off the first error of the second stanza, when Tupouniua stormed in on the second tackle for a football-rattling shot on Burgess.
Walker scooped it up and withstood a Cook hit, before the Roosters headed right, where Manu ended up with it. In a sublime sequel to his facial fracture, he stepped back inside, broke through the line, and busted through Latrell at the death, before rising from the try to let the South Sydney fullback cop the full force of his triumph. Walker added the extras, but there was no doubt the Roosters had the flow now, as a swarm of Sydney defenders suffocated him under his next high ball, before the Bunnies got their next penalty at just the right moment.
Tupouniua had forced the error that set up the last try, and now his offside got South Sydney back on the board. Again, the vision came from Murray, who took an Ilias cut-out ball as Walker ran the decoy, then got on the outside of Tupouniua, and twisted around through a low tackle from the Sydney enforcer to offload it back inside to Walker, who busted through Radley to put down his first try of the year. Just when the Chooks restored their rhythm, the Bunnies shut them down, as another Latrell conversion put them past a converted try lead.
This sequence had also been another scintillating vision of the experienced players helping out the young guns, as Murray effectively inserted himself to refine Ilias’ ability to extemporise with Walker. All it took was another Sydney penalty on the restart, this time a slow peel from Crichton, for Latrell to hit back directly against Manu, at the end of a superb left sweep that ended with Milne flicking the footy out to Johnston, who was unable to cross over himself so kicked for Latrell to scoop it up and slam over the line – or so it seemed.
In yet another twist, however, the replay showed that Johnston hadn’t technically kicked the ball. Instead, he’d stepped or trodden it towards Latrell, who was left even hungrier to make his mark on the game in the wake of Manu’s spectacular try. Smith had one of the best plays of his career, and got the Roosters their best start all night, by shrugging off Johnston under the kick and slamming his way up the left sideline, before the Chooks won a Captain’s Challenge to prove that Milne had taken out Manu in the air at the back of a Walker chip.
The Roosters now had a full set on the South Sydney line, and then a restart when Teddy copped some incidental high contact from Milne on the left. Connor Watson almost crashed over beneath the crossbar, Teddy tried to dance his way through the line, and Tupouniua ended this third straight set on the Bunnies’ line by coughing up the footy on the third play, when Milne slammed in for some redemption after the two penalties that set up all this field position in the first place. Try as they might, Sydney just couldn’t draw on that Manu opener.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Bunnies wasted no time settling back into their own goal line attack, as Fletcher Baker only just prevented Murray from breaking through on the left, and the Roosters conceded six again with a Walker-on-Walker play – Sam sticking out a boot to deflect a Cody kick. Midway through the restart, Graham barged the ball up the right edge, clearing up space for Koloamatangi to storm over from dummy half, dismantling the Sydney defence with such massive strength from short range that it seemed a certain try.
Instead, the replay showed that he had lost the footy and not quite regathered it before grounding – an error that was just as agonising as Kotoni Staggs’ inability to capitalise off Adam Reynolds’ through-the-legs vision against Canterbury the week before. The setup wasn’t as prodigious here, but it amplified Latrell’s near-miss in a particularly painful way, though that made it all the more cathartic when big Keaon smashed over on the Bunnies’ next set, this time off a short ball from Cook, and a hard charge through Tupouniua from ten out.
Even better, Latrell lobbed through his best and hardest kick to put the Rabbitohs fourteen ahead, with fifteen on the clock. Apart from a Taukeiaho-Teddy offload midway through, the Roosters didn’t do much to bounce back on the next set, which ended in the most catastrophic way possible – with a botched Keary offload that Paulo gathered on the ground and flicked up to Latrell, who sailed down the left sideline and crossed untouched for one of the most exhilarating tries of his career, good enough to eclipse his first missed conversion.
This will surely come to be seen as a quintessential Latrell moment, given how vividly he engaged the South Sydney crowd, rallying and rousing them into a cardinal and myrtle frenzy as the final ten minutes of the match arrived. The Roosters marked it with a dropout, as Smith saved another messy ball from Teddy on the left, and Momirovski made space on the right for Tupou to cruise over and curve around the posts. It set up an easy kick for Walker, who’d showed the Steeden subliminally and repeatedly to set up Momorivski in the first place.
Teddy glimpsed a break up the left a few minutes later, and Butcher looked set to pour through the line, hitting the ball so fast that he might well have gone all the way if he hadn’t knocked it on. South Sydney packed the scrum, experimented with options in the middle of the park, including some elusive footwork from Cook and Walker, and ended with a Walker grubber that Manu contained, but only just, forcing the Roosters to work it off their line, before Milne capped off a killer game by slamming in to force a knock-on from Momirovski.
The Chooks had no reason not to send it upstairs at this point, for a replay that showed the ex-Panther had lost it backwards, putting them 4/4 with the challenges in 2022. This set was their last shot, so it was agonising when Collins mistook tackle six for tackle five, in the last dramatic play of the night. Destined to be bumped out of the eight, the Chooks will be looking to capitalise on a relatively easy run through the Cowboys, Broncos and Warriors, while the Bunnies have found their feet at just the right moment for next week’s clash with Penrith.