ROUND 6: South Sydney Rabbitohs v. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (Accor Stadium, 15/4/22, 36-16)

Even with Latrell Mitchell off the park, the Bunnies were expected to take home the competition points for the ten-year anniversary of their Good Friday fixtures with the Dogs. Yet an early surge from Canterbury made their victory all the more impressive, especially since Blake Taaffe slotted into the fullback role like he’d been the no. 1 custodian all year, rather than making his first NRL appearance of the season. This will surely come to be seen as a watershed game in his evolution at the back, capped off by a series of great sideline kicks.

On the other side of the Steeden, Kyle Flanagan had another crack at the no. 7 jersey, making this a battle of the young halves with Lachlan Ilias. Both players had their moments, in a game that started with some real Canterbury flow, and an opening Bulldogs try, only for the Bunnies to gradually accelerate back into first gear, thanks in large part to a disastrous sin bin for Jeremy Marshall-King that saw the cardinal and myrtle go from zero to eighteen unanswered points in the last ten minutes of the first stanza, effectively resetting the rhythm of the game.

Add to that a hat trick for Damien Cook, who had never scored against his former club, and only had twenty tries to his name in 152 games, and a try on debut for Isaiah Tass, and this was a critical motivator for South Sydney in the first third of the season, proof positive that they have enough depth to build spectacular plays without Latrell. True, they were only playing the Dogs, and have even less of a challenge against the Wests Tigers next week, but this was still top-tier footyballno matter the opposition, and a really inspiring consolidator.  

That said, Canterbury scored three tries for the first time this year, and all three of them were eventful – the first, from Brent Naden, because it solidified their control of the opening quarter; the second, because it marked Matt Burton’s first assist and Josh Ado-Carr’s first putdown since donning the blue and white; and the third, on the stroke of full time, because it brought JMK full circle and gave him some joy after that disastrous stint in the bin. As a final note, it made it impossible to ignore the fleeting but scintillating moments of Dogs vision too.  

Luke Thompson took the first hit-up with a huge run into Tevita Tatola, Tom Burgess and Cam Murray, while Paul Vaughan pummelled into Jai Arrow for the first big post-contacts of the game. Keon Koloamatangi only just prevented Matt Dufty bringing it over halfway, and Matt Burton completed the set by booting it all the way to the Bunnies’ try line for Taaffe’s first pick-up of the afternoon. The depth of his kick meant the Rabbitohs didn’t make any more position, even if they did summon a strong chase to swamp Josh Ado-Carr beneath the kick.

Brent Naden channelled Vaughan’s opening run with a strong charge on the second, searching for a break in the line before Vaughan himself took another enormous carry. Josh Mansour copped a strong chase under the kick, and again the Bunnies were trapped in their own end, as Koloamatangi found himself stopped right on halfway, much as he’d held up Dufty on set one. Both sides were playing it relatively conservatively, with Pangai pulling back from an offload on his next run, only for a brilliant Burton kick to inject the first surge of adrenalin.

Burton’s boot was a beauty, bouncing dangerously before the crossbar, and actually ricocheting off the left post, meaning that Taaffe didn’t have enough time to burrow into the turf before a horde of Bulldogs dragged him back into touch. Yet the very moment the blue and white glimpsed their first dropout, Burns was called offside downtown, as the Bunnies absorbed all the momentum of this precarious period, and came dangerously close to a dropout of their own under the next kick, when Dufty and Alex Johnston collided in the air.

The footy came free, and Burns chased it down behind the line, as the call came down that Johnston had knocked on first, giving the Dogs a shot at building on the potential of Burton’s last kick. Kyle Flanagan got ball to boot this time, and sent it all the way to the chalk, but Taaffe was up to it this time too, while the Bunnies steadied themselves off a pair of strong runs up the middle from Johnston and Kolaamatangi. Burgess followed in their wake, thanks to some good dummy half service from Arrow, and Walker ended with a neat chip to the left.

Dufty did better this time, sliding to ground and securing the Steeden, while Canterbury got out of jail with a Damien Cook offside, right when they looked destined to be trapped on their own line. Both teams were 5/5, with almost ten minutes gone, as Burgess prevented Vaughan crossing into South Sydney territory, Pangai failed to find an offload, and Vaughan resurrected the set by breaking into the thirty, only for Burton to send out an impossible short ball to Jake Averillo just as his men arrived at their most promising incursion to the Rabbitohs line so far.

Seeing the Doggies come so far and choke at the last moment seemed to galvanise the Bunnies, who poured up the middle of the park, gaining two successive six agains off ruck errors from Jacko and Thommo, ushering in the first rapid turnaround period of the game. First, Naden knocked the footy out of Walker’s hand; then Averillo almost broke through the line, and maintained possession as he twisted through a big Koloamatangi hit, only to lose the Steeden in the ricochet, before JMK infringed the ruck to get the Bunnies more space again.

Burgess was inside the ten by tackle three, and yet Ilias’ inexperience came to the fore now, as the young half lobbed a wide ball too wide, sending it soaring over the right sideline as Campbell Graham and Josh Mansour shaped in vain for it. The Dogs got six again of their own a few plays later, off a ruck error from Walker, as the game entered a new volatility, open to whatever side could harness the unpredictable energy of the last couple sequences. It was the perfect moment for Jackson to take control, with a superb ball to Dufty up the middle.

Even better, Johnston was pinged for an early tackle, and with so much energy behind them, Canterbury stood a good chance of taking control of the game if they scored four now. Thommo steadied the ship by drawing in three defenders on the left, and Flanno won the early battle of the halves by showing Ilias how to execute the harbour bridge ball on the right. The pass was a perfect parabola, landing straight on the chest of Naden, who continued the brilliance of his earlier hit on Walker by getting his lanky frame low to score through Taaffe.

Flanagan booted through the two, and the Dogs had six unanswered points, while Mansour came up with a beautiful take under the next high ball to get Souths a bit of breathing-space – until Arrow got a cold drop three tackles later, with a pat on the head from Vaughan for good measure. Still high on their first try, Canterbury’s scrum from halfway felt like a second restart, and the Bunnies knew it, summoning a big Murray-Arrow combo on play one to hold up Thommo, even though it couldn’t stop a quick dart from JMK when he took it on tackle two.

The Foxx got into first gear on play four, breaking away from some defenders on the left, and working his way back across to the other side of the park, where Flanagan mirrored his trajectory with a bomb back to the right that was good enough to garner a Graham knock-on. Between Ado-Carr’s run and Flanagan’s boot, the Dogs had consolidated once again, packing the scrum ten metres out from the line this time, as Burns came up with a mammoth effort against his former club with a charge through Taaffe, Milne and Jacob Host from five out.

This was easily the best one-man effort of the game so far (or maybe just the weakest South Sydney defence) and if Burns had managed to get the footy to ground it would have been pretty hard for the cardinal and myrtle to come back before the break. As it was, the Bunnies were lucky that the pack effort came at just the right moment and angle to prevent their former centre from landing Steeden-first, but even then the Dogs got a restart a play later, so it was agonising when it all ended with the worst pass of the game, from Jackson to Pangai.

Jacko seemed to be hesitating as to whether to pass or run, and ended up with a weird compromise, lobbing the footy along the ground at too low an angle for anyone to kick or scoop up comfortably. It was a sorry sequel to Burns’ epic charge, and to the captain’s vision up the middle that had set up the Dufty charge that preceded that splendid opening try. Still, South Sydney had a ways to come back from all this blue and gold momentum, and got their next boost when Naden put down a relatively gettable kick from Walker at the end of the set.

After so much time defending their line, the Rabbitohs had to make the most of this scrum at the ten, and they shifted right immediately, as Graham tried to exceed and annul the spectacle of Burns’ run, but found Averillo standing in his way. As with Burns, the Bunnies got a restart fresh off the right side raid, losing a bit of momentum in the middle with a bouncer from Murray, and eventually enterprising back on the right once more, where Ilias had another shot at the sweep, relying on Taaffe to flick it on for Graham to put Sauce across.

Averillo had bumped off Graham earlier in the set, and now he drew in an obstruction from Koloamatangi, as a great putdown from Mansour went begging. You couldn’t have scripted a more deflating end to this close-range assault from South Sydney, who still didn’t have a single offload as Pangai burrowed his way into the defence to get Canterbury back on track. No sooner had he built position, however, than Burton tried to take on the line, dancing around Arrow so mercurially that he came to ground when Liam Knight got in hard and low.

For the second time, we’d reached the kind of volatile and unpredictable footy wherein either team could reset the rhythm if they only managed to deliver a single superb play. The Bunnies got another boost when Flanno failed to get square at marker – and then their biggest boost of the game when JMK was sent to the bin for a hand in the ruck, leaving the Dogs to defend another full set on their line with twelve men. Liam Knight didn’t waste any time trying to twist and spin over by the right post, while the Bunnies almost got their first try soon after.

It came as a profoundly cathartic moment for Walker, who nearly had another reprise of the horror intercept against the Panthers during last year’s grand final. In a play he’d clearly rehearsed beforehand, Naden reached out for the footy, but ended up flicking it forward, and while a swarm of players from both sides circled round the bounce, Walker was the man who scooped it up, and then sent it outside for Johnston to surge over on the wing. Yet in one more agony for Souths, the replay showed the footy hit Taaffe’s boot before Walker got it.

No moment encapsulated this first stanza of football better than this, as the heartbreak of JMK’s bin and Naden’s error gave way to even more pain for the Bunnies. At least they got the ball back, since this complex replay also showed Flanno holding back, but their spirit seemed broken, so it was critical when Murray booted it into the right corner, and secured a dropout to give them a chance to reset. As agonising as the Johnston-Walker combo had been, it was exhilarating to see Cookie complete Martin’s close-range charge on tackle two.

All it took was some quick vision out of dummy half and a lot of guts, as he ploughed through Dufty and and Max King to score his first ever four-pointer against his former club, while setting up Taaffe for an easy conversion right in front. Nine minutes to go, and the Bunnies had levelled the score, while JMK wasn’t even halfway through his bout in the bin. The time was ripe for South Sydney to get more expansive, and elasticise out to the wings, which is exactly what Graham did midway through the restart to set up Cookie for back-to-back tries.

After so much prevarication in the wake of Canterbury’s first four, the South Sydney machine finally got into top gear here, as Ilias delivered a superb second-order assist for Graham to bust past an ankle tap from Flanagan and pop out the actual assist to Cook, who only had to receive it twenty metres out to surge up the middle, completely beat Dufty this time, and score in much the same position, after having set up the whole sequence with the dummy half pass to Ilias. Taaffe converted again, and the Bunnies had stolen the converted try lead.

It had been a disastrous sin bin for JMK, especially since Souths only took it up another notch on the restart. Koloamatangi almost broke through the line, and Ilias moved too fast for Thommo, who came in late, gifting the cardinal and myrtle a full set in the red zone, before they got yet another restart right on the line, off a ruck error from Jackson, who made brutal head contact in the process with young gun Chris Patolo. Jacko’s face was streaming with blood, Patolo was taken off on the minicab for an HIA, and JMK still had two to go in the bin.

Even worse, the Bunnies still had half a set on the Canterbury line, and only took a tackle to score, wresting control from the chaos of this last sequence with their first really clinical left sweep of the afternoon. Wide balls from Murray and Walker set up Taaffe for a superb double dummy to put Johnston over untouched to make good on his last trip to the corner, with a perfect conversion from Taaffe making it eighteen unanswered as JMK finally returned. There were two minutes on the clock, and the Dogs got two boosts for one last chance at points.

First, Host was called offside in the ten, then Milne was pinged for a high shot. Finally, with thirty seconds, Canterbury reached the South Sydney line, where Pangai promptly sent a terrific wide ball out to the right wing. The only catch was that Naden wasn’t there to collect it, and as the footy sailed over Averillo’s head, the Dogs felt a long way from that superb opening try. The siren rang out soon after, and both teams trotted to the sheds, where the visitors had to come up with some real self-belief and soul-searching to battle the back forty.

South Sydney had the first set after the break, and Murray got them rolling with a powerful carry on tackle two, and while Sauce leaped above Ado-Carr under the kick, he couldn’t secure the footy, leaving the Doggies free to lean into their own first bout of possession. Jackson had head gear on, presumably to deal with the bleeding, and didn’t seem comfortable with it, while Mansour started working his way back from that poor contest in the air by ducking and weaving his way around the defence early in the next set, laying the platform for a restart.

It was the seventh of the game for South Sydney, and came off a Joe Stimson ruck error this time, giving the Bunnies a chance to continue exhausting the blue and white forwards early in the second stanza. They did even better, repeating the same clinical left sweep that put Johnston over before the break, but with Walker now bypassing Taaffe with a cut-out assist that was as perfectly pitched as he’s even thrown them. If anything, it was a refinement of that last try, raising the bar even higher to a Dogs outfit who were now seriously struggling.

Taaffe capped it off with another beautiful sideline kick, bringing the Bunnies to quadruple Canterbury at 24-6. Johnston’s denied try was now a distant memory, especially since he was tantalisingly close to being the top tryscorer ever for South Sydney – four behind Benny Wearing at 144, and six behind Nathan Merritt at 146. In this context, a Hame Sele error midway through the restart was a critical opening for the Dogs, who only had 97 minutes (compared to South Sydney’s 467) since the 27th minute – and they very almost delivered.

In real time, it looked like a sublime Canterbury comeback, as Naden reprised his opening try, at roughly the same point in the second stanza as in the first. It came off a scintillating chip from Flanno, who split the difference between Taaffe and Johnston, leaving the ex-Panther just enough time to take it on the bounce, secure it into his chest in the face of a last-ditch hit from Taaffe, and plunge it down – or so it seemed, since the replay showed that Naden hadn’t quite regained possession when the Bunnies no. 1 got a hand to it just before the putdown.

It was hard to say whether this was more agonising that the Bunnies’ denied try, but the real difference was that the Doggies didn’t bounce back in the same way, despite getting some fresh position when Host failed to get square at marker. If anything, Naden’s frustration only intensified, as he glimpsed another try as soon as the visitors extemporised up the right edge, where he received a low ball from Averillo, burst into space, and flicked the footy back inside for what was deemed a forward pass, leaving him with no recourse to send up a challenge.

On the other side of the Steeden, the Bunnies got dividends by bringing it straight up the middle on their next set, when a tough Murray charge laid space for Ilias to ram so hard at the defence that Pangai was compelled to barge in for a late hit. Fresh off the bench, Tatola continued that momentum up the centre of the park, laying a platform for Koloamatangi to drag Brandon Wakeham into the ten, before Souths made the first challenge of the game to contest a supposed knock-on from Milne when the Steeden skidded onto his feet up the left.

The decision was well founded, since the replay showed how dexterously the big centre had managed to keep his hands off the footy, but the Bunker deemed there wasn’t enough evidence to confirm or deny the on-field ruling, meaning the Dogs got the ball back, but the Bunnies retained their challenge. This was another one of those rare opportunities for the visitors in the third quarter, especially when they got a penalty on tackle one for a Johnston offside, and Averillo added to the adrenalin with very late flick offload to Dufty up the right.

Wakeham kept the focus on that edge of the park with the kick, and while Naden took it clean, he was himself cleaned up before he could get the footy away again. In its own way, this was a death knell for the Dogs, since it spoke to just how clinically the Bunnies could shut down their more enterprising plays. As if to cancel out even the residual rhythm of Averillo’s offload, Murray twisted through three defenders and sent out some of the most contorted second phase of the year to Cookie, while Host offloaded even later to Cookie a moment after that.

With all that second phase behind him, Walker sensed the time was right for some eyes up footy, booting it fast and hard to the right corner, where Graham came up with it, and had time to offload to Mansour, who pivoted from boot to boot, but was eventually unable to withstand a Foxx-led chase. No matter, though, since Taaffe had one of his most confident moments at fullback under the next kick, which he leaped a metre off the ground to collect it in the air, putting his whole body on the line like he’d been the first-grade custodian all year.

By the time the fourth quarter had rolled around, the match had lost a fair amount of its energy – not because South Sydney had decelerated, but because the Doggies had retreated from the superb challenge they’d mounted in and around Naden’s opening try. When the Bunnies got six again right on the sixty minute mark it barely felt like an achievement, and more part and parcel of the regular rhythm of the game, so it felt equally inevitable when Walker sent Host through the line, and equally surprising when the pass floated forward.

The issue was Host’s running more than Walker’s passing, but it was still a bit startling to see Canterbury packing a scrum at this point in the match, even if it was ninety metres from the South Sydney line. Reality resumed pretty quickly, however, as Sauce came in to force the footy free from Wakeham, and yet in another unexpected twist it turned out that Mansour had knocked it on first, giving the Dogs a precious accumulation of field position at this late stage in the game, although it was mired by the Foxx limping off the park with a leg injury.

For the briefest of moments, it looked like Pangai might have set up the Averillo-Naden combo to make good on the right, as the left winger sent a superb stealth flick to the right winger, who booted it at speed but got a third straight heartache when the Steeden smashed over the dead ball line to grant South Sydney seven tackles. If the Bulldogs were experimenting with nothing to lose, the Bunnies had enough of a lead to adventure more optimistically, as Walker went for a probing grubber on the next set that garnered him a critical JMK knock-on.

It got the Bunnies a scrum from the ten, and then a hat trick for Cook, who somehow came up with an even cleaner, cooler and more clinical putdown than his first two. From the back of the scrum, the try felt inevitable, as the cult hooker put in one of the best short runs of his career – off the left boot to get past Flanno, and then away from Pangai and Jacko to put it down untouched under the bar for another easy Taaffe two. After never scoring against the Doggies, Cook had now put down over a tenth of his career total against his former club.

Yet as the final ten minutes drew near, Canterbury mounted a masterclass of defence, bringing in half their pack to hold up Ilias beside the right post, before stopping Tatola from mirroring his halfback beside the other upright, and then shutting down a rapid sweep to the left. After a frustrating night, Jacko slammed into Arrow just as he was bobbling and regathering the footy to score, injecting his team with the grim determination they needed to set up their second try, and ensure that it was every bit as momentous as the game opener.

The runs on the next set were committed but not much else, so it all came down to Burton’s kick – a soaring affair that Walker, Taaffe and Flanno contested. Taaffe missed it, Flanno missed it, and Walker tapped it back into a maelstrom of attackers and defenders, where Burton wrenched order from chaos by scooping it up and shifting it across for the Foxx to test his leg with a run down the left corner. It was only their second try, but finally Burton had his first assist in Bulldogs colours, while Ado-Carr was ready to trot his way to the scoreboard.

That historic moment was quickly eclipsed, however, by a try on debut from Isaiah Tass, who became the beneficiary of another superb sweep to the left wing. Last time this happened the Dogs shut it down, but Johnston had learned his lesson, responding to a sublime wide ball from Walker – the widest of the night – by flicking it back inside for the young backliner to barge his way through Pangai and Flanagan for a try in his first game. Between the speed of the sweep and the stealth of the flick pass, this was the supreme moment for South Sydney.

No surprise, then, that Taaffe struck his truest trajectory from the sideline to put his men at 36-10, while JMK got a brief burst of joy with a try twenty seconds from the siren, making this the first time Canterbury have scored three in 2022. The Bunnies were expected to win here, but it was still inspiring to see how they’d fought their way back from that messy opening quarter, while Cookie’s hat trick, and the final Johntson-Tass combo, will enter the historic highlights reel immediately, causing grave worries for the Wests Tigers next Saturday night.

About Billy Stevenson (722 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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