South Sydney may not have quite reprised their catastrophic loss to the Panthers at Apex Park last year, but they still received a pretty sobering blow from the Raiders, who celebrated Josh Papalii’s 250th game in club colours with a masterclass in both defence and attack. Papalii was only the third player to reach this level of Canberra service, after Jason Croker and Jarrod Croker, and with Jack Wighton back from his two-game suspension, the green machine pulled out all the stops to ensure this felt like a milestone match in their 2022 season as well.
Josh Papalii took the opening hit-up, Tevita Tatola bounced off him and tumbled to ground, and the whistle blew, but there was no high contact here, just a good solid tackle to get the game rolling. Tatola came off the park, and Liam Knight left the bench thirteen seconds into the match, after only a single play, giving the first part of this local game a picaresque feel as the crowd waited for the Raiders to resume their set. By this stage, the Bunnies had well and truly reset their line, and were able to prevent Joe Tapine making more than a metre.
They did well on the next couple of plays too, especially the fourth, when a pack slammed in to prevent what initially looked like a breakaway charge from Adam Elliott. Jack Wighton booted it long to celebrate his return to the park, sending it into the swirling wind, which didn’t favour either team in particular, to force South Sydney to work hard to bring it back. Even so, they hit Canberra territory, despite a good tackle from Papalii to upend Knight’s first carry, while some deft second phase set up Tapine to take it over halfway on play three.
Eliott came up with the best offload so far a play later, flicking the footy back to Brad Schneider, who sent it on for Elliott Whitehead to pop a short one out to Matthew Timoko. The no. 3 now broke into space up the right, and lobbed a forward ball back inside to Schneider, but not without Blake Taaffe getting pinged for an offside. The Raiders had the first close-range set, and delivered immediately, as Schneider swept left, where Wighton drove deep into the line and popped a deft harbour bridge ball out to Nick Cotric.
It was so well-timed that the big winger was able to stand still to catch it, and then cruise at a leisurely pace to cross over untouched. Schneider shanked the kick to the left of the posts, but this was still a decisive start from Canberra, who had now scored the first try against the Bunnies in four straight matches. Cotric made an impact again on the restart, with a deft sideline run, before Taaffe started working his way back from the offside that started it all by taking the high ball to get South Sydney their first touch in about four minutes.
Prescient he needed to build position quickly, Lachlan Ilias booted it inside the forty, but didn’t get it all that far, meaning that a strong Timoko charge was enough for the Raiders to escape their forty on tackle one. They lost five metres when Knight drove Jordan Rapana back five metres, but Elliott compensated with the best post-contacts so far, dragging Jai Arrow a good six or seven metres before Wighton kicked it all the way to the line, and Whitehead followed with a brilliant chase, only just losing it to Campbell Graham in the air.
For the first time this afternoon, the Bunnies really woke up, as Graham, empowered by this last take, barged his way up the left, bumped off Timoko, and popped it out to Alex Johnston. No sooner had the hosts glimpsed a try, however, than Trent Peoples was called out for an obstruction, before the first restart off the game, off a Keaon Koloamatangi ruck error, set up Cotric for a break. South Sydney contained him, but an offside from Cody Walker made it a second restart, giving the Raiders another short-range assault on the opposition chalk.
Ever the leader, Walker made up for his error by forcing the footy free from Whitehead a moment later, but the Raiders were back on the South Sydney line when Peoples, who was having a rough first quarter, lost it on tackle two. Conversely, it only took Canberra two tackles to score their next try, as Papalii celebrated his milestone match by taking a short ball from Zac Woolford, twisting through a Peoples ankle tap, and barely even needing to spin over Walker and Taaffe, so dwarfed were they by his bulk and strength from close range.
Schneider had an easy angle this time, yet missed it again, keeping us to an eight-point game as the Bunnies steeled themselves to weather yet another Canberra set. The Raiders now had 360-129 run metres, but the Rabbitohs did well to contain them here, while Taaffe fielded a tricky high ball, eventually falling to his back to collect it, before his men got a bump up field when Whitehead was called offside downtown. Finally, an early shot from Timoko and an offside from Woolford got South Sydney their first significant burst of field position.
It was agonising, then, when Johnston lost the footy on the first play, seconds before cementing what should have been a textbook South Sydney sweep. The buildup play was mostly great, as Walker surged into the line, and Graham (almost) assisted Johnston with a superb catch-and-pass, but the question of Alex’s putdown turned out to be moot, since the Bunker footage showed an obstruction from Peoples, who wasn’t happy with the call, but didn’t get any joy from Peter Gough as the Raiders prepared for another set.
Still, the Rabbitohs survived the next attack, and got another burst of position when Timoko stuck a hand in the ruck on their next carry and Whitehead followed with a ruck error right on the chalk. Peoples shifted the play wth a deft 270-degree offload to Taaffe, Knight took a charge at the turf, and Papalii and Whitehead converged to knock the Steeden straight out of his grasp. For the second time, the Bunnies had reached the line, and for the second time the Canberra defence had forced the error right at the death.
It was critical, then, that South Sydney survive the next Canberra set to prevent the green machine dominating the second quarter. Jai Arrow made a statement with a strong hit on Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, but Wighton still managed to boot it five out from the Rabbitohs’ line, as Corey Horsburgh came on to add fresh muscle to the Raiders’ defence. With another penalty, for an Hudson Young offside, the Bunnies had to make good on their third burst of field position, and Damien Cook got them rolling with a good dummy half dart.
Ilias built on his vision a few plays later, banging through a grubber that initially looked too hard, but ended up bouncing just right to get his men a repeat set, as Cotric knocked it on behind the line, and Papalii headed to the bench with 73 run metres under his belt. By this stage, South Sydney’s position was starting to feel precarious, since if they botched another try, they’d concede all the momentum back to Canberra, who’d already showcased something of a masterclass in defence to stop Johnston and Knight.
Wighton made it a trio of terrific trysavers midway through the next set, meeting Taane Milne chest to chest to keep him in place before the Canberra cavalry came in to finish the job. After so many failed efforts to make good on their short range attack, the Bunnies were deflated and frustrated, as Siliva Havili got done for a dangerous tackle, and Milne got a delayed instruction to leave the park for a HIA on the back of Wighton’s contact, while Kodi Nikorima left the bench for some utility work. With such a rapid shift, Canberra surely had to score now.
Instead, the Rabbits got a major let off when Tapine fumbled the play-the-ball, the most egregious error for Canberra all afternoon. Still, it didn’t take the green machine long to return to the same spot, thanks to a Koloamatangi ruck error that laid the platform for the first try that truly felt commensurate to their dominance in defence and attack. All it took was a well-timed dummy half ball from Woolford for Young to shrug off a couple of outstretched South Sydney arms and cruise around behind the crossbar like the Bunnies weren’t even there.
Rapana now took over kicking duties, slotting it through the posts to make it fourteen unanswered points, before the visitors reset their line for yet another restart. It took CNK a couple of bounces to take the kickoff, meaning he started right on his line, but Horsburgh drove it all to the way to the twenty on play two, and the Raiders did pretty well with the set, considering that Taaffe slammed in high on Schneider for what was arguably illegal contact, although Canberra didn’t have time to look back on it as the Bunnies made some headway.
True to the pattern of this game, however, the Rabbitohs just couldn’t break the line, settling into their first really dangerous right sweep of the night only for Cotric to bump Jaxson Paulo across the sideline at the end of it all. Yet the Bunnies got their biggest let off so far, and their biggest chance before the break, when Sebastian Kris coughed up the footy early in the count for a scrum at the twenty. Walker and Cook briefly conferred before they joined the pack, and combined forces on play one, as Cookie carried it right and sent it out to Walker.
In a moment that summarised this first forty, however, Wighton knocked the footy clear from Walker’s grasp. To see two of their key playmakers discuss one of the most important moments in the first half, and then combine only to lose it on tackle one, must have been a demoralising experience for the home crowd. Despite the Bunnies’ best efforts, this had real shades of their loss to Penrith last year, especially since it didn’t look like they were going to summon anything special before they headed to the sheds.
Ilias tried to invoke the ghost of Adam Reynolds with a late 40/20, and caught Rapana back up in the defensive line, meaning that CNK had to scramble to pop the ball back in field. Yet this scramble galvanised the Raiders into their most spectacular try of the first stanza, as Rapana returned to his place, bumped off a couple of tackles, ferried the footy across the park, and sent it out to Cotric, who almost broke the thirty, and might well have created a full field charge if he’d managed to shift it out to the wing.
Even so, the Raiders weren’t done. Fuelled by this sudden rhythm shift, Horsburgh made big post-contacts and offloaded back to Young, who came up with the best no-looker of the year – a sublime trick shot that Josh Starling read beautifully, tumbling-running to the line where he made it third phase play with a one-handed offload to put Kris over for four. It was one of the best team tries in recent Canberra history, and put the green machine at twenty unanswered points once Rapana booted through the two on the siren.
That curve away from the 40/20 and back towards a tryscoring sequence was the perfect image to cap off Canberra’s first stanza. When they returned from the sheds, they’d lost CNK to a hamstring issue, much as Milne, like Tatola, had also failed his HIA, as Xavier Savage slotted into the fullback role. He got his first challenge five minutes in, when Graham and Koloamatangi built space for Nikorima up the right with a pair of superb flick passes. Seizing the moment, Ilias chipped over the top, and Savage had to clean it up in goal.
Nevertheless, Rapana engineered another transformative moment now, starting with a ten metre dropout that was perfectly weighted for Wighton to leap up and tap it back to Young, who shifted it on for Savage to break the thirty. At the other end of the park, Whitehead offloaded on the ground, Johnston knocked it on, and Rapana bookended this sublime sequence by scooping up the Steeden and flicking it out to Timoko, who rolled it onto the chalk as the South Sydney defence tumbled over him in disarray.
To hit back now, the Bunnies needed a big one-man play, and Cookie provided it a few sets later. Receiving the footy at the thirty, he pivoted off the left boot, danced over a cascade of ankle taps from Timoko, Starling and Savage, while outpacing Whitehead to set up Taaffe for an easy conversion from right in front. It was a nice preview of his New South Wales berth in a few weeks, although for now his men had to work on going back-to-back once Johnston broke into space up the left for the biggest South Sydney run of the afternoon.
In an agonising moment for the home crowd, however, Walker didn’t weight the kick well, giving the Raiders just enough time to clean it up. Nevertheless, the Bunnies had real momentum now, and parlayed it to the other edge, where Nikorima added more metres, only to offload straight back to Young, who was having a cracker of an afternoon in both attack and defence. Even so, this wasn’t the South Sydney outfit of the first forty, as they made clear with a three-man pack that forced a Savage knock-on early in the next Canberra count.
For the first time, Canberra were forced to scramble, as Cotric bumped the footy from Graham’s arms as he was shaping for an assist to an unmarked Jaxson Paulo, saving the try but granting South Sydney another set in the Raiders’ ten. An early shot from Rapana added more position, as Knight set them up on the left edge, and Burgess pummelled over in his slipstream, but not without a pack of Raiders getting beneath him in time. The next four tackles felt critical, on the cusp of the last quarter, for whether Souths could bounce back.
The cardinal and myrtle got yet another restart a play later, off a Starling ruck error, but couldn’t put Taaffe over with a Walker double pump, nor do much with another Knight charge. With nothing doing on the left, they had to head right, where Ilias wasn’t able to shape anything convincing, as the set decelerated into a midfield prevarication that ended with Wighton trapping and scrapping an unconvincing Ilias kick, and plunging into space up the park, as Cook executed an equally scintillating chase to down him at the ten.
It was incredible to see these two Origin team mates going neck and neck, and in one split second the Bunnies had gone from a short-range attack to defence on their line. Canberra only needed to shift it right to score, but got a chance for easy points when Peoples wasn’t square at marker, and knocked the Steeden from Starling’s grasp. Rapana booted through the two to recover the Raiders’ twenty-point lead, the game ebbed when Papalii landed awkwardly after a Burgess hit, and then flowed when he hit Burgess on his next carry.
Seeng Papalii come good reinvigorated the Raiders into a superb sequel to the Timoko try. It was another long-range effort, and only took two players, each of whom covered one half of the field. Rapana started by scooping up a loose South Sydney pass on the sideline, and reached the halfway point in about twelve massive strides, where Johnston brought him to ground. In a defining moment at fullback, Savage continued the surge, breaking through the line at the forty, and outshining even Wighton’s acceleration by the time he hit the chalk.
With so much speed and belief behind him, Nikorima and Paulo were never going to prevent Savage geting the Steeden down, in what felt like the quintessential Canberra try of the afternoon – young gun and veteran each carving up one half of the park to bring their men to a 32-6 lead once Rapana booted through the two. To their credit, however, the Bunnies hit back immediately, crafting a clinical left sweep that ended with an inspired harbour bridge ball from Nikorima that put Johnston over in the corner.
Johnston was now equal with Benny Wearing for second most South Sydney putdowns (144), only two behind Nathan Merritt (146) but it could only be a consolation try at this point, since the Raiders were still twenty ahead with ten minutes on the clock, and got more position off a Havili error. It was a weird time, then, for Tapine to get a penalty for backchat, although his dissent didn’t really dent Canberra’s rhythm, as Rapana almost broke up the middle, five minutes out, before Koloamatangi slammed in to shut down the play.
Even so, Tapine found that same midfield rhythm a tackle later, and the Raiders got a repeat set on the South Sydney line when Johnston knocked on the high ball. It almost ended with the most prodigious try of the game, as Cotric found himself with the footy on tackle two, and withstood a massive Rabbitohs pack to flick it back inside to Young just before he hit touch. After all that effort, Young put one of his boots over the sideline as he launched over the chalk without a South Sydney defender in sight.
Still, this didn’t undercut Canberra’s mammoth effort tonight, while the Bunnies had another frustrated moment when Koloamatangi mistimed a flick offload that would have likely put Nikorima through the line with a slightly better inflection. By the final siren, the Raiders were only out of the eight on for and against, a great motivator for next Sunday’s match against the Eels. Souths are still in the eight, but their position is precarious, so they’ll be looking for a big one when they host the Tigers for a rematch after their one-point loss a month ago.