The Rabbitohs might have had their best thirteen (with the exception of Latrell Mitchell) and the Dragons might have wilted against the Cowboys last week, but the hosts blew the visitors out of the park for the first thirty minutes at WIN on Thursday night, celebrating Andrew McCullough’s 300th match with a good enough streak to ensure that they still came away with a twenty-point win without putting down a single point in the second stanza. Souths had won eight straight against St. George too, which made this watershed match even sweeter.
Ben Hunt was the MVP for those first thirty minutes, setting up kick after scintillating kick, scoring the first try himself, and providing his men with the vision and self-belief they needed to achieve their second highest score of 2022 by midway through the second quarter, after putting down 34 against the Dogs at Belmore in Round 12. They came close to their highest ever score in the first half, 36 against the Cowboys in Round 7, 2001, and effectively silenced the Bunnies, who only managed two tries on the cusp of the third and fourth quarters.
The game started bad for the Bunnies too, as Lachlan Ilias spilled the kickoff, giving the Dragons a chance to go on the attack on play one. This shouldn’t have been a hard kick to contain, even with the swirling breeze above it, although South Sydney didn’t have much time to dissect the error, since the Red V were on their line straight out of the scrum. They played around on the left edge for a few tackles, where Moses Suli briefly threatened to break through, before Jaydn Su’A forced an offload on the right, and lost the footy in the process.
This was a massive let-off for the visitors, so they had to build position quickly on their first set. Ilias was only at his forty by the time he took the kick, but Cody Ramsey was determined to build on the momentum of that opening close-range attack, spreading the Steeden on the first play to Mikaele Ravalawa, who put it down as he tried to bang through a small hole in the St. George defence. Now it was South Sydney’s shot at a short-range try, as Tevita Tatola crossed the ten on tackle two, and Cam Murray cleaned up a Damien Cook bouncer.
Tatola continued to lead up the middle with a crash play beside the right post, where he was held up easily by the Dragons defence, but his vision wasn’t enough to right a steadily fragmenting set, which ended with Jai Arrow putting it down to get the locals back on the attack once again. There had been four errors in four minutes now, so one team had to stand up and consolidate, as Suli asked more questions on the left edge, this time thirty out, and Ben Hunt seized the day by booting through the first great kick of the night a play later.
It was the perfect play to reset the game, as Hunt realised Nikorima was in too deep, chipped from the right edge, and got just the right angle off the side of his boot for the footy to call out Johnston’s complacency, ricocheting back at a crazy trajectory for Zac Lomax to rein it in with the right hand, elude the South Sydney fullback as well, and flick it across for Hunt to finish what he started by curving around to score untouched behind the crossbar. Lomax was always going to convert from this angle, and just like that the Red V had six on the board.
Talatau Amone followed in his halfback’s footsteps at the end of the restart, taking advantage of the swirling wind to boot it high enough for Lomax to take it on the full. He was swarmed by South Sydney immediately, but this was still money in the bank, proof the Dragons had footy flow to draw on if they could get good position again. On the other side of the Steeden, Keaon Koloamatangi drove it over halfway midway through the next set, in one of the best charges so far, before Ravalawa got some joy by taking the high ball clean into the breeze.
McCullough now came up with the third visionary kick, booting it early, deep in his own end, out of dummy half, and while Nikorima contained it, and got a decent return on it, this was more momentum for the Dragons, who just had to secure a burst of position to capitalise now. Instead, it was the Bunnies who got the first restart of the night, and the first full set in opposition territory, off a pair of ruck errors from Hunt and Jack Bird, but that just made it all the more deflating when Campbell Graham coughed up a rushed pass from Cody Walker.
Put that down to a tough tackle from Amone, along with a very flat Cook-Ilias ball a moment before, all of which meant the play was well and truly fragmented by the time Graham made his mistake. Three tackles later, Amone matched Hunt’s vision on the right edge with his second linebreak in twelve minutes, as he managed to turn Graham inside out and get outside Murray with a couple of dummies for Lomax, before popping it back inside for Ravalawa to complete the journey back from his opening error with the second try of the evening.
This was scintillating footwork, and a critical moment in Amone’s evolution in the halves, while Lomax showed he could bang them through just as well from the sideline to bring his men to twelve unanswered points. Conversely, this was the South Sydney outfit that are worst in the comp for completions, sitting at 4/7 after thirteen minutes as McCullough supercharged the restart with a barnstorming enough run from dummy half on tackle two to tempt a swinging arm from Walker, who was clearly nonplussed, in the process.
Hunt lobbed it beyond halfway to gift his men a full set in South Sydney territory, as Ilias only just prevented Ramsey breaking through up the left, and Amone contributed another mercurial dummy to initiate a sweep to the right. The Bunnies cleaned it up, as Graham did Lomax a play later, but only just, so it was no surprise when Jack De Belin built on all that drifting momentum to the right edge by adding a try from the front row. Hunt set him up with the dummy outside and pass inside, while Tom Burgess barely made contact in defence.
That just left Walker on the line, and if big Burgess could only make a feeble grab, then a man half his size wasn’t going to be a factor, meaning De Belin felt untouched by the time he rose to his feet, roared in triumph, and booted the footy into the crowd. The first two tries had been frustrating for South Sydney, but this was humiliating – not just for Burgess, but for Walker, who’s normally a leader on the park, but who had conceded the penalty and then let through the try here. Meanwhile, Lomax missed the kick, although the Red V were still at 16.
To their credit, the Bunnies seemed galvanised now, and did well to keep St. George in their own thirty for the first half of the restart, although that just made it all the more rousing when De Belin won a penalty off Cook, and tempted South Sydney to waste their challenge eighteen minutes in, for some pretty overt crowding. The Dragons were sitting at their biggest lead of the year, had another burst of position, and made their fourth try their best, with a team effort that decisively claimed every part of the park of their own as the first quarter ended.
They started with a left sweep, which crystallised into a Suli offload for Mathew Feagai, who followed with the best run of his career. Breaking into space up the sideline, he busted through five tackles, including a combined Cook-Nikorima effort, and almost made it six, when a Murray ankle tap only just downed him five out from the chalk. The South Sydney defence had melted into air, so the Dragons had to keep it that insubstantial on the next play, even though it initially seemed like there was nothing doing when De Belin was swamped.
True to one of his more visionary games this year, however, the big no. 8 planted a fend and offloaded out the back to Tariq Sims, who commenced a right sweep that ended with a sublime sequel to Feagai’s mad charge. In an even more mercurial play, Lomax pivoted on a Graham ankle tap that in any other game would have downed him, and was directly facing the opposite wing when he flicked a no-looker out for Ravalawa to leap over Johnston, who had half-committed to Lomax, for his eighth and best career double.
Lomax might have missed the extras, but his men had seven straight sets with the restart, while the Bunnies hadn’t touched the footy since the tenth minute, and St. George had their best ever start to a game since the club was amalgamated in 1999. This was history-making stuff, so it was a minor victory when Nikorima caught the high ball, and the visitors finally got some attack, even if the biggest pack so far dragged Graham five metres back on play two. Mark Nicholls made up for it with the best post-contacts so far, but Souths were struggling.
Ilias was having a particularly rough night, as he now tried to build on Nicholls’ plosive charge, but ended up booting it too far to grant St. George an extra tackle. Sims matched Nicholls with the post-contacts on play four, Hunt bombed to the left on play five, and Suli finally made good on all that left edge momentum by winning the contest five metres out – not that there was much contest to speak of, since Ilias was five metres infield, Jaxson Paulo barely got hands to it, and Nikorima seemed too shocked to deal with Suli as he tumbled over him.
In fact, the entire South Sydney team seemed in shock as Lomax added his first conversion in a couple of tries, and Hunt found himself five behind Mitch Moses (20) and one ahead of Luke Keary (14) for most assists of the season. The Dragons weren’t slowing down either, as Blake Lawrie slammed into Taane Milne on play one of the restart, and Su’A laid the platform for some beautiful Ramsey footwork with a deft offload on tackle three. Bird got the penalty a play later with a headbutt into Milne at the ruck, and the Bunnies were without a challenge.
The Red V had laid down five tries off nine tackles in the Bunnies’ red zone, so it felt almost inevitable that they would cross again here. Lawrie leaned into the residual energy of that last charge with a short-range effort to re-energise the set, and Ramsey became the next man to cross on the left, thanks to a short ball from Bird and another clean miss from Paulo. This was catastrophic defence from South Sydney, bringing the Dragons to over a point per minute, twelve minutes out from the halftime siren, as Lomax added another two.
By this stage the tryscorers were booting balls into the crowd for fun, while Walker was barking frantic orders at his men. St. George’s highest ever total at WIN Stadium was 58, once against South Sydney, and they got some fresh blood now with Francis Molo and Aaron Woods coming off the bench. Meanwhile, the Bunnies had only enjoyed 11% of the footy since the 15th minute, as Jason Demetriou took the drastic decision to hook Ilias for the rest of the match, and Blake Taaffe came on early to try and reset the rhythm.
Whether or not Ilias was the main issue with the Rabbitohs, this decision did the job at one level, since the Dragons wouldn’t score another point for the rest of the night, while the Bunnies would regain some provisional dignity with two unanswered tries in the second stanza. That’s not to say the Red V slowed down immediately, however, as Hunt booted his next beauty from his own forty, giving the chase time to prevent any chance of a decent return before the next South Sydney set decelerated towards the St. George forty as well.
Conversely, the Dragons accelerated into the Rabbitohs’ twenty as rapidly as ever on the next set, only for Hunt to knock on a Bird offload. Finally, the visitors had an error and a scrum, but they didn’t do much with the subsequent set, which started with a pack of Dragons swarming Graham, who had a Red V of blood streaming down his head as he rallied into the tackle, and ended with a Walker chip that Ravalawa took effortlessly on the full while garnering the fifth penalty, and the fifth inside his own half, thanks to a hand in the ruck from Jai Arrow.
Still, the Bunnies got a better run on their next set, when McCullough leaked the first St. George penalty of the night with an offside, and then stuck a hand in the ruck to provide Nicholls with the position he needed to charge through the line and almost score beside the posts, where a pair of efforts from Ramsey and Amone only just held him up. Amone’s contact was pretty mild, but Walker clamoured for a sin bin, and sold it well, leaving the Dragons with twelve men only for Cookie to put it down on the line, bringing this last sequence to nothing.
Even worse, Milne reached out an arm to intercept the last play, but ended up knocking it on too. South Sydney had a couple of good chances during this last five minutes, so ending with a pair of errors probably dented their momentum after the break, even if they did prevent the Red V from scoring any more as well. St. George had the first set back, and didn’t make it over halfway by the time Hunt took his kick, while the Bunnies had seven more minutes with Amone off the park to make a mark on the scoreboard.
They did well to reset the balance of field position, starting with a tough run up the middle from Siliva Havili, who set up Walker to make some strong inroads up the left, where Ramsey cleaned up the footy right on the line to avoid the dropout. The Dragons now had the second of three straight sets when they failed to hit South Sydney territory, and had to rely on Aaron Woods to break the ten midway through, before Hunt booted it behind the forty. Conversely, the Bunnies made good metres, thanks to a tough Koloamatangi charge over McCullough.
Nevertheless, the visitors still looked fragmented, and had one of their most dramatic dissolutions now, as Nicholls found himself at first receiver on the last, and Nikorima was forced to take the kick, booting it high to the left edge where not even a Ravalawa fumble was enough for the Bunnies to put down a try with an extra man on the field. Johnston managed to get a second and better kick away, but McCullough followed in Ramsey’s footsteps by taking it right on the line, while holding his ground to avoid a dropout.
Ilias might have been a liability at halfback, but his absence was splintering the South Sydney side, so they had to rely on defence to build momentum, keeping the Red V even deeper in their own end on the next set, when not even another strong Woodsy charge could get Hunt further than thirty-five upfield for his next boot. Havili may have added another strong charge on the next set, and Walker may have regathered the footy when he flicked it forward before it hit any of the Dragons, but that fragmented energy tore it all apart out on the left edge.
The error came from Cook, who was having some shockers tonight, and got his worst now, busting through the line only to send the Steeden straight over the wing and into the fence to bookend this last sequence with his error before the break, and ensure that the Bunnies wouldn’t score their next try with Amone in the bin. For a moment, it looked like this might restore the Dragons’ splendid early flow, as Milne got done for an obstruction, and Lawrie and De Belin came off the bench to resume their barnstorming first stanza contributions.
Add to that an escorts from Graham and high contact from Milne and it was incredible the Dragons didn’t cross over now, in their first sustained short-range stint since the break. McCullough and De Belin both went for crash plays beside the left edge, and the Red V looked set for a dropout when Su’A forced Taaffe to ground the footy behind the chalk, in what might well have been the game-changer, or the rhythm-shifter, if the ex-Rabbitoh hadn’t come in high on his quarry to grant the visitors the best let-off so far.
Play paused now as the match officials came on to recover an intruder from the field, texturing out this moment as one of the key tipping-points for the Red V, who felt destined to put down another torrent of tries if they’d just secured one more repeat set here. On the other side of the footy, Graham got the next set rolling with a strong run, and Murray followed in his footsteps and managed an offload to Nicholls, who got a penalty and back-to-back charges when Suli stripped it. Add Hunt knocking it down on the last, and Souths had a shot.
Hame Sele came remarkably close a moment later, twisting and spinning beside the left post, where he reached out his hand, but never got quite enough ball control to be confident of the putdown, even though there was space enough for him to slam it to ground. Murray parlayed that same energy into a charge beside the other post, and Taaffe shifted it back inside, where Nicholls was forced to take the next tackle. They were on the very cusp between inspired and fragmented, and ended, for the moment, with the latter, out on the left edge.
Last week Graham executed one of the great tap-ons of the last few years, but he replayed it as farce now, sending the footy forward and over the line to grant the Dragons the scrum, along with a brief flashback to that post-break period when they struggled to work it off their own line. Once again, Woodsy made the difference, barging over halfway after Murray and Cook combined to almost lift De Belin off the turf, while Hunt’s commitment hadn’t dimmed either, as evinced in a massive chase when Taaffe took the high ball at the end of the set.
That prevented the young backliner making any metres, so it fell to Cook to add position up the middle, for what turned into the Bunnies’ first tryscoring sequence once Ramsey spilled the high ball backwards. It took them a while to get to it, however, as they cycled through crash play after crash play, reaching that same cusp between inspired and fragmented as Nicholls overran Murray in the middle. Try as they might, they couldn’t get the rhythm right, so in the end it came down to a dummy half burst, rather than a well-timed charge.
Full credit, of course, to Burgess for laying the platform, an attempt to slam through Lawrie beside the right post, although the try came in his slipstream, as Cookie got some momentary joy after a very spotty night by scrambling more than plunging over from dummy half for the Rabbitohs’ first four. For a brief beat, the visitors looked set to find their footy flow, as Ravalawa chased down the next kick, and reached back inside to plant the Steeden over the line, only for the cardinal and myrtle to muster their single most assertive play of the night.
It came as Lomax set his eyes beyond the ten – a massive pack effort to drag him back in goal, and so ensure the dropout after all. Nicholls set the scene with another strong charge, Burgess took it into the ten, and the Rabbitohs now focused on laying a solid platform instead of cycling through crash plays, as had occurred on the last set. Murray tried to break it open with a right sweep, as Milne, like Walker, coughed it up and then collected it before making contact with the defence, before Cam lobbed it into Su’A for six more on the other side of the park.
While Sims came in for a bone-shattering hit on Burgess, the big bopper still got within a metre of the line, and the sheer strength of that carry supercharged Nicholls into another big shot in front of the posts. After a more conservative approach, the Bunnies had rediscovered their crash play mojo, as Murray, the man who had set up so much of this set, received a short ball from Cookie, and leaned into their New South Wales Blues synergy, while catching their Origin team mate Sims out of position to smash over untouched beneath the crossbar.
After such a grind, and so much heavy contact, the sheer size of this hole in the St. George defence seemed like enough to usher in a torrent of South Sydney tries, and perhaps even a South Sydney win, as the final quarter got underway. Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Hunt now stepped up, and showed he could prevent a torrent of tries as much as he could facilitate one. Just when the Bunnies were peaking again on their left edge, he proved he’d done his research this week, intercepting a Cook-Tatola pass to get his men back on track.
In some ways this was the last critical play of the night, since the Rabbitohs looked good to score on the next play, or even this play, while both teams started to show signs of fatigue from here, ushering in a fairly error-laden period in which the Dragons calmly managed to contain everything South Sydney threw at them, including a final dropout five minutes out from the end, which ended with Cookie almost breaking past De Belin on the left edge for the close-range double that would have cemented his provisional comeback from a poor night.
Yet with Walker failing to scoop up a bouncing ball on the left it didn’t much matter that De Belin and Lomax contributed a pair of errors, or that Lomax failed to score off a final Hunt bomb, since the Dragons had enough flow to withstand the last minutes of South Sydney attack, while Graham made the last error anyway, right on the siren. That said everything about the Bunnies tonight, so they’ll be looking for a big one against the Eels, while the Red V will be pumped to build on this historic win when they host Canberra on Sunday week.