ROUND 16: South Sydney Rabbitohs v. Parramatta Eels (Accor Stadium, 2/7/22, 30-12)

It was perfect weather for Beanie for Brain Cancer Round at Accor Stadium on Saturday night, as the Bunnies hosted the Eels after an absolute onslaught of rain that returned in periodic droves throughout the match. By the final quarter, the middle third of the park was a mud-soaked flashback to 80s football, as Parramatta tried in vain to replicate their best forty minutes of football against the Roosters last round. Mitch Moses might be dominating try assists this year, at 21 to Nathan Cleary’s 15, but he couldn’t organise the troops tonight.  

That’s not to say he didn’t have some brilliant plays, or that the fault lay on his shoulders alone, but that the Bunnies were determined to bounce back from their shock 0-32 opener against St. George and secure their position in the eight in the face of a tough draw to the finals. Of course, the main headline was Latrell Mitchell’s return from his Round 5 injury, already delayed by Covid, and the spirit he brings to the Bunnies was palpable, epitomised by his post-match decision to rule himself out of Origin to stay focused on South Sydney.

Isaiah Tass was playing his first fourth-grade game in place of Taane Milne, and took the opening hit-up, before Lachlan Ilias had the opening kick midway up the park, in the midst of a surface that wasn’t too muddy yet, considering the torrent that had just descended upon it. The Eels made it deep into opposition territory, and glimpsed some more position with a Junior Paulo offload to Reed Mahoney, only for Moses to lob it onto Isaiah Papali’i’s shoulder a second later. This single error was all the Bunnies needed to build into their first try.

Latrell took a run midway through the set, and Cody Walker took the initiative with a chip kick to the left edge, where Alex Johnston was briefly scrutinised for his contact on Bailey Simonsson (and cleared) before Clint Gutherson tapped it into the corner post for the first dropout of the night. Johnston returned that way two tackles later, as Walker built on strong opening runs from Tass and Tevita by shifting it across for his winger, who received it at the twenty, and basically reprised the same showdown with Gutho, winning once again.

This was the first great play to take advantage of the slippery surface, as Johnston slammed into the Parramatta captain seven metres out, and got to ground immediately, relying on the sodden turf to carry him across the line, barely noticing Will Penisini as last line of defence as he careened South Sydney onto the board. Latrell was all conviction as he added the two from the sideline, while Damien Cook supercharged the restart with a daring dummy half charge on the fourth, setting up Walker for an end-over-ender that Simonsson took on the full.

This was a critical rallying-point for Parra, who worked it hard and fast up the middle to try and regain some composure, before Moses sent it deep, under significant pressure from Cameron Murray, forcing Johnston to stagger all the way into his ten to collect it. Still, a hard charge from Campbell Graham made it clear the Bunnies weren’t going to lose any momentum, even if Simonsson made it a pair of great saves to clean up Johnston on their next left spread, and Gutho took the next end-over-ender right on his ten metre line too.

Unlike Johnston, though, he had to fall onto his back to contain it, giving the Rabbitohs time to strengthen their line, meaning Moses didn’t get beyond the thirty for his next kick. Set by set, the Bunnies were steadily applying pressure, so the Eels needed to force an error, or come up with a big individual play, to get on the board. What they didn’t need was a deft ball from Latrell to Tass, who dummied, deceived Simonsson, and made it all the way to the ten, even as he refused to risk a precarious pass to an unmarked Johnston on his outside.

For a brief beat, that combination of speed and risk management looked set to pay dividends, but in the end Tass might have been better to lob it out, since Walker booted it too far on the next play to grant Parra a precious seven tackles. Buoyed up by his victory for the Kiwis in Rep Round, Dylan Brown made the sensible decision on the last, recognising that the only way to confound South Sydney’s steadying acceleration was to steady his own men, which he did by sending it over the sideline to give them some breathing-space.

Sure enough, this marked the start of a mini-decline for the Rabbitohs, as Hame Sele came off the park after twisting to ground through a series of tough Parramatta tackles, and Cookie conceded the first penalty of the game (offside) early in the following set. The Eels had their first real attacking opportunity of the night, and their first chance to sink back into their groove against the Roosters, as Paulo followed Brown’s steadying play by pulling back the offload, only for Brown to botch the dribble, leaving it clear for Ilias to clean up.

They got a brief surge of hope when the whistle blew, but it ended up being for a Shaun Lane offside, as the Bunnies catapulted back up the park like this brief burst of Parramatta position had never occurred. Worse, the hosts showed them how to make the most of a bump up the field, as Walker shifted it out for Latrell to catch-and-pass to Jaxson Paulo, who booted it from the twenty, inducing Mahoney to execute the best single play so far for the blue and gold, starting with him getting on his bike to reach the Steeden before Graham got there.

This was just the start of a trilogy of great plays, however, as Mahoney managed to slide to ground right on the dead ball line without hitting the chalk, in the most dexterous wet weather move so far. From there, he eluded Graham once again to make it back into the field of play, and prove himself just as adept as avoiding the sideline as the backline when he once again came to ground. Nevertheless, the Eels really had to struggle for position now, and RCG wasn’t even at the twenty when he fumbled the play-the-ball halfway through.

Parra had gone from brilliant wet weather footy to the worst wet weather error of the night, and that was all South Sydney needed to resume their flow, especially once RCG found himself offside. Even worse for the Eels, the Rabbitohs crystallised all that energy around one of the best wet weather plays of the year on the last, when Walker chipped to the right, Cook leaped up to tap it back, Latrell scooped it up on the ground, dummied to elude Brown, and sent out a bounce to Paulo, who scooted back in field for a second chip out to the left.

That was all the mere prelude to a prodigious take from Tass, who contended with Penisini, caught it clean, and offloaded as he landed on his back for Jai Arrow, who only had to cruise over beside the posts to make it twelve unanswered points when Latrell added the kick. This would have been a scintillating enough play in dry conditions, but was almost unimaginable in the wet, while the Bunnies’ night got better on the restart, when they got a successful challenge to prove that Cookie hadn’t knocked on while receiving Koloamatangi’s feed.

Not only did South Sydney continue their perfect completion rate, but Johnston took advantage of the break to re-accelerate, tucking the footy under his arm, and carving his way up the left edge, buoyed up by so much energy that he got both boots off the ground when he kicked it back in field, forcing Moses to storm onto the Steeden, and then slow down to contain the slippery bounce, leaving Arrow enough time to reprise Johnston’s own play from the seven metre mark in buildup to his try, as he slammed the Parra half to the soaking turf.

Once again, the sodden surface was enough to slide both men over the chalk, and with this level of speed behind them it felt inevitable that the Rabbitohs would score on the dropout. They wasted no time parlaying Johnston’s energy out to the other wing, where Paulo crossed over, but not without Waqa Blake making Parra’s most important defensive move so far, launching himself into open space to send the young flyer over the chalk, and single-handedly wresting back some of the sublime flow South Sydney had built over these two sets.

To cement that turnaround, the Eels had to score on the very next set – and score they did, as Mahoney marked the Bunnies’ red zone by sending it out to Brown, who assisted Lane to poke his nose through the line, and lob a one-hander out to Gutho, who juggled it in his own right hand, regathered it, and slammed down the first four points for Parra, which Moses made six with a deft kick from the edge. Mahoney wasn’t quite as good on the restart, though, when he sent a poor pass onto RCG’s boot, forcing Moses to kick hard to regain rhythm.

The next set or two for South Sydney would be crucial in proving whether this Parramatta surge was an anomaly, or a genuine turning-point in the game. They started by trapping the Eels on their line, before Murray ripped the footy from Penisini on tackle two, and Mark Nicholls brought it a metre out, to the muddy miasma beneath the crossbar, midway through the set. At this very moment, however, Latrell showed his rustiness, losing the ball into a big charge from Blake, who again contributed a potentially game-changing defensive play.

Yet Latrell made up for his error spectacularly, following Murray’s strip on Penisini by securing the Steeden from the subsequent scrum, before Murray accelerated off the left foot and almost made it to the line, only for Lane to knock it dead, and the Parramatta pack to converge, before either he or Nicholls could take a second shot. Again, the Eels had the scrum, and this time they maintained possession, while the Bunnies copped a big blow when Graham made hard enough contact with Blake to leave the field, looking dazed, for an HIA.

Kodi Nikorima left the bench, Tass slotted into Graham’s position, and Latrell trotted over to fill the left centre role, but this didn’t disrupt the Bunnies’ momentum, partly because Oregon Kaufusi risked an offload that didn’t come off at the start of the next Parramatta set, thanks in part to the brunt of a Tom Burgess-led pack effort. Burgess backed up with a strong opening charge, the Bunnies spread it left, where Johnston was contained, Nicholls followed in Burgess’ footsteps, and Ilias capped it all off with a well-timed grubber on the last.

Blake had no option but to roll it into touch, and the Bunnies leaned into their dropout with quintuple Parra’s tackles in the opposition 20, at 15-3. Murray tried to make good on his aborted try beside the left post on the penultimate play, before Johnston squeezed the last tackle along the left sideline, where he grubbered right on the chalk, as Moses slammed in to pop it dead at the last moment. It was one of the clutchier wet weather moments of the night, and Gutho came agonisingly close to matching it in the way he executed the dropout.

Instead of sending the Steeden high, Gutho slid it along the ground towards the left edge, totally defying Tass, who was unable to handle it before Brown scooped it up, and then lost it in turn. The initial call was knock-on, but the Bunnies risked a Captain’s Challenge, and got joy, as a rotation of angles finally showed that Tass had never made contact. This was a reset moment for the hosts, and sure enough Ilias simply reprised the play that started it all – chipping, rather than grubbering, to the same edge, where again Blake cleaned it up.

Yet Gutho also showed he could self-correct now, executing much the same dropout as his last, except with a little more power behind it, and a little more elevation, producing a mercurial bounce that utterly defied Koloamatangi in the same part of the park where Tass had almost made contact. While the Eels didn’t do much with the next set, a Nikorima knock-on made it two successive unforced errors for South Sydney, who were only now starting to show the pressure of wet weather footy, less than five minutes out from the sheds.

Things got worse for Nikorima at the end of the next Parra set, when he annulled a Lane knock-on by hurling himself into Kaufusi, who’d popped out the offload, with enough force to lift him above the horizontal. Makahesi Makatoa marked this shift in fortune by setting his sights on the South Sydney crossbar, devoid of the muddy mess at the other end of the park, but only managed to muscle his way a metre out, meaning it came down to Gutho to secure the points, with a kick on the left, where Nikorima came close to a third successive error.

Gutho was baying for a penalty, claiming the ex-Warrior had hit him late, but the Bunker cleared it, the kick cleared the dead ball line, and the Bunnies had the momentum again for the last two minutes, if they could make the most of it, as word came down from the sheds that Graham had passed his HIA. With ninety seconds left on the clock, Murray had to take such a high pass from Cookie that he didn’t have time to get flat before he shifted it out to Nicholls, as Parramatta packed the scrum in what looked set to remain a six point game.

Cometh the hour cometh the men, however, as Burgess surged in hard to rattle the Parra attack, Nikorima made up for his errors with a low shot on Moses as he took a Paulo pass, and Johnston was in place, once Moses had to opt for a tap-on instead of a clean collect, to intercept the footy and accelerate all the way to the posts to become the thirteenth top tryscorer in NRL history, equal with Harold Horder and Manu Vatuvei. Latrell booted through the two, and the Bunnies had ended the first forty as resoundingly as they began.

Parramatta had the first set back and made their way up the muddy wake that the Bunnies had left down what was now their end of the park, as Paulo contributed a pair of tough runs, and Moses booted a clinical but conservative kick to steady his men. Meanwhile, Tom Burgess palmed off Mahoney and made a few metres up the middle, in his eleventh run of the night, while Graham showed his fitness by spearheading a three-man pack to drag Gutho ten metres back beneath the high ball, as the Bunnies leaned back into their first half footy flow.

That made it all the more surprising when the Eels got a penalty on their next set, off an Ilias offside, but Souths regathered seamlessly, closing up any chance of second phase play, before Gutho sent the Steeden over the backline for seven tackles. He didn’t strike it too hard, but the pitch had dried up considerably over the break, and so the Bunnies were back on the front foot, bringing this last period of Parra promise full circle by tempting Blake into an offside. All Latrell had to do was slot the penalty kick over the sideline for a close range set.

Yet Latrell had been off the park for most of the year, and showed his rustiness now, failing to find touch, and giving the blue and gold another chance to turn the tide. Like clockwork, though, the Bunnies contained them, and the game settled back into this new rhythm that had emerged since the sheds – more or less set-for-set, even if the Rabbitohs felt destined to break through on their next big bout of field position. Losing Nicholls to an HIA at the end of the next Parra set made them even hungrier for a big play, as Siliva Havili left the bench.

The middle of the park was now a flashback to the mud-soaked matches of the 80s, as both sides searched for a tipping-point on the edges. Mahoney tried to extemporise a 40/20 kick next time he had ball in hand, but Johnston was in space to intercept it on the chest and get his men back in place for a full set in the opposition half, followed by the most dangerous sweep since the break. Latrell had the vision, popping it out to Graham, who got on the outside of Blake, and drew in Sivo, but waited just a beat to long for the shift to Paulo.

As a result, the young winger couldn’t quite take it, despite clear sailing all the way to the line, although this didn’t have to dent South Sydney’s massive reservoir of momentum if they could just come up with a strong play at the end of the next set. They were faced with a great Lane-Gutho combo, but it came apart on the last, when Moses couldn’t quite toe it through the line, and had to content himself with another kick. Even then, Ilias was impressive as he dove on it, while Walker matched him with a pinpointer to the Eels’ right edge.

Between them, at the end of successive sets, the Rabbitohs’ halves had brought their men back from the disappointment of Graham’s mistiming. Ilias may have slumped a bit with his next kick from the forty, which didn’t go anywhere near the sideline, instead sailing straight to Gutho’s chest, but Graham now came in to support his halfback, delivering a superb chase to get the Bunnies back on the rampage. The rain started to torrent again too, as RCG drove it up the middle, and Johnston got down on his knees to take Moses’ next kick.

While the Bunnies were still the more confident and competent side, there was some achievement in the fact that Parra hadn’t permitted them to score since the break. If the Eels put down the next try, they might have a shot at reversing the rhythm here, so it was frustrating when Papali’i made no effort to wrap the arms when he came in on Ilias during his next kick, leading to a dangerous contact charge that had Gutho ballistic in his remonstrations with Ben Cummins out on the right edge, as Souths glimpsed the vulnerability they needed.

If Cookie had succeeded in smashing over beside the right post a play later, then the Eels would have had a hard time restoring their rhythm, but Gutho wasn’t going to give the Bunnies any more joy for the moment, slamming in top, as Mahoney wrapped around the waist, to ensure the New South Wales hooker came down half a metre short. Add to that some solid enough defensive energy to force Walker to knock on a Koloamatangi offload a play later, and it Parra were clearly galvanised by disappointment, determined not to give up.

That made them contenders, as the final quarter approached, but it still didn’t disrupt South Sydney’s supremacy, as Latrell knelt down in the mud to take a Moses floater without any drama, and without the slightest hint of a Parramatta chase. This grace under pressure seemed to calm the Bunnies as a whole, as Tass elegantly produced space for Johnston up the left edge, although this in turn further energised Gutho, who must have still been fuming from that Papali’i call as he summoned a Parra pack to drag the no. 2 over the sideline.

No sooner had the Eels got the ball back than Graham completed his comeback from his botched assist with the hit of the night on Lane, a David-on-Goliath effort in which David felt like Goliath, so thoroughly did the no. 4 lean into the barnstorming energy of the front row. It was the big play South Sydney needed, and that Graham himself needed, setting him up to take another beautiful ball from Latrell, and absolutely nail the pass for Paulo this time around, giving the no. 5 just enough time to elude Blake for a gymnastic putdown.

Paulo had now scored in every game against Parramatta, while his try here brought the Bunnies to quadruple the visitors, at 24-6, after Latrell sliced through a perfect kick from the sideline. Havili wasn’t taking any prisoners on play one of the restart, standing for several seconds in the tackle before Tatola continued his momentum up the middle, and Arrow, Murray and Koloamatangi did the same. This set had conviction written all over it, right down to Ilias’ bomb, and the ensuing chase, which trapped Gutho five out from his line.

Parramatta responded with a couple of good charges up the middle too, but Moses’ kick wasn’t anywhere near as challenging, giving Johnston time to rack up fifteen metres before Koloamatangi brought it back up the middle, and Latrell finally stepped into the spotlight, building on all this recent work from the big men by absorbing a bone-shattering low shot from Mahoney, dancing over the Parramatta hooker, shaping to get outside Blake, and pivoting brilliantly off the left boot to send the deception pass of the night in to Ilias.

Ilias wasted no time building on that vision, popping it straight across to Cookie, who broke through the line, scattered the blue and gold defence, and got his try beside the right post after all. Only Moses came close to catching him, as last line of defence, lunging to ground, and wrapping both hands around his right boot, but to no avail. Even if the slippery conditions hadn’t slid Mitch right off, Cook had more than enough space by now to pivot over, bringing the Bunnies to their final score of 30 once Latrell bookended it with the kick.

For what felt like the hundredth time this evening, Walker ended the restart by trapping Parra in their right corner, helped this time by a superb Johnston chase that left Simonsson with nowhere to go, a metre out from both the try line and sideline. All the Eels could do now was run fast and hard up the middle, a dispiriting prospect with RCG coming off the field at this very moment. Moses didn’t even break the thirty for his next kick, as the Eels braced themselves for another onslaught, the middle of the park now a total morass of mud.

Ilias didn’t get the kick right on the last, but it didn’t really matter, since Cook got it back a moment later. While Latrell shone with a beautiful harbour bridge ball to Paulo a play later, his winger didn’t have any room to move, and was bundled into touch to grant Parra a let-off with ten minutes on the clock. To their credit, the Eels capitalised for a consolation try here, building some of their best position since the break, starting with a Johnston error, and then Moses’ best kick of the night – a mercurial soft dab ten metres out from the right post.

Latrell tried to match it by reprising Gutho’s brilliant dropout earlier in the game, sliding more than kicking it out to the left edge, but he couldn’t get the angle right, giving the Eels ample time to get Kaufusi in place for his thirteenth run (only Paulo had travelled further in the Parra forwards) before the away spine finally synergised into their best sweep of the night. Perhaps Moses was charged up by his brilliant kick, as he drifted into the line, clearing up space further out for Gutho, who dummied to the wing and then decided to just go it alone.

It was the right option, since he had room enough to trample over Graham and put down a double, a gritty ending to a game that must have had its fair share of frustrations for him as Parramatta captain. Still, South Sydney stayed strong, determined not to go the way of Manly against Melbourne on Thursday night, coming away with a very respectable 30-12 win to propel them into a tough road to the finals, starting with next week’s game against Newcastle, as the Eels prepare for what they hope will be a total shellacking of the Tigers.  

About Billy Stevenson (739 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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