ROUND 17: Newcastle Knights v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (McDonald Jones Stadium, 8/7/22, 28-40)

When the Bunnies played Newcastle last year, they came away with a landslide victory, and while the margin wasn’t quite as big tonight, the loss was just as visceral, resulting in a David Klemmer brainsnap that was almost as dramatic as his Good Friday showdown in Wagga, and keeping the Knights to only two home wins this season – against the Tigers in Round 2 and the Titans last week. That recent victory only made this 28-40 scoreline all the more disappointing, as did Bradman Best’s first footy since his Round 11 elbow injury.

Kalyn Ponga may have been out, and Jacob Saifiti may have been a late call-up to Blues camp after Jordan McLean’s hamstring injury but Jed Cartwright was also making his first appearance in 2022, Daniel Suluka-Fifita was debuting in South Sydney colours after his midseason shift from the Roosters, and Richie Kennar was playing his first NRL since 2020 to plug the gap of Alex Johnston’s quad issues, with Shaq Mitchell named on the bench, and Lachlan Ilias off in the first thirty seconds after copping friendly fire from Tevita Tatola.

Unlike the Knights, however, the Bunnies would absorb these lineup changes, thanks in large part to the vision and leadership of Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell, as well as some periodic brilliance from Kodi Nikorima, who slotted into the halves once Ilias was taken from the park. Add to tha at barnstorming night from Tom Burgess, who topped the VB Hard Earned Index, and Tevita Tatola, who nabbed his sixth NRL try, and the Bunnies were in such good flow that Kennar was as prolific as Johnston on the left wing, landing his first career hat trick. 

The game started with a bang, as Tatola slammed in high on Mitch Barnett on the second play, and in doing so ricocheted into Ilias, for a nasty Bunny-on-Bunny head clash that saw the young halfback sidelined twenty seconds in. Burgess came off the bench, Nikorima shifted to the halves, Best took his first charge in six rounds, and Barnett and Tatola met again later in the count, before Kennar got down on one knee for his first touch of the football since 2020.

South Sydney were crisper and faster moving it up the park, starting with a trio of tough runs from Keaon Koloamatangi, Davvy Moale, and Tatola, who made fifteen metres, a third of them after contact, and poked his nose through the line. Yet they were quickly upstaged by Dom Young, who dragged Tatola, Walker and Cartwright ten metres up the right, and even then took an age to hit the ground, only for Chris Randall to lose it forward a play later, giving Latrell a platform to show his first stellar footwork of the night as he sized up Adam Clune.

Burgess laid another platform with two early charges, the second of which saw him trample straight over Barnett, and the Bunnies ended by elasticising into their first right sweep of the game – a rusty affair, depending on a couple of clutchy passes from Walker and Latrell, that nevertheless paid dividends when Edrick Lee touched the footy for the first close-range set of the night as well. Burgess continued to be massive, launching himself at the right post for another restart off a Kurt Mann ruck error, as the Bunnies made their first stab at the left.

Again, Latrell wasn’t quite in full gear here, allowing Young to tap an offload back for yet another restart, but there was no doubt the Bunnies were also consolidating set by set, as Moale followed Burgess by trying to break through on the right, and Tatola burrowed into Saifiti and Tyson Frizell beneath the crossbar. This was a flex play, a call to the troops, so the Knights needed to hit back with a big defensive statement, and Randall provided it, making up for his error with a bone-rattling hit on Walker as Frizell came in low in support.

The set fell apart on the very next tackle, thanks to another messy edge play from Latrell, who aimed a short one at Cartwright, but sent it too hard and early, falconing it off the big back-rower’s head before augmenting Newcastle’s next burst of position with a second effort. The hosts were high on defending their line as they ferried it up the park for their sharpest set so far, but Milford weighted it too hard on the last, meaning that even a daring Clune dash wasn’t enough to get the ball down, or bat it back in goal for the rest of the chase.

The Rabbitohs’ last stint on the Knights’ line had felt like a warm-up, a set-by-set refinement, so they had to both lean into that rhythm and exceed it with this extra tackle, especially since Nikorima ended with the most dangerous bomb so far, forcing a knock-on from Hoy as he tried to take it in the air. To his credit, Hoy bounced back immediately with an epic trysaver on Latrell, who tried to transcend his messiness on the edge, and consolidate the Bunnies’ unfocused opening, by burning up the middle on the first play out of the scrum.

Still, Latrell’s run was a motivator here, as Moale drew in a four-man pack to hold him up beneath the crossbar, Tatola followed with a crash play in his fullback’s wake, and Walker slammed over for a try that split the difference between the brilliance and messiness the Bunnies had demonstrated so far – and, in doing so, finally brought them into the game at full force. The messiness came from Siliva Havili, who slid more than threw the dummy half pass in the face of a big Klemmer hit five metres out.

Ever the craftsman, Walker scooped it up beautifully on the trot, ricocheted off Burgess, and ducked under Barnett, the sole fragment of a Newcastle line that hadn’t regathered itself, before reaching out his right arm to slam it down. He knew this was a critical consolidator, rising to his feet and bouncing the ball to ground with a cardinal and myrtle roar, before the Bunker briefly reviewed and rejected the possibility of an obstruction on Barnett, and Latrell booted through the conversion to put the Bunnies at six on the board. 

The Knights rallied right away to prevent Burgess making any metres on the restart, cleaning up Moale just as thoroughly on the second, but unable to prevent Burgo from gaining ground on another charge late in the count. Tatola and Moale returned the favour on Hoy beneath the high ball, as Newcastle looked set to spend the full six in their own end, until Enari Tuala and Frizell put in some good position up the right. Milf kicked it to the same part of the park, Latrell caught it and tried to amp up the rhythm with an early ball out to Jaxson Paulo.

By this stage, South Sydney were cruising with 22-6 tackles in the opposition half and 65% of possession. They accelerated again through a very late offload from Koloamatangi, and a very low offload from Burgess, that set up Latrell to break up the middle and flick it across for Nikorima to almost score beneath the crossbar, only for Young to put in the chase of his life to down him five out. Back in visionary mode, Latrell parlayed that speed into a harbour bridge ball to Milne, as the Knights came up with an equally brilliant defensive effort.

This time it was a four-man job, starting with a desperate Edrick Lee ankle tap. It was only enough to deflect the big backliner, while even the full brunt of Best could only halt him for a second before Barnett and Clune slammed into to complete the clutchiest defence so far. Yet the sheer tenacity of these hits on Nikorima and Milne galvanised the home side, putting them in prime position to take advantage of the next South Sydney error – a mistimed Nikorima grubber that Randall scooped up and shifted out to Frizell to break his own thirty.

Walker brought the Newcastle captain down on his third ankle tap attempt, but Frizell remained cool under pressure, rolling it across to Hoy, and getting a restart out of it, as the Bunnies went from their most plosive assault on the opposition line to letting through a try on tackle one. It came from Young, who gathered the spirit of his sublime chase into a tough short-range effort on the wing, where he had so little space to move that he had to score through rather than across Isaiah Tass’ legs tackle, dragging him all the way to the chalk. 

The preceding sweep was also a riposte to South Sydney’s last effort to cross on their right wing, as Randall pivoted left and abruptly shifted it to the right, where a beautiful pair of wide balls from the halves got Young the space he needed. Hoy missed the sideline conversion, but this was still one of the better opening hitbacks of the season, especially once the hosts got an augmented restart off high contact from Burgess on Saifiti late in the count, and Young reprised his last dash up the right edge off a more compressed sweep through Tuala. 

It ended differently this time, however, as Latrell met him on the chalk, and swung his left arm clean enough into his face to warrant an HIA, producing a new rage in the Knights (and in Klemmer, in particular, who was expostulating with Walker during the on-field examination) that fuelled them into taking the lead for the first time on the very next set. Big Klem was the man to do it too, building on a forward-heavy sequence, including a pair of tough charges from Saifiti, by grounding a Leo Thompson tap-back beside the left post.

The Knights couldn’t have asked for a better gee up on the cusp of the second quarter than seeing Klemmer score his fifth career try – a comparable moment, in some ways, to Blake Lawrie’s debut in his 91st game against Canterbury earlier this year, since Klem hadn’t scored in 97 matches (75 in Newcastle), and last put it down at the seventeenth minute when Gold Coast hosted the Dogs at the end of 2017. With his grounding and Hoy’s conversion, the blue and red had bounced back from their spotty opening, and were in peak footy flow. 

Paulo did well to cut off Clune’s kick on the restart and bring it back to the thirty, while a dummy half run from Kennar racked up ten post-contacts, which Burgess matched with his seventh run a play after. This was a good start after conceding points, although the set began to disintegrate in the back half, as Kennar reached out an arm to only just rein in a slightly overlong Latrell ball on the wing, before Nikorima booted it a little too deep, giving Clune time to take it and get to ground comfortably seven metres out from his line.

Still, the game had returned to a more even contest after the Knights’ big burst, as the Bunnies spread it left midway through their next carry, and Burgess continued to add to his burgeoning metre tally by bringing it over the thirty, as Walker compensated for Nikorima’s last boot by sending it straight into the left corner, ensuring that Lee only got a chance to poke his nose back over the thirty before Milf kicked it from the red zone, missing the 20/40 angle, but still getting a decent result off a mad Best charge to shut down Latrell.

Havili may have had to collect an awkward sideways play-the-ball from Milne, sending the next sequence of passing slightly awry, but Tatola made up for it with a strong second phase charge from a Cartwright offload. Souths were now ebbing and flowing in miniature, and needed a big individual play, or a Newcastle error, to restore their flow. Instead, Lee collected the very next kick, a bomb from Clune, and offloaded on the ground for Best, who curved around behind the posts to plant it down in his first game in two months.

The try was all the more momentous in that the Knights had deserved a penalty the play before, when Burgess hit Saifiti high, but might not have crossed over if they’d got the extra position. Tom was belatedly put on report as Milf sliced it through for a ten point lead, the biggest in the game so far, and Klemmer was topping the VB Hard Earned index with 46 run metres, 16 post-contacts and 19 tackles to his name as Newcastle launched into another restart. One more try now, and Souths were in danger of losing control before the break.

Milford knew it too, booting a long one on the fourth to trap Latrell on the line, where he shifted it back inside to Paulo, who seemed to have a better chance of working it away, but just didn’t have the heft to withstand one of the most committed Newcastle packs of the night. Milf himself arrived first, holding up the young winger for just long enough as Knight after Knight poured in, so it was doubly dramatic when Milne tapped back the kick to give his men a brief glimpse of reabsorbing this barnstorming rhythm as their own.

Add to that a holding down penalty for Randall, and even the prospect of Young returning to the park wouldn’t be enough to keep out the Bunnies if they could get one more burst of position now. Tatola and Burgess were starting to look exhausted, but still staunch with the metres, laying a platform for the first South Sydney sweep in ages. It all came together like clockwork, as Latrell received a pinpoint wide ball from Walker, and straightened the play to put Kennar across untouched on the edge.  

Latrell capped it off by booting through a stellar sideline two, putting fingers to lips to hush the Hunter crowd, while Burgess looked like a new man on play one of the restart, charging his way into the defence to set up Tatola for a similarly reinvigorated run. With seven minutes to half time, the Bunnies had a second wind, as evinced in the sheer energetic joy with which Milne greeted the news of another holding down penalty, this time from Milford, before Burgess put his stamp on the set with a fifteen-metre run.

By now, the Rabbitohs were in enterprising mode, as Paulo pivoted away from the wing to take a shot further infield, Nikorima swerved off the left boot and almost made it to the right padding, where only a Hoy ankle tap brought him down at the death, and Kennar showed that he could be just as prolific on the left edge, where he collected a Walker chip and slammed down a double. All that exhilaration condensed around Latrell, the spirit of South Sydney, who was high on cardinal and myrtle as he lined up the tee from the sideline.

No surprise, then, that he booted through as perfect a kick as he’s ever executed, slotting it straight through the posts before flicking up the tee in a flex to the crowd. With this kind of flow behind them, it felt inevitable that the Bunnies would score again and reclaim their lead before the break, especially since Burgess showed no signs of slowing down on play one of yet another restart, and Koloamatangi delivered some of the best post-contact metres of the game by bringing the footy over halfway and dragging Newcastle beyond the forty.

Young was raring for a penalty at the start of the next set, trying to match Burgess’ speed and strength in sheer restless energy, and keen to galvanise the Knights into one last bout of position to start levelling the 5-39 deficit of opposition half tackles. While Young was never going to match Burgess for first-tackle impact, he did lay the platform for the big no. 10 to peel slowly off the next tackle, before errors from Shaq Mitchell and Michael Chee Kam brought Newcastle right to the Rabbitohs’ line.

Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Walker now reprised the first stanza – Newcastle confidence, Souths resurgence – by reaching out his left hand to intercept a Mat Croker ball, tucking it under his right arm, and running most of the field to sail over beneath the crossbars without Best ever having a chance of catching him. Just when the Knights had glimpsed tackles in the twenty, the Bunnies had scored from their twenty, making it a 16-24 lead heading into the sheds once Latrell booted through one last kick from right in front.

Burgess had the first carry back, after 123 metres in the opening forty, while Cartwright also continued a barnstorming first forty with post-contacts up the right. Walker was at the forty by the time he took the kick, and while Young did well to take it on the full, he was met with a chase that permitted no quarter, part of a stellar South Sydney defensive effort that tempted Klemmer into a messy offload to Clune, who came off the park after copping Milne’s knee in his face, bringing Kurt Mann from the bench earlier than expected.

Meanwhile, Souths had their next set from the same point where they ended their last one, as Havili showed Klemmer how to pull off the second phase, lobbing it out for Koloamatangi to make some more headway, before Shaq pivoted off the left boot to bring them to the brink of the ten. Two plays later, Kennar’s Johnston-like comeback continued on the left wing, thanks to a couple of well-timed dummies and a soaring harbour bridge ball from Walker that gave him space to cross untouched even with Milford and Hoy converging on him.

Kennar had the first hat trick of his career, Walker had one of his best assists this year, and the Bunnies were just shy of thirty once Latrell sprayed the kick out to the right, denying himself more banter with the home crowd for the moment. The Knights had barely touched the footy since the break, and had conceded four tries in thirteen minutes, so it was a minor victory when Young leaped up to take the next end-over-ender from Walker, and Klem brought it beyond halfway, wisely pulling back the offload this time around.

By this stage, the Knights’ first stanza surge seemed like an aeon ago, while Burgess had comfortably risen to the top of the VB Index, sitting at 57 to Klemmer’s 52. To hit back here, they really needed to force an error, and Best and Brailey did the job early in the next set, combining to lift Paulo clean off the turf and force the footy free. After almost no position since the break, Newcastle were inside the ten by tackle two, as Klem pivoted the plays from side to side, and Frizell almost overcame a South Sydney pack to cross out on the right.

So precarious was the home side’s hold here, however, that it only took one decisive play for the visitors to get back on the front foot. It came from Nikorima, who read Milford’s grubber beautifully, curving around the right post to bring it back in the field of play as Thompson found himself offside downtown. In yet another twist, though, Havili didn’t realise it was the last at the other end of the park, while Kennar was pinged for high contact as he combined with Tass to shut down Tuala early in the next count.

Both sides had now followed poor last-tackle options with penalties, so the second stanza was as close as it had come to equilibrium as Klem barged over the thirty on tackle four. Mann had one of his best runs since coming off the bench, requiring hard contact from Nikorima and Chee Kam to hold him up, before the pattern of the last two sets repeated itself once again – Kennar coming up with the kick right on the line, Young pinged for crowding – as the Knights sent it upstairs in an attempt to break this end-to-end deadlock.

Instead, they conceded the rhythm back to South Sydney, since the replay clearly showed the wiry winger’s left boot making contact with the footy, as Suluka-Fifita, Tatola and Burgess methodically brought it back into Newcastle territory. Now it was the Rabbitohs’ turn to challenge a last-tackle decision, and they got the chocolates, as the Bunker showed that Milford had indeed played at Walker’s grubber. As if that weren’t enough to dampen the home spirit, the Bunnies’ forward pack now translated their grunt into another four points.

This time they came from Tatola, who built on his two terrific charges on the last set by taking the first carry here, setting up Burgess for a grinding run through Thompson to arrive three metres out. From there, the visitors elasticised out to the right, but the set ended with a Walker grubber that led to the biggest scramble behind the posts so far. In contrast to Hoy, who stretched out both hands chaotically but only got fingertips to it, Tatola curved around to put it down with both palms so balletically that he seemed the lightest man on the park.

It was a resounding statement from the South Sydney big men in the absence of Sele, Knight, Nicholls and Murray, while Latrell got the points this time, booting through an easy two to put the Bunnies almost double Newcastle at 34-16. Tatola didn’t show any signs of slowing down on the restart either, backing his way into the defence midway up the park, and inspiring Chee Kam into a similarly styled run, before Latrell put himself square in the way of the Knights’ next big hitback – a linebreak from Pasami Saulo at the end of the next set.

For a brief beat, Latrell looked on the verge of stealing the footy, but had to permit the Knights to sweep it right for one more play, as Tuala sent a scintillating underarm pass to Young, who would have crossed if not for Walker leaking an offside penalty to hold him up. The South Sydney defence tumbled onto Barnett to prevent him getting a Milford bouncer that was meant for Saifiti, and contained big Daniel himself a play later, before heading out to the right again, where Walker once more prevented the try, with a tough tackle on Tuala.

It all came down to the final left sweep, where Milne tried to intercept a Clune ball, but didn’t quite have the speed or wingspan, making contact with the tips of his right fingers, but failing to rein it in as he tumbled over the footy on the ground. Newcastle had to score now or concede all this aggro back to South Sydney, although they still didn’t get any joy on the right edge, where Milf crossed the chalk on his third run, and stood for a few seconds in the tackle, but was still unable to plant the tip down.

They did better on the other edge, where Clune wasn’t going to risk the intercept a second time around, parabolising a gently arcing ball out to Lee, who drew on his five tries against Gold Coast with an untouched putdown on the wing. Milf showed Latrell he could boot them just as confidently from the sideline, spinning the Steeden so high that it had almost cleared the left post before it swung around and over the crossbar. The Knights had narrowed it to a twelve-point game, 22-34, on the cusp of the final quarter, looked sharp on the restart, and seemed set to score when Cartwright put it down early in the next count, only for Young to cough it up just as quickly, in the most agonising moment for Newcastle so far.

On the other side of the football, the Bunnies seemed to have absorbed, processed and overcome the Knights’ brief surge in this rapid turnover, even if Saifiti came in to show Suluka-Fifita what a big hit-up looks like in first grade. Sensing the rhythm was with him again, Walker sent a second play of his own upstairs to successfully prove that he’d lost the ball backwards in a collision with Clune, setting up Suluka-Fifita to regain his composure with another strong charge, and in doing so lay the platform for another sublime South Sydney sweep to the right.

Latrell set it up with a searching run up the edge, compressing the play with a cut-out across Milne to Paulo, who now delivered one of the best runs of his career – a three tiered effort that saw him accelerate through a Lee ankle tap, pivot away from a Best hit, and bump through Hoy at the death, all while treading the most delicate of tightropes along the sideline. Latrell might have missed the conversion, but he had two assists to his name already tonight, and was showing the impact of his time in America in his vision and leadership here.

The Bunnies got an augmented restart with a Brailey offside, as Latrell trampled over Best for another shot up the right, and Tatola glimpsed a break in the line to almost slam down a double through Milford beside the right post, so it was a big let-off when Hoy forced a Walker knock-on out on the left. Back-to-back errors from South Sydney had been few and far between, so the Knights had to capitalise immediately when Suluka-Fifita got pinged for high contact early in the next set – and capitalise they did, with their final try of the evening.

Klemmer was staunch as ever, standing in the tackle five metres out, as Suluka-Fifita got some joy by preventing the offload, but the sheer fact of the man was enough here, a rallying-point and calm centre in the midst of chaos that set up Brailey to receive his rapid play-the-ball, pivot to the left and sent a quick one out for Barnett to smash over. Right when Tatola looked poised to make it a double, the Newcastle big men had set up a try of their own, with some good intervening work from Brailey, as Milf added the kick to make it a ten point game.

With ten minutes on the clock, this was slightly worrying for South Sydney, since Newcastle had shown they could score rapidly if they reached peak footy flow. Brailey had more vision to deliver on the restart too, mking a good dummy half run on the fourth to give Milf that little bit more position to hoist it high enough for Saulo to absolutely smash Latrell in the chase. Yet this was one case where David came off worse than Goliath, as the big bench player left the park for an HIA after his head ricocheted off the McDonald Jones surface.

Souths also had Burgess and Moale off the bench round the same time, as Tatola and Chee Kam finished up, and got a brief beat to recover themselves as Saulo headed slowly to the sideline. Burgess got stuck in immediately, making his twentieth run straight up the middle, before Nikorima sent it over the chalk to give his men a bit more breathing-space. The exhaustion was starting to encompass both teams, although you wouldn’t have known it from how thoroughly Havili and Cartwright decimated Young on play one of the next set. 

Brailey now continued his late game surge with a deft offload for Klemmer, who took it again on the fourth, and set up Clune to almost break through on the left, where Tatola made his last big statement in defence before heading back to the bench. Walker struck the belly of the ball for one of the best torpedos of the night at the end of the next set, as it started to feel like Newcastle weren’t going to get another try down this evening, let alone the two converted tries they needed to beat South Sydney at the death.

They got their last chance about five minutes out, when Clune compensated for another Klemmer offload being shut down with a long low grubber that Latrell had no option but to clean up in the left corner. Latrell went short in response, leading to one of the more surreal dropouts of the year, as players from both sides decelerated around the footy to confirm that it did indeed come up short just inside the ten, before the Knights compressed into one of their most powerful and compelling attacking sequences of the game.

It started with Saifiti sending a very late offload to Brailey, who again read the field perfectly and shifted it on for Clune to double-pump and put Best over the line. Only the best defence of the night could counter it, as Nikorima anchored one of the most committed South Sydney packs so far, twisting Bradman all the way through the tackle to ensure the footy never hit the turf. With Lee missing the subsequent chip kick into a leaping effort from Paulo, who got back into the field of play to boot, the Rabbitohs had one of the great turnarounds tonight.

They had to get on the board again, just to crystallise all the vision of this last stint on their own line, and Latrell made it a round forty on the siren with a penalty kick after some working on the ground from Big Klem, who was ropeable at the decision after a showdown with Koloamatangi a few minutes earlier. Both men had been staring daggers at each other, and Klemmer in particular, who had the same wild look in his eyes as that infamous Good Friday Match in Wagga, contining to bark out comments long after the comtact had ceased.

That would be enough in itself to make this a volatile finish, as the Bunnies got the last burst of position off a Milford hand in the ruck, but the penalty pushed Klemmer over the edge, as the biggest fracas of the year emerged, in what might have become another Battle of Brooky in an earlier rugby league era. Klemmer was sent off, Latrell booted through the two, and the game ended in high drama – high melodrama – doing the work of two games during this bye for pure spectacle, in a brilliant precursor to the Origin III showdown next week.

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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