ROUND 18: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (Accor Stadium, 17/7/22, 28-36)

There had already been two close ones on the augmented Super Sunday after Origin, but the Rabbitohs’ win over Canterbury was the most suspenseful of the lot, a worthy inauguration of the Mortimer-McCarthy cup that saw both sides level the scoreline over and over. The Bulldogs leaned deep into their newfound flow with a superb second phase stint in the back forty, taking advantage of an away side missing Damien Cook and Cam Murray, but Latrell Mitchell was too much for them, thanks to an instantly iconic South Sydney performance.

No doubt, Latrell has been better for the Bunnies, and there have been more storied performances in the Rabbitohs’ annals, but the sheer fury, conviction and belief that the star fullback showed here was in a league of its own – proof he is indeed the spirit of the team, capable of propelling them towards finals footy every bit as convincingly as Turbo did for Manly last year. Latrell bottled that energy in arguably the best short-range run of his career, a terrifyingly brutal charge in the second stanza that galvanised the Souths victory to come.

Tevita Tatola took the opening charge, and then built on a trio of strong runs from Davvy Moale, Keaon Koloamatangi and Mark Nicholls to bring it over halfway on tackle five, before Lachlan Ilias sent his first kick beyond the ten, where Jake Averillo caught it clean, but couldn’t make much headway in the face of a staunch South Sydney chase. The hosts found it harder to make position, despite twenty metres up the middle from Jeremy Marshall-King and a strong dummy half run from Jake Averillo, so Burton booted it from just over the forty.

He opted for a standard option on this first kick, launching it into outer space off the left boot without too much spin on it, before Corey Waddell gave the Bunnies even more position with an offside at the start of the next set. They were on the Canterbury line by tackle two, as Cody Walker sent it left for the first time, and then anchored an equally scintillating sweep to the right, before Ilias brought it all together by chasing down his own chip kick to split Ado-Carr and Averillo, reach out both hands, and ground the footy five metres in goal.

After leaving with a head knock thirty seconds into last week’s game against the Knights, Ilias had scored off his first kick, his first foray into the twenty, and his first attacking play of the night, bringing his men to six once Latrell slotted it through the posts. More broadly, this felt like Ilias’ comeback after Jason Demetriou chose to hook him against the Dragons, suffusing South Sydney as a whole with a new flow as Tatola, Moale, Koloamatangi and Nicholls reprised their opening charges, in a carbon copy of the first set.

Instead of Tatola taking a second carry, however, JMK reached out an arm to bump the footy from Moale’s hand as he was preparing to pass, before scooping it up, launching it out of his left hand to elude Ilias, and regathering it in his right. The call was knock-on against JMK, but in a risky move the Dogs sent it upstairs, losing their Captain’s Challenge when the replay confirmed that the no. 9 had popped it forward two or three times. With that rhythm shift, the Bunnies took an equally risky play, as Latrell booted it on tackle one off the scrum.

Not only did he weight it too hard, but Nicholls tried to compensate with a slow peel a play later, as the Bulldogs went from the prospect of defending their line to their first stint on the South Sydney chalk, where JMK also reversed this last sequence in an even more emphatic manner by reaching his arm out of a Latrell tackle and almost planting the Steeden down. Like Latrell before him, Jake Averillo kicked early, getting his men a Jai Arrow knock-on, as Canterbury received a scrum of their own, and hit back in the most spectacular manner.

Not only did they show the Bunnies that they could score immediately off an error, but they gave them a masterclass in putting it down straight off the scrum, as Averillo compounded the vision of his early kick with a beautiful wide ball out to Braidon Burns, who took it on the chest, palmed off Johnston with a big left-hand fend, and was travelling so fast by the time he hit the line that he simply dragged Isaiah Tass over with him. Burton added a terrific sideline conversion, and the Bulldogs had levelled the score for the first time tonight.

The restart began with a trio of galvanising plays for Canterbury, two of which came from Tevita Pangai Junior, who slammed himself into the South Sydney defence and offloaded for JMK, before Koloamatangi copped an offside penalty, dishevelled by this sudden burst of blue and white energy. Paul Vaughan barged his way into the ten on tackle three, forming a fulcrum for Burton to dispose of Koloamatangi with a deft dummy, and so clear space for Declan Casey to show it for the Foxx and then smash through for the next Doggies try.

While Casey had been the man to get it down, in a redemption story to match Ilias’, given he was knocked out cold fifty-two minutes into his debut against Cronulla, this was also a testament to the Burton-Foxx combo, while Ado-Carr’s joy in his teammate’s first try was terrific to see. Burto might have missed the sideline angle this time, but the Bulldogs were still four ahead, and opted for a grinding restart before their star kicker edged ever closer to his Origin II form, sending just a little bit more spin off the left boot this time around.

With Jacob Kiraz knocking on, however, the Bunnies were back on the front foot, especially when they got the first restart of the night, off a Vaughan error, and then a Pangai knock-on the very next play. Latrell slammed Burton onto his back on tackle one, Tatola put Nicholls three metres from the line, Tass cleaned up an Ilias bouncer on the left, and not only managed to avoid touch, but won his side a second effort from Kyle Flanagan in the process. This was the biggest accumulation of position so far, and the Rabbitohs promptly capitalised on it.

Tatola got them rolling with a mad charge up the left, reaching the footy above the chalk into a flashback to his try against the Knights last week, and while the Bunnies experimented in other parts of the park, they ended up returning to the groove he’d carved out here, as Arrow targeted the same part of the park on the third, and Nicholls crashed over in his slipstream on the fourth, requiring an epic effort from Josh Jackson to wrap himself around the big prop and prevent the Steeden touching the turf as Averillo came in on top.

Yet these efforts from the big men laid as efficient a platform as any sequence of charges down the other end of the park, as the Rabbitohs scored on the very next play, off a sublime trio of passes – a starter from Tatola, a short ball from Ilias, and the offload of the first stanza from Koloamatangi, who split Casey and Burton, and sent a one-handed no-looker out to Walker with Burton still clinging to his waist. With that kind of service, Cody was always going to cross over, before another close-range Latrell conversion made it a 12-10 game.

Ilias finished the restart with a pinpoint bomb to the right corner, where the Foxx took it a few metres out in the face of a mammoth effort from Jed Cartwright, copping some tough contact on his ankle that saw him limping in backplay as Jaxson Paulo allowed the next one to bounce, beginning the next Rabbitohs set ten out from halfway. Latrell contributed some strong metres up the short side, where Vaughan hurried to breach the gap, providing a pivot for the Bunnies to head left, where Tass almost defied Kiraz with a sneaky grubber.

So precariously did the young backliner juggle the footy on his fingertips before finally grounding it just over the line that a mere dropout felt like a win for the Doggies, especially since Kiraz got some joy by combining with Flanno to drag Walker over the chalk a few plays later. The defence was all the more striking in that Walker had almost capitalised off the Bunnies’ most plosive left sweep so far, starting with a soaring harbour bridge ball that he sent out for Johnston to burrow into an earlier Kiraz-led pack right on the sideline.

Sensing that nothing was doing, Johnston flicked it back inside to Latrell, who weathered the same Canterbury storm before sending it on to Walker, so it was a real shift in momentum when Cody found himself hitting the sideline on this second touch of the footy. Yet while the Dogs had absorbed the Bunnies’ energy, they hadn’t quite mastered it, settling into one of their more tentative sets as Flanno, rather than Burton, took the kick. He booted it long, but not hard enough or with enough of a chase behind it, to cost South Sydney much position.

In any case, a very late Cartwright-Latrell offload meant they were back in the ten for their final tackle, where Walker tried to get some redemption by running it on the last, but without getting any joy, as Latrell became the next player to move gingerly in backplay after some big contact with Burton on his second phase charge. He was barking out orders a minute later, but even this brief show of vulnerability from the South Sydney icon was enough to mute the intensity of the game. For the first time, the tryscoring seemed in danger of drying up.

Meanwhile, Jackson left the park for an HIA, bringing Joe Stimson off the bench, as another Cartwright offload, this time to Walker, got South Sydney back into enemy territory once again. Several other big men were off during this period too, as Nicholls left to give Daniel Suluka-Fifita a shot, and Zach Dockar-Clay trotted on to give Vaughan a well-deserved rest. Dockar-Clay made his mark with a strong run up the middle, laying the platform for Burton to almost break through on play four, before booting through his first really tricky kick.

It was a mercurial grubber that might well have produced a try if Averillo hadn’t run straight past it, while appealing to the ref that he was run off it. Not only did he get no joy, but Flanno was pinged for high contact on Arrow early in the next set, before Ilias slotted it far enough for his men to start the penalty set from the Canterbury thirty. Kodi Nikorima was also fresh off the bench, and set up a strong Tom Burgess charge on play two, while Tatola continued his hunt for a second straight try by tumbling over a few Dogs towards the crossbar.

With Burgess taking up the attack again on the very next play, and actually crossing over between the posts, the stage was set for a consolidator for the big men, so it was a potential tipping-point, ten minutes from the sheds, when Tom lost it in goal, especially since the Bunnies’ forward-pack copped another hit when Arrow was belatedly taken from the park due to his head clash with Flanagan, who embodied the Doggies’ newfound flow by rising from a Burgess tackle for a second run, putting that hit on Arrow completely behind him.

For the first time in a while, Canterbury had real momentum behind them, and Burton leaned into it with his second visionary grubber, slotting it out to the Foxx, but getting the next best thing when Tass desperately dove on it a few centimetres in goal to absorb the dropout. Burton was now pumped up, charging fifteen up the left edge, before all this energy dissolved on the right, where Max King careened into open space, only to pair with Flanno for an obstruction, producing a sudden momentum vaccum that the Bunnies had to fill.

Latrell looked pensive as he booted it over the sideline, as Burgess took the first run from halfway, and the Rabbitohs settled into some of their silkiest play so far, only for Kiraz to spearhead another Bulldogs pack to take Tass into touch. True to the spirit of this closely contested game, the last passage of play before half time was becoming an arm wrestle, as South Sydney bunched in for one of their strongest defensive openings, preventing the Dogs making much headway before Waddell coughed it up on the brink of halfway.

It had been a rough first forty for the ex-Eagle, who’d bookended it with a denied try and with what might now be the critical error before the break, as the Bunnies packed the scrum with five on the clock. Two plays later, they completed the silky movement up the left they’d glimpsed with Tass’ last run, as a par of beautiful passes from Walker and Latrell – the second a cut-out across the chest of Tass – set up Johnston to do what he does best by becoming the first player since 1980 to score in seven straight games against Canterbury.

The spectacle of Johnston crossing on the left, in what would become the first putdown in yet another hat trick, always has a steadying impact on South Sydney, so it didn’t much matter that Latrell missed the hardest sideline angle of the night – they still managed to keep out Canterbury over the last couple of minutes, thanks in part to a final Ado-Carr error, while the silver lining for the Doggies was that Jackson was cleared just before the sheds, leaving him free to bring his barnstorming vision at captain to bear upon the second stanza.

He took his next run two plays into the first set back, as the Dogs tried to carve a passage up the left edge, but barely broke the forty by the time Burton put boot to ball. He still hadn’t kicked an absolute banger, and in this case the bounce was easy enough for Koloamatangi to be back in Bulldogs territory by tackle four. The Foxx had no trouble taking Ilias’ next kick, but couldn’t do much more up that left wing, so the hosts had to rely on two offloads to hit opposition territory – a late one from Kiraz to Averillo, an early one from Waddell to JMK.

This time, then, Tass had to work it back from his own ten, as Raymond Faitala-Mariner stormed in to prevent Cartwright making any headway on play two, keeping Ilias in his own end as he launched a second bomb in Ado-Carr’s direction. The Foxx made a skip to try and break the Bunnies’ right edge defence, and while he couldn’t get much further around, his footwork galvanised the play back in field, where a second Kiraz offload – just as late, and again to JMK – supercharged the Dogs into another foray deep into South Sydney’s end.

Waddell was on the cusp of the twenty on the penultimate play, before Burton fed it left and curved around to collect a very late Casey offload, only for the footy to falcon off his head and let the Bunnies off the hook. Still, the Bulldogs had five offloads in five minutes, after only four in the first forty, so they felt primed to strike when Walker made the softest error of the game a few tackles later. Play paused for Cartwright to receive an on-field concussion check, giving Canterbury a beat to prepare themselves for the first scrum since the sheds.

Kiraz didn’t get the offload away this time, but his run laid a platform for Flanno to intensify the Bulldogs’ last spread to the left, sending it through Burton to RFM, who held up the defence and flicked out the crowning second phase effort to make space in the line for the Foxx, who danced along the edge and chipped at speed back in field. Ilias did well to reach out his right boot and deflect the football enough to take it on the chalk, in what would have been the best turnaround so far if Latrell hadn’t grabbed Ado-Carr’s beard in backplay.

With a mountain of offloads, a scrum and now the messiest penalty behind them, the Dogs were at peak footy flow, delivering their tightest set since the break, thanks in part to Averillo, who acted as its fulcrum, receiving the ball in the middle of the park midway through, dummying to the right, swerving back to take the tackle where he stood, and then flicking an offload out to Waddell, who in turn laid the platform for two terrific plays for JMK – first, a short ball for Jackson, then, a rapid play-the-ball from Jackson to set up Joe Stimson.

The speed and dexterity of the Canterbury hooker during this time was a terrific prelude to the brute strength of Stimson’s putdown – straight and hard beside the posts, to level the scoreline once again after Burton booted through an easy two. The Doggies had an average of 23 points per game since Round 11, so it felt like more must be in the offing here, especially once JMK continued his initiative by kicking early on the restart, Flanno stripped the footy from Johnston at the start of the next set, and Latrell was offside at marker a play later.

This marked the start of a crisis period for the Rabbitohs, as Pangai replaced ZDC for a second stint and got an offload on his first carry, and Latrell undid a driving Tass-Burns charge on the right by allowing himself to be bundled into touch by Casey and Ado-Carr on the other wing. The Dogs now had 6-0 tackles in the opposition twenty since the break, and got a fresh set a play later, off a ruck error from Nicholls, as Burton shifted a short ball out to RFM on the left, where just one more offload would have all but guaranteed the next Canterbury try.

Burns came close to recovering their rhythm on the right edge, and unlike Latrell managed to avoid touch, flicking the footy back inside to Waddell, who couldn’t withstand a second wave from Johnston, knocking on before he tumbled over the sideline to get South Sydney off the hook with a much-needed scrum. Arrow wasted no time barging it up the middle, while Koloamatangi built more position by popping the highest offload out the back to Cartwright, as if to stem the spectacle of the Doggies’ tally of nine in the last fifteen minutes.

On the other side of the Steeden, Ado-Carr was trotting on his next carry, desperate to resume the blue and gold rhythm as Flanno, like Keaon, backed into a midfield tackle, but couldn’t get the second phase away this time. Nor could Burton, who got his right arm free a play later, but was still too constrained by Ilias, so it all came down to a Flanagan kick that Latrell caught comfortably in his ten. As Burgess brought it over halfway, the Bunnies got their second tackle in Canterbury’s half since the sheds, and finally cracked the twenty a play later.

No sooner had they done so, off an Ilias run and a Tass offload right on the ground, than Walker lost it within the ten, giving the Doggies an extra tackle, although they only needed two plays to escalate into the kind of sublime long-range try that has often seemed like a distant dream during the last few years. The key playmaker was Casey, who put in a double left boot pivot to elude Burgess and Milne, and accelerated in a flashback to his first NRL try, footy tucked under his left arm, as he entered Souths territory and sized up the park.

His judgment was perfect – a couple of dummies to force Latrell to commit, and then a no-looker out to Flanno, who realised he didn’t have the speed to reach the chalk, and so flicked it in turn across for Averillo to crest beneath the crossbar and rise in a roar that was echoed by an ebullient home crowd. It was a try commensurate to Canterbury’s dominance since the break, putting them ahead for the first time since the seventeenth minute, potentially a critical moment in their 2022 rebuild if they could construct a win on it in the last quarter.

Conversely, the Bunnies had to come up with something big to hit back – and they did, or rather Latrell did, delivering one of the best and most brutal runs of his career to entirely eclipse Casey’s mad charge up the middle of the park. Collecting a Nikorima offload in his own forty, he dodged away from Pangai, leaped over a Burton ankle tap, and palmed off the Foxx with a right hand fend that lasted a good two seconds, before slamming to ground with Pangai on his back, and converting his own try to level the score once again.

This was a run with conviction written all over it – and more than conviction, a rage to succeed, a willingness to bleed for South Sydney, a sheer barnstorming belief that is even more important for the Bunnies with Adam Reynolds off their books. Ilias might have booted it shallow on the restart, but Tass still took it in a cluster of Bulldogs, and made seven metres after contact, a decent enough sequel to Latrell’s assertive display, as the hosts now struggled to work it out of their own end, forcing Burton to wobble it just shy of halfway.

Yet Latrell was now on fire, absorbing the brunt of Burto’s boot with another brilliant charge, and trampling over the New South Wales centre in the process, only for Kiraz to dive on the footy a play later, when Cartwright tried to lean into his fullback’s vision, but couldn’t nail the late loose offload. Waddell lost it just as quickly, so if anything, this brief burst of aborted Canterbury rhythm only intensified South Sydney’s focus, especially since the Foxx, who had trotted to the sideline a few plays before, was now off the park for good.

Kurtis Morrin and Silivia Havili were both off the bench as Latrell continued this golden streak with a sharp chip to the left, and Kiraz continued to counter him by taking it on the full in goal, breaking away from Johnston, and putting his whole body on the line to slam back over the chalk in the face of a Latrell-Arrow wall. If any player in the Canterbury side could match Latrell for belief, it was Kiraz, whose gee up with Corey Allan in the sheds following the Round 13 loss to Penrith has been instrumental, by all accounts, in sparking their recent surge.

Kiraz’s play here was enough to set up an even more sublime consolidation try than Casey’s run – Burton’s best footwork of the game, the Doggies’ best left edge play of the game, and the poetic conclusion to their dexterity with offloads over the last twenty-eight minutes. In fact, this try was a cascade of offloads, starting with Burton driving the footy over halfway, and popping it out through Ilias to Waddell, who trampled over Cartwright, broke past Koloamatangi at the thirty, and shifted it back for his five-eighth to continue the play.

Burto more than delivered, charging into a wave of Bunnies and flicking it back inside to Flanno, who was downed by Nicholls, but still executed the last and latest offload to put Vaughan over beside the left post for his first try in Canterbury colours. By this stage, we were at fifth phase play, while Walker, as last line of defence, was clearly shocked by the speed of it all, giving Flanno enough of a shove after the fact to cop a warning from the ref. It was crucial he regather and show South Sydney some leadership as the last ten minutes loomed.

That’s just what he did at the end of the restart, scooping the Steeden out of dummy half on the last, and eschewing the kick for the dummy that may well have won the Bunnies the game – a big show to the left that dishevelled Kiraz enough for him to lob a beautiful harbour bridge ball back inside to Latrell, who promptly responded with a short one to put Tatola across for his second try in two weeks, just beside the left post, in a mirror image of Vaughan’s putdown at the other end of the park. Latrell was always going to convert, locking it up at 28-28.

In a game of superb hitbacks, this was perhaps the most efficient – Walker overcoming his aggro with the pivotal play, Tatola crossing in the same spot as Vaughan, and big Tevita also drawing on the surprise and spectacle of his grounding against the Knights in the Hunter last week. It was also the last hitback play, galvanising the Bunnies into the final flow of the game, good enough for them to set up two tries on the left from Johnston, who had played a pivotal role in acquiring position in the leadup to Walker’s moment of dummy half vision too.

For a brief beat the Doggies looked good to consolidate again, as Koloamatangi lost the footy, and Vaughan popped the sixteenth offload of the game, and the twelfth since the sheds, out to JMK, so it was agonising when his no. 9 capped off a relatively error-free game by putting it down a second later. John Sutton was on the sideline as they broke the scrum, anticipating a field goal, but it wasn’t necessary, since Latrell and Johnston linked up for a combo so superb, so preternatural in its synergy, that it seemed all but unanswerable.

Latrell had received a scintillating harbour bridge ball from Latrell to set up Tatola, and now he mirrored it with an even more prodigious effort – an arcing no-looker out for Johnston to mirror its curve with the most elegant try of the night. With that putdown, he became the 11th most prolific tryscorer in the NRL, just behind Josh Morris at 158, Hazem El Masri and Matt Sing at 159 apiece and, a little more distantly, Brett Stewart at 163 – and he’d move a little closer to that company of greatness at the end of the game’s final restart.

The Dogs got two last glimpses of hope here – first, when Max King got hands to Burton’s kickoff, but couldn’t secure it; then, when Walker spilled the footy backwards, only for Latrell to scoot around and clean it up. Just as he’d followed the aggro on Flanno with the best dummy of the night, Walker now hit back with a well-timed bomb to the left corner, where Tass eclipsed every Bulldogs offload in a perfect play, taking it clean, barging into Averillo, and sending a no-looker off the ground a millisecond before he tumbled into touch.

If Latrell’s assist for Johnston had been preternatural, then this was miraculous – a piece of blind faith that depended on the pure invisible synergy across the South Sydney backline. Johnston reached up both hands to take it in the air, and curved over the chalk a beat after his fellow flyer hit touch, the two dispersing like a well-choreographed ballet sequence, rather than the clutchiest and riskiest play of the night with only a six-point difference on the board. Latrell missed the conversion, but with Waddell and ZDC errors, it didn’t matter at all.

It also didn’t matter because a couple of missed kicks weren’t enough to dent the extraordinary leadership Latrell showed in this back forty. No player has burned for their team in 2022 quite like he did here – a Turbo-like energy that may be the critical factor in South Sydney’s march towards the top four, and towards finals footy. That belief will be crucial against Melbourne next week, while the Bulldogs will be looking to draw on their best moments tonight, their ability to keep hitting back, when they host Gold Coast on Sunday.

About Billy Stevenson (710 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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