The Bunnies and the Cowboys were meeting for the first time this year for Saturday night’s blockbuster, while North Queensland were making their first trip to Accor since 2020. The Cows were guaranteed a place in the top four, and Souths were sitting at seventh, keen to cement themselves in the eight. They’d won 6/8 since Latrell Mitchell returned to the park, hadn’t lost back-to-back since the start of the season, and were without Damien Cook, who’d been ruled out with Covid, so the stage was set for a gutsy home game to prove their worth.
While the first forty was pretty exciting, the third quarter was one of the dourest of Round 24 – a slogfest that saw both parties rack up the errors, and fail to capitalise on field position (the Rabbitohs in particular) as the game ground into inertia. That all changed with a sublime charge from Kyle Feldt up the right edge, where he toed it twice before putting down one of the best tries of his career, but the Bunnies hit back with a series of escalating plays that culminated with big Tom Burgess charging over beneath the crossbar to plant the final four.
Lachlan Ilias fielded the kickoff, the big men got the first few tackles rolling, and Cam Murray started an enterprising sweep to the left, sending it through Cody Walker and Latrell for Alex Johnston break up the sideline. It paid off, bringing the Bunnies to the brink of the ten by the last play, where they ended with a bit of a whimper, but got the ball back immediately when Feldt dropped it to concede a seven tackle set inside the red zone. Hame Sele was four metres out, in his fiftieth game, by tackle three, laying a sharp pivot for the Bunnies to shift right.
North Queensland stayed strong, but the visitors had now gone coast to coast on their first bout of possession, heading back to the right again late in the count, only to implode again just when it should all be coming together, as Campbell Graham missed a bullet offload from Keaon Koloamatangi, and Taane Milne flicked it forward as he tried to save it from the sideline. Finally, the Cows had the footy, and Murray Taulagi clutched it hard to his chest to prevent any chance of a strip, while Jason Taumalolo followed with a tough fourth tackle run.
Koloamatangi was monstrous with the post-contacts on the next set, Havili extemporised a few plays later with a deft dummy half dart, and the Rabbitohs had their second restart inside the red zone, off a ruck error from Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow. Add a hand in the ruck from Scott Drinkwater and the cardinal and myrtle opted to take the two, for fear of coming away empty-handed from all this time on the North Queensland line. Latrell set up the tee and booted through the first points of the game, as the Cows got ready to weather more Souths attack.
Milne stuck his right boot over the sideline to get his men a penalty on the kickoff, and once again the Bunnies were attacking from close range, as Sele drove it from thirty to twenty, only for Johnston to find himself back over the red line when he was forced to clean up a messy Isaiah Tass ball. Murray tried to steady the latter part of the set with a tough charge up the middle, but again his men failed to nail the right sweep, as Latrell tapped an Ilias pass into a harbour bridge ball that soared a full metre over Milne, tumbling chaotically into touch.
This was the Cowboys’ first opportunity, and they made the most of it, as Taulagi, the man who had anchored their opening set, crossed over on the back of the best linkup so far. The vision mainly belonged to Drinkwater, who was shaping to kick up the left, found himself hemmed in by the Rabbitohs defence, and almost downed by an Ilias tackle, but extemporised a beautiful flick pass back to Tabuai-Fidow. From there, the Hammer only had to hold it up and draw in Latrell to shoot the assist to his winger, making it 6-2 with Val Holmes’ kick.
It was a terrific way for Drinkwater to mark his first start in the halves this season, in Tom Dearden’s absence, and a stark riposte to a South Sydney outfit who had failed to build more than two points on all their time on the Cowboys line. Reece Robson came close to breaking through the line from dummy half two plays into the restart, and fed it on for Jordan McLean to take a rollicking run up the middle a couple of tackles later, before Drinkwater booted a big left-footer, generating enough hang time for the chase to thoroughly contain Latrell.
This was the most clinical set of the night – again, a stark contrast to the Bunnies’ chaotic coast-to-coast movements – while the pendulum swung even further in North Queensland’s direction with a Sele cough-up early in the next set. Johnston touched the footy a few plays after that, so now it was the visitors’ turn to camp out on the opposition line, as Taumalolo brought it over the ten, Drinkwater floated out an arcing ball to Feldt’s wing, and the Cows, like the Bunnies before them, came up with a big anticlimax – a Peta Hiku knock-on four in.
Graham was determined to restore the rhythm on the next set, delivering South Sydney’s best single run so far to invoke his barnstorming performance against Penrith last week. Fresh on the park, Tom Burgess charged it over the forty metre line, before Walker made it a trio of enterprising plays by noticing that Drinkwater was up in the line, and so booting it on the fourth, forcing Feldt to run it down for the first dropout of the night. Drinkwater continued his team’s short dropout style, and Townsend arrived at it, but knocked on in the process.
The dropout became a scrum, as Tevita Tatola took a mammoth burst at the posts, and Burgess followed in his wake. Walker tried to channel some of that energy out to the left edge, and then to the right, but Koloamatangi knew that the best strategy was to just sink into Tatola and Burgess’ slipstream. Finding himself with the footy on the right, he never even considered setting up yet another frustrated right side sweep, instead using Latrell’s presence behind him, barking for it on the wing, to take advantage of the Cows’ deficit up the middle.
The Hammer, in particular, was completely unprepared for Keaon’s run, barely making a dent in his trajectory as he shaped inside for Burgess, as if in tribute to the space he’d opened up, and plunged over the line. Full credit to Ilias, too, for the short ball that put him into space while a clinical kick from Latrell narrowed it to a two point game once again as the Bunnies marked the arrival of the second quarter with a sturdy restart. Things intensified now, as Luciano Leilua made the biggest post-contacts, and Townsend followed with a tricky kick.
It bounced perfectly, catching Latrell out of position, and almost forcing the next dropout, only for the Rabbitohs custodian to heroically wrestle his way through the chase to land a metre back in field, before his men got a bump up the park with a Reuben Cotter offside. They were still struggling to finish, however, as Murray lost the footy while shaping to pass, while the Cows got an offside penalty of their own on the following set, from Burgess. Taumalolo added to Leilua’s post-contacts, setting the stage for a forward-heavy charge to the chalk.
Again, it all ended with a mercurial Townsend kick – into the left padding, where Latrell failed to contain the footy in field, ricocheting it back in goal for Leilua to only just fail to put it down amongst a sea of South Sydney and North Queensland hands. This was the clutchiest sequence so far, an incitement to both sides to amp up the energy. Burgess launched himself into the defence on the next play, but this drive was short-lived, since Taumalolo responded with an enormous low shot on Tatola, tough enough to rattle his pass to Murray forward.
So winded was Tatola, and so dramatic was the whiplash, that he left the park for an HIA, despite the fact that there had been no dramatic head contact. The Cows couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic turnaround of that Burgess charge, as they packed the midfield scrum, but Latrell was determined to hit back as Taumaololo had before him – and equally determined not to make it a trio of spectacular Townsend kicks, leaping up to contain the next crossfield chip on the full, and holding his ground to prevent any chance of a dropout.
Nevertheless, the Cows hit back with their best defence of the night, keeping the Bunnies so bunched in their own end that Walker didn’t even clear halfway with the boot. Conversely, Jeremiah Nanai was over the ten midway through the next set, while a deft dummy half ball from Robson set up Drinkwater to get the dropout after all, with a sneaky grubber down the left edge. Latrell now gave North Queensland a taste of their own medicine with a short kick, and the set came full circle when Drinkwater leaped to take it on the full, but knocked on.
That made two Cowboys errors beneath short dropouts, both of which should have been clean collects, since Drinkwater, like Townsend, had got both hands on the footy. With a marker error from Chad on the next play, and then a high shot from Taumalolo on Murray, the Bunnies had recovered their early rhythm, ten minutes out from half time, with a full set in the red zone. This time they moved from right to left more methodically, depending on a terrific Mark Nicholls settler – he stood seven seconds in the tackle – to anchor the sweep.
Murray made it two steadying plays from the forward pack, crystallising the organisation he’d been exuding all night by engaging the defence, managing the ruck and reminding Latrell and Walker what was needed – crisp, wide, precise passing, with no fancy stuff. Walker responded with an even wider ball to Latrell, whose assist was just as clinical, giving Johnston time to curve around behind the posts to set him up for another easy conversion. Burgess started the restart with a tough charge, and this time there was no Taumalolo hit to puncture it.
For a moment, it looked like the Bunnies would rival the Cows’ last burst of defence, starting with a five-man pack to bang Taulagi to ground, followed by a huge Burgess hit on Townsend, but Leilua saved the set with another epic run, meaning the hosts were working it out of their own red zone for their next three tackles. Nicholls then did well to rein in a low ball late in the count, and Walker managed to get a superb spiral bomb away under pressure. Feldt lost it, but the Cowboys survived, as Drinkwater showed he could boot it just as hard on the last.
North Queensland looked set to maintain field position to the siren when Drinkwater forced a dropout two minutes out. It wasn’t his best kick of the night, and in retrospect Johnston probably should have let it roll into touch, but with the stress mounting he opted to clean it up in goal, gifting the Cows one last wave of attack, augmented by a Nicholls ruck error. Yet with Leilua coughing up the footy, and the Bunnies playing it straight and safe for the remaining seconds, the 14-6 score remained, and the Cows had eight points to contend with.
The Rabbitohs rallied hard to push back Jamayne Taunoa-Brown on the first run of the second half, before Latrell slammed into a Cotter-led pack to drive the footy back over the red line. Nicholls followed with a few post-contacts up the middle of the park, Burgess hit Cowboys territory, and Murray capped off this war of attrition on the next play. Something was building for the Bunnies here, so Walker was understandably frustrated when Havili mistimed the spin on his next dummy half ball, resulting in a rare cough-up for the South Sydney five-eighth.
On the other side of the Steeden, the visitors had a chance to build some real position here, but with Johnston taking Townsend’s chip cleanly inside the ten, the Cows had to bounce back in defence, and they did well to keep the Rabbitohs inside their own end. Not even a rollicking Burgess run could get them over halfway this time, in what was fast becoming the first great grind of the game, as the cardinal and myrtle doubled down on their own defence now, keeping Cotter right on the cusp of their territory before Townsend booted it from forty out.
For the second time, AJ caught it, this time just outside the ten, after Latrell pulled back from it at the last minute. Even so, he got to ground fast enough to defy a North Queensand pack intent on tumbling him into touch, while a fifteen-metre second phase effort from Koloamatangi started to give Souths a little more momentum, especially when Feldt coughed up the next high ball. There was a case to be made that he’d knocked it back after colliding with Johnston in the air, but he wasn’t sure enough of it to risk wasting the challenge now.
After the arm wrestle of the first five minutes, the Bunnies finally had a set within the twenty, as Murray continued to organise a series of close-range charges, only for Nicholls to put it down beside the left post. North Queensland had to really capitalise on this scrum from the ten, as Kodi Nikorima waited to come off the bench, and while Nanai delivered a strong enough run up the right, and Taulagi mirrored his energy on the last, there was no chase in place to contest Townsend’s chip on the run when it ricocheted off Burgess’ left hand.
All Johnston had to do was take it on the bounce beneath the posts, as Burgess and Havili left the park to make way for Tatola and Nikorima respectively. Ilias made the most of the fresh blood with one of his most mercurial kicks so far, bombing it vertically off the boot at the twenty, and generating enough spin to utterly defy Drinkwater, who had to toe it dead for the first dropout since the break. We were now approaching the volatility of the first forty, as Drinkwater again went short, Feldt knocked it back, and Hiku coughed it up on the turf.
That made two frustrating errors from Hiku, and another South Sydney assault from the ten, which became a fresh set immediately with a Hammer error on play one. Cotter fell asleep at the ruck on tackle two but was alert enough to stop a Keaon charge a beat later, before Nikorima delivered off the bench with an opportunistic grubber that Leilua had no choice but to bat into touch. The Cows now had one of their biggest defensive challenges of the game, as Hammer dumped Ilias onto his back, and Cotter handed Murray the same treatment.
This wasn’t particularly fluid or flexible football from the Bunnies, and by the time Johnston flicked it back inside on the last, they seemed to have run out of options. They had 16-0 tackles in the opposition twenty since the break, but North Queensland had repelled them, and stood a good shot of translating that defence into a torrent of points if they could only capitalise now. The first step was six again at the thirty, off a ruck error from Walker, and with Taumalolo charging into a heroic Murray hit at the twenty, they were poised to score.
Two plays later, Drinkwater set up a sweep to the left, in what might well have been a tryscoring sequence if Holmes hadn’t missed the ball, reaching out his full wingspan but failing to rein it in as Graham seized the moment, scooped it up, and laid the platform for a frantic set that saw Ilias chip it from the thirty to trap Taulagi in goal for yet another dropout with Graham himself on his tail. Drinkwater went a little longer this time, lobbing it to the twenty, where Johnston came up with it out of a chaotic contest, and looked set for the next assist.
Instead, Feldt intercepted him, shutting down this left sweep much as Graham had shut down the last. The symmetry of that play crystallised the sense that the Bunnies had handed the momentum back to the Cowboys by spending so much time on their line without points, so it made sense that they sent up a challenge from a distance to reassert their authority on the very next set. It was a good one, proving that supposed ruck interference from Michael Chee Kam had been nothing more than a Nanai cough-up. Again, the Cows steeled themselves.
For the second time, however, the visitors shut down a left sweep, this time with a mammoth Feldt-led pack that bundled up Latrell as he shaped for an offload back in field, and then dumped him into touch for good measure. As the third quarter came to an end, then, the game hung in the balance more than ever before – despite the eight point difference, it was starting to feel like the next team to score would gain enough momentum, after this struggle from both sides to build serious rhythm, to take home the competition points.
In a spirit of consolidation, the Bunnies made their next challenge on the very next set, in an effort to call back an apparent knock-on from Koloamatangi. Sure enough, the replay showed that once the Steeden had left Holmes’ grasp, in a very late low offload, Taulagi had coughed it up in the contest with Ilias before big Keaon ever got a hand to it. South Sydney had spoiled the Cowboys’ party, preventing them finishing as they’d been prevented a set before, so it felt like a steadier in itself when Ilias got to the kick, and again when Feldt caught it clean.
McLean was raring to break through the line on the next set, Latrell barely had to budge to take the kick, Souths had 59% of second half possession, and there were 22 errors overall, so the game was crying out for the big individual play – or the big individual error – that would break it all open. Ilias tried to give Feldt a bigger challenge with the next one, and while Johnston outleaped the North Queensland winger, the chase was waiting to clean him up, although he hit back with a superb save under one of Townsend’s scariest bombs so far.
This was gutsy football, forcing Johnston to put his whole body on the line as he copped the full brunt of one of the Cows’ best chases since the break, but Drinkwater was almost as good under the next one. He didn’t have any Bunnies to contend with, but he did manage to rein in a plosive trajectory in one hand, and might well have made eighty metres up the park if Tass hadn’t planted himself in his way. Robson continued the rhythm with a terrific dummy half run, and Drinkwater’s next one hit Milne in the back of the head, and spun over the side.
The Cowboys sent it upstairs, claiming Milne had played at it, in what became one of the more interesting points of play tonight. It was messy footy from Taane, but he hadn’t moved towards the ball, or clearly inflected his head towards the ball, so the Bunnies got their third win off a challenge here, even if it came off one of their worst pieces of play tonight as well. This felt like it might be the individual play to break the game open, although it was unclear what its exact import was at this stage, or which of the teams it would end up motivating.
In any case, the impact was clear for both sides by the end of the next set, as the North Queensland backline risked passing inside the ten, and the Bunnies responded with some of their best defence so far, culminating with an epic pack to hold up Taulagi midway through. Yet the Cows came off the victors of this mini-contest for momentum, as Townsend shaped to kick from his own forty, glimpsed a space up the right, and chose to run it, chucking a couple of mercurial dummies before shooting it out for Feldt to break into space at speed.
Feldt didn’t slow a beat to put ball to boot, danced in and out of touch, chased down his own kick to toe it a second time, and then beat Chee Kam at the death to slam it down, before rising with a roar that claimed Accor as his own. If a messy individual play from Milne had opened up the game, then Feldt had built on it beautifully with an epic individual play that felt like a win for the game as much as for the Cowboys, transforming a fairly dour second stanza with one of the best putdowns of Round 24, even if Holmes didn’t manage the kick.
All of a sudden, South Sydney were in a precarious position again – ten on the clock, a four point game, and finals footy by no means assured if they gave up another converted try here. They survived the restart, played it safe on their next set, and had a nightmare flashback to the sequence that set up this late Cowboys surge when Milne did play the footy, with Leilua up in his face, and knocked it forward, gifting the visitors a scrum from the ten. This would be the critical set of the last ten minutes, the moment when North Queensland had to shine.
There was a brief pause when Tatola received an onfield concussion test, and in that short space South Sydney seemed to strengthen their resolve, as Graham shut down Holmes on a left sweep, Tatola and Arrow cleaned up Leilua in the middle, Tatola linked up again with Savili to hold up Hess beside the right post, and Milne brought it all full circle and got some joy by intercepting Leilua’s next offload. This had been heroic defence from the Bunnies, and Hess hit back in the worst possible way, slamming his shoulder straight into Graham on play one.
He was sent to the bin for his troubles, as the Cows went from a scrum at the ten to a twelve-man defence, while the circularity of the Milne-Leilua saga burnished the Bunnies into one last burst of belief, even with Graham off for an HIA. Jason Demetriou’s first year as a NRL coach was on the line now, as Chee Kam almost smashed through the line, and Latrell did the same, carving out their best groove up the middle all night, making it doubly confounding that they couldn’t nail the left sweep, and even worse when Ilias was cleaned up on the last.
By this stage, however, the Bunnies weren’t going to let the Cows reprise that close-range attack, and while Drinkwater tried to run it up the right on the last, he couldn’t come close to the sublime linkup that Townsend had effected with Feldt five minutes before, thanks in part to some committed Walker defence. In a further twist, Graham was now back on the park, having apparently left for a foul play interchange rather than an HIA, and everything came together on this same set, as the Bunnies mounted a sublime rejoinder to Feldt’s putdown.
It started with a left sweep, as Latrell stepped into the spotlight, and booted his best one of the game from the thirty – long and hard until it reached the ten, where it sat up suddenly, tempting Feldt to push Johnston away from the play. He was sent to the bin, leaving North Queensland with eleven men to defend this last great Rabbitohs flow, while Latrell had given the Bunnies an even better gee up by chasing down the footy himself, toeing it again on the line, like Feldt had before him, and almost scoring through desperate Drinkwater defence.
So superb was Latrell’s vision, however, that it already felt like the Bunnies had scored in spirit here – superb enough to carry them through an aborted left sweep when Hiku was called offside, and to propel them into their final try two minutes out from the siren, when Burgess, who had already taken a tough charge early in the count, crystallised all their attention around the ruck, and their work up the middle, by collecting a short ball from Havili, bumping off Leilua, powering his way over Granville, and reaching out his arm to slam the Steeden down.
This was one of the most supercharged moments of the South Sydney season, and all the more so for the third quarter doldrums that had preceded it. The Bunnies have finals footy locked in as they prepare to meet the Roosters for a blockbuster christening of New Allianz next Friday night, while North Queensland will be keen to end the season with a bang when they take on Penrith back in Townsville the following Sunday, despite being assured of a top four spot by their stunning form over the 2022 season.