FINALS WEEK 1: Sydney Roosters v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (Allianz Stadium, 11/9/22, 14-30)

Last night’s game between the Cowboys and the Sharks may have taken us deep into extra time, but the elimination final between the Roosters and Rabbitohs, and the replay of last week’s christening at New Allianz, was one of the longest games in regular time, punctured by so many extraordinary stops and starts that it ended up running (or at least feeling) as long as North Queensland’s epic victory, capping off one of the great finals footy rounds in recent memory, and suffusing the NRL with a vitality and volatility as we prepared for next week.

This was also one of the greatest of the many storied contests between the Chooks and the Bunnies, a game that cemented their rivalry in the realm of football mythology, distilled it to a primal agon as a record seven players were sent to the bin, and the Roosters, who had already lost Joey Manu, saw James Tedesco, Angus Crichton, Daniel Tupou and Sio Siua Taukeiaho all leave the park, in a reprisal of their injury issues of the last two years in miniature. Only Taukeiaho would return, in a game that gave sudden death a new meaning.

On top of that, five of the eight tries were scored by the outnumbered team – a trend that the Chooks started by putting down their first six when Victor Radley headed down the tunnel for the first of two stints in the sheds (along with Taane Milne) but the Rabbitohs perfected by adding to their lead with a gruelling eleven man outfit. Such was the majestic brutality of the game, which saw Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Tom Burgess deliver two of their most bone-shattering outings, as the adrenalin rose so rapidly that a fight always felt imminent.

Luke Keary took the kickoff and Matt Lodge the first run, met front on by Cameron Murray, before Daniel Tupou charged into Mark Nicholls and Damien Cook, and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves lent some of his heft up the middle. Radley was next, then JWH again, before Sam Walker booted it beyond the Rabbitohs’ twenty, where Alex Johnston took it and garnered twenty on the fly. Lachlan Ilias was ten inside Roosters territory when he booted his first kick, as the Bunnies summoned a couple of big packs to keep Sydney trapped in their own end.

Lodge may have got some revenge for Murray’s opening hit, but Walker was still ten shy of halfway when he took the kick, and had to collect it in the same spot a second later, when Latrell Mitchell took it on the full and booted it straight back to him. It was an eccentric play, but didn’t make much of a difference, except to empower the Roosters by proving that they could survive an unexpected South Sydney decision – until Campbell Graham forced a forward pass from Keary right when the Tricolours were setting up for four points in the left corner.

Four minutes into the game, tempers were already flaring, as players from both sides rushed into to support a fracas on the ground between Radley and Taane Milne, both of whom escaped sanction as Cookie got set to play the ball thirty-five out from his own line – or so it seemed, since a late call came down from the Bunker that the Inflictor had thrown a punch, although the replay showed there wasn’t much to it. If anything, this was more a push than a punch, but it was apparently enough to send Radley off to the bin for the next ten minutes.

This was a big boon for a Rabbitohs outfit that had struggled to match the Roosters’ big men in the first quarter of last week’s match, and Ilias made the most of it on the penultimate play, barging his way towards the line, very nearly breaking through, and laying a pivot for a clinical sweep back to the other wing, where Johnston built on a silky series of passes to crash over for the frst four. Full credit to Latrell, in particular, for drawing in Walker, and then a few more Chooks, before nailing the cut-out for Isaiah Tass, who delivered the Johnston assist in turn.

One set after Radley had left the park, the Bunnies were four ahead, and then six, as Latrell capped it off with a beautiful sideline kick, straight through the posts from a metre in field. Roosters piled on to Tevita Tatola and Nicholls for the first two tackles of the restart, but Murray glimpsed a space on play three, Cody Walker made some room for Tass up the left on the fourth, and an Ilias offload to Cook looked promising on the fifth, only for the returning hooker to relinquish the pass for fear of an obstruction, as it all came down to Ilias’ kick.

It wasn’t particularly dangerous, bringing the Chooks to halfway early in the set, where they got the first restart of the night, and the first six tackles in opposition territory. They swept left midway through, Angus Crichton took a tackle, JWH tried to plunge over off a rapid Verrills play-the-ball, before all that escalating energy culminated on the right edge. Joseph Suaalii missed Walker’s kick, but the bounce careened back so crazily that Paul Momirovski had time for a second chip in goal, where Johnston landed on it to save a try after scoring the first.

Yet that same Sydney speed suffused the first dropout of the game, and cascaded again out on the left, where Walker flicked the footy out to Drew Hutchison, who absorbed the brunt of a Milne tackle, twisted 360-degrees, and finally broke through it, beating Latrell in the same motion to send it on to Crichton. From there, the big second-rower set his eyes on the chalk, withstanding a converging tackle from Nicholls and Cookie to slam it down. The Chooks had four on the board with a man off the park, and it stayed four after a bad miss from Walker.

Cook got some joy by leading a charge into Tupou early in the restart, but the Giraffe merely used it to contour a late flat offload out to James Tedesco, while Suaalii recovered Walker’s vertical bomb as Radley returned down the tunnel. The Roosters hadn’t lost an ounce of that sublime speed – if anything, it had intensified, as Walker made up for his missed kick with a beautiful harbour bridge ball from dummy half, soaring the footy from turf to sky, and leaving Tupou with nothing to do but take it clean and bust past Graham for another four points.

Between Suaalii and Tupou’s catches, the Chooks had stamped their supremacy on both wings, although another Walker miss meant that this remained a two-point game. Still, they’d scored two tries with only six tackles in the opposition twenty, in only fifteen minutes of football, so the Bunnies had to hit back big and fast here, especially since Tupou was determined not to be contained early in this restart by delivering some of the best post-contacts so far. Teddy almost broke through a beat later, and Walker hoisted it high again.

Latrell came up with it, and finally the Rabbitohs had a touch of the footy again, along with a bump up field when JWH got done for clipping him on the head as he came in to support Keary’s contact. Ironically, it was Tatola, rather than Latrell, who now left the park for an HIA, while the crowd made it clear they weren’t going to hold off from booing the South Sydney fullback, although they quickly turned to cheers when Radley and Lodge converged for the hit of the opening quarter on Tom Burgess, who had to applaud this response to his first run.

Verrils had a dangerous amount of space to play with midway through the next set, but Latrell was safe again under the high ball, as his Bunnies ground in to try and make up the deficit, starting with a deft Graham dart up the right. It was short-lived, however, as Lodge slammed in to give Burgess some of the same treatment, and Radley followed with an absolutely bone-shattering effort on Siliva Havili, before big Burgo got his own back by swinging an arm hard into Teddy’s face, coming off the victor with a mere penalty as the no. 1 trotted off for an HIA.

Radley had left the park for his contact and Burgess had remained on, but that inconsistency only fuelled the fire here, as JWH set his sights on the South Sydney enforcer to begin the next set, and Lodge became the next man to be hit high by Burgess. This looked worse than the first contact, but was arguably more legitimate, since Burgess had made first contact with the Steeden, and only then ricocheted into the ex-Bronco’s face. That wasn’t mollifying Ashley Klein, however, who sent him off for back-to-back high hits as twelve faced down thirteen.

Sio Siua Taukeiaho took the next run, continuing this vitality and volatility up the middle, and Taane Milne followed suit, coming in hard and high on Suaalii on the very next tackle, becoming the second Rabbitoh in as many minutes to hit the sheds. After scoring two tries with Radley off the park, the Chooks now had thirteen against eleven, and more than enough money in the bank to survive a Crichton cough-up and the slow peel from Kevin Naiqama that granted South Sydney a rare set in the opposition end, as Tatola was cleared to play.

Jai Arrow took the first run, if it could even be called that, given the swarm of Roosters that halted any semblance of progress, but the Bunnies’ luck continued with a ruck error from Nat Butcher, as their full set in the Sydney end became a full set in the Sydney twenty. Two tackles later, against all the odds, and with two men down, Latrell lifted his men in the way that only a cult fullback can, receiving a short ball from Walker, as Arrow pulled back to make it a cut-out, and then palmed off Verrills and ducked and wove to slam the Steeden to ground.

No surprise that he rose to his feet clenching his arms with a roar that was part fury and part passion, nor that he booted the two straight through, so supreme was his footy flow here – up there with Nathan Cleary and Nelson Asofa-Solomona’s second stanza performances on Friday and Saturday night. Just to intensify the drama further, Teddy had been cleared to return to the fray, while Latrell won his men another penalty by putting his whole body on the line by charging straight into Walker and Verrills, and tempting high contact from Sam.

The Bunnies were now at ten from ten, and on the Sydney line for the second half of the set, where Murray took a beat to return to his feet after launching himself into the Roosters’ two props. In the defining image of the second quarter, JWH leaned down and gave him a death stare that encapsulated the Chooks’ rage and determination on the cusp of their fullback returning from the sheds, and ended up getting the chocolates here, since the Bunker deemed that there had been nothing illegal about the hit – although Jared’s joy was fleeting.

Only a play later, the Rabbitohs shifted it to the right edge, where they just might have scored if Koloamatangi hadn’t put it down under the combined heft of Hutchison and Walker. The Roosters had survived, but only just, and with two extra men on the field, while big Jared was off the park for a spell now, trotting alongside a wall of vocal Sydney fans as the Bunnies mounted another heroic defensive set, culminating with a second error from Crichton. With a scrum thirty out, they might just hold off the Chooks before their binned player returned.

They didn’t deliver one of their strongest sets now, but Walker’s kick was enough to usher in another volatile passage of play – deep into the left corner, where Momirovski seemed to knock it on before Naiqama secured it right on the dead ball line. Latrell deliberately held down to force a review of the entire sequence, but it worked against him, bumping the Roosters back up Allianz, where Hutchison scooped up a bounce, broke the line on the left, and shaped for Tupou back on his inside, only for Latrell to shove him beyond the sideline.

Burgess and Milne returned a beat later, but the spectacle of a full-force Rabbitohs was immediately eclipsed by the news that Teddy had regressed since passing his HIA, and was out for the rest of the game – an even more catastrophic outcome than Mitchell Moses’ 59th minute head clash against the Panthers on Friday night. Latrell followed his deliberate holding down with an equally risky play after the next high ball, putting the footy to ground, and stopping the play, in anticipation of the whistle blowing to signal a Taukeiaho high shot.

This time he got lucky, as the refs ratified his decision, while Burgess wasn’t taking any prisoners midway through the count, reserving his most bone-shattering contact so far for a brutal hit on Crichton, who leaned into the shoulder at the worst possible moment. Eight minutes out from the siren, we had reached the intensity of any grand final, or of Origin III this year, as Angus became the next Chook to leave the park, and Walker delivered a desperate legs tackle, arguably the best low hit so far, to prevent Arrow scoring on the left.

Four tackles later, Hutchison got the tap-on right, popping it out to Tupou, who burned his way up the sideline, and would have scored if Latrell hadn’t immediately upstaged Walker’s low contact with the ankle tap of the night – the kind of individual effort that takes the whole team, and the adrenalin of the entire game, up a notch. By this stage, the Roosters had 756 to 489 run metres, but were still four behind, as Walker steadied the ship with a relaxed bomb to the left corner that Naiqama took in a sea of Rabbitohs, before Sele decimated Suaalii.  

Two sets later, Tupou became the next Chook in the wars, wincing in backplay with what appeared to be a groin injury, which Ilias tried to capitalise with a boot to the Giraffe’s wing, only to send it out on the full as the big winger appeared to recover for the moment. This volatile shift in fortune felt like it might presage a Sydney try in what looked set to be their last possession of the first stanza, only for Suaalii to glimpse a space in the line, and show his inexperience at fullback by flicking it straight to Milne with two Roosters waiting outside.

As the halftime siren rang, this was already one of the greatest clashes between Sydney and South Sydney, a challenge to both teams to deliver ever more sublime football when they returned from the sheds. The Roosters would have to do it without Crichton, who had failed his HIA during the break, and also, apparently, without Tupou, who didn’t return to the park either, even though they couldn’t activate Adam Keighran as eighteenth man unless they got another HIA. Burgess started with a huge charge into Radley, and ended with a penalty.

It came beneath an Ilias kick, which Suaalii took clean and then drove into Burgess’ shoulder to win his men high contact, although this bump in position was quickly overshadowed by one of the most dramatic moments of the afternoon – Taukeiaho rising to his feet after tackle two, and turning around to face his own line to play the footy, presumably concussed from the preceding hit from Sele. He left the park a second later, bringing on big Jared for another stint, as we reached peak footy chaos, and both sides dissolved into an error-laden period.

The one upside for the Chooks, if you could even call it that, was this might unlock Keighran in the reserves, but it was small comfort for a Sydney City outfit with five of their most storied players off the park in Teddy, Manu, Tupou, Crichton and now Taukeiaho. The injury crisis of the last two years at the Tricolours had been reprised in miniature, in the course of two games, making it even more painful for the home crowd when Walker floated a beautiful harbour bridge across for an unmarked Johnston to smash over to put down his 166th try.

In doing so, he became equal with Andrew Ettingshausen for the most ever points scored in a NRL year, behind the hallowed foursome of Brett Morris (176), Steve Menzies (180), Billy Slater (190) and the great Ken Irvine (212). Souths had made history right when the Roosters were on the precipice of a historical redeployment of the troops, achieving a more secure lead of 18-8 when Latrell booted through his next two from the sideline. The Chooks might have christened New Allianz last week, but the Bunnies had reclaimed it as their own now.

The boos didn’t register at all, then, as the light turned golden over a South Sydney outfit high on footy flow, and the volatility threatened to spill over again when Nicholls slipped into Lodge, turning the big bopper head over heels, but wisely twisting at the last moment to avoid making direct contact with his own head. Nevertheless, this was deemed dangerous contact from Lodge, giving the Bunnies a bump up field, as they continued to surge off Johnston’s crossover, which had also made him the first player to score thirty in back to back seasons.

As if the adrenalin wasn’t intense enough, the Chooks got six again off a ruck error from JWH, who took out his frustration by slamming Burgess’ head to the ground, and so becoming the next player to head to the bin, while Tom was also off for an HIA a moment later. Teddy, Manu, Crichton, Tupou, Taukeiaho and now JWH were all gone, as the game rose to the peak of Roosters-Rabbitohs mythology, distilled the primal agon between these two clubs, which Ilias rode by falling backwards into Fletcher Baker to win the Tricolours even more position.

We were now at the peak of the most monstrous Origin clashes of the past, as another fight threatened to break out, the Rabbitohs got a fresh set in the ten, and Arrow bottled all this escalating energy, right when it had threatened to spill over, by chasing down a Walker grubber to plant his second try of the season. Latrell added the extras, the Bunnies were triple Sydney at 8-24, Ilias coughed up the high ball, and yet another fight loomed, as the Chooks packed a scrum at the ten, and had to channel the Rabbitohs’ late surge last week.

Ilias and Tatola combined for a heroic hit on Butcher to quash the first half of the set, before Nicholls did well to shut down the subsequent sweep to the right, so it all came down to an extemporised grubber from Keary that – miraculously – did the trick. Like Arrow before him, Nat Butcher invoked his superb stint against the Tigers by collecting it on the bounce and skittling Latrell on his way to the grass. Now the Chooks were only half South Sydney, and Walker wasted no time striking it from right in front to narrow the deficit to a mere ten.

JWH still had four minutes in the bin as Lodge took the first hitup of the restart, as news came down from the sheds that Burgess had failed his HIA, meaning that Michael Chee Kam had been activated as eighteenth man, while Keighran would remain off the park now that Taukeiaho had been cleared to return. Suaalii took Ilias’ next bomb behind the line to win his men an extra play, as Havili gave Cook a break, and only a single tackle separated the two opposition half tallies since the break, as Walker hit the twenty for his next attacking kick.

Tass was up to it, in his first ever finals appearance, landing a metre back in field and hanging onto the turf for dear life. JWH was back midway through the next set, right as Suaalii charged into Graham for more high contact, as the last quarter of one of the greatest ever Roosters-Rabbitohs clashes finally arrived. The Chooks were on the verge of capitalising here, so the adrenalin spilled over again when Butcher dropped the ball a few plays later, as the fracas turned into a fight for the second time tonight, sending both Tatola and Radley to the bin.

Radley resisted the decision, but he still trotted up the tunnel for the second time tonight, although the Chooks still had the position, hitting the twenty on tackle two, and receiving a restart a beat later. Suaalii tried to barge through in the corner, only to be driven back eight metres by Walker, while a JWH-Taukeiaho offload sent Sydney back in the same direction on play four, before Jared took a mad charge before the crossbar, where he banged into a Latrell-led pack that held on long and hard enough to dishevel him into a fumbled play-the-ball.

Sixteen to the siren, and the Bunnies had a scrum from their own ten, as Chee Kam proved his worth off the bench with a deft hit-and-spin on tackle two, Arrow headed off for a break, and Suaalii followed a conventional Ilias kick with an equally conventional return, a strange moment of modesty in the midst of so much volatility. Hutchison was raring to break through two plays into the next set, tumbling into the tackle, and cascading more adrenalin across the park, which peaked when Milne came in on Watson for the most overt high contact yet.

This wasn’t just one swinging arm but two swinging arms, both around the ex-Knight’s head, making it seven in the bin, and two stints apiece for Radley and Milne, as the sky turned purple over New Allianz. No NRL game to date has even had six bins, so this was foreign territory, and twelve against eleven as Suaalii drove it into the left corner, but continued to struggle with passing options, giving Graham just enough time to clean him up. Walker did the same for Hutchison on the other wing, before Keary floated an arcing pass out to Naiqama.

In any other game, this would have guaranteed a four-pointer, not least because this was Tupou’s wing, but Ilias and Graham were up to the defensive challenge here, although the cardinal and myrtle joy was quickly dampened when Latrell took a moment to return to his feet after twisting awkwardly to ground. Luckily he was fine to play, and worked off the limp almost immediately, as Egan Butcher bent Murray back an awkward angle, and Ilias was just as contorted by Lodge’s next hit, galvanising Momirovski into a sweeping crossfield return.

By this point, it was starting to feel like the game couldn’t end without a fight, so palpable was the barely contained passion of this rivalry to end all rivalries, so it was a strangely calming moment when Keary floated his next one as high as he ever has. It was the just the eye of the storm, however, as Latrell took it, withstood Verrills and Walker as they dragged him four metres back towards the try line, and then sent it upstairs, where the Bunker somehow missed Verrills dragging a hand across his face to declare that it had been a loose carry.

With a scrum from the ten, the Roosters had to consolidate now, as Momirovski laid the platform, Lodge offloaded for Verrills, Egan Butcher absorbed a tackle on the left, and Watson tapped on a Walker ball to put Naiqama across on the wing – but popped it forward, deflating this sudden burst of Sydney position as the Bunnies now packed the scrum from exactly the same place. The next plays were a comedown, comparatively speaking, but sped up soon enough, as Latrell cleared room for Johnston to break the line and spring down the side.

He had just enough time to kick at speed, and Suaalii pulled back his hands to avoid playing at it, as ratified by a Roosters challenge, as the light turned a deep purple over Allianz, in what was fast becoming one of the longest ever games in regular time. No sooner had the Chooks got this advantage than Egan Butcher coughed it up to grant the Bunnies an extra tackle, as Arrow plunged into the ten on play two, and Tass followed by carving up the left wing, where he shaped for Johnston, but had the audacity to cross himself in his first ever finals footy.

Full credit to Walker, too, for the wide ball that set it all up, bringing South Sydney to an imposing sixteen-point lead as Latrell banged another two through the posts. Butcher’s error had cost Sydney dearly, while the Bunnies came close to sealing the deal a set later, when Murray broke through the line for a thirty-metre charge, and flicked it on to Tatola, who came agonisingly close to reining it in. With Keary tumbling into a high Walker tackle on the next play, the Chooks had one last chance now, hitting the red zone with five minutes to go.

Momirovski now delivered his second stealth kick on the right, and again Johnston was there to contain it, before Latrell went short with the dropout, and the Roosters ground into an unrelenting wall of South Sydney jerseys. They only had to get through this set to secure the game, so an ebullience spread through the away crowd when JWH knocked it into Tatola on tackle four. With seven plays, the Bunnies only had to wind down the clock here, but Ilias was determined to end on a high, booting it on the fifth to maintain the flow right to the end.

The Roosters now had their final shot of the night, and it came to an abrupt end when Hutchison leaped up to collect a Keary ball but sent it over the sideline instead. South Sydney didn’t score again, but they didn’t have to, since they had all the glory they could muster, with a win for the ages, in one of the most extraordinary of the many games between these two clubs. As the siren blew, Latrell reached out both hands, embracing and acknowledging the homage of the crowd, testifying to a footy miracle that not even he could have predicted.

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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