The Sharks were keen to make up for their heartbreaking 93rd minute loss to the Cowboys in last week’s qualifier, while the Rabbitohs were high off one of their best ever clashes with the Roosters, when they met at Allianz for sudden death on Saturday night. Tom Burgess would only return if Souths made the grand final, but they barely felt his absence, since this was largely a dominant affair for the cardinal and myrtle, despite a few sublime hitbacks from Cronulla in the third quarter, a rousing prelude to the rematch against Penrith next week.
Braden Hamlin-Uele plunged into a wall of South Sydney jerseys for the first carry of the night, Connor Tracey was manhandled by the next wave of Rabbitohs enforcers, and Wade Graham was only just beyond the twenty when he took it for the third carry. Likewise, Dale Finucane only just got over the thirty as he absorbed the sideways drive of a pack of defenders, and Matt Moylan ended with a subpar kick to give the Bunnies the first advantage in field position, which became the first bump up the park after Briton Nikora came in high on Jai Arrow.
Mark Nicholls was five metres out midway through the set, beside the left post, and while Graham delivered a cracking shot on Cam Murray next to the other upright, the combined import of these two charges was enough for Damien Cook to dart out of dummy half and flick it in for Nicholls to bookend it all by slamming to ground with a Toby Rudolf-led pile on his back. Souths had scored off their first foray into the Cronulla twenty, while Latrell Mitchell wasn’t going to get an easier angle than this tonight, as he dabbed more than booted the two.
It was a rousing opening for a Rabbitohs outfit missing Tom Burgess from their forward pack, but the Sharks got a shot at absorbing their momentum when Finucane and Hamlin-Uele surged out of the line to force a Tevita Tatola cough-up on tackle one. Now it was Cronulla’s turn for some close-range attack, as Hamlin-Uele dragged Nicholls to the goal line, Moylan charged into an individual wrestle with Cody Walker on the right edge, where Isaiah Tass came in for support, and Moylan ended with a well-weighted crossfield kick to the right.
Ronaldo Mulitalo leaped a metre and a half above the Bunnies to get both hands to it, popping it backwards for Murray and Rudolf to contest on the ground. From there, the Sharks didn’t do much with it, but they sent up a successful challenge to prove that Cam had touched it before Toby scooped it up in his left hand, turning a changeover into a fresh set inside the red zone – and then another set off a Taane Milne error, although Cronulla couldn’t capitalise upon this field position like South Sydney, who survived two straight sets on their own line.
The Bunnies wasted no time building position, or pouring in to shut down the Sharks’ position, keeping them in their own end for the next set, until Nicho Hynes booted it from just inside his forty. It didn’t have much of an angle on it, so between a good Alex Johnston return, a tough Tass charge, and some deft dummy half vision from Latrell, the Rabbits were in Cronulla territory by halfway through, and in the red zone by the final tackle. Yet Lachlan Ilias followed with the poorest last play option yet, after realising he wasn’t going to get the kick away.
Accordingly, he ran and passed it, but hadn’t counted on Moylan reaching out a hand to rein it in, while Walker came up with another subpar last tackle option on the next set, albeit under clutchier circumstances, when he booted too hard to gift Cronulla seven tackles. Rudolf anchored the set with a hit-and-spin to break the Bunnies’ forty, prompting Campbell Graham to hit back with a bone-crunching smash into Will Kennedy, continuing his barnstorming form from last week, while still sufficiently in the wars to sit out the captain’s run this evening.
The battle of the halves continued a tackle later, when Moylan wrapped around Ilias to force a knock-on, before Jesse Ramien supercharged the first play off the scrum by burning his way up the right, ducking under a three-man pack and offloading for Hynes to continue his energy in field. Three plays later, Hamlin-Uele was inside the ten, where he tried and failed to run over Cook, before the Sharkies experimented with both sides, but had to content themselves with a Hynes grubber, which nevertheless did the job by forcing the night’s first dropout.
Latrell had no option but to bang it into touch with Graham at his heels, and almost got some joy when he booted the dropout too shot, but got a bounce back over the ten, where Milne came agonisingly close to securing it cleanly. With 16-4 tackles in the opposition twenty, the Sharks had a scrum from the ten, and opted for a war of attrition this time, eschewing too much elastic wing play to direct the big men towards the chalk, continuing that reliance on the forward pack when Finucane found himself landing on a messy ball thirty metres out.
Once again, though, the Sharkies failed to capitalise in the Rabbitohs’ red zone – and once again, Mulitalo caught the kick in both hands but to no avail, sending it over the sideline this time around. Ilias now started to work his way back from a spotty five minutes with an accomplished end-over-ender, so it was doubly dispiriting when Tass was called offside downtown – and then doubly inspiring when Ilias himself came in low and hard to ricochet the Steeden straight out of Graham’s grasp, winning his men a scrum to resume their flow.
The Bunnies got a dropout of their own at the end of the next set, and Hynes responded with one of the most flamboyant kicks of the year, opting to grubber it to the ten, and then dive on it himself, only for Grant Atkins to decree that he’d knocked on, although this was by no means evident from the replay. A minute later, the Sharks mounted their most heroic defensive effort yet, summoning a massive and desperate pack to hold up Latrell for what looked destined to be a tryscoring charge on the right, where he still garnered another six.
Moylan changed the rhythm a few plays later, delivering the David-on-Goliath tackle of the game as he wrapped himself around Keaon Koloamatangi and slammed the big bopper to ground, where he knocked the footy free – supposedly, since the replay was just as inconclusive here. Souths had got a lucky call, and now Cronulla had got a lucky call, so the game felt like it had settled and recalibrated, fifteen minutes from half time, as a Nikora error got the visitors their next set, and Latrell experimented with a floater out to Johnston.
Seeing the wiry winger tumble to ground five metres out was too tempting for Ramien, who dragged him over the sideline well after the call of held, although you couldn’t blame him for not hearing amidst the roar of the crowd. In any case, Latrell put the footy down in the face of a blunt Ramien hit early in the next set – almost a standing tackle from big Jesse – before Tass and Campbell combined to drive Tracey five metres back on the first play off the scrum, desperate to enable Souths to restore their rhythm, which they did a mere tackle later.
This was also an epic two-man effort, big enough contact from Walker and Cookie to drive Rufolf three metres sideways and then shake the Steeden free. The Bunnies had gone from defending a scrum from their red zone to feeding a scrum from their red zone, and delivered their next try as clinically and economically as their first, off the best right sweep of the night so far. Murray got them rolling, Ilias and Koloamatangi contributed a mercurial pair of tip-ons, Latrell sailed the cut-out assist, and Milne crossed before Moylan could make a tackle.
Even better, Latrell converted every bit as confidently from the sideline, bringing his Rabbitohs to twelve unanswered points. They were unlucky not to get six again midway through the restart, but still forced the Sharks to play the next set back from deep within their own end, making it a small victory when Ramien brought it over halfway on tackle four. Hynes continued that rhythm with a quick kick to Milne’s wing, as Siliva Havili was quickly assisted off the field with what appeared to be a leg injury, and the whole game accelerated a beat.
There was a new volatility on the park, then, when Cookie lost the footy, and Murray infringed the ruck a few seconds later – a fast enough turnover to make it just possible that Cronulla might crest on the wave that South Sydney had been building over the last five minutes. Instead, the Bunnies stole that energy straight back, as Kennedy tried to emulate Ilias and Koloamatangi’s sublime pair of tip-ons, but didn’t get the trajectory right, lobbing out a bouncer that Johnston scooped up on the wing and sent inside for Walker to break the line.
Tucking it under his arm, Cody was inside the thirty by the time Hynes brought him down, although he had enough adrenalin behind him to play it rapidly enough for Michael Chee Kam to hit the red zone a second later, where he might well have assisted one of his team mates if any of them had been charging up in support, meaning he had no choice but to take the Teig Wilton tackle. Nevertheless, an Ilias dummy set up what looked like another sublime sweep to the right, especially once Latrell barged into the ten with numbers on his outside.
Latrell’s run here split the difference between his assist for Milne and his earlier charge at the line, the one that Cronulla only just held up, so it was agonising when he lost the Steeden on the turf. That immediately galvanised the Sharkies, and especially Kennedy, who made up for his error with a break up the left, but the Bunnies got the ball back soon enough, and only needed a pair of offsides from Moylan and Wilton to get a third try down, thirty seconds before the sheds, when Murray delivered one of the great individual efforts of the season.
Walker started the play on the left edge, sending a soaring harbour bridge back inside for his captain, who caught it in both hands, and set his eyes on the chalk from twenty-five out. So improbable was this try that Murray only had Finucane between him and the line, and he disposed of him with a massive left-hand fend, a David-on-Goliath effort to rival Moylan’s hit on Koloamatangi, before accelerating through to cross untouched, and set up Latrell for another easy conversion. The Bunnies were heading into halftime on a staunch 18-0 lead.
The Sharks needed a sudden and spectacular turnaround to grapple their way back into the game – and they got it, two minutes into the second stanza, on their first set since the break, off a Murray cough-up on tackle three. Hynes was organising all over the park, and ended with a superb crossfield chip to the right, where Mulitalo finally got the aerial contact right, making up for those two frustrated takes in the air in the first half, and responding to the Ilias-Kolamatangi tip-on show with the most mercurial touch so far to pop it out to the wing.
Ramien read it just as brilliantly, reining it in and fending off Johnston in the same preternatural motion, before Hynes just slotted through the sideline conversion to narrow it to a twelve-point game. This was pure synergy from the Sharkies, a massive statement after the break, but the Bunnies circled the wagons to keep them out of their own end on the restart, culminating with a tough effort to stop Wilton hitting halfway on the penultimate play, and scored on their very next touch of the footy to restore their eighteen-point lead.
Four plays in, they delivered the most complex sequence of the night so far – and made it look the simplest. Cook started with a dummy half ball to Ilias, who sent it out further for Latrell to wrestle the tip-on spectacle back from the Sharkies with a scintillating ball to Graham, who condensed that balletic intensity into the conviction he needed to both absorb a combined Cronulla hit and offload back inside to Latrell, who made it two magical passes with a cut-out for Milne to add the last piece with a basketball-styled arc back in to Ilias.
The young halfback now bookended this sequence by slamming down with Finucane on his back, before rising to his feet with a roar that captured all of South Sydney’s energy and exhilaration over the last two weeks, in what must be the most ecstatic moment of his burgeoning career to date as well. In the subliminal back-and-forth movement of this sequence, and the way it continually shifted and recalibrated the lines of communication, the Bunnies had sent Cronulla a message: they could outhink any strategy they might envisage.
Yet that just made it all the more spectacular when Ramien nearly made it a double a few minutes later, off another combination with Mulitalo. The contact on the Steeden was more chaotic this time, but Nikora compensated with a sublime backwards no-look flick pass to his winger, who crossed over untouched for what may well have been the pivotal try of the night if Ramien hadn’t been offside downtown. If the Bunnies scored again now, you had to feel they’d won the game, while Cronulla had to ride this same wave again as soon as possible.
It was a victory of sorts for the Rabbitohs, then, that the next five minutes of the match were comparatively quiet, diluting this newfound Cronulla rhythm as the visitors gradually reasserted their dominance. Fifteen minutes in, Ilias came close to breaking through a big gap on the right, and yet the mere chance of a South Sydney try suddenly galvanised the Sharkies back into first gear, as Ramien reached his right hand up to deflect a Latrell pass, and Mulitalo gathered it to outpace the Rabbitohs chase and coast ninety-five metres to cross untouched.
There was a brief question of whether Ramien’s touch had gone backwards, but it was almost impossible to tell from the footage, so the Bunker ratified the original on-field call of try, as Hynes booted through the two from right in front to make it a twelve-point game once again. Latrell started working his way back from that critical error with a strong take under one of Hynes’ most dangerous kicks of the night, but there was no doubt that Cronulla had the rhythm now, so elegantly had Mulitalo’s run spanned the doldrums since their second try.
Ramien almost broke through Kodi Nikorima, playing at left centre, early in the following set, before the Sharks got a bump up field off a chicken wing tackle from Tatola on Mulitalo. Coasting on adrenalin, with a full set in the thirty, on the cusp of the final quarter, this might well be the pivotal set for Cronulla, so it was a big letoff when Wilton coughed up the footy on play one, gifting the Bunnies a much-needed set to begin regathering themselves for the final twenty. There couldn’t have been a better time for Nicholls to return to the contest.
They got another boost with a Moylan touch, packing another scrum for what felt like it might be the pivotal moment in their game too – the chance to score the consolidator. Sure enough, they scored their simplest and most direct try of the night a few plays later, when they looked set for a left sweep that might be as elegant as their efforts on the right, but in the end didn’t have to be, since Walker found enough space to smash between Hynes and Cameron McInnes without having to rely on the wing. Latrell added the extras, and the Bunnies were at 30-12.
This was the most bathetic try of the night, partly because it simply caught Cronulla napping, and partly because it effectively ended the game, since only a superhuman effort from the Sharkies could propel them to the next week of finals footy now. They got a successful challenge to prove that Latrell had stripped the Steeden from Lachie Miller, but it just ended up inciting the Bunnies to return to pure spectacle for their next try, which started with Tass seizing a harbour bridge ball from Hynes and making it all the way inside Cronulla’s thirty.
Ramien brought him down, but the Rabbits had enough energy to dream the impossible now. Wilton may have executed one of the best individual tackles of the night to fling Murray to ground beside the right post, and Ilias may have popped out one of his poorest wide balls of the night a play later, but Milne still managed to take it on the bounce, absorb the brunt of Miller right on the sideline, and weather the secondary shudder from Tracey to pop the Steeden down, rise to his feet, kiss the Rabbitoh on his jersey, and send the crowd crazy.
It seemed like an age since the Sharkies had only been half South Sydney, as Latrell added yet another conversion to bring his men to triple Cronulla at 36-12. A set later, Mulitalo took Hynes’ kick elegantly down the right edge, and flicked a no-looker around the back to Nikora, but this could only be the most distant echo of their most scintillating try of the night once Moylan lost it out on the left edge. There were five minutes left, the game was winding down, the Burrow was already in celebration mode, and yet the Rabbitohs were still in full flow.
Murray came close to a break on their next set, Milne grabbed Tracey from behind to prevent him making good on a break, Hynes got pinged for an illegal strip on Nicholls, and South Sydney ended the game with a penalty kick to bring them to an imposing 38-12 lead to cement their berth against the Panthers next week. That’s an imposing task in itself, but they’ve achieved a sublime footy flow over the last two games to set the stage for this grand final rematch while the Sharkies have a fortnight of heartbreak to process as they prepare for 2023.