ROUND 4: South Sydney Rabbitohs v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (Accor Stadium, 25/3/23, 13-12)

Saturday night’s game at Accor made it a trio of spectacular finishes in Round 4 after the Penrith-Parra grand final rematch on Thursday and the first ever Battle of Brisbane on Friday. The Bunnies had won their last six against Manly, most of them by a significant margin, including last year’s game when Karl Lawton was sent off early for the hit on Cam Murray, while they were also enjoying their first home game of the season, and digging deep into the cardinal and myrtle pride to farewell one of their all-time greats in the late John Sattler.

The result was a fight for the ages, as Daly Cherry-Evans made up for a double Haumole Olakau’atu grubber-trip brainsnap with a sublime intercept try to level the score before half time, and Latrell Mitchell banged through a penalty shot to level the score before full time, after the Sea Eagles had twice chosen not to take the two on their line. DCE might be the master of golden point, but extra time belonged to Lachlan Ilias, who continued to evolve into the post-Reynolds era by slotting through his first ever field goal in first grade football.

Tom Burgess had the first carry of the night, Michael Chee Kam took the second as a starting front-rower, Jacob Host the third in his first appearance since Magic Round last year, and then Cam Murray, who was driven back by Jurbo and Olakau’atu, before Dylan Walker got the first kick away, and Christian Tuipulotu was swallowed up by a committed South Sydney chase. The Rabbits made good metres on their next set as well, getting Walker to the Manly forty for his second kick, which Turbo collected after slipping briefly on the dewy Accor turf.

For the second time, Manly struggled to build position, despite an early offload from Taniela Paseka to Karl Lawton, while Jurbo and Olakau’atu combined again for a tough shot on Campbell Graham in an effort to quench the early South Sydney flow. Finally, the visitors got a chance when Walker booted his next one too hard, making their way to the opposition thirty by the time that Murray Tuilagi popped the offload out to DCE, who was almost at the red zone when he launched a left edge kick that Izaac Thompson took in the face of a big chase.

Just when the Sea Eagles were applying pressure, Josh Schuster defused it by leaking an offside penalty, giving the Bunnies their first full set down the other end of the park. Walker responded with a left sweep that put Isaiah Tass into space, prompting Turbo into a staunch one-one-on holdup until the rest of the Manly defence arrived. Souths now shifted right, where Lachlan Ilias tried to force the repeat set with a sneaky grubber, only for Turbo to save the day on this wing as well, reading the ball beautifully just before the Eagles got a penalty.

It came from a Keaon Koloamatangi offside, and saw the visitors make the best passage down the park from either team so far, thanks to a barnstorming Brad Parker run down the left, before DCE followed Turbo with a short kick, and with similar results, as some deft defence from Jacob Host forced Schuster offside downtown. Burgess was inside the ten four tackles later, with a glimpse of a break, and for the second time Ilias’ last-tackle option was thwarted – a dummy to the right – as the Bunnies surged in to keep Manly trapped in their red zone.

Once again, though, position came from a left edge burst, as Reuben Garrick provided Manly with their first break of the night, but Campbell was up to the task now, slamming into his quarry with such force that neither player broke stride as Thompson came in to slam him over the sideline. Yet Parker showed he could defend just as well on his own edge, getting revenge on Thompson, who found himself at the end of the Bunnies’ best right sweep so far, with a epic legs tackle to show that sometimes you only need one man to drag you into touch.

The crowd rose at the fourteen minute mark for a tribute to Sattler, as a Tolu Koula ruck error gave the ball back to the cardinal and myrtle. They got six again off a Jurbo ruck error, Murray came close to crashing over beside the left post, and a flat ball from Damien Cook that felt destined for Koloamatangi ricocheted off Chee Kam’s left shoulder, as the crowd suddenly fell silent, and the Sea Eagles got a scrum of their own, and a chance to add to a paltry five tackles in the opposition half compared to a whopping 21 from a charged up South Sydney outfit.

Still, that stat wasn’t reflected in the 0-0 scoreline, so it was paramount the Bunnies score soon or else concede the momentum back to the hosts. The game intensified a notch on the next set, when Parker gave Graham another challenge on the wing, and Latrell lost the high ball backward through a DCE legs tackle, leaving it to Johnston to scoop it up and add fifteen metres to manage the damage. Drama was building early in the tackle counts, and continued at the start of the next Manly set, when Daniel Suluka-Fifita found himself offside downtown.  

DCE’s next offload to Tuilagi looked forward, but the call was play on, and so Daly got to his left edge chip, where only the most committed of Thompson-Ilias tackles prevented Turbo from smashing over, while a touch from Thompson finally got Manly back on the board in terms of opposition half tackles, with a full set on the South Sydney line, and then a second restart off a Walker error. As the second quarter arrived, the Sea Eagles had a tipping-point on their hands, but it all ended with a forward pass from Koula out to Tuipulotu.

It didn’t make much of a difference, since the no. 2 was downed anyway, but the fact of the set ending with an error made Souths’ survival seem stauncher, even if Turbo reached a boot back over the dead ball line to get his men another bump up the park. Sean Keppie took his first run midway through, and it was the last of the set, which ended with another error, this time from Olakau’atu. In combination with the Koula knock-on, it shifted the rhythm back to the Bunnies, who scored on the very next set, with easily their best try of 2023 so far.

After the frustration of seeing Turbo make contact with the dead ball line on the last return, Souths now claimed it as their own, as Cook booted through a grubber that looked over-weighted, to the extent that DCE, who had it covered at the try line, was confident to shepherd it into touch. But he hadn’t counted on Walker who, in the very definition of not giving up on the play, curved around and popped the tip of the Steeden down a mere millimetre before the chalk, in one of the best tries at the death that we’ve ever witnessed.

It was a try that had belief written all over it, the kind of belief that perhaps only comes in a game dedicated to a rugby league legend, belief strong enough to sustain the team through subsequent errors, the first of which came from Host midway through the restart. Yet the Sea Eagles were also able to tap into that residual momentum, as Garrick refocused a devolving left edge sweep by bringing the footy back in field, tightening the attack before Olakau’atu climbed above Tass, reined the Steeden in one-handed, and slammed it down for four.

Garrick, the man whose charge had renewed the back end of this set, added the kick, and just like that Manly had contained a South Sydney try that seemed all but unanswerable. Nothing could have been as spectacular as Walker’s putdown, so the Sea Eagles’ only option had been to score immediately, and eclipse its impact that way – and they’d pulled it off. They didn’t make much headway on the restart, with DCE kicking deep in his own end, but it was a good recovery set, while Ilias’ next kick and bounce was too risky even for Johnston to collect.

With the brief breathing space that ensued, then, Manly were back on the front foot, and ready to score again. Schuster set it up with some deft footwork to build metres for Parker, who carved up the left edge before shifting it in for his five-eighth to flick it on for Turbo to bust into space and reach the line just as the try was pulled back for an extremely dubious forward pass call for Parker. As quickly as Manly had recovered the rhythm, they’d lost it, since there’s nothing more deflating than seeing Turbo decelerate right on the chalk.

If the Bunnies had capitalised now, with eight minutes to the break, they would have owned the first stanza, but a loose carry from Koloamatangi gifted Manly a second chance, as did a Murray error a few plays later. Olakau’atu set the tone with a bone-rattling charge to drag Walker, Suluka-Fifita and Jed Cartwright seven metres. Even better, he got the offload away to Kaeo Weekes, who was fresh on the park, and managed to beat Koloamatangi, and almost beat Tass, before Schuster popped another offload for DCE to chip it early to the right wing.

With Johnston knocking on, the Bunnies were faced with their biggest defensive challenge so far, and came close to conceding the next try when Koula charged over on the wing, where only the most committed of tackles from Tass forced the knock-on at the death. A mistimed pass from Walker brought the next set crashing to a halt, paving the way for Manly to take control of the game on the very cusp of the siren. The Sea Eagles rolled it up the middle now, finding one last burst of fluidity before the break, including the seventh run from Bullemor.

So fluid was it that they were able to parlay it into a dangerous left edge raid, as some brilliant second phase from Tuilagi put Garrick into space, and a marginal high shot from Latrell, who held him up half a metre out, gave Manly one last stint on the South Sydney chalk. It ended with a whimper, as Olakau’atu tried to grubber, and then a bang, as the big forward came together with Cook for a fracas that saw the entire manpower of both teams storm in to join the fray. Two minutes out from the sheds, the game had reached an Origin-like volatility.

The replay showed that Haumole had stuck out a boot to trip Cookie as he recovered the footy, and so it seemed like the Rabbitohs were destined to have the last word in the first forty – that the no. 11’s double brainsnap, grubber and trip, would eclipse the real vision his team mates had shown in the set that preceded it. Yet in one of the contingencies that can televate games to myths, and cement decades-long animosities, DCE intercepted a Murray-Walker ball, ran sixty metres, tumbled away from Johnston at the death, and scored.

Turning around to face his team mates as they piled on in celebration, he roared with the pride of a Manly lifer, and for a moment made it feel like he was in the midst of Fortress Brookvale as Garrick added the extras to put the Sea Eagles 12-6 at the sheds. Yet these would be the last points that the Brookvalers scored all night, as the Bunnies went on to level the board over the back forty, and then execute an even more dramatic climax when Ilias popped through the field goal in extra time, cementing himself as Adam Reynolds’ descendant.

Play paused four tackles in when Olakau’atu fell at an awkward angle, and by the time Manly got through the last part of their set DCE booted it from just outside the forty. Big Haumole wasn’t the only one in the wars, since Johnston had returned from the sheds with his right thigh heavily strapped. Meanwhile Koloamatangi was struggling being away from the right edge, coughing up the footy for the first error of the second half, as Manly rose to the occasion by driving their way into the red zone before Turbo also broke straight through Cook.

Full credit to Schuster for the deft deception ball that put Tommy into space, while Turbo followed with his fastest acceleration of the season so far from a standing start, pivoting away to the left early in the next count to create a break for Garrick down the sideline. Again, the Bunnies contained it, but Manly were controlling the pace of the game now, and felt like they were destined to score in the next couple of minutes if the hosts didn’t hit back with a big individual effort of their own, or else force an error to win a bump in field position.

Turbo wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down either, setting his sets on the right edge as energetically at the start of the next set, only for DCE to dummy and slightly over-soar the harbour bridge ball to Garrick, who was unable to secure it before it tumbled into touch. This was the chance that South Sydney needed, and Walker consolidated with a short ball for Latrell, who followed with a catch-and-pass that Johnston, clearly not operating on a full tank, juggled, reclaimed, and then put down into an Okalau’atu-led pack.

Once again, then, the Sea Eagles were pouring into Rabbitohs territory, as Keppie swung in the tackle to shift the footy back inside through Weekes to Bullemor, and DCE continued to target the right edge to put Olakau’atu at the brink of the red zone. Schuster ended with a crossfield chip that sailed straight through Campbell’s hands – and luckily for South Sydney too, since there was too much speed on it for even Garrick, meaning the Bunnies, who were now sitting at only 11-22 tackles in the opposition twenty, got a twenty-metre restart.

With six again a beat later, off a Weekes ruck error, this had to be the moment when Souths struck back – and that’s just what they did, annulling Manly’s dominance in a single sweep through Cook, Murray, Ilias and finally Walker, who had Thompson barking for it on his outside but opted to go it alone, finding just enough space to get around Parker before the Manly backliner brought him to ground, seven metres out from the line. By then, though, Walker had enough momentum and strength to slide over, making it a two point game.

It stayed that way too, when Latrell missed the kick, although big charges from Chee Kam and Koloamatangi on the restart made it clear that the Bunnies were raring for more points. Walker led the chase to ensure that Turbo couldn’t make any metres on the return, Graham came in to down Garrick in the ten, and then did the same for Olakau’atu. Manly looked set to spend the entire set in their own red zone until Paseka brought it to the brink of the twenty, and won his men a restart from a Murray offside.

Paseka was having a moment now, banging into the defence again a play later, before Koula showcased some spectacular footwork to dance his way to the ten metre line. All of a sudden, Manly had absorbed South Sydney’s focus, as Lawton showed an extravagant dummy and almost busted through a last-ditch Murray tackle, Keppie tried to crush his way through beside the left post, and Paseka, the man whose initiative had started this whole surge, required five Rabbitohs to keep him from crashing over on his third and hardest charge.

Yet just as the Sea Eagles had eclipsed the afterburn of Walker’s try, so Ilias reclaimed the narrative with one of the best long-rangers of his season so far – a long low boot that sat up just before the dead ball line, forcing Turbo to pop it over at the final second with Walker on his back. Souths had the first dropout of the game, and got lucky when a soaring Latrell harbour bridge ball that was unlikely to reach Thompson was touched by Garrick, which made it all the more agonising when Murray mistimed a Walker pass early in the following count.

As the final quarter loomed on the horizon the enterprising spirit of this contest had intensified, with players from both sides clearly prepared to take risks and go off piste to get the job done. Messier moments were also emerging, as well as uncharacteristic plays, the next a poorly placed DCE kick that allowed Latrell to deliver his best run of the night, and so lay the platform for an epic Johnston run that brought him to the brink of the ten, before they headed back to the right, where Latrell dummied and fooled every Eagle except Schuster.

This volatility peaked with DCE darting out of dummy half to tempt a Cartwright strip, and grinning to the away crowd at his ingenuity, giving his men their best position in some time. Josh Aloiai was barging into Murray beside the left post by tackle three, and with Cam failing to get square a second later, Manly nabbed a penalty right in front of the posts. In the decision that determined their night, however, they opted to tap and go, and for a period it seemed like the right call, especially once Murray gave away a second penalty for a hand in the ruck.

South Sydney wasted their Captain’s Challenge trying to contest it, the Sea Eagles again chose to tap and go, and again this was a mistake, although they wouldn’t know it yet. Ilias continued to shine, coming in hard and low to shut down Tuilagi five metres out, Turbo tried to create space for Garrick, and DCE ended with a chip that Johnston leaped up to take in the face of Koula, a particularly heroic effort with the heavy strapping. Twice Manly had the chance to add the two from right in front, and twice they had chosen to tap and go.

DCE targeted the right corner again at the end of the next set, this time with a bomb, as if trying to cancel out the anticlimax of the way that last bout of field position had ended, but Johnston was just as confident in the face of Koula’s contest, while Ilias booted his next one inside the forty, before the end of the count, to continue accruing the position his men had lost on their line. With Tuipulotu coughing it up a tackle later, the Bunnies had their chance, and Walker almost danced his way through a Lawton legs tackle to score two plays after that.

No sooner had Lawton risen from the ground than he swung an arm into Latrell for what was deemed high contact, and unlike the Sea Eagles, the Rabbits weren’t scoffing at a penalty in front of the posts. Latrell drilled through the two to square up the score at 12-12, and then took a sharp charge down the middle off a rapid dummy half run from Cook. If he’d been lucky to get the penalty from Lawton, then he was probably unlucky not to get six again off Ben Trbojevic, and so the Sea Eagles got the ball back as the final ten minutes arrived.

Cook applied enough pressure to force DCE into a subpar kick on the next set, and with only thirty-five metres on it the Bunnies were back at the opposition twenty by tackle four. Walker accelerated up the left, but could only send Tass into a Sea Eagles cul-de-sac, while Ilias had a rare misfire for this game with an early overlong kick that gave Manly a bump of their own. By now, a field goal was in the offing, and the stats looked good for DCE, who had six golden point wins to his name, the most of any NRL player since the option was introduced.

The next tipping-point came when Manly sent it upstairs to contest a Parker knock-on beneath the high ball, but the footage showed this to be a pretty poor challenge. Meanwhile, Ilias made up for his mistimed grubber with a beautiful spiralling bomb, and a monster bounce, but Turbo contained it, even if his fellow Sea Eagles were a bit slow to get back onside on the next play, fatigued by one of their most demanding games so far this year. Still, it didn’t stop Walker almost busting through on the right, or a mammoth middle run from Aloiai.

Souths spread the footy from wing to wing at the start of their next set, like a statement of purpose, before Walker again built space for Tass up the left, and Ilias shaped to kick, only to flick it back out to the left for the young no. 3 to put boot to ball instead – and it was a beauty, riccoheting off the turf at a crazy angle that Turbo managed to contain just long enough for Keppie to scoot around and get in position to collect it when he lost it backwards. With under four minutes left on the clock, it was set for set, with no chance for a field goal as yet.

Ilias shaped for a 40/20 for his next kick but couldn’t get the angle, Walker cleaned up Turbo on the right, and DCE came up with a relatively underwhelming corkscrew, as player after player showed visible signs of fatigue, and the crowd roared louder and louder, as if to inject their respective teams with one final burst of adrenalin. Finally, an Aloiai error gave Souths the position they needed to set up Latrell for the field goal attempt, fifty-five seconds out, but he sent it too low and too wide, leaving DCE with forty-seven seconds to boot his own.

Daly had banged through field goals from forty-five metres out in the past, so it was reasonable he might get it when he received the Steeden right on the siren. It was the most exciting second of the year, as Cook charged it down, toed it through, Koula cleaned it up in goal, and for a brief beat it even looked like the Sea Eagles might manage to bring it back and take another crack at the opposition line. In the end, Manly had taken one more tackle than they should have to set up the kick, bringing us to golden point for the second time this week.

Manly had won six of their last seven golden point contests (although they hadn’t gone to extra time since 2019) while the Bunnies had lost six of their last seven golden point contests. Manly got the first carry as well, but weren’t even out of their twenty when Aloiai put the footy down. Graham took the first run off the scrum, Burgess the second, and Koloamatangi the third, before Latrell lost his opportunity with a poor ball from dummy half, forcing him to make do with a shift out to the left, where Tass tried and failed to break through.

Yet that just made for an even more momentous conclusion, as Ilias added another major notch in his belt, and stepped a little further into the massive boots of Reynolds, by slotting through his first NRL field goal at the end of the count, in a South Sydney victory for the ages, on a night paying tribute to John Sattler, with Russell Crowe nodding in approval from the stands, and after DCE had levelled the score at halftime in such a spectacular way – a balm for their 20-18 loss to the Roosters last week, and a gee up for the Storm next Friday night.

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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