ROUND 5: South Sydney Rabbitohs v. Melbourne Storm (Accor Stadium, 31/3/23, 10-18)
Both the Bunnies and the Storm were coming off two wins and two losses when they met on Friday night at Accor. South Sydney had enjoyed an emotional win over the Sea Eagles in golden point, thanks to the first field goal of Lachlan Ilias’ career, while the Storm hadn’t put their choice halves together since Round 1, and needed a big one from Cameron Munster to start propelling them back towards the first four. The surface was choppy at Accor too, meaning both teams had only warmed up in situ for ten minutes when they left the sheds.
The result was an entertaining and at times eccentric arm wrestle, with enormous advances in field position that often didn’t go anywhere, and a gradual concentration of Melbourne defence that culminated with three sublime trysavers: first, a Meaney hit on Johnston that jolted him away from the chalk and straight into a Category 1; second, an epic five-man effort to hold up Tom Burgess beneath the crossbar; and third, a heroic legs tackle from Harry Grant, the best player tonight, who copped a boot in the face from Izaac Thompson at the death.
Melbourne had first touch of the football, and Tui Kamikamica the opening carry, laying the platform for some big metres from Eli Katoa and Josh King, before Burgess slammed in to prevent Christian Welch getting too far, only for Grant to find nobody waiting at marker, meaning that Thompson was on the try line when he fielded his first high ball of the night, and Campbell Graham had to work hard to bring it back over the ten on tackle one. Still, a Trent Loeiro ruck error got them the first attack in the twenty on their first set.
A loose pass from Ilias on tackle four set them back, as did a Katoa bump on Cody Walker, who nevertheless managed to get the kick away, and so force Melbourne to work it back from deep within their red zone. Like the Bunnies, they got a boost up field with a ruck error, this time from Daniel Suluka-Fifita, and again Thompson was up to Munster’s challenge, outleaping Xavier Coates in goal for an extra tackle. Jacob Host was at the thirty by play three, Damien Cook took a dart out of dummy half, and Ilias bounced off a tough Munster shot.
Reimis Smith and Wil Warbrick eventually cleaned things up on the wing, and the game hung on a knife’s edge, begging the question of which team would finally capitalise on all this accruing field position. The vision came from Jonah Pezet, who ended the Storm’s next set with a deft crossfield chip, and then King, who scooped it up in his left hand, and smashed through three Rabbitohs, after Ilias got both hands to it but lost control in the air. Nick Meaney added the conversion, and King had his fourth career try, with eight minutes gone.
Melbourne had one of their fastest sets yet on the return, with King himself taking on the line on tackle two, and Kamikamica crossing into opposition territory midway through, before Thompson again defied Munster, not just with the kick, which floated in the air long enough for Cam to join the chase, but on the return, when he managed a couple of metres through the Storm five-eighth. Welch came in high a beat later, and the Bunnies started their next set inside the opposition forty, coming up with their first try on the second tackle.
This was a clinical set play, with Burgess popping his nose through the line, Ilias shifting it across for Murray to bend the line even further, and Walker taking the offload and twisting through a last-ditch Meaney tackle to get the footy down – a fitting sequel to his best game of the year against the Sea Eagles last week. Pezet and Katoa had been strong in attack, but Murray split them apart here, capping off some fairly loose defence from a pair of teams who had conceded an average of about thirty missed tackles per game so far in 2023.
Walker slipped under the kick but managed to flick it out for Burgess to charge into the ten, and the Bunnies were well over halfway by the time that Walker put boot to ball, and Isaiah Tass came in to smother Warbrick beyond all chance of a return. Grant opted to kick before the last, well inside the forty, but didn’t have the angle for a 40/20, and so the star hooker followed up his boot by storming down field to ensure that Johnson couldn’t do much with the catch. The Storm were now on 8-1 missed tackles as Ilias hoisted his next one to the ten.
Pezet showed he could bomb just as high at the end of the next set, and while there wasn’t much depth on it, Melbourne got it back, as Grant continued his initiative of the last set by bookending the most volatile sequence so far. Driving the footy beneath the crossbar, his hyperactive footwork meant that only the last line of South Sydney defence was able to hold him up, but not without him offloading out to Munster, who kept the set alive with a parabolic pass to the left, where Justin Olam came up with it, and set his sights on the left padding.
Only the most committed Rabbitohs defence prevented him barging through, before Cook became the man of the hour with a truly desperate trysaver on Grant, who took another crack between the posts, and flicked it forward at the death under the impact of the South Sydney hooker. With Kamikamica pinged for holding down, the hosts immediately absorbed the escalating energy of Melbourne’s attack, plunged their way down the park, and asked some big questions on either side before Coates contained Walker’s kick on the final play.
The Storm now had 11-19 tackles in the opposition half, and were struggling with position, as Munster was forced to take a rare boot from deep in his own territory, but the field opened up for them on their next carry, when Johnston hit Warbrick in the air, beneath the kick, and Host came in high on King three plays later. Melbourne might have had 13-3 missed tackles, but they started to reverse the rhythm now, as the recipients of these two illegal shots set the stage for their second try, starting with a tough charge from King deep up the left.
From there, the purple army shifted it out to the right, where Meaney sent a bullet ball across for Warbrick, who came up with one of the toughest runs of the night, ricocheting off Johnston, and then Tass, to plant the footy down in the corner and rise to his feet banging his jersey in a show of Melbourne pride. It had been a superb assist from Meaney too, while his conversion made him top pointscorer of 2023 (46) ahead of Jamayne Isaako (44), Mitchell Moses (41), Nathan Cleary (35, despite the Canberra pile-on) and Reuben Garrick (32).
The defence hadn’t been great but the completion was decent, with the Bunnies at 85% and the Storm at 93%, as Hame Sele came on for only his second minute of football of the year, following his short-lived appearance against the Roosters. The Thompson-Munster battle now intensified, not in the kick contest, but in a one-on-one clash that saw the South Sydney backliner simply trample over the Melbourne cult hero, who raised his arms at the crowd, egging on the spectacle of it all, before Davvy Moale followed suit a couple of tackles later.
No player would cop contact tonight quite like the hit Alec MacDonald suffered here, as Moale came in low, lifted him clean off the turf, and unceremoniously dumped him on his back. It was a stunning tackle, good enough to keep the adrenalin flowing when play was paused for some confusion around a King error, and then keep South Sydney’s energy alive when a second restart, off a Loeiro error, and a full set in the Melbourne ten, came to an abrupt end with Graham failing to rein in an awkward ball from Ilias in the face of a monster Olam charge.
Melbourne had the scrum, with ten minutes until half time, and made good headway with a run from Katoa up the right edge, tempting Tass into a slow peel that meant it was now South Sydney’s turn to defend their twenty, which King reached, on tackle two, with the biggest post-contact tally of the night. Coates was on the line on the fourth, King continued to rack up the metres by eluding Host to bring it back inside the ten, and Johnston rolled desperately onto the ball after Grant curved around and kicked unexpectedly to get his men a dropout.
Latrell Mitchell had been pretty quiet so far, but he delivered arguably the best boot of the game now, sending it short for Cook to get it back, and for his beloved Bunnies to accelerate back down the field, before Graham made up for his error by downing Coates before he could break the ten. True to the spirit of this game, the Rabbits got another six again on their next set, on the cusp of halfway, off another Loeiro error, only for Michael Chee Kam to respond to a Cookie dummy half ball with a catch-and-pass to Thompson that Olam forced awry.
By this stage, 69% of the game had played out in Melbourne’s end, yet the purple army were still in front, and were starting to dominate again too, as Munster took a drifting run across the defence midway through, and the chase piled in to ensure that Tass was drowned on the return. Ilias dummied and tried to break through the line late in the next set, but to no avail, while Warbrick didn’t have much trouble taking a spiral bomb from Walker, nor with bringing it back towards his thirty to commence a set that would end with another Storm dropout.
Munster was down in backplay off a Sele shot in the back, so Pezet took over in the halves, weighting the kick brilliantly, as did Latrell on the dropout, with a short ball that Coates was tempted to take clean without sticking a boot back over the ten. Ninety seconds were left on the clock, and South Sydney had one last burst of position to level the scoreline, but it remained 6-12 heading into the sheds, thanks in large part to Katoa, who contested Ilias’ bomb heroically on the chalk, and burrowed to ground to avoid a final Rabbitohs dropout.
Grant was sitting at seven runs and forty-four metres when they returned to the park, coming in to join the defensive fray when Walker managed to rein in the bounce. South Sydney brought the intensity over the rest of the set, with Sele bustling his way into Melbourne territory on the fourth, and the Storm forced to work it out of their own twenty, although any positional issues were eclipsed by a mad Munster break up the left, for what looked like a certain try before he flicked the footy forward, barking that Cookie had got a hand to it.
The refs didn’t buy it though, and so the Bunnies had a chance to absorb this rhythm into their own attack, as Ilias booted it out to the right edge, and Walker and Graham swung in to prevent Coates making his way back over the ten. King only managed to break the red zone on play four, but a Eisenhuth run gave them a second shot at the left edge attack, and Munster a chance to make good on the vision of that forty-first minute break. Coates received it from Olam at the wing, and busted into space before executing the best kick of the game.
He was at high speed, from a tricky angle, but orchestrated the bounce beautifully, meaning all Munster had to do was just keep running to collect it into his chest, having put down the hard yards by elasticising the left edge the set before. Meaney booted through the two, and the Storm were at their final scoreline of 18-6, triple South Sydney, with thirty-five minutes left on the clock, while Grant continued to shine with a nifty left-right step that saw him travel from ten to thirty and offload back to Munster on play two of the restart.
It was deflating, then, when Loeiro knocked on late in the count, since one more visionary run from Grant might have been enough for the Storm to go back to back here. The Bunnies packed the scrum, Chee Kam bookended the subsequent set with strong runs, and Ilias put boot to ball at the Storm forty, before Walker and Johnson delivered the biggest challenge yet beneath the high ball. Meaney got hands to it first, but popped it forward, as Walker collected it, broke out of a low shot from Pezet, turned 360 degrees, and headed left.
From there, he flicked it on to Johnston, who dodged, weaved and almost broke through a couple of times before passing it back in to Cody, who would have scored if not for an epic scramble from King and Reimis Smith to bundle him up over the chalk. The Meaney error meant a fresh set on the line though, and while the Rabbitohs foundered a little in the opening tackles, they seemed to be consolidating when Latrell made a run for the right, tucked the footy under his left arm, pivoted off the right boot, and set his sights back in field.
The speed and shift in direction had conviction written all over it, so it was agonising to see Latrell come to ground under a King-Coates combo and then lose the ball right on the turf. For a brief beat, he seemed to be willing himself elsewhere, closing his eyes and curling himself around the Steeden, and for good reason, since he’d been on the cusp of organizing the back half of this set into something special. A suite of interchanges for both sides followed Welch-MacDonald, Garlick-Eisenhuth, Burgess-Sele – as the Bunnies gradually regathered.
Two sets later, Tass found some space for Johnston up the left, and Walker grubbered back in that direction on the last, but this burst of energy was short-lived, as Smith took the ball easily, and Moale found himself offside a play later, before a ruck error from Burgess got Melbourne six again at the forty. Garlick took his first run, Pezet drove deep into the line to make space for Meaney up the left, and yet a big Cook-Munster tackle seemed to steady the South Sydney defence, as did Smith just failing to put down a rollicking grubber on the last.
The replay showed this to be one of the more unusual moments in the game, since Smith had arrived at the Steeden with time enough – just – to put it down, but instead planted his hands down a foot too far to the right, letting what would have been the most spectacular try of the night, and the definitive match-winner, go begging. This had to be the critical moment for South Sydney, who got an extra tackle, supercharged with enormous runs from Burgess and Latrell at the twenty and ten, and had a penalty on the line for a Loeiro-Murray high shot.
Burgess took the first carry of this full set in the ten, Keaon Koloamatangi took a charge beside the right post, Reimis Smith smashed into Walker on play three but without preventing the pass to Tass, before a ruck error from Grant made this the Bunnies’ best acquisition of field position all night. Again, Burgess plunged over before the uprights, and was only millimetres short, a tough enough display to form the pivot and motivator for a shift back to the right, where Latrell made up for his error with a beautiful double pump to clear space for Graham.
Latrell was three from four from the right sideline this year, but couldn’t nab the two now, keeping us at an eight point game as the final quarter arrived. Again, Chee Kam made good metres, this time up the middle, and Ilias followed with a soaring bomb to the right edge, where Coates ricocheted it back, and only just managed to scramble onto it before Walker tumbled on top. By contrast, Munster rolled his next one along the turf, which was pretty divoted now, but found Latrell waiting to absorb the brunt of the chase and bring it back.
Four tackles later, Burgess played the footy fast for Cookie to lay down fifteen meters, before Ilias launched another bomb in Coates’ direction, where Meaney stepped up for the take. Souths followed with a stellar defensive set, ensuring that Kamikamica was only just over the thirty by tackle five, while Latrell continued to deliver off the restart, sending it out to Johnston this time around to continue his momentum up the right wing. Ilias and Walker spread it left midway through, and then Murray offoaded late to Cook – a little too late.
The replay clearly showed his elbow hitting the turf, and so the Storm got a bump up the park to break this last period of back-and-forth attack, as Meaney dragged a few defenders into the thirty, Welch copped a big enough shot from Burgess to lie prone on the grass for a couple of seconds, and Munster bombed in goal, where Coates and Latrell converged on it in the air, and some Bunker scrutiny showed that their fullback had knocked it back through the winger’s outstretched fingers. The Bunnies had narrowly avoided another defensive set.
They elasticised beautifully up the left edge a few plays later, as Walker sent a scintillating sweeping ball out to Latrell, who followed on with a short pass for Johnston, electrifying the wing as Chee Kam in a play later to make the most of it. Latrell and Cook both came close to consummating it all at the line – Latrell off another terrific Walker ball that would have been a certain try if not for a barnstorming Kamikamica saver, and Cookie with a mad dash at the chalk that saw the purple jerseys pile on top for one of Melbourne’s best defensive displays.
A short ball from Murray almost put Burgess through the line, but the rhythm quickly shifted when big Tom popped the offload straight back to Welch, who took a second carry midway through this set. Latrell fielded the next high ball and played it fast, as if trying to galvanise his men into the big individual play they needed to break this Melbourne wall wide open, but the Rabbitohs only made it into opposition territory on the fifth, with a charge from Burgess, who didn’t have a chance of second phase this time with four Storm defenders in the tackle.
Up until this set, it had felt like the Melbourne vulnerability was there for South Sydney to capitalise upon, but their inability to make metres when it counted, and to recoup the Welch intercept with an emphatic statement, started to make the Storm’s eight point lead feel more secure. Still, they got a boost when Eisenhuth swung his right arm straight into Murray’s head, for what looked like it might lead to an HIA for the recipient, and a report for the perpetrator. In the end, neither occurred, and the Bunnies got a King ruck error for a further advance.
In the most agonising moment of the whole game (at least for the Rabbitohs faithful), the hosts settled into their last great sweep of the night, drawing on the energy that Walker, Latrell, Johnston and Chee Kam had poured into that side of the park, as Johnston found himself with the footy, and forewent his typically acrobatic style for brute strength, barging into Meaney for some chest-on-chest contact that took both him and the crowd by surprise. This was the key trysaver so far – tough, comprehensive and completely unanswerable.
It was all more dramatic in coming from a backliner of Meaney’s wiriness, since this had all the plosive impact of two frontrowers meeting in the middle of the park, sending Johnston off for a Category 1, and perhaps prompting Burgess into the tackle on Eisenhuth that forced the footy free a play into the next set. A play after that, Burgess continued to drive beneath the uprights, where five Storm players converged on him, and Eisenhuth got his own back by preventing the try, albeit with an illegal strip that provided the Bunnies with one last burst.
With a full stint in the ten, this might be their last real attacking opportunity, and so Murray started hard, and was met harder by Garlick, before Burgess took another crack beneath the posts, where he met four defenders coming in to hold him up. By the time Warbrick had shut down Cartwright on the left, and the Bunnies had swept back to the right, they were starting to descend into chaos, making it all the more momentous when Thompson somehow managed to translate the messiest handling of the set into a break up the right wing.
For a beat it looked like he’d scored, but the replay showed that Grant had made this a trio of trysavers, and more than rivalled Meaney’s effort on the other wing, with the very definition of a belief play – wrapping himself around Thompson’s feet at the death, and copping a boot straight in the face, to keep it an eight point game. With this defensive masterclass behind them, the Storm should be pumped for the Roosters next Thursday, while the Bunnies will working without Johnston when they rock up for the Bulldogs on Friday.
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