South Sydney had to play the final seven minutes without their star hooker after he impeded an opponent in a try-scoring position. While he…
South Sydney have survived a late Warriors charge, running up a 26-point lead in the first half and holding on to win 32-30 in the opening match of Day 2 of the Magic Round.
The Warriors turned in another Jekyll and Hyde performance: horrendous in the second half but superb in the second to take the game down to the last play of the game.
Shaun Johnson’s 55m field goal attempt would have had to have been miraculous, but after this comeback, anything was possible.
“The nerves got bad with about two minutes to go,” admitted Jason Demetriou. “I thought we had enough points in the bank to hang on, but it got nervy for sure and I was pretty happy with how the boys managed to hold them out and get the job done.
“We’ve been a busted the last few weeks, and there’s some flu running through the place, so I knew fatigue was going to be an issue late.
“We lost Jacob Host in the first half as well, two minutes into the game, which pushed Jai Arrow onto an edge and Junior Tatola had to push through the first 50 minutes.
“Tom Burgess has had a back injury in the last two weeks and Liam Knight had a bad dose of flu so our middles were always going to be under the pump.
“But saying that, we didn’t respect the footy at crucial times that kept us under pressure.”
It was even more unlikely given just how dreadful the Warriors had been before the break. They went to the sheds at 26-6 down, but it could have been much more.
Cody Walker was the star, dominating the first period with three try assists and coming up with a late tackle to halt the Warriors as they looked to complete the unlikely turnaround.
“Cody did exactly what I thought he would do, it was no surprise to me how he played,” said Demetriou. “He’s been having moments like that in the last few weeks.
“His kicking game was outstanding and his connection was really good. But it’s what he’s been doing for three years with us. I had no doubt that Cody would perform tonight.
“In the first half, our spine was connected and they were working and moving together with real clarity in what they were doing.
“When the game was under pressure, there were a lot of lessons for Lachlan to earn in that second half in terms of reconnection and coming together to figure out how to stop momentum rather than working individually.”
Souths have been threatening a performance like this for a while: they have propped up the completion rate table this year but performed well in other attacking metrics, suggesting that once they began to hold the passes, the points would follow.
Despite incessant rain at Suncorp Stadium, the Bunnies managed to do exactly that. For the first period at least, they were above 80% and the tries flowed.
New Zealand were more than obliging. The line speed in the first half was horrendous, giving the likes of Ilias and Walker plenty of space in which to play, and some of the defensive reads made life very easy for Souths players looking to pick a pass.
It was as if a different team took to the field after the break. The enthusiasm, application and endeavour were unrecognisable and will perhaps frustrate Nathan Brown even more: he will question where that performance was all along.
“We can look at it two ways,” said Nathan Brown. “We can look at the comeback and nearly getting there or we can focus on the first half.
“As a coach, we have to focus on the first half because that’s certainly not where we want to be as a football club.
“You don’t want to be a team that doesn’t start games and ends up a fair way behind on the scoreboard, then fights back but gets beaten.”
The Warriors had all the ball to start, accumulating five sets to Souths’ one in opening minutes, but rarely directly threatened.
As soon as Souths got an equivalent match situation, they made the Warriors pay. Lachlan Ilias had his first major involvement, creating space for Cody Walker to put Taane Milne in for his first. He might thank Marcelo Montoya for making his mind up for him through a very poor defensive read.
The Bunnies would return to the well moments later. Again, it was Ilias the architect and this time, Blake Taaffe played the role of Cody Walker to put Milne in at the corner.
Walker was always at the centre of the action. He created another, this time of the left, for Alex Johnston – the failing defensive read from Dallin Watene-Zelezniak this time – and then one off the boor for Taaffe.
Souths had made four visits to the Warriors’ end, and come back with four tries.
Souths finally made an errors, half an hour in and 20 points up, Shaun Johnson kicked on the first and gave the ball away. Moments later, Damien Cook was able to squirm through five tacklers to score from dummy half.
It might have been even worse – Lachlian Ilias fumbled with the line begging – and suddenly got a lot better: Marcelo Montoya was released by Daejarn Asi to get the Warriors on the board.
The same problems would bite the Warriors at the start of the second half.
A Bunty Afoa break through the middle propelled the Warriors into field position, but Eliesa Katoa conspired to drop the ball. They would pay again: Ilias, denied earlier, struggled and got the ball down for his first of the year.
The Warriors were now showing some spirit. Johnson collected a Matt Lodge offload and made a clean break. Before Souths could reset, Reece Walsh lofted a kick to Montoya, and he batted inside to Adam Pompey.
Jazz Tevaga burrowed in for another with ten minutes to play. Johnson should have scored another but knocked on – Walsh had been impeded by Damien Cook in the build up and was binned.
Daejarn Asi took quick advantage to pull the deficit back to eight points with four to play, and the grandstand finish was on. The chance came through Walsh, but Cody Walker, aptly, threw in the tackle that dislodged the ball.