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147 break for Johnston as he smashes Souths try scoring record in big Bunnies win

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28th May, 2022
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Alex Johnston has become South Sydney’s all time leading try scorer, crossing three times as South Sydney came from 12-0 down to thrash the Wests Tigers 44-18.

The winger was delighted to break the record, which he had been challenging for some time, and overtake one of his heroes and former teammates, Nathan Merritt, in the process.

To break it in Indigenous Round, overtaking an Indigenous great in Merritt, was not lost on Johnstone, who is himself of Torres Strait Islander descent.

“I’m still pinching myself,” said Johnston. “I don’t want to play in any other colours: to score 147 in the red and green means a lot to me and my family. I’m speechless at the moment.

“We all know what almost happened a few years ago. I was almost not here. There was a petition going around the fans to keep me here – I think the top dogs had a look at that and thought that we might need to keep this bloke.

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“I’m thankful for the fans for doing that and it all worked out, as you can see.

“When I came to the club, I was between him (Nathan) and GI (Greg Inglis) in the locker room and I thought ‘this is crazy’. Two Indigenous blokes, too, and what a night to do it in this jersey, I don’t think I’ll take it off for a week.

“I looked up to Merritt, looked up to GI and to break that record tonight is very special.”

This was a vital result for Souths, who were beaten handily by Canberra last weekend and had been barely clinging onto their place in the top eight.

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Their major issue has been errors and completion rate, but today they completed at 85% and got their rewards, running in eight tries and winning the second half 32-0.

This was the first time that they have trailed at half time and won this year, breaking a major hoodoo that has dogged the Rabbitohs in 2022.

“Once AJ broke the record it felt pretty special,” said Jason Demetriou. “I knew if he got two, he was going to get three. I said through the week that I didn’t care if he got none, because if we got back to playing how we know we can play the tries will come.

“It was a special effort from the boys to come back from 12-0 down. Although we were behind at half time, I didn’t think we were doing much wrong, we just had to tidy up in good ball.

“We spoke about performance anxiety, and how the way that we have been playing has been dictated to us by the scoreboard. In games so far this season, when we go behind, our completion rate goes south.

“I felt tonight there was a real motivation for us to stick to what we know is going to work. We had a simple mindset of how we wanted to play, we stuck to it and the whole second half was outstanding.

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“What is showed is that, when we hold the ball, it gives us energy to go after teams with what we do in defence as well.”

Johnston surpassed Nathan Merritt’s record of 146 with his hat trick try, all three of them assisted by Campbell Graham, who staked a late claim for Origin selection with a barnstorming 141m, 63m post-contract, four tackle break performance.

The central unit of Tom Burgess, Saliva Havili and Hame Sele were also excellent, with Burgess in particular bending the Tigers line back time and again with hard carries through the middle.

The Tigers can look at some bright moments with ball in hand, but never had enough of it seriously trouble Souths. The manner in which they fell away in the second half will seriously trouble Michael Maguire, as will the manner in which they were bullied through the middle.

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“It wasn’t a good defensive performance, especially in the second half,” he said. “We had some good defensive control in the first half but in the second they took control.

“They rolled off the back of the ruck, got momentum, kicked to the corners and played a real long game. They applied pressure better than we did.

“When you’re playing against a team that has a number of guys that have played in big games and understand pressure, and we’re still learning those moments.

We’ve been handling those moments quite well in the last few games but we didn’t show that, which is disappointing. They really hurt us and we didn’t dig our way out of it.”

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Despite the defeat, Maguire insisted that his team could still make the finals in 2022.

“We’ll turn it around, for sure,” he said. “There’s passages of play that show what our team is capable of. You’ve got to respect what you do at the start of the half, which we didn’t do at a high enough level today.

“I do. We can win every game. We’ll roll up every week with the attitude to win every game, so definitely.”

Souths had all the ball to start the game, but pushed too hard for points: Lachlan Ilias threw an optimistic pass that Asu Kepoa picked off and returned 95m to the line.

When they got the ball, the Tigers unveiled a favourite move of theirs, with Jackson Hastings darting behind the ruck and creating the extra man, in this case, Brent Naden.

He was dragged down, but when the kick came a few plays later, Naden batted down to Ken Maumolo to make it 10-0. Luke Brooks, returned to kicking duties as Hastings carried a foot injury, missed the conversion but was presented with a penalty goal chance and didn’t turn it down.

To Souths’ credit, the interception did not deter them from throwing the ball around their backline. They continued to build pressure gradually and eventually their pet play came off, with Campbell Graham providing the catch-pass that allowed Alex Johnston to get his first.

The chances kept coming. Ilias spilled the ball with the line begging and Luke Garner denied Jaxson Paulo from close range.

The crucial moment came via a challenge. After the Tigers had withstood several sets on their line, they thought they had a relieving penalty for a ruck infringement, but the Rabbits questioned the decision and were rewarded with the ball.

The pressure this time told via Saliva Havili, who bulldozed over tired defence to level the scores.

The parity lasted mere moments. The Tigers had barely seen the ball in Souths’ half for 25 minutes, but bounced back up the other end of the field and got their spine – together for the first time since round 7, the last time they faced South Sydney – to combine and again put Maumolo in at the corner.

Souths were swiftly back on terms. Jaxson Paulo produced two superb plays – first an intercept, then a ball steal – to gain and maintain field position, allowing another fluid backline move to send Johnston in again on the left.

That left edge struck once more. The Tigers gave away a six again on the fourth tackle after smart work from Damien Cook, sparking yet more pressure.

Johnston went close to a hat trick, but from the ruck, Campbell Graham was able to force himself in to give Souths their first lead of the night.

Souths suddenly had the wind in their sails. They went 100m in six tackles, then lined up in defence and forced Brooks to kick from just beyond his own 20m line. He kicked out on the full.

There were no surprises for guessing where they went next: Walker to Graham to Johnston and over the line.

It was a well trodden path on this occasion, and has been for years: the try that finished the hat trick also made Johnston the highest try scorer in South Sydney’s history.

It was one-way traffic at this stage. Ilias kicked through and Luciano Leilua fumbled beneath his own crossbar, allowed Cody Walker to celebrate an emotional Indigenous Round try.

He had another moments later: Ilias, again, had a hand in it with a drop off to his halfback partner, who ran the perfect line and knocked several tacklers out of his way en route to the line.

Ilias had chance to deny Laurie again – his second try saver on the Tigers’ fullback – before Paulo grabbed another interception and this time took it all the way to the house, capping a superb evening for South Sydney.

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