South Sydney 12 Sydney Roosters 24
Bundled out: Sam Burgess is caught short. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
When the match was there to be won, two Roosters recruits stepped up. Yet when the game was there to be saved, it was a veteran, Anthony Minichiello, who showed there's life in the old chook yet.
James Maloney and Sonny Bill Williams provided the spark, yet the pair's second-half brilliance to steal the minor premiership away from bitter rivals South Sydney was perhaps outdone by the fullback and captain. Still yet to confirm his presence in the squad next year, Minichiello took winger Nathan Merritt over the sideline, as the Rabbitohs searched for a final rally.
After 26 rounds, the minor premiership, and certainly an advantage leading into the finals, came down to those key plays in the second half. The Rabbitohs will have to wait to secure their first minor premiership since 1989. But they will respond.
Minor premiers: The Roosters top the table at the end of the regular season. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
|View Match Statistics|
|Players||Inglis, Clark||Tries||2||Tries||4||Players||Maloney(2), Guerra, Pearce|
|Players||Reynolds 2/2 (100%)||Conversions||2||Conversions||3||Players||Maloney 3/4 (75%)|
|Players||Penalty goals||0||Penalty goals||1||Players||Maloney 1/1 (100%)|
|Players||Field goals||0||Field goals||0||Players||Maloney 0/1 (0%)|
Defeat will steel them. Yet for the Roosters, victory will stir them. After two losses heading into the final round, they will have their mojo well and truly by the time they head into the finals. A win against South Sydney does that in any round, let alone that which clinches first past the post at the end of the regular season. While neither side was able to fully flex its muscles, there was certainly no lack of intensity, in front of a record crowd (59,708) for a regular season, stand-alone fixture.
The scene was set even before kick-off, when the highlights package to showcase the rivalry between the sides provocatively included David Fa'alogo's punch of then Rooster Braith Anasta, as well as Riley Brown's controversial "prowler" tackle on Rabbitohs star Craig Wing. The Burrow continued that theme by unfurling a banner which read "Scum: forever in our shadow." The Roosters were quickest to the party, but the Rabbitohs brought the best gifts. The Roosters were impressive early, but a handful of mistakes, followed by a handful of penalties, gifted the Rabbitohs some easy metres. After 12 minutes, the player who makes it look so easy, Greg Inglis, was first to post points. It was some statement. Bumping off the Roosters' own superstar Williams, the fullback then brushed off a few more desperate defenders before sliding over.
But then within the space of three minutes, the Rabbitohs were trailing. After 19 minutes, Rabbitohs centre Bryson Goodwin raced up on the Roosters, slipped, and allowed James Maloney to slip in behind him to score. Then after 22, hooker Jake Friend darted down the blind side, handing Aidan Guerra a run to the corner, via Jeff Lima's poor attempted tackle.
South Sydney Rabbitohs v Sydney Roosters
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves challenges the Rabbitohs. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
Both teams had success and failure by trying to rush their opponents. The outside defenders were regularly darting in to cut off the play, and it was regularly working. But with four minutes remaining in the first half, the Rabbitohs straightened up the play as a result; Jason Clark, in the squad as a replacement for Luke Burgess, burrowed over within yelling distance of The Burrow, giving the home side a slender lead at the break. If this was a finals dress rehearsal, or even a grand-final dress rehearsal, both teams were fluffing their lines a little.
Both sides seemed to have some jitters. Both coaches would have drummed in "completions", but both sides were subsequently guilty of handing over possession cheaply after the break. The Roosters evened the scores with a 47th-minute penalty goal by Maloney; neither side was able to break the game open at any stage of it.
The match then started to follow a pattern: Roosters squander possession, Rabbitohs squander scoring opportunity. Within the first 14 minutes of the second half, back-rower Sam Burgess fell short and centre Dylan Walker failed to ground the ball.
Then the gamebreakers broke the game open. First Maloney gathered in a grubber in his own half, surged downfield, before scoring a minute or so later. The try had a tinge of controversy; as Maloney hit the deck 10 metres out, the defenders dropped off him, although Lima appeared to retain a hand on him, albeit a slight one.
Then only two minutes later, Williams went looking for the football and found the key play of the contest, one which took his team more than a converted try away from their opponents.
With footwork, strength and speed, he gave halfback Mitchell Pearce a 59th-minute try, in somewhat similar circumstances to an assist from his debut for the Bulldogs, at the same ground.
The match, with all its history, was destined to erupt at some stage. It did with 11 minutes remaining, when prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves led with his elbow on the defender Chris McQueen. Sam Burgess couldn't resist some contact with his knee as Hargreaves was on the turf. Hargreaves was reported and Burgess was warned.
The result, too, should serve as a warning to the Rabbitohs. They still have a way to go yet.
SYDNEY ROOSTERS 24 (J Maloney 2 A Guerra M Pearce tries J Maloney 4 goals) bt SOUTH SYDNEY 12 (J Clark G Inglis tries A Reynolds 2 goals) at ANZ Stadium. Referee: Matt Cecchin, Ashley Klein. Crowd: 59,708.