EIGHT minutes into the blockbuster against Melbourne, South Sydney’s much-lauded premiership charge was on life support.
Having lost two of their previous three games, the ‘Pride Of The League’ was looking anything but. Both times the premiers had been in the Rabbitohs’ quarter for any length of time, they had scored.
Souths were well on the way conceding 50 points.
But somehow. Michael Maguire’s side managed to scrap and jostle and narrow the margin to six just after halftime. And although they ended up losing convincingly to a side that had the biggest away win in premiership history five days before, the Bunnies leave Melbourne with cause of optimism.
Much of that will surround the return of Greg Inglis (knee) and John Sutton (ankle)as soon as next Friday against Manly, in which case there will be no excuses for defeat with the finals just a month away.
But if Souths may have played themselves out of a slump with a defeat, then Melbourne’s imposing late season presence remained untarnished. One of their tries was controversial but the pace and intensity of much of their football was impressive and it they didn’t really look like losing.
Melbourne led 14-6 at halftime but after eight minutes it looked as though they may pick up where they had left off in a 68-4 pizzling of Canberra the previous Sunday.
On the last tackle, Cooper Cronk flicked the ball out to Ryan Hinchcliffe, who punched it onto Ryan Hoffman, who also applied the fist to propel the Steeden out to a stationary Will Chambers.
Chambers sighted a gap and sliced through some threadbare and hesitant defence to crash over near the posts, with Cameron Smith converting for 6-0.
The next time the Storm got into enemy territory, they scored again.
A clutch of Storm defenders carried South Sydney winger Dylan Farrell back into his own in-goal and as he was slammed onto the turf, he lost the ball.
Melbourne prop Jesse Bromwich extended a a hand from the jumble of players to touch down, video referees Justin Morgan and Steve Chiddy checking and discounting a possible Chambers strip.
The Storm looked like extending that lead when wnger Sisa Waqa toed through a loose ball from his own quarter line in the 31st minute but he was down by Farrell and the ball was lost in the ruck when there the dummy half was late in arriving.
When Souths were penalised in front of their own posts in the 32nd minute, captain Sam Burgess complained to referee Matt Cecchin “they’re grappling in every tackle, we’ve not had a call yet”.
Nonetheless, captain Smith snaffled the points and it was 14-0.
Late bunnies inclusion Andrew Everingham dropped the ball with the line open in the 35th minutes and the visitors desperately needed points before the break.
They came when Adam Reynolds kicked to the right flank and back rower Ben Teo timed his run to perfection, reaching above Mahe Fonua to snatch the ball from the air and cross behind the posts.
With Reynolds’ conversion, it was 14-6 and Souths had managed to grab some momentum going into the break.
A fit of pique by Melbourne back rower Kevin Proctor allowed South Sydney to move within one converted try just after halftime.
The New Zealand international lost the ball in a tackle but when play was pulled up for a fumble, bounced the ball angrily off the turf and was penalised for throwing it away.
The message to shoot for goal was ferried to Adam Reynolds by Souths trainer Troy Thompson and he duly made it 14-8.
Nathan Merritt’s break looked like bringing the Rabbitohs level not long afterwards but after he was hauled down 10 metres out, halfback Reynolds fumbled over the line.
The try that gave the world champions’a 10-point lead was extremely contentious.
First, Sam Burgess was penalised for tackling Billy Slater in the air. Replays suggested Slater was only centrimetres above the earth, if at all, at the time of impact.
Cooper Cronk’s cutout pass found winger Sisa Waqa unmarked and the Fijian launched himself at the tryline despite a jumble of defenders.
The touchdown was given without going upstairs; replays cast serious doubt over whether Waqa grounded the ball at any stage after initially bring brought down short.
Farrell was carried off on a stretcher late after colliding with Everingham in the air but was said to have no serious injury after receiving medical attention.
MELBOURNE 26 (W Chambers J Bromwich S Waqa J O’Neill tries C Smith 5 goals) bt SOUTH SYDNEY 8 (B Teo try A Reynolds 2 goals) at AAMI Park. Referees: B Cummins/M Cecchin. Crowd: 21,244.
Filed for: THE AGE