Watching a trial match between the Rabbitohs and the Titans is always going to be a bit of a strange experience. On the one hand, you have the Bunnies, who are the entertainment team par excellence. On the other hand, you have the Titans, a team so bereft of entertainment cache that it always feels as if they’re playing in a trial match, even or especially when their lineup is pretty good. On top of that, this year’s Titans have been sorely depleted by the shock loss of James Roberts to the Broncos, while this particular trial match witnessed the return of Sam Burgess for Souths, arguably the biggest international celebrity to hit the NRL in the last decade. With that kind of disparity, the sheer fact of the match felt like another nail in the Gold Coast coffin, with speculation about the renewal of the North Sydney Bears as a viable replacement for the Titans seeming to peak over the following week. In a NRL world in which celebrity, personality and branding is increasingly important, Gold Coast just don’t seem to have what it takes to build the charisma needed for a viable local franchise.
It was a bit of a surprise, then, to see the Titans put in a fairly impressive effort, especially since they were without their star fullback in Ashley Taylor. Sure, Souths may have also been without Adam Reynolds, but for the most part the Bunnies’ pack was more complete and well-rounded than those of the other trials matches. It was striking, then, that the Titans actually managed to ratchet up a 14-10 lead at halftime, putting in a particularly punishing brand of football that saw Zeb Taio sent off in the eighth minute for a spear tackle on Greg Inglis, and Tom Burgess succumbing to an ankle sprain late in the second half. More than ever, it feels as if Gold Coast are fighting for their very viability in the game, and there was a David and Goliath dimension to their battle with Souths that made me realise just how untouchable the Rabbitohs have become within the NRL. For all the media frenzy surrounding the 2014 Grand Final, they’ve come a long way from anything resembling underdogs – they’ve been the Goliaths for a while – and that was particular clear in their presence on the field on Saturday night, as well as the way in which they regathered their forced in the second half to sledge out a clinical 22-20 victory.
While it’s important not to underestimate the discipline of the Souths squad as a whole – Kyle Turner, in particular put in some great moves – that turnaround was in large part due to Burgess’ increasing confidence over the second half. As might be expected, this was very much the Sam Burgess Show, with Burgess himself having to caution the media against creating too much of a “circus” during his press conference after the game. At the same time, there was always going to be a sense of glory accompanying Burgess’ return, and perhaps it was all the more intense for being unveiled in this small-scale format. Certainly, Slammin’ Sam seemed to reacclimatise himself to League before our very eyes, scoring a try in the 55th minute that was followed by a try from Greg Inglis three minutes later. Over the last twelve months, Inglis has been one of the most inconsistent and frustrating players in the NRL, putting in amazing performances for high-profile matches like Origin and Indigenous v. All Stars, but tending to just wander around the field for large portions of Rabbitohs games. For whatever reason, he’s a player who needs that little extra push to really shine, and seeing his synergy with Burgess – more like that of a halves pair, really – was enough to make me confident that this may turn out to be one of his best and most focused seasons with Souths yet.
Nevertheless, it was very much Burgess’ night, just as the game only really felt as if it lasted for the sixty minutes that he put in on the field. By the time he was taken off, Souths had more or less secured their victory, which is perhaps why Michael Maguire gave him permission to shower before the game had even finished. As he left the Stadium, he was greeted by a Souths ovation – both players and fans – that only emphasised the sense that he is something of a salvational figure to the Bunnies, a player perceived as being in a completely different league from the rest of his teammates. While that’s probably true, it’s a tribute to Burgess’ sense of sportsmanship that he never mugs for the camera in the same way as other high-status imports – if anything, he seemed somewhat stunned at the transition from what was a fairly average Rugby year in 2016 to the immediate acclaim and momentum he was able to regain on the League field. And, despite some impressive touch moves and Rugby-like tackles, the match against the Titans was yet another reminder that Burgess is really a League player at heart, and back with the code – and the team – where he belongs.