Good Friday matches are generally pretty eventful, but given the track records of the Rabbitohs and the Bulldogs so far this year, last Friday’s was guaranteed to be a special one. Although Souths were nominally hosting the Dogs, both teams claim ANZ as a home stadium, so there was a sense of a level playing field from the outset. At the same time, the NRL’s sleepiest sporting precinct was in full force with the busiest day of the Easter Show, which gave the match a bit more of a buzz than usually occurs with home games at ANZ. Not that much buzz was needed – after last year’s spite showdown between the Bulldogs and the Bunnies, everyone was expecting some dramatics this year.
In fact, the Dogs were far more restrained in their behaviour than last time they clashed with Souths – but only because they had nothing to prove. Over the first half, they clinically and casually decimated the Rabbitohs’ forward line, in what has to be the greatest forty minutes of football so far this season. At halftime the score was 32-0, and Souths didn’t manage to improve that until the 62nd minute. Granted, the Bunnies had a pretty depleted lineup, with Sam Burgess, Tom Burgess, Adam Reynolds and John Sutton out for the count. By the same token, though, the Dogs are also missing Brett Morris and Michael Lichaa, as well as relying on an interim fullback in Will Hopoate. Sure, Souths may be a little more diminished, but it was still hard to believe that this was the team that managed to decimate the Roosters in the opening round.
The first half, especially, was humiliating for the Bunnies, and a testament to both the strength and dexterity of the Bulldogs’ forward line in engineering surprising second phase plays. Along with the Warriors – and increasingly the Eels – their big men are unrivalled in their ability to offload in any situation, while no team has adapted to the interchange revisions quite so fluidly or professionally. While North Queensland and Brisbane are the two best teams in the competition at the moment, after Friday’s night’s performance the Dogs have to be considered the strongest New South Wales contender for the trophy, as they delivered forty minutes of Origin-level football and a pretty solid forty minutes on top of that. When you’ve got that kind of lead, maintaining it is achievement enough.
Critical to that effort was Hopoate at fullback, who got Canterbury-Bankstown their first try after an in-field kick from Sam Perrett. While Mal Meninga has floated Greg Inglis as the most likely candidate for fullback in the ANZAC clash against the Kiwis, one of the biggest open secrets in the NRL at the moment is that Floppa has somehow come good at the Dogs, and in fullback of all positions, a testament to Des Hasler’s skill and vision as a coach and strategist. By the same token, Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye synced brilliantly tearing Souths’ defence to shreds, especially without Adam Reynolds’ deft foot around the edges. While he scored a try, it wasn’t the most consistent kicking game from Mbye overall – it didn’t need to be – but it’s still amazing to think how the Dogs’ lead might have looked if he’d managed to get each one through the goalposts.
Of course, special mention has to go to Josh Morris, who put in a brilliant effort for his 200th game, scoring the second and fifth tries and putting in a barnstorming performance across the match. You only have to look at Jarrod Mullen’s 200th last weekend to realise how fortunate Morris was to have this opportunity to shine on his double centenary. Yet for all that Morris, Hopoate, Mbye and Reynolds did their part, it was decidedly a team effort for the Dogs, with Garvey, Perrett, Rona and Stanley all contributing tries and the big men racking up the metres time and again that were needed to keep the points rising.
It was clear, then, that Canterbury-Bankstown has joined the ranks of Brisbane and North Queensland as a team that is functioning exceptionally well as a team. As player trades, movements and salary cap negotiations become more and more a part of the NRL landscape, it’s hard for teams to build the kind of synergy and seamlessness they possessed in an earlier era. Ironically, at a time when player celebrity means more and more, the best teams are those like Canterbury-Bankstown that manage to function as more than the sum of their parts, and more than a mere vehicle for high profile players, which is not to say that the Dogs don’t have their fair share of celebrities, but that none of them feels as if they dominate the spotlight.
On the other side of the ball, it was painfully clear that Souths have become a bit of a celebrity vehicle, or at least that they’re more dependent upon Sutton, Reynolds and the Burgess brothers than is healthy for a team operating at their level. Sure, Michael Maguire said that Burgess’ absence was no excuse, but even without their big names the team should function with more synergy than they did on Friday night. Where the Dogs felt like a team, the Bunnies felt like a mere collection of players, especially in their forward pack, and especially in the first half, which has to be the worst forty minutes of South Sydney football during the Maguire period. For only the third time in his career, the Rabbitohs ost by a margin of 30 or more – last time was in Round 25 last year when they were smashed 47-12 by the Broncos – but this has to be the most humiliating, coming so early in the season, and featuring such a clinical and effortless decimation in the opening half. If Souths were playing like Round 3 football, the Dogs were playing like finals football.
Still, things weren’t all bad for Souths, with Michael Oldfield and Chris Grevsmuhl putting in two solitary tries in the last twenty minutes to bring a bit of dignity back to Rabbitohs fans. By this point, though, it was too late: despite being a Dogs supporter, I somehow found myself in the Rabbitohs section at Allianz, and Bunnies fans were already starting to leave in droves at halftime, with only a third remaining by the end. In the space of thirty minutes, we went from ANZ at its best and most rousing to ANZ at its worst and most cavernous, with not even the views of the Easter Show over the lip of the stadium managing to raise the mood. In some ways, too, it was even worse that the only tries came from Oldfield and Grevsmuhl: not yet veterans and not quite young guns, their heightened visibility seemed to capture a generational crisis in the current Souths’ lineup, as Inglis starts to limp out of the first grade but there’s no really young players with the star potential of a Nikorima, a Hastings, a Mitchell, or even a Te Maire Martin to take his place.
To some extent, the Bunnies can blame the five day turnaround from Round 3, since at this point five of the six teams who’ve had to deal with that shortened preparation period have lost the following week. In fact, the only team to break the streak have been North Queensland, but only because they were also dealing with a Roosters outfit coming off a five-day turnaround as well. Clearly, strategy has to be revised at Souths, although the return of the Burgess brothers in Round 5 begs the question of how much last Friday’s match will really lead to the shakeup required. As far as the Dogs are concerned, while Friday was epic, they’ve been pretty much on point all season: all they need to do is maintain this high standard, and it’s exciting to think how galvanised they might be when they bring it back to Belmore against the Raiders next Monday night.