Although each footy season starts with a different set of contenders, there’s always something special about the opening match between the Roosters and Rabbitohs. Like it or not, these are two of the most iconic outfits in the competition, and the way the chips fall between them in Round 1 often determines the mood and atmosphere of the following twenty-six weeks. This year, the Roosters’ loss in Round 1 at Allianz was so dramatic that it’s seemed to pave the way for their string of shameful defeats over the last five weeks, so it must have been cathartic for the Tricolors to bring home their first win of the season at the Bunnies’ own home ground on Friday night. At 17-10, there was a sense of closure for Sydney City, a feeling that now they’ve made peace with their opening decimation at the hands of South Sydney they can now set about rebuilding their finals hopes.
That’s not to say that the Chooks don’t still have a ways to go, since things were looking pretty desperate for the team going into Friday night’s game. Not only were they facing the prospect of six straight losses, but their defence has been the worst in the history of their club, conceding 124 points in 5 games, at an average rate of almost 25 points per game. While a lot can happen in three years of football, it’s still weird to think that this was the team that won the Grand Final three years ago, as well as the minor premiers three years running. Once upon a time, they were the ideal showcase for Sonny Bill Williams, but now it’s hard to think that they’ll be an adequate celebrity vehicle for Jarryd Hayne if chooses to return to Australia after the 2016 NFL season.
Still, a lot can change in twelve months, and if the Roosters proved anything at ANZ on Friday night it’s that utter desperation can galvanise a team into a new kind of purpose. This time around, the Tricolors were much stronger on defence, refusing to allow Souths to score their second try until the 77th minute, and even then putting a bit of a pre-emptive dampener on it with a perfectly placed penalty goal from Jackson Hastings in the 7th minute. While it was a bit of a messy game overall – Bryson Goodwin converted one of two tries, Hastings two of three – it was the kind of messiness that speaks to both sides mustering their defensive forces, with points only slipping through the chinks in the armour every now and then. In a season that has been so dominated by massive win margins, it was a good old-fashioned grind, with neither team notching up more than 20 points.
While the Roosters as a whole were more consistent than they have been in weeks, it was very much the Dylan Napa show, with the barnstorming prop gathering up all Sydney City’s desperation to put in one of the single best performances from a front-rower in the modern game. From the very outset, it was clear that he was targeting the Bunnies’ big men, bringing in two massive hits on Sam Burgess in the first half as well as a bell-ringer on Chris Grevhsmuhl twenty minutes in that paved the way for a try from Aiden Guerra. In particular, it was clear that Napa was trying to put Burgess in his place before he renewed too much Souths spirit, and while that was a bit of a ballsy move after Slammin’ Sam’s injury scare, Napa managed to prove his point without ever taking it too far.
It felt right, then, that Napa should put down the third and final try for the Roosters in the 48th minute – playing a full eighty minutes, running an impressive 158 metres and plunging into 39 tackles, it felt like we were witnessing the emergence of the Chooks’ next resident hard man. Not since Sonny Bill Williams left the team at the end of 2014 had the Roosters had such a powerful custodian. Combined with a deft try from Daniel Tupou in the 12th minute – off a cross-field kick from Jackson Hastings – it made for a Roosters outfit that was equal parts dexterity and toughness, an outfit that – all of a sudden – seemed to go from cellar-dwellers to genuine finals contenders. As with Anthony Milford and Ben Hunt, it’s crazy to think that Napa would rule himself out of the Emerging Maroons for one night on the town, since it’s clear that Sydney fans are witnessing the growth of one of the great Queensland props under our very noses.
Although Napa was dominant, Latrell Mitchell continues to shine as well. When you stop to think that he could easily play in Under 20s for the next two years, you realise how assured he already is as a custodian for the Chooks, even if he still has a lot to learn in the No. 1 jersey. Still, he put in some beautiful catches – one at the very corner of the field in the first few minutes of the game – and seems destined to develop at an exponential rate over the course of the 2016 season. Speaking of young guns, Hastings also continues to get better and better, although like Corey Parker the night before he took a while to get into gear with his kicking game, even if he was able to bring home the conversions when it really counted.
On the other side of the ball, Cody Walker continues to make a name for himself in Adam Reynolds’ place, although the false promise of Reyno’s return probably had a bit to do with the Bunnies’ lacklustre effort as well. Given that Reynolds was the main casualty from Souths’ victory over the Roosters in Round 1, it felt right that he should be there on the field at ANZ on Friday night, and the Rabbitohs seemed to feel the loss of his kicking game more than any other fixture this season. In happier news, Aaron Gray put in his fifth try in as many matches and at 151 metres was only two metres behind Greg Inglis and five behind Latrell Mitchell, yet another indication that the reticent winger may be one of the most consistent players in the South Sydney stable at the moment.
It’s critical, then, that Reynolds return for next week’s clash against the Cowboys, and with a full seven-day turnaround it seems pretty likely that Madge will have him out on the field by the time the Bunnies arrive at 1300SMILES Stadium on Friday night. Having lost three of their four most recent games, Souths now have something to prove, although the same goes for the Chooks, who will want to cement their ascendance with a decisive victory over the Panthers on Monday night if they are to retain any finals hopes. When Souths and Sydney are in flux, the whole season feels in flux, and it’ll be fascinating to see who comes out on top at the end of Round 7.