NRL Finals Week 1 – Melbourne v Souths: Rabbitohs in the lights

 

By John Robotham

 

The portents weren’t good.

My seven-year-old daughter, Lucy, was conflicted – wearing a garish purple coat over her knee-length Rabbitohs jumper, circa 1999 – a look that amused many.

As we joined the river of purple flowing down Batman Avenue she felt more self-conscious, pulling the coat tight around her. We played a game of spot the Souths supporters, an exercise for keener eyes than mine, but which only served to make her feel more vulnerable.

Entering the stadium we were heartened to see a knot of Bunnies fans occupying the northern stand, a small pocket of resistance known as The Burrow. We were surrounded by the enemy, albeit good humoured rather than threatening – maybe they reckoned, quite correctly, that Souths would not pose a serious threat to the Purple machine.

To further crush our spirit, not long after the whistle blew, dozens of balloons littered the Storm in-goal like red and green land mines.

No sooner had they settled then a ground official crushed them underfoot. Each explosion was met with a roar of approval from Storm supporters.

South’s bubble burst soon after. We matched Storm for intensity in the early exchanges, but the first mistake we made on attack proved disastrous. Billy Slater picked up a loose ball in his own 20 and slalomed towards the line, rounding defenders like they were rooted to the spot. Slater, in full flight, resembles a pinball at warp speed.

Careering up field, he found support and only desperate defence stopped winger Mahe Fonua from crossing. The reprieve was brief as Ryan Hoffman crashed over soon after to register first points.

Down 6-0 and already on the back foot, Souths were the architects of their own downfall, conceding penalties and field position. An out of sorts Dave Taylor was the chief culprit. Prone to petulance when things don’t go his way, his decision to hoof the ball downfield after being penalised cost the Rabbitohs another 10m. Keep your cool, I silently screamed.

Cooper Cronk also had the ball on a string – his kicking game, and a bunch of willing chasers, meant Greg Inglis, Nathan Merrett and Andrew Everingham were always running the ball deep from defence. without time and space, Inglis was reduced to the status of mere mortal and the purple hordes celebrated every time he was brought to his knees.

Slater then crossed after a Hoffman offload, Smith converted and Souths trailed 14-0 after 24 minutes. Halftime couldn’t come quickly enough, but the embarrassment didn’t end there. Another try and we’re staring down the barrel of an 18-0 halftime deficit.

Time to regroup. I sought out a friend in the crowd, a Dogs supporter, for moral support.He shook his head in sympathy. “Your guys aren’t showing much,” he said. I disagreed. “Stage fright, too many mistakes,” I said. “We can only get better.”

How wrong I was. Less than seven minutes later Storm was in again.

There was no way back from 24-0, but to their credit the Bunnies kept at it. They were denied several times by some desperate goal-line defence, but were finally rewarded for their perseverance.

The seven-year-old, meanwhile, was getting restless – this was not the way I’d sold her first rugby league match.

And, all the food we had brought had been eaten.  “I hate Storm,” she said with some vehemence after the Rabbitohs had blown their umpteenth chance to cross the line.

I could only agree, but my resignation was tempered by a grudging admiration. After all, why couldn’t Souths be more like Storm – disciplined and clinical rather than flighty and infuriating? Well, they wouldn’t be the Souths I know and I love and this white-knuckle ride of a season would not have been half as much fun. Go the Rabbitohs.

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