There’s a reason Wayne Bennett is called the master coach. It wouldn’t be NRL finals without some drama, but having it come in the form of an exposé on former Rabbitoh and current Fox League commentator Sam Burgess with allegations of domestic violence, medical misconduct and drug use was quite a surprise.
The story broke on the eve of the first game of the finals via the front page of The Australian newspaper and among the mostly clear-headed reactions a couple of tinfoil hats went on, wondering whether it was a ploy to derail South Sydney’s premiership campaign.
Rabbitohs coach Bennett was grilled about the stories before the match, and was emphatic it wouldn’t affect his team.
“[The media] can make it out as big a headline as you like, you can talk it up as big as you like, but I’m telling you now it’s not going to have any impact on the playing group here because it’s distant from us,” he said. “It’s got nothing to do with us and it’s not something that’s happened here at the time that I was here. It will not affect the team in any form, shape or manner.”
As is usually the case, he was right. The Knights travelled to Sydney to take on the Rabbitohs on what normally would have been a gorgeous grand final day on the first Sunday in October. Under new coach Adam O’Brien, Newcastle came into their first finals match since 2013 (when Bennett was their coach). And they made a strong statement early, challenging a penalty against them in the first 30 seconds that went their way and scoring soon after via winger Hymel Hunt.
When Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds kicked the ball out on the full six minutes in, the Knights claimed a bigger lead following a beautiful pass from Mitchell Pearce that put Lachlan Fitzgibbon through a hole and Bradman Best over in the corner.
By the 12th minute the Knights had kicked a penalty goal and claimed a 14-nil lead, making the derailment theory look more and more legitimate. But South Sydney recovered and once fullback Corey Allan scored their first try in the 16th minute by shrugging off defenders close to the line, they were impossible to stop.
Newcastle’s errors – many of them unforced – were punished time after time as the Rabbitohs ran in eight tries for a 46-20 victory. Five-eighth Cody Walker was outstanding once again, his combinations with Reynolds and Damien Cook working seamlessly to get outside backs and even their forward pack into space.
Cook’s ankle looked to be frustrating the hooker, but he quickly put any injury concerns to rest with a zippy 80-metre try four minutes out from full-time.
Post-game, a frustrated Bennett was quick to shut down questions about the headlines surrounding the club. “You guys don’t listen. I said two days ago it had no impact on the team, wasn’t going to have an impact on the team,” he said. “Still hasn’t and it won’t. I coach the team, I know what’s going on in the organisation. It was never going to have an impact on the team.”
South Sydney’s 46 points were part of a total score of 235 across all four games in week one of the finals, the highest amount of points seen at this time of year in NRL history. Set restarts and the general speed of the game have undoubtedly led to more high-scoring matches, along with mostly dry tracks and fatigue in what has been a long and arduous season for players.
Like the Knights, the Roosters, Sharks and Eels shot to early leads against the Panthers, Raiders and Storm respectively before fortunes turned. The Roosters and Eels live to fight another day, while the only silver lining for the Sharks is being able to live their lives outside the NRL bubble once again.
The Eels fared badly on the injury front, with dynamic winger Maika Sivo ruled out for the rest of the series and Blake Ferguson sweating on scans following a knee injury. Forward Marata Niukore is also facing two weeks on the sidelines for a crusher tackle.
The Panthers and Storm get the week off which is good news for Cameron Munster, who was forced off the field against the Eels after aggravating a knee injury. The Storm five-eighth is “optimistic” he will be able to get on the field for the club’s preliminary final, which will be against the winner of the Roosters-Raiders clash.
The Eels and Rabbitohs will fight for a chance to play the Panthers, who are sending second-rower Viliame Kikau to the judiciary to fight a dangerous throw charge that threatens to rub him out of the prelim.