The pre-match focus had been on Sydney Roosters 350-match grand final hero Cooper Cronk but it was rival halfback Adam Reynolds who stole the show as South Sydney began the Wayne Bennett era with an impressive 26-16 win over their arch rivals at the SCG.
Inspired by Souths greats Bob McCarthy, Ron Coote and Michael Cleary, who spoke before the match of their grand final triumphs at the SCG after being invited by Bennett to present the jersey, the Rabbitohs crashed the party for Cronk and Roosters supporters in the 25,000 crowd.
After defying a broken scapula which required a 13cm plate inserted in his left shoulder to lead the Roosters to a remarkable triumph over Melbourne in last season’s grand final, Cronk became only the fourth player to make 350 premiership appearances.
However, Reynolds ruined any celebrations for his halfback rival and Roosters coach Trent Robinson, who turned 42 on Friday, with a kicking masterclass which resulted in two tries from grubbers into the uprights.
“You always aim around the posts. You never know what can happen if you hit the post and credit to the boys who were on the spot. A kick is only as good as its chase," Reynolds said.
The Rabbitohs halfback controlled the game in the wet and greasy conditions with his kicking game and also laid on another try for fullback Alex Johnston as Souths gradually wore the Roosters down.
“That’s my role in the team," he said. "I’ve got to put us in the best field position possible and back our defence. We wanted to starve them of quality ball, they are a good side, they have got potential across the park and they can score points from anywhere."
Match: Roosters v Rabbitohs
Round 1 -
Venue: Sydney Cricket Ground
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Sam Burgess was also impressive in his move to the right second-row and scored a try for the Rabbitohs in the first half, while saving another by knocking the ball loose from Roosters captain Boyd Cordner as he dived across the line in the 52nd minute.
Burgess was forced from the field for a HIA after a high shot from Latrell Mitchell but was cleared to return, while captain Greg Inglis was replaced late in the match after an off-season restricted by a knee injury.
The latest instalment in the NRL’s oldest rivalry followed a tough clash between the two 1908 foundation clubs in last year’s preliminary final at the adjoining Allianz Stadium before a record 44,380 crowd.
It was also the match in which Cronk injured his shoulder and while the opening-round clash did not have the same drama there was still plenty of feeling between the teams, with Mitchell engaged in a running battle with Dane Gagai.
Since last season, the Roosters have added the World Club Challenge to the Telstra Premiership trophy they won against Melbourne, while Souths have traded 2018 coach of the year, Anthony Seibold, for Bennett, the game’s longest serving and most successful mentor.
“I think we have believed in him since he turned up on day one," Inglis said. "We know how he operates, we know how he works and we just wanted to give him that in return on the field.
“We’re not being unrealistic but if we can come out and win three out of four games in the opening rounds we are on track."
The Rabbitohs dominated the early exchanges with five-eighth Cody Walker forcing a goal line drop-out in just the seventh minute and Greg Inglis being held up over the try-line by former team-mate Luke Keary in the next set.
Lock Cameron Murray was finally rewarded for the sustained pressure applied by Souths when he snatched the ball from Roosters prop Siosiua Taukeiaho after he’d fielded an Adam Reynolds grubber into the left upright to score in the 11th minute.
The Rabbitohs had another chance go begging in the 15th minute when fullback Alex Johnston was unable to take an awkward pass from left centre Braidon Burns and the errors began to creep into their game in the slippery conditions.
A play-the-ball error by Sam Burgess near the Roosters try-line eased the pressure on the premiers and a forward pass by Burns put paid to another scoring opportunity.
With momentum shifting, Roosters hooker Jake Friend when he dived over from dummy half in the 23rd minute after a knock on by Dane Gagai.
Burgess regained the lead for Souths when he scored from another kick in the 28th minute after hooker Damien Cook threaded the ball between Keary and Latrell Mitchell into the Roosters in-goal.
However, Reynolds missed the conversion and the Roosters went to the break leading 12-10 after Cronk beat Walker and created space for the ever dependable Mitchell Aubusson to race over and score.
The second half started like the first, with South getting on top early and only another try-saving tackle from Keary prevented Reynolds from scoring after his kick was fumbled by James Tedesco and he regathered but could not get the ball down.
Campbell Graham scored on the next set after Walker beat Cronk and passed to Burns, who offloaded for Sutton to throw a long pass to the left winger.
Johnston then sealed the win after Reynolds put him over for a 69th minute try to put Souths ahead 26-12 before Roosters winger Daniel Tupou atoned for a poor night by grabbing a late consolation try.
There was a moment’s silence before the game for the victims of the terrorist attack in Christchurch, which claimed more than 40 lives on Friday.