South Sydney playmakers Cody Walker and Adam Reynolds shrugged off the disappointment of being overlooked by NSW selectors to steer the Rabbitohs to a 46-18 annihilation of North Queensland at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday night.
With the Origin series already wrapped up 2-0, NSW coach Brad Fittler preferred Canberra’s Jack Wighton and Parramatta’s Mitchell Moses over Walker and Reynolds to replace injured halves Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai for the third game in Newcastle.
Playing on the same ground where Origin III will be staged, in front of a crowd of only 3127 on a chilly night in Newcastle, Walker and Reynolds put on a ball-playing clinic as they combined to create five of the Rabbitohs’ eight tries with deft passing and skills on the fringes of the rucks.
Souths coach Wayne Bennett was pleased, but not surprised, Fittler chose Wighton and Moses.
“We didn’t talk about it because I didn’t think it was ever going to happen for the pair of them (Walker and Reynolds) and I’m pleased for us it didn’t – but at the same time, had it happened, I’d have been pleased for them,” Bennett said post-match.
Match: Rabbitohs v Cowboys
Round 17 -
Venue: McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle
“NSW made the right choices in my opinion. Adam’s towards the end of his career, not the start of it, so his value to NSW is probably not as good as the halfback they put in there … "
Bennett gave Walker an early mark after the gifted five-eighth batted on a pass from Reynolds in the 68th minute for right winger Taane Milne to complete a hat-trick, pushing Souths’ lead to 40-12.
Veteran pivot Benji Marshall was not to be outdone, firing a bullet pass for left winger Alex Johnston to complete his hat-trick three minutes later for a 46-12 lead after Reynolds converted from touch.
Johnston has now scored 13 tries in his past five games and 22 for the season. He is just the second player in the NRL era to score multiple tries in five consecutive games, the other being Parramatta’s Semi Radradra in 2015.
“We wouldn’t have put that scoreboard on them if they weren’t there,” Bennett told reporters of his in-form halves pairing.
“Benji came on there late. He didn’t want Cody getting all the raps so he started throwing some of Cody’s passes … but Benji was very good too in that last 15 minutes for us.
“I never get sick of watching the way Adam and Cody play. They’re a great pairing, actually. They’ve learned to play with each other, that’s the best part.”
Hess puts pressure on Taaffe and Dearden ends up sliding over
Recording their fifth straight win, and sixth on the trot against the Cowboys, the Rabbitohs moved to 28 points and a temporary share of top spot alongside Melbourne and Penrith, who will both collect two points from byes this weekend and move to 30.
Since being on the wrong end of a 56-12 lesson from Penrith, Souths have racked up comfortable victories over the Eels, Knights, Broncos, Wests Tigers and now Cowboys during a period of the season when Origin commitments often take a toll on the leading contenders.
Souths were without four players on Origin duty – NSW trio Latrell Mitchell, Damien Cook and Cameron Murray and Queensland centre Dane Gagai – plus suspended forward Jai Arrow.
“I can’t express how gratified I feel about that because it’s the time of the year that I just know is the toughest time, particularly in a good club when you start to lose a lot of players,” Bennett said.
Tom Burgess is the surfing steamroller
“We’ve had up to seven players missing in Origin in this series alone. We’ve got five now away – we’ve still got five away – and these are the games that really make a difference to your season, and the ones in between like last week, when they come back and they’re a bit tired and all that.
“Everything wasn’t perfect tonight. There was a lot of good football but I’m just happy at this point to get two points because I know that’s more important than anything else that we’re probably doing, but at the same time, we’re playing some good football.”
Three tries in a six-minute blitz late in the first half gave the Rabbitohs a 22-12 lead at the break, capping a 20-0 response after the Cowboys jumped to a 12-2 lead after 20 minutes.
Cowboys halfback Tom Dearden slid over to score under the posts in the 18th minute after rookie Souths fullback Blake Taaffe spilt a Scott Drinkwater bomb and Connelly Lemuelu picked up the scraps and found Dearden.
Drinkwater converted from in front for an 8-2 lead and it was 12-2 just two minutes later when back-rower Shane Wright finished off a spectacular attacking raid started by Jason Taumalolo’s tackle-busting burst up the middle of the field.
Milne gets into space down the right
A Reynolds short ball and a Walker cut-out pass to Johnston created a try for Taaffe, who pounced on Johnston’s short kick to score in the corner in the 24th minute, cutting the Cowboys’ lead to 12-6.
Milne scored twice in three minutes as Walker and Reynolds swung the pendulum South Sydney’s way, then Walker’s pass for Johnston’s first try gave the Rabbitohs a 22-12 lead in the 38th minute.
The Cowboys lost bench forward Heilum Luki to the sin-bin for a high tackle on Souths hooker Peter Mamouzelos in the 44th minute, gifting Reynolds a penalty goal to extend the Rabbitohs’ lead to 24-12.
No space, no problems for Rabbitohs
The red-and-green procession continued in Luki’s absence as Johnston scored his second try in the 50th minute and the lead blew out to 30-12.
Prop Tom Burgess crashed over to score under the posts in the 59th minute and Reynolds converted for 36-12, then Milne (68th) and Johnston (71st) notched their hat-tricks three minutes apart and the Rabbitohs stretched their advantage to 46-12.
Kyle Feldt touched down in the 78th minute for a consolation try for the Cowboys, ending the Rabbitohs’ run of 44 straight points.