Four decades of heartache is over for rugby league’s most successful and beloved club – the South Sydney Rabbitohs are the premiers for the first time since 1971, securing their 21st title in a dramatic decider. The eventual 30-6 scoreline over the gritty Canterbury Bulldogs was emphatic – highlighting the gulf in firepower between the two sides – but it did not reflect the tense and engrossing struggle of a grand final that was in the balance until the final 10 minutes.
As if preordained by the rugby league gods, the night belonged to South Sydney. ANZ Stadium’s biggest post-Olympics crowd was in attendance, the myrtle-and-cardinal sea of supporters creating an atmosphere superseding anything witnessed at the venue that has long been derided as soulless. The emotion displayed by Souths’ players was incredibly stirring, reminiscent of NSW’s Origin win earlier this season at the same venue.
The strains of ‘Glory, Glory to South Sydney’ belted out over the PA to soundtrack an event that has occurred more than any other, but one most fans have never seen – a Rabbitohs premiership. The spine-tingling panorama confirmed one of the game’s oldest adages: when South Sydney is strong, rugby league is strong.
GF dripping in history
From the ringing of the foundation bell (famously purchased by Russell Crowe for $42,000 in 2002) by Souths legend Bob McCarthy and Canterbury great Les Johns, it was a decider dripping in history between two of the NRL’s oldest and proudest clubs – and the ghosts of the Rabbitohs’ rich past permeated through the match. Besides the obvious Sam Burgess-John Sattler parallel, seeing so many Souths legends in the crowd – and especially former club patriarch George Piggins’ return to the football – was a fitting link back to the Rabbitohs’ last great era.
Captain and Rabbitohs appearances record-holder John Sutton, who overtook McCarthy’s long-standing mark earlier this year, is a local junior and embodies South Sydney’s fighting spirit, sticking with the club through the lean times. He now stands alongside legends Arthur Hennessy, Alf Blair, George Treweek, Jack Rayner and John Sattler in the pantheon of Souths’ premiership-winning skippers.
In one of the most dramatic openings imaginable, Sam Burgess had his cheekbone smashed in a head clash with fellow British superstar James Graham in the first tackle of the game. But the rugby union-bound Souths lock guaranteed a perpetual place in the annals of rugby league gallantry by not only playing out the entire 80 minutes, but starring. Burgess’ phenomenal effort, which drew instantaneous comparisons with broken-jaw icon John Sattler’s 1970 grand final heroism, was capped with the Clive Churchill Medal; the prestigious honour has never been adorned on a more popular winner.
Sam Burgess was handed the obligatory farewell conversion attempt after fulltime, which just shaded the upright. But nothing could detract from the Dewsbury product’s performance, which is destined to be immediately regarded as one of the finest and most revered in the code’s narrative. Burgess’ bravery in soldiering on was incredible, but the overwhelming quality of his performance under such duress was awe-inspiring – he racked up 31 tackles, 22 runs for 207 metres, and three offloads. The poignant scene of tears streaming down his mangled face after the realisation the Rabbitohs had sealed the win will go down as one of 2014’s defining images. To top it off, the 25-year-old’s humble Churchill Medal acceptance was all class. Let’s hope he comes back.
Bulldogs gallant in defeat
Canterbury lost few admirers despite the sizeable final score. Their defensive effort throughout the first half and early in the second was outstanding, but they were ultimately outclassed and clearly took a couple of players into the match – most notably halfback linchpin Trent Hodkinson – who were hobbled by injuries. The blue-and-whites fought tenaciously – but their extraordinary charge from seventh spot had run its course.
Four Nations call-ups await grand final stars
Several players put their hand up for Four Nations selection with a strong grand final showing. Dylan Walker, Alex Johnston and Kirisome Auva’a have put themselves in the frame to join the Kangaroos’ depleted outside-back ranks, while Tim Lafai would not look out of place at Test level despite receiving few attacking chances. Bulldogs forwards Aiden Tolman, Josh Jackson, Dale Finucane and Tony Williams did their selection prospects no harm despite being outplayed by the unstoppable Burgess triumvirate. Chris McQueen may also earn a maiden call-up despite limited minutes for the victors. On the Kiwi side of the fence, Sam Perrett must be in the mix for the New Zealand fullback job – with injured Josh Hoffman and incumbent Peta Hiku the other contenders – after an outstanding finals series.
Although Sam Burgess provided a resounding reminder of how big a loss he will be for Souths next year, the Rabbitohs will go into 2015 as strong favourites to pull off the first successful premiership defence in a full competition in more than two decades. Some handy additions in Glenn Stewart and Tim Grant will bolster their forward pack ranks, while Souths’ brilliant batch of young stars – Walker, Johnston, Auva’a, Keary, Reynolds, Turner and the Burgess twins – will form the nucleus of the side for many years to come.
Conversely, 2015 shapes as a challenging exercise for Canterbury – despite the club’s gallant charge to the Grand Final from seventh spot. The Bulldogs clearly need more backline strike. Curtis Rona arrives from North Queensland and several others are rumoured to be on their way to Belmore (Brett Morris, Brett Stewart and Josh Hoffman) and it is an area that badly needs shoring up. Michael Ennis’ departure will be keenly felt, but young Cronulla gun Michael Lichaa offers some much-needed attacking spark at dummy-half. They’ll start a few notches behind the likes of Souths and the Roosters in the premiership pecking order, but the Bulldogs can use their late-season rally as a springboard for future success.
SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS
Greg Inglis – Quiet early, but picked his moments brilliantly thereafter. A searing first half line-break, a brilliant kick for Kirisome Auva’a’s try, and a trademark four-pointer in the dying stages in a total of 233 running metres – it was vintage GI. 8.5
Alex Johnston – Took his chance to post the only try of the first half – his 21st in just 18 rookie-season appearances – and finished with 128 metres. Faultless. 7.5
Dylan Walker – Busy with the ball despite limited chances and aggressive in defence, tallying 19 tackles. 7.5
Kirisome Auva’a – Superb quick hands for Johnston’s try and picked up an opportunist four-pointer of his own to seal the result. Great battle with Tim Lafai. 7.5
Lote Tuqiri – Had the opening try taken off him and had few opportunities with the ball in a quiet performance (just seven runs for 55 metres) but produced some strong defensive plays. 6
Luke Keary – Laid on the opening try with a clever short side play, while he played a fine support role throughout. 6.5
Adam Reynolds – Controlled, confident and decisive. Reynolds’ general play kicking got better as the match wore on and he was rewarded with a late try. After stepping up on the big stage, the little halfback has put himself in the frame for a 2015 Origin call-up. 8
George Burgess – Made 200 metres from 18 runs and scored a barnstorming try that is destined to go down in grand final folklore, while also setting Souths on a path to victory at a crucial juncture. Massive performance that must have gone close to snatching the Churchill Medal from his big brother. 8.5
Apisai Koroisau – Stepped in for Isaac Luke superbly, making 26 tackles and 85 metres from six runs. Dangerous from acting half and solid defending in the middle. 7.5
Dave Tyrell – His night ended early after a sickening collision with James Graham, but was solid enough during his time on the paddock. 6
Ben Te’o – Less impact with the ball after his man-of-the-match showing against the Roosters, but still tallied 130 metres and 33 tackles. A fine farewell. 7.5
John Sutton – Worked hard without starring. A solid effort from the triumphant skipper. 6.5
Sam Burgess – Extraordinary performance that will go down as one of the most iconic in rugby league history. Tireless and dynamic under extreme duress, Burgess made 207 metres from 22 runs and 31 tackles. Mind-blowing. 9
Jason Clark – Strong stints off the bench, making 22 tackles and seven runs. Valuable contributor. 7
Kyle Turner – Highly regarded rookie was quiet, but did nothing wrong. 5.5
Chris McQueen – Was afforded minimal time on the field, but made a difference and came up with a great bat-back in the lead-up to Auva’s try. 6
Thomas Burgess – Matched his more accomplished brothers for impact and effort, chalking up 178 metres from 16 runs, three tackle busts and 23 tackles. A real standout. 8
Sam Perrett – Bombarded by the Rabbitohs, but was ultimately one of his side’s best. Finished with 116 metres and seven tackles. 7.5
Corey Thompson – Wholehearted, but was unable to impose himself on the game with ball in hand and couldn’t prevent his opposite Johnston from diving over for the first try. 5.5
Josh Morris – Still appeared hampered by injury, but ran strongly for 91 metres. Good performance opposite the dangerous Walker. 6.5
Tim Lafai – Big defensive plays but received few chances to unleash his damaging ball-running game. 6.5
Mitch Brown – Like opposing winger Tuqiri, made little impact but was mistake free. 5
Josh Reynolds – Shouldered all of the general play kicking responsibilities, nailing a brilliant 40/20 in the first half and producing a deft grubber for the Bulldogs’ only try. Admirable performance all-round but needed to take the line on more. 7.5
Trent Hodkinson – A passenger, handing the kicking duties to Reynolds and failing to create. Obviously injured but still very disappointing. 4.5
Aiden Tolman – Another big performance from the tireless warhorse, making 104 metres from 15 hit-ups along with 26 tackles. Should be rewarded with a Test jumper. 7.5
Moses Mbye – Wasn’t able to spark the Bulldogs’ defence, but a mighty defensive effort from a utility-back who was pitched into hooker in a grand final. Made a game-high 44 tackles. 7.5
James Graham – Certainly made his presence felt defensively and was typically hardworking, but his passing game did not get the opportunity to flourish. 7
Josh Jackson – A great effort on both sides of the ball, making 34 tackles and 80 metres form 10 runs. A Kangaroos certainty. 7
Tony Williams – Highly involved, great impact (including five tackle breaks) and scored the Bulldogs’ only try. But his game was chequered by a couple of crucial errors and a bad defensive miss in George Burgess’ try. 6.5
Greg Eastwood – Disappointing game from the classy Kiwi. Hardly ran the ball and shelved his ball-playing when the Bulldogs needed it badly. 5.5
Tim Browne – Amazing effort just to be back on the field after suffering a fractured skull three weeks earlier. Worked hard during limited minutes. 5
Dale Finucane – Lucky to avoid the sin-bin, but was a defensive powerhouse and ran strongly. One of the Doggies’ best. 7.5
David Klemmer – Made 18 tackles and nine runs, but the big unit’s impact was blunted by the brutal Souths pack.
Frank Pritchard – Energised the Bulldogs immediately after joining the fray in the second half, chalking up 82 metres from nine runs. Shirked the hard work in defence, but needed more time on the field. 6.5