South Sydney down Cronulla in wild, bruising NRL affair
Elated coach Jason Demetriou is hailing South Sydney's courage and resilience after the Rabbitohs heaped more pain on Cronulla to open their 2023 NRL campaign with a stirring 27-18 victory over the Sharks.
Six months after ending Cronulla's 2022 season with a 38-12 semi-final demolition job, the Rabbitohs returned to haunt a sellout Saturday night crowd in the Shire with a brave and bruising display in a pulsating encounter between two of the competition heavyweights.
Souths lost Tevita Tatola in the opening minute after the prop came off second best in a heavy head clash in the first hit-up of the match with Cronulla captain Dale Finucane.
Fellow middle man Jai Arrow did not see the first half out after succumbing to a hamstring injury while Rabbitohs fans breathed a huge sigh relief after superstar fullback Latrell Mitchell carried on after receiving lengthy treatment for a left knee issue.
Thankfully for Souths fans, playmaker Lachlan Ilias came to the party with a rousing performance as the Sharks were unable to overcome the absence of injured Dally M Medallist Nicho Hynes.
"It was a huge effort," Demetriou said.
"To lose Junior (Tatola) and Jai - Junior straight away and then Jai in the first half, it was a pretty special effort in round one."
Hynes' halfback replacement Braydon Trindall was close to Cronulla's best but he could not get the hosts home as the Sharks' defeat was compounded by having Braden Hamlin-Uele and Wade Graham placed on report.
Graham, in particular, could be in strife for a high tackle on Oregon Kaufusi that prompted referee Todd Smith to tell the veteran back-rower: "You left the ground to make contact with the head" before banishing him to the sin bin.
"He shot out and it's risky now when you shoot out like that," Demetriou said.
"I don't think there was any intent in it, though."
Officials could have called the game off at halftime and fans of both sides probably would have been happy, having seen it all in a wild opening 40 minutes of ebbs, flows and the downright bizarre.
Fittingly, the score was locked at 12-12 at the break after both teams crossed the line four times, but were only awarded two tries each.
Ilias denied Cronulla winger Ronaldo Mulitalo a try early with a miracle tackle eerily similar to George Gregan's famous Bledisloe Cup save on Jeff Wilson almost 30 years ago.
A minute later, Ilias crossed down the other end to give the Rabbitohs the lead before Mulitalo produced his own defensive heroics to prevent Izaac Tu'itupou Thompson from scoring what seemed a certain try.
There was redemption for Trindall, too.
After his floating pass to put Sione Katoa in the right corner was ruled forward, Hynes' playmaking deputy scored himself moments later.
Next came Keaon Koloamatangi's turn to atone, with the back-rower spilling the ball over the line, before making good with a four-pointer shortly after to put the Rabbitohs back in front.
But Trindall had the final say of the helter-skelter half, slotting a sideline conversion after Katoa could not be denied a second time seconds before the siren.
But it was Souths' second half as a double from Campbell Graham blew the game open before Teig Wilton bagged a late consolation try for the Sharks.
"We completed one out of our first five sets in the second half, so we need to address that," lamented losing coach Craig Fitzgibbon.
"If we want to get into a contest with a good team, we need to get better there."