Most interest in the lead up to the Round 3 rivalry clash between the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs centred on Latrell Mitchell and how he would go against his former club. The talented Rabbitohs fullback left the Roosters in somewhat acrimonious circumstances last year, citing a desire to play fullback, a position well-secured by James Tedesco at the tri-colours.
Tedesco's back-to-back premiership winning Roosters had lost both games before the coronavirus break. They simply could not afford to drop to 0-3 for the year and they played like their pride was on the line in the convincing 28-12 victory.
It took just three minutes for the Roosters to open their scoring for the night. Daniel Tupou outleapt Rabbitohs winger Dane Gagai to grab a Luke Keary cross-field bomb towards the corner. Gagai was bumped out of the way by the leap and Mitchell was late on the scene as Tupou crashed over.
Twelve minutes into the game, Keary found himself in the clear with only Mitchell to beat. The Rabbitohs star did a brilliant job of backing off in front of the weaving Roosters five-eighth, denying him the chance to draw and pass to his supports. He finally grabbed enough of Keary to bring him to ground, preventing a second Roosters try in the process.
There was not much Mitchell could do when the Roosters did cross for their second try, as a break set up by a Josh Morris pass down the left hand-side was followed by a pass back into Morris who, when confronted by Mitchell, put a clever kick through for halfback Kyle Flanagan to score under the posts.
With eight minutes remaining in the first half Brett Morris put in a defensive effort that will go down as one of the best the game has seen. With Rabbitohs flyer Braidon Burns streaking downfield from well inside his half Morris set off in pursuit. As the Roosters winger reached the Rabbitohs centre he passed to Alex Johnston in support; Morris released his grip on Burns' jersey and turned to chase the new target who he dragged to the ground 10 metres out. Two tackles later Morris was diving in the in-goal area to defuse a last tackle grubber kick. It was the kind of effort the Morris twins have built their careers on, and coach Trent Robinson couldn't hide his admiration.
"Most guys with speed will get the first guy, but then to keep moving and get the next one and then make another play on the line, that takes more than speed, so combine the two and you get a huge play," Robinson said.
"When you go and recruit a senior guy like Josh or Brett, you want to see traits that you see already that will adapt...we wanted guys that we really see character in...we want to learn off them as much as they learn off us."
Morris could do little minutes later when Mitchell displayed some of his ball-playing sharpness. On the back of several penalties the Rabbitohs were deep in attack. Mitchell took the ball on the blind side from dummy-half Damien Cook. He ran to the line, double-pumped the pass before sending Cameron Murray through enough of a gap to crash over for the Rabbitohs' first try. Mitchell's danger as a runner held the inside defence up just enough to create an opportunity the Rabbitohs needed.
The Roosters went to the break with a well-earned 12-6 lead.
Early in the second half, Tedesco showed exactly why Mitchell was unlikely to ever wear the Roosters No. 1 jersey. He received the ball midfield, stepped, accelerated, and powered his way through the defensive line before outpacing Mitchell on a diagonal run to the line. It took the Roosters to a 16-6 lead.
Keary sent more nightmares Mitchell's way when he skipped across field five minutes later before launching Boyd Cordner through a flimsy Adam Reynolds tackle. Mitchell looked to be out of position for this one as his sprinted across from the middle of the field in vain.
In attack Mitchell was fairly quiet, the Roosters defence returning to the standards it set during back-to-back premierships. In the forwards Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Boyd Cordner and Victor Radley were making the hard metres and the big hits for the Roosters.
Fifteen minutes into the second half a Rabbitohs grubber kick was cleaned up by Roosters centre Joseph Manu. As Manu was tackled in the in-goal area, his good friend Mitchell came through and cleaned him up. It resulted in a bit of push and shove with Mitchell breaking into a broad smile. With play being restarted with a Roosters goal-line drop out, Roosters hooker Jake Friend was helped from the field.
When Rabbitohs prop Thomas Burgess stormed over from close range, the Rabbitohs were lifted by the chance of an unlikely comeback. The converted try took the score to 22-12 in the Roosters' favour, but an error by Rabbitohs half Reynolds shortly after saw heads drop a little. Coach Wayne Bennett was disappointed that the Rabbitohs had been their own worst enemies.
"I think we have something to build on, I think we are building something," Bennett said after the game.
"We certainly showed some good qualities, we actually beat ourselves with some soft tries and soft penalties...we can be better."
With eleven minutes remaining the Rabbitohs were back on the attack and a clever tip-on pass from Mitchell saw Gagai come desperately close to the line. During the following set of six tackles the Rabbitohs really fired up in defence. They were going to fight to the death.
But then Roosters co-captain Friend returned to the field to seal the match. Noticing there was no fullback behind the Rabbitohs' line, Friend put a grubber kick through for himself. Mitchell was caught out of position again and was nowhere to be seen as Friend scored the try that put the result beyond doubt.
Mitchell showed plenty of improvement in playing a full 80 minutes at fullback. It certainly wasn't his fault that the Rabbitohs lost with the forwards, and halfback Reynolds, well below their best. But Mitchell still doesn't look like the same brilliant player that he was in the centres for the Roosters; he has a lot of work to do before being recognised as a great fullback, but it certainly isn't beyond him.
If he wants to improve his game, he need only watch tapes of his former teammate Tedesco, who was back to his best for the Roosters.