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Wayne Bennett was cagey about who he’ll pick at fullback for South Sydney’s first-up finals clash with Penrith after his team staved off St George Illawarra on Saturday.
With Latrell Mitchell season’s over due to suspension, Blake Taaffe wore the No.1 jersey in the 20-16 win at Sunshine Coast Stadium.
Bennett “saw some things I liked” from the 22-year-old, who tallied 96 metres and a try assist, but “there were a couple of things I didn’t”.
Meanwhile, 36-year-old playmaker Benji Marshall masterfully guided young halfback Lachlan Ilias – earmarked as the heir apparent to Brisbane-bound Adam Reynolds – through an impressive debut.
The Rabbitohs cruised to a 20-0 lead but the Dragons pinched three late tries – with exciting rookie fullback Tyrell Sloan bagging a quickfire double – to finish the match with a flattering scoreline.
Marshall’s dependability gives Bennett the option of starting the veteran in the halves and moving Cody Walker from five-eighth to fullback, as he did for three matches earlier in the season.
The supercoach could also switch Alex Johnston, the season’s top tryscorer, from the left wing to the custodian’s role.
“My challenge is to make the right decision, to make the best decision for the team. It’s all on the table right now. Until Tuesday, I’ll be thinking about it and finalise it by then,” Bennett said.
Asked about Taaffe’s performance, Bennett said he needed more consistent game-time due to COVID-19’s impact on second-tier and junior representative competitions for the past two years.
“He’s a victim of not playing football and he’s only going to get better … He’s a football player, I know that,” Bennett said.
“Lots of qualities he’s got, but he just needs to play. He had a game tonight and I’m sure he’ll be better next week.”
It was only a fortnight ago that Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary terrorised South Sydney’s back three with towering bombs, something that could play into Bennett’s call on Taaffe.
“If [Taaffe] goes back there, I’ll be confident he can handle it. But if I’m not confident, he won’t be playing there,” Bennett said.
Ilias earned praise from the mentor for a “good, steady” display in which the 21-year-old was “very confident in what he did”.
He opened the scoring off his own grubber in the sixth minute and showed his silky skills with a hand in another four-pointer.
Welcome to the NRL, Lachlan Ilias!
After helping to sew up the victory, Ilias was benched at the 60-minute mark as he suffered from cramps – not surprising given his lack of match fitness due to the NSW Cup’s cancellation in July.
Young hooker Peter Mamouzelos cranked out 50 tackles in 66 minutes and received a special mention from the coach.
“They were good,” Bennett said of his inexperienced spine.
“[But] I suppose a key player would have been Benji, he would’ve been probably controlling a lot of things and helping those boys.
“That’s what the experience brings and that’s what you need when you’ve got young players like that.”
Marshall went off for the last 14 minutes – with Ilias brought back into the fray – because of a minor ankle injury. However, he told Fox League he could have gone back on if needed.
Another Dragons error hands Graham a double
Despite resting a litany of stars including Reynolds, Walker, Damien Cook, Cam Murray, Dane Gagai and Tom Burgess, the Rabbitohs were mostly untroubled and scored three tries from Dragons errors.
Ilias regathered his kick after a fumble by winger Mikaele Ravalawa before Gerard Beale dropped the ball 35 metres out from his own line, gifting Rabbitohs counterpart Campbell Graham a four-pointer.
Sloan committed an unfortunate blunder in the 27th minute – spilling a Marshall bomb under pressure from teammate Mat Feagai – and Graham completed his fortuitous double.
A slick left-edge move in which Ilias and Taaffe channelled Walker and Mitchell led to Taane Milne crossing out wide after half-time.
A nasty head clash between Tariq Sims and Jacob Host caused a deep laceration to the lip of the Dragons enforcer, who failed a HIA.
St George Illawarra forward Josh McGuire was then sin-binned in the 66th minute for a high shot on Mamouzelos that could incur the wrath of the match review committee.
Sloan continued to push his case for being the Dragons’ long-term fullback as he first touched down off a kick before racing away after a Jack de Belin inside-ball to give Red V fans some hope.
Rabbitohs forward Jed Cartwright sustained a sternum injury in the closing stages before Ravalawa trampled Taaffe to set up an exciting finish, only for the game to end with a St George Illawarra error.
Ravalawa beats Taaffe at the back to set up grandstand finish
For the Dragons, it was a disappointing end to a season that began with promise but fizzled out after the infamous barbecue incident in early July.
The team has gone on to lose every match since that point, slumping to a club-record eight straight defeats.