The benching of halfback Lachlan Ilias just 29 minutes into the game summed up an outing from hell for the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Having seen his side concede six tries inside the first half an hour of play, Souths coach Jason Demetriou hooked his No.7, with Blake Taaffe brought on at fullback and Kodi Nikorima moved to the halves.
Despite outscoring the Dragons in the second half, the destructive first half-hour proved to be a hole too deep for the Rabbitohs, with St George Illawarra running out 32-12 winners at WIN Stadium.
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When questioned over the decision to bench Ilias in favour of Taaffe, Demetriou’s initial explanation was that his side “needed some energy” and “needed to change the tide” after the dismal opening to the contest.
It was a move that stunned legendary halfback Johnathan Thurston.
“Yeah, there’s no way I would’ve come off. I would’ve stuck out there until half-time and then he could’ve hooked me,” the Cowboys great said on Nine’s NRL coverage.
“He dropped the ball after the kick-off, but to be hooked after 30 minutes, that’s got to crush his confidence. I think the team really needs to rally around him.
“We have these young halves that come in there and (we) expect them to be able to get the team around the park and have try assists, linebreak assists and all these stats, but until you start getting into 50-plus games and start to master how you do that, he’s got a lot of work to do.
“It’s a big call for the coach to hook him after 30-odd minutes, but the team certainly need to rally around him now because he will be crushed.”
A dejected looking Ilias was consoled by veteran teammate Damien Cook in the sheds following the match, with legendary halfback Andrew Johns also surprised by Demetriou’s call.
“I could not imagine what his confidence would be (after) getting hooked tonight. I find it really, really surprising they’d do that to a young halfback,” Johns told Nine’s Thursday Night Knock Off.
“It was really good to see Cooky get around him because he would be embarrassed by it. I think he’s got a massive future, Lachlan Ilias, and I was surprised he got hooked. I really feel for him.”
Ilias’ nightmare began just seconds into the match when he dropped the opening kick-off, immediately putting the Rabbitohs defence under immense pressure, and ex-Sharks skipper Paul Gallen suggested that could’ve played a part in Demetriou’s call.
“He dropped the ball on the first kick of the match,” he said.
“Maybe the coach knew before the match and just sensed that he wasn’t quite there mentally so just pulled him.
“They were totally out-enthused in all areas, particularly in the middle. It’s very, very hard for a half to play off the back of a forward pack not going forward. They had very little ball.
“It’s tough for him to be hooked. It’s a tough year for him all around. He’s replacing a legend of the club and they haven’t gone as good as they went last year, so he’s under a hell of a lot of pressure anyway.”
Following the match, Demetriou explained his call and said he’d sit down with the 22-year-old and discuss the decision.
“I haven’t spoken to him yet, but I’m sure he is disappointed,” the Souths coach said.
“There’s nothing I can say right now that is going to make any difference, but we will sit down and go through it.
“We’re 14 games in … we’ll sit down and go through our prep and figure out how we got to that first half.
“But it’s not on him (Ilias). It was about trying to get a response from the team. That first half wasn’t on Lachlan Ilias. It’s part of your learning. He’s not the first young bloke to have a bad day at the office.
“He wasn’t on his own. He’s got resilience, he’s got good temperament. He will learn from it no doubt.”
The stats at the half-hour mark were bleak for the Bunnies – the Dragons had had 70 per cent of the Steeden, and completed 14 of 16 sets.
The boys from Redfern, meanwhile, had completed just five of their first eight sets, and didn’t touch the ball between the 12th and 22nd minute. They conceded three tries in that time.
But after that half an hour, it was as if it was a different game. The Souths had 60 per cent of the ball, and had 76 per cent of the territory. They ran 280 metres more, and made 48 less tackles. The Dragons also missed 15 tackles to the Bunnies’ five.