On the surface it may have looked like a match with little at stake on a cold and dreary Friday night. Little did the South Sydney Rabbitohs know, it would be an exciting look into a bright new future.
The New Zealand Warriors travelled to ANZ Stadium in Round 24 2017 with only pride to play for. With no chance of making the finals, either team could have easily dropped their bundle and finished off the season with minimal effort. But a group of enthusiastic youngsters, led by fullback Alex Johnston, were determined to make a name for themselves.
After Greg Inglis sustained an ACL injury in Round 1, the custodian’s role was thrown to Johnston. He performed admirably early on, but was reverted back the wing during the middle third of the season as Michael Maguire looked to add some spark into the side after an underwhelming string of results.
However, after the Round 20 loss to the Cronulla Sharks, which effectively ended our season, ‘AJ’ was given another chance to prove himself at the back.
Although both sides had zero chance of making the finals, there were still reputations on the line. That, and the fact that one of South Sydney’s favourite sons, Issac Luke, was taking on his former side for the first time in his career after moving across the ditch in 2016.
On a run of six straight losses, the Warriors were desperate for a victory and came out of the blocks swinging. They landed an early blow with captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck finishing off a backline manoeuvre and touching down in the fifth minute.
Eight minutes later, his opposite, Johnston bagged a try himself in similar fashion, dummying and running through the line untouched.
The Warriors hit back through captain Simon Mannering as he barged over under the post with ease, thanks to a clever pass from Luke. Things were not looking promising as one of South Sydney’s finest dummy halves was on a mission to sink his former side.
Mascot junior Cameron Murray, in just his second match in the starting side, and his first in his preferred position of lock, begun to show the Rabbitohs faithful that he was ready to claim the no.13 jersey as his own with a stellar performance.
Down by eight points and with less than ten minutes until half time, the 19-year-old turned the match on its head.
Just ten metres from the line, five-eighth Cody Walker turned the ball to Murray. At a stand-still, he burst through the line with speed, palming off Queensland Origin front-rower Jacob Lillyman and Luke, and brushed past Tuivasa-Sheck to score his maiden NRL try.
It was a moment the young forward will remember fondly back on and one that, not only turned the match, but one that showed that this kid was ready for first grade.
Halfback Adam Reynolds levelled the scores with a penalty goal just before halftime, but the second stanza is where ‘AJ’ would explode.
Fellow Indigenous All Star Kyle Turner nearly crashed over himself, only to be held up. Just like the first half though, the Warriors scored through Tuivasa-Sheck again in similar circumstances.
Reynolds then took matters into his own hands. He went over for a score after grubbering the ball and regathering following a ricochet off an opponent, before Johnston broke the deadlock a few minutes later through some explosive play.
With 20 minutes left on the clock and the scores level, Johnston asserted himself as the dominant player by taking an inside ball from John Sutton and breaking through the middle of the ruck. With support either side, the mercurial fullback dummied the ball and flew past Tuivasa-Sheck, posting one of the tries of the season.
‘AJ’ would provide another standout moment ten minutes later, picking up a loose ball 20 out from the Rabbitohs line. Palming off and swerving around defenders, he sent Walker over for a try with a no-look, behind the head, over-the-top pass. It was a freakish moment that words cannot express, all on the last tackle of the set.
The night was not over for the 22-year-old though, as he crossed over for his third of the night, completing just his second career hat-trick (and first as fullback) when he streaked away 40 metres from the try-line and once again made the Warriors defence look second rate.
While the try was spectacular, the end result would leave ‘AJ’ with a torn hamstring as he twitched and fell over the line. Although he failed to play another game for the season, Johnston finished the match with 219 running metres, an offload, a try assist and three tries.
The elusive fullback also broke a long standing record as he posted 17 tries in just seven games at ANZ Stadium for the season, breaking Phil Blake's record of 15 tries at Brookvale Oval in the same amount of matches.
Murray finished off the match playing through the entire 80 minutes, running 124 metres with the ball in hand and amassing a huge 47 tackles in the process.
Those young Rabbitohs had written their names in lights.