Often maligned for his ability to perform on the big stage, Mitchell Pearce shone brightest amongst the galaxy of stars on show, leading the Roosters to a nerve-racking 22-18 defeat of arch-rivals South Sydney at Allianz Stadium on Thursday night.
For all the crash, bang and wallop delivered by the likes of Sonny Bill Williams, Sam Burgess and the behemoths that packed into the scrums alongside them, the brilliance of both backlines and future immortal Greg Inglis, it was Pearce who rose a class above as the Rabbitohs stormed home with three tries in 10 minutes and threatened to pull off one of the greatest escapes seen this side of the turn of the century.
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WATCH: James Maloney's sneaky try off the goal posts
WATCH: Match highlights
WATCH: Roosters press conference
WATCH: Rabbitohs press conference
Match stats, scores and highlights
Relive our match commentary
Coming into the 209th game between two of the game's bitterest of rivals, the question on everyone's lips was who would feel the loss of a key playmaker more; the Roosters without trusty regular rake Jake Friend, or the Rabbitohs down a pint-sized halfback by the name of Adam Reynolds.
Pearce, with the ball on a string and the Bunnies at his mercy answered it emphatically, with a hand in three Roosters tries and preventing another by rounding up a run-away Greg Inglis over 70 metres, delivering the Roosters a 22-2 lead with half an hour to play.
But with the match in their keeping the premiers took their foot off the pedal, and Souths gave them one hell of a fright through late tries to Dylan Walker, Alex Johnston and Lote Tuqiri. The Chooks managed to hold on, locking them into a top two finish, though the high-quality finish to a bruising encounter should have rugby league fans salivating.
If Manly can bag a win over the Cowboys in Townsville on Saturday night and secure their first minor premiership since 1997, the two foundation clubs will finish second and third, meaning we'll be back again next week, same time, same place, slightly different day to do it all again.
Earlier James Maloney and Issac Luke had traded pot-shots at the sticks to leave us tied up at 2-apiece after 14 minutes, and after a bit more of the customary to-ing and fro-ing Pearce sprung to life to cut the Rabbitohs’ middle defence to pieces.
Sliding into the backfield from 20 metres out, only to have opposite number Luke Keary rake the ball from his grasp with the try line in sight, Pearce juggled the ball inches above the sodden turf, then flicked it out the back and on its way to Daniel Tupou who went over for the first meat pie of the evening and an 8-2 lead for the home side.
On 27 minutes Williams sliced through and fed Maloney with a pearler of a ball and a passage to the line, only for the nippy pivot to be collared in heavy defence by Inglis. Three plays later Maloney was at it again, going agonisingly close from a Pearce short ball to again find himself belted into submission by Inglis, and the Bunnies No. 1 stuck it up the Chooks just that little bit more by collection a loose ball from a bat-back and belting 70 metres downfield.
The massive effort was matched, and ultimately trumped by Pearce, who confirmed his status as one of the fittest footballers coach Trent Robinson has ever seen by running down the big man with a remarkable act of cover defence.
And that 30 second stretch just about summed up the first half for both sides. The Roosters hammering the Bunnies’ line to no avail, with Souths then counter-attacking in impressive and entertaining fashion, only to come up equally empty handed.
Normally dishing them out, Williams was the gleeful recipient of a rip-snorting offload from big Sam Moa upon the resumption, and Kirisome Auva'a was given 10 in the bin for slowing down the resulting play the ball with the Rabbitohs’ line defence stretched.
With Maloney opting to bang over another two points, the Chooks claimed the maximum 90 seconds later from a similar play, Williams this time sending Pearce into the back field before he put Anthony Minichiello in for a farewell try in his final game in front of the Roosters faithful.
The premiers’ breathless start to the second stanza continued in the 50th minute, with Pearce again engineering the killer blow, this time with a fine grubber into the posts and then into the waiting hands of Maloney, stretching their advantage to 22-2.
A 64th minute intercept for Luke, who soon found a flying Walker on his outside, reduced the Roosters lead to two converted tries and kept the visitors in with a sniff, while Alex Johnston's touchdown eight minutes later after some fancy lead-up work in the middle from Luke Keary and returning skipper John Sutton reduced the deficit to 22-14 with nine minutes remaining.
When Sutton and Keary again combined in the midfield, and then Walker pulled an in-and-away out of his bag of tricks to send Tuqiri over in the right corner, the Rabbitohs found themselves trailing by just four with five minutes remaining and a grandstand finish in the offing.
But a calming touch-finder from who else but that man Pearce cooled the jets of the firing Rabbitohs, and the Roosters were able to hold on for a thrilling and hard-fought triumph over their favourite sparring partner.
Sydney Roosters 22 (D Tupou, A Minichiello, J Maloney tries; goals J Maloney 5 goals) defeated South Sydney Rabbitohs 18 (D Walker, A Johnston, L Tuqiri tries; I Luke 3 goals) at Allianz Stadium. Crowd: 32, 481.