St George Illawarra have slumped to a sixth consecutive loss against an injury-hit Rabbitohs side, who scored two late tries to claim a 24-8 win in front of 18,217 fans at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
The centrepiece of the Men of League Heritage Round got off to a sluggish start with both sides struggling to find their rhythm in a dour opening half.
But with hooker Cameron McInnes off with an ankle injury and winger Aaron Gray hobbling on one leg, the Rabbitohs streaked away on the back of some huge plays from fullback and skipper Greg Inglis to send the Red V's finals hopes into serious doubt.
Some surging runs from the Maroons custodian and some deft short kicks from halfback Adam Reynolds proved the difference after a Josh Dugan try midway through the second half had got the home side back within four points of the defending premiers.
While ball handling was excellent from both sides in greasy conditions with few errors on the night, each coach was left ruing some missed opportunities before the Rabbitohs caught fire in the final 10 minutes to earn a comfortable win after a 70-minute arm wrestle.
The Dragons were somewhat lucky to go in at halftime just 8-4 down after an ill-disciplined first half in which Souths both failed to cash in on their opportunities and strangely opted for two penalty goal attempts when in good field position, missing one and getting one.
It was actually the Dragons who missed the first golden opportunity of the half when a good Gareth Widdop cut-out looked to have put Justin Hunt over but the winger lost control of the ball as the slid over the line in the fifth minute.
Souths centre Dylan walker made Benji Marshall and Peter Mata'utia look second rate shortly after, running wide from dummy half to burst through both of them and make a clean run to the line through what had looked like a set defensive line.
After a few poor kicks to end their sets in what had started to become a serious problem for the Dragons, a host of kickers – including Marshall, Widdop, hooker Mitch Rein and winger Jason Nightingale – produced precision kicks to build pressure or earn goal-line drop-outs.
The biggest clanger of the half came in the 16th minute when a clean break from John Sutton inside his own half found Greg Inglis surging up in support but with the try-line beckoning Inglis spilled his lollies in a huge let-off for the Red V.
On several other occasions when the Rabbitohs were pressing the Dragons' line, McInnes was tackled on the last, Chris Grevsmuhl dropped a short ball at the line, a deep kick was marked in-goal by Justin Hunt and Adam Reynolds missed a 40-metre penalty goal shot that could instead have been a full set at the Dragons line.
The only further points Souths added in the half came from a follow up penalty goal in front of the sticks but even then Dragons coach Paul McGregor would have been relieved with the let-off.
Then in the shadows of half time a brilliant Rein kick in the set after the penalty goal forced Inglis in-goal and from the ensuing drop out Marshall produced some vintage magic – a no-look one-handed flick cut-out pass with his eyes fixed on the ground – sent Hunt over, the winger this time making no mistake with his grounding.
There was little to cheer about in the opening 20 minutes of the second half aside from a powerful Greg Inglis run that indicated the Maroons fullback was in the mood for a big game.
With McInnes off the field John Sutton and Luke Keary split the dummy half duties while Gray seemed troubled by a knee injury and was unable to have any impact in the second 40.
But with the side in range, Adam Reynolds skipped across field in the 58th minute and his pass was tapped on by Inglis to send winger Alex Johnston over for the side's second try.
The Dragons defended stoutly and kicked well but were growing frustrated by an inability to penetrate the cardinal and myrtle defensive line until a Peter Mata'utia pass allowed Dragons fullback Josh Dugan – who had been kept very quiet up to that point – to get one on one with a hobbled Gray and get his side back within four.
But the comeback was quickly snuffed out as Reynolds regathered his own grubber from a fortuitous bounce off the posts to score, then he sealed the deal with another deft grubber that sent Keary over for the match-winner.
The result leaves the Dragons a win outside the eight with their finals hopes looking more grim by the week, while the Rabbitohs at least temporarily push into the top four.
South Sydney Rabbitohs 24 (Dylan Walker, Alex Johnston, Adam Reynolds, Luke Keary tries; Adam Reynolds 4 goals) St George Illawarra Dragons 8 (Justin Hunt, Josh Dugan tries). Half time: Rabbitohs 8-4. Crowd: 18,217.