A plucky and under-manned Penrith outfit gave South Sydney a scare on Sunday afternoon before the defending premiers edged a gripping 20-16 win that was overshadowed by yet another concussion to luckless Rabbitohs forward Kyle Turner.
Turner was playing his first game since the pre-season All Stars game having undergone radical surgery on a bulging disc in his neck but his comeback lasted less than 20 minutes before an attempted tackle on Jeremy Latimore resulted in him going down concussed – although the injury is not believed to be related to his recent neck concerns.
Either side of that incident, a resolute Panthers outfit missing 10 regular first-graders shot out to a 12-0 lead against a profligate Rabbitohs side on the back of strong efforts from James Segeyaro and Bryce Cartwright but it seemed to spark Souths into life, drawing level at 12-all then pulling away in the second half.
If the first half was scrappy the second was riveting as Penrith simply refused to go away despite Souths looking slightly the stronger side throughout.
Each side had their share of injury concerns – aside from Turner, Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire had to take Chris McQueen (concussion check) and Chris Grevsmuhl (ribs) from the field in the first half, though both later returned.
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary was forced to move Lewis Brown to the centres after an awkward tackle resulted in a torn hamstring to Robert Jennings that will require scans and a possible lay-off.
The first half was a very scrappy affair with each side producing six errors and while some early dropped ball from Penrith almost allowed Souths to cash in early, it was a series of mistakes from the home side that eventually handed the visitors the chance to post first points, which came when James Segeyaro burrowed over from dummy-half in the 16th minute.
They went back-to-back barely five minutes later when Bryce Cartwright, injected off the bench, showed enormous strength and determination to somehow spin through four defenders at the line to plant the ball.
Some big runs from the Souths pack helped them claw back momentum before some deft work out of dummy-half from Issac Luke allowed John Sutton to crash over in the 26th minute.
Then a series of monstrous tackles from the cardinal and myrtle pinned the Panthers on their try-line and a rake on the ball from Glenn Stewart one-on-one caused Brown to spill it in front of his posts where some fast thinking from Dylan Walker to fire a long ball out to Alex Johnston allowed the winger to cross untouched, Adam Reynolds' pinpoint sideline conversion squaring the scores at the half-hour mark.
The Panthers started the second half in a fast fashion when Cartwright broke through for a long-range run, allowing Penrith to press the Rabbitohs line for several sets.
Their momentum was snuffed out by a long delay after Turner went down attempting to tackle Latimore, and despite serious concern for the youngster and a long delay as he was checked he was eventually able to walk from the field to a standing ovation.
But Penrith were immediately pushed into touch upon the resumption before conceding back-to-back penalties that allowed Souths to reclaim the lead via a Reynolds penalty goal.
An Isaac John line break handed Penrith a golden chance to reclaim the lead but his pass to a supporting Tyrone Peachey was too far in front of the runner. Souths bombed some attacking field position themselves when a Penrith line drop-out became a penalty to the Panthers for a two-on-one strip in-goal.
The game-breaking moment came in the 65th minute when Luke trapped an attacking Penrith grubber and raced downfield; a backpedalling Penrith side gave away a penalty and from the ensuing set Inglis chimed into a right-side move to send Walker over untouched for an eight-point lead.
Penrith continued to attack and when Cartwright reeled in a Soward chip on the bounce to send Brown away they closed the gap to four.
Some serious razzle-dazzle followed, as Penrith sent the ball from one side of the field to the other in a desperate attacking raid, almost breaking the hearts of Rabbitohs fans but Waqa Blake's drop from an Isaah Yeo offload on just the second tackle brought the 77th-minute raid undone and the Rabbitohs were able to hang on.
The narrow loss all but ends Penrith's season despite a favourable draw in the remaining weeks, while Souths move two points clear of Cronulla to outright fourth place.
South Sydney Rabbitohs 20 (Sutton, Johnston, Walker ties; Reynolds 4 goals) defeated Penrith Panthers 16 (Segeyaro, Cartwright, Brown tries; Soward 2 goals) at ANZ Stadium. Half time: 12-all. Crowd: 13,391.