Star recruit Cooper Cronk has guided pre-season premiership favourites Sydney Roosters to the top of the NRL ladder for the first time after defeating South Sydney 18-14 in a gripping heavyweight contest between the game's oldest clubs on Friday night.
After snaring Cronk and NSW fullback James Tedesco during the summer, the Roosters were widely tipped to win their first grand final since 2013 but it has been a steady climb up the Telstra Premiership ladder rather than the season of dominance many had predicted.
However, with just three rounds remaining before the playoffs, the Bondi-based club is on track for a top-two finish and a home final after overcoming a lack of possession to down their arch rivals and the previous competition leaders for the 100th time before a crowd of 26,311 at ANZ Stadium.
It was a win built on defence after the Roosters were forced to make 362 tackles to 311 by Souths and finished the match with just 45 per cent possession following their failure to complete 11 of 37 sets with the ball.
The Roosters, who had to survive the last 12 minutes without Tedesco after he was forced from the field for a concussion test, missed just 25 tackles compared to 37 by the Rabbitohs, while Cronk controlled the match with his astute kicking game.
The former Test halfback, who won four grand finals with Melbourne, gained 485 metres from 14 kicks in general play, forced a goal line drop out and created a try scoring opportunity for winger Blake Ferguson with a perfectly weighed cross-field kick but he lost control of the ball ground it.
He also tackled Cody Walker into touch just before the Roosters try line after chasing in cover defence when Rabbitohs winger Braidon Burns toed a loose ball ahead seven minutes before fulltime.
Match: Rabbitohs v Roosters
Round 22 -
Venue: ANZ Stadium
- Nine Network
- LIVE PASS
Souths were hampered by the loss of fullback Alex Johnston with a hamstring injury in just the third minute of the match, causing a reshuffle in which backrower Tyrell Fuimaino was forced to play right centre opposite the in-form Latrell Mitchell.
The Rabbitohs forwards were able to get their team in the attacking zone, with every starting member of the pack except hooker Damien Cook carrying the ball for more than 100 metres, headed by prop Tom Burgess, who ran 227 metres.
However, Souths had trouble executing and the kicking game of halfback Adam Reynolds was below par, while the Roosters defended aggressively near their own tryline, with hooker Jake Friend making a game high 58 tackles and four other forwards making more than 30 tackles each.
The match was evenly poised at half-time, with the Roosters leading 10-8 after overcoming a dramatic start in which Souths regathered possession from a Siosiua Taukeiaho knock-on at the kick-off and spent most of the opening 10 minutes camped down their end.
Reynolds posted first points of the match for the Rabbitohs with a third-minute goal after back-to-back penalties but the home team suffered a massive blow when Johnston limped from the field with a hamstring injury.
A Blake Ferguson fumble from a Reynolds bomb gave Souths more field position but they were unable to capitalise and the Roosters made them pay when they finally got down the other end of the field.
After forcing a repeat set, the Roosters' opening try of the match involved a brilliant act of sleight of hand by back-rower Victor Radley, who performed a hit and spin on Tom Burgess before getting a pass to Tedesco on the Rabbitohs line that even referee Gerard Sutton didn't see.
Despite dominating early, Souths trailed 6-2 after the first 16 minutes and Burgess joined Johnston on the sideline after being forced off for an HIA while Reynolds was physically sick as Latrell Mitchell lined up the conversion.
A 24th-minute penalty goal by Mitchell extended the Roosters' lead but Reynolds drew level for Souths when he dived on his own grubber kick to score after the ball had ricocheted off the foot of Isaac Liu into the chest of the Rabbitohs halfback.
Another Mitchell penalty goal in the 37th minute put the Roosters ahead at the interval.
A spectacular try to centre Joseph Manu 13 minutes into the second half gave them the ascendency after Boyd Cordner blocked another Reynolds grubber on his own line and the ball bounced forward.
Cordner regathered but the play appeared to break down when he passed the ball into Mitchell's knee.
However, winger Blake Ferguson raced out of dummy half and ran to the opposite side of the field to link with Manu, who accelerated into space and dived into the corner to score.
Another Mitchell penalty goal put the Roosters ahead 18-8 in the 57th minute but Souths centre Hymel Hunt ensured the game remained in the balance until the final play when he scored seven minutes later after a behind the back pass by Braidon Burns.
News & Notes: Souths fullback Alex Johnston suffered a hamstring injury in the third minute. Dane Gagai moved to fullback and Tyrell Fuimaono played centre ... Roosters fullback James Tedesco failed to finish the match after leaving the field in the 68th minute for an HIA ... The Rabbitohs have not defeated the Roosters in both regular-season games since 2009 ... The win was the Roosters' 100th victory over the Rabbitohs since 1908.