An injury-hit South Sydney were forced to finish with just 12 players as they mounted a brave second-half comeback to secure a top-four berth with a dramatic 16-10 triumph that has cast doubts about the Sydney Roosters' hopes of winning back-to-back premierships.
The Rabbitohs overcame the loss of Dane Gagai, Junior Tatola, Liam Knight, John Sutton and Adam Reynolds in the second half to fight back from at 10-2 halftime deficit and inflict the Roosters' first defeat since Round 17.
Worse for the Roosters, props Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Zane Tetevano were placed on report for dangerous tackles, while halfback Cooper Cronk finished the match clutching at the left shoulder he broke during last year’s grand final qualifier against Souths.
It was a remarkable win for the Rabbitohs as they had been totally outplayed in the first half and suffered a procession of injuries after the break which forced them to play the final three minutes with just 12 men.
Gagai succumbed to a hamstring injury suffered in the pre-match warm-up, while Tatola, Knight, Sutton and Reynolds were all taken from the field for HIAs.
Match: Rabbitohs v Roosters
Round 25 -
Venue: Accor Stadium, Sydney
Knight also needed stitches and was being checked for a facial fracture after Warea-Hargreaves collected him with his shoulder, causing a head clash with Roosters forward Nat Butcher.
The win ensures the Rabbitohs can finish no lower than fourth, and will be third if Canberra lose to the Warriors.
Such a result would set up a re-match with the second-placed Roosters at the SCG in the opening round of finals, otherwise they will travel to Melbourne to face the minor premiers.
Walker finishes off South Sydney special
At halftime, the only question being asked was how Souths were still in the match after such a dominant opening 40 minutes by the Roosters.
After withstanding an initial onslaught from the Rabbitohs, who forced two goal-line dropouts and received two penalties, the Roosters virtually toyed with their opponents as they controlled field position and possession.
Souths halfback Adam Reynolds kicked a ninth minute penalty goal but the Rabbitohs never looked like scoring while the Roosters crossed for two tries and bombed another four before halftime.
Roosters centre Joey Manu played like he had spiders on him as he caused havoc with the Souths left-edge defence, laying the foundations for his team’s first try and laying on the second with stunning offloads.
Cooper Cronk was the first beneficiary of Manu’s brilliance, receiving a pass before putting fullback James Tedesco into space and then backing up to score in the 16th minute.
Graham beats Mitchell on the outside
Latrell Mitchell lost the ball over the try line after the Roosters received a penalty for Sam Burgess grabbing the hair of winger Billy Smith but it was only a matter of time before the premiers scored again.
Again Manu was the creator, putting Smith over in the 25th minute with a flick pass that Greg Inglis or Matt Gidley would have been proud of.
With the Rabbitohs struggling to stay in the contest, Burgess was penalised for a high tackle on Tedesco and replaced in the 29th minute as errors and ill-discipline threatened to prove costly.
Cronk and Tedesco combine for the opening try
Manu somehow managed a kick despite being surrounded by tacklers but Victor Radley fumbled and a try went begging, while winger Daniel Tupou spilled the ball after out-leaping Campbell Graham for a bomb and Mitchell knocked on over the Rabbitohs try line.
Leading 10-2 at halftime, the Roosters began the second half as they finished the first and Souths were forced into a backline reshuffle after losing Gagai with a hamstring injury in the 47th minute.
NSW Origin forward Cameron Murray shifted to left centre and he had an immediate impact as Graham crossed for a try a minute later.
Brilliant Manu offload provides for Smith
The Rabbitohs then hit the lead in the 50th minute after Damian Cook sent Junior Tatola racing through a gap and he linked with winger Alex Johnston, who found five-eighth Cody Walker in support.
Tetavano was placed on report for tackling Souths fullback Adam Doueihi without the ball as Cook passed in front of him to Tatola and Rabbitohs fans called for Waerea-Hargreaves to be sent off after collecting Knight with his shoulder six minutes from fulltime.
A Reynolds penalty goal after another high shot gave Souths a six-point lead and they managed to hang on in the dying minutes without the playmaker and Sutton to secure a top-four berth.