A couple of individual pieces of brilliance from Wests Tigers star Benji Marshall wasn't quite enough to drag his side over the line as they went down 26-24 to South Sydney on Thursday night in a game marred by three sin bins and one all-in brawl.
Alex Twal was sin binned for a professional foul in the 49th minute and was quickly followed by Luke Brooks and Dane Gagai for their roles in starting a brawl.
Either side of that, Marshall and Harry Grant showed just what the club will be missing next year with exceptional performances to help the team recover from a very early 20-0 deficit to almost force an unlikely comeback win for the second week running.
For Souths, Damien Cook was at his scheming best and Campbell Graham is making a strong case to be included in Brad Fittler's extended State of Origin squad post-season with another two tries in a strong all-round display.
Match: Wests Tigers v Rabbitohs
Round 18 -
Venue: Bankwest Stadium, Sydney
The win propels Souths to fifth place, at least temporarily, and keeps their top-four chances alive while the loss is surely the final nail in the 2020 season for Michael Maguire's men.
First points came after a Twal error put Souths in range in the 10th minute and fast hands on the right side put Dane Gagai outside Tommy Talau and Asu Kepaoa for the first try.
Reynolds added a penalty goal in the 22nd minute and Souths got back in range with a big set off the restart.
Cook shot from dummy half to put Cody Walker between two defenders and Corey Allan backed up to score.
Brooks and Gagai sent to sin bin as punches thrown
Souths made it three scores in as many sets without the Tigers touching the ball as they spread it wide off the restart and Alex Johnston burned the Tigers right edge for pace to set up a supporting Campbell Graham.
As they did a week earlier against the Storm after dominating early, Souths let their foot off the pedal while the Tigers did as they did after being shell-shocked early by Manly – they rallied.
A beautiful short side play from Harry Grant put Luke Garner over in the 33rd minute while a bullet cut-out pass from Marshall four minutes later put Tommy Talau over almost untouched to make it an eight-point game at the break.
The Tigers were building nicely into an attacking set early in the second half but it was brought undone by a Gagai intercept with the winger streaking 60 before some desperation defence rounded him up.
Twal however came up with a professional foul and was sin-binned.
Gagai was penalised soon after and threw the ball at Brooks, who ran after Gagai and threw a punch sparking an all-in brawl which saw both men sin-binned for punching, reducing the Tigers to 11 on the field and Souths to 12.
The Tigers survived nine-and-a-half minutes while at a one-man disadvantage before Graham's second – playing wing for the absent Gagai – finally cracked them as Twal returned.
Brooks bagged a stunner just moments after he returned to the field, kicking ahead a David Nofoaluma grubber and regathering to keep the Tigers in it at 26-18 with nearly 20 minutes remaining.
Graham scores as Souths grab two in two minutes
They went back-to-back with the aid of a late set penalty to get in range and a glorious looping Marshall cut-out ball to rookie winger Kepaoa with Doueihi's touchline conversion making it 26-24.
Johnston dropped a simple pass with the line open and just over 10 minutes to play and a frantic Rabbitohs had to endure some relentless attacking plays from the Tigers over the closing stages but a Marshall attacking grubber with a bit too much weight on it in the final three minutes proved costly.
While happy to come away with a crucial two points, Rabbitohs coach Wayne Bennett again felt his side was its own worst enemy at times.
"It was entertaining - it wasn't for me but I'm sure it was for the fans," Bennett quipped.
"You think that (it's looking comfortable) at 20-nil, you're thinking that but to the Tigers credit they put the effort in and kept coming.
Marshall the creator again for Kepaoa to get his first NRL try
"They didn’t seem to lack any belief and in the end they made a game of it. The last 50 minutes was a tighter match and they kind of had the run of the game.
"We just showed for 29 minutes what we can do then let ourselves down with mistakes, dropped balls, all of a sudden looked like we couldn't beat them .
"Our number one priority right now is to keep as many players healthy as we can; there's nothing wrong with scratching out a win… it doesn't have to be pretty."