A ferocious 20-0 burst in the opening 26 minutes helped Canterbury climb off the bottom of the ladder with a tense 26-16 win over the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium on Thursday night.
There was no shortage of controversy with Canterbury scoring twice while Jaydn Su'A was in the sin bin for a high shot that knocked Lachlan Lewis out of the match, while a Souths try was awarded without the aid of a Bunker despite winger Jaxson Paulo going into touch before he grounded the ball.
The result puts Souths' hopes of a home final in jeopardy with Newcastle able to leapfrog them into sixth if they beat the Dragons while Brisbane drop to last and will now need to win one of their last two games to avoid the wooden spoon.
Young half Jake Averillo was excellent for the Bulldogs, particularly after Lewis went off, while winger Jayden Okunbor had a monster game with two try assists from bat-backs and two line breaks on top of 236 run metres.
"That was seven weeks in the making, that game. I'm just so proud of the 17 players," Bulldogs coach Steve Georgallis said.
Match: Rabbitohs v Bulldogs
Round 19 -
Venue: Accor Stadium, Sydney
"We had a few injuries there, lost Lachie Lewis [to a head knock] with his kicking game, Jake [Averillo] played injured that whole second half [with a quad strain].
"To the kid's credit he stayed on the football field.
"They just kept on turning up in defence. Souths chased us that second half, possession swung, momentum swung but they just kept on turning up for each other.
Dogged defence in second half helps Bulldogs secure upset win
"We talked about it all week, don't leave the game with regrets."
Raymond Faitala-Mariner was a handful with a well-deserved try and skipper Josh Jackson in his 200th NRL game produced some huge defensive plays as the Dogs clung to a tight win.
"It was great for Josh. He's been through thick and thin this year, captain of the club, led by example. The players were so ecstatic at the end of the game. It's a good feeling," Georgallis said.
The Dogs opened the scoring with a penalty goal in the eighth minute and then surged downfield from the restart to immediately get back on the attack.
After forcing one dropout, the boot of Lewis then created the first try via a Jayden Okunbor bat-back to Tim Lafai, with Averillo nailing the sideline conversion.
Controversy erupted in the 22nd minute with the Dogs again inside the South Sydney half. Lewis was rocked by a monster shot from Su'A and lost the ball trying to stand up, clearly wobbly on his feet.
Upon inspection, the Bunker found the Su'A shoulder had made direct contact with Lewis's head and he was sent for 10 while Lewis was forced from the field and took no further part in the game.
The Bulldogs scored twice against the 12-man Bunnies line-up and the first came almost immediately with Reimis Smith powering over from a scrum in the 22nd minute for a 14-0 lead.
A beautiful pass from the kick-off put Okunbor into open pastures with the winger galloping all the way to the Bunnies' 40-metre line and soon after produced another bat-back – this time from an Averillo bomb – to put Faitala-Mariner over and at 20-0 after 26 minutes the Bunnies were reeling.
Chris Smith scores his first NRL try
The Bulldogs invited the Rabbitohs back into the contest with a series of six-again calls and penalties before a beautiful Cody Walker tap-on put Paulo over. Unfortunately for Canterbury, replays revealed Paulo had put his foot into touch before putting the ball down but the try had already been awarded and Souths were on the board in the 33rd minute.
A Johnston line break and kick-ahead from the next set looked to have created Souths' second try for Corey Allan but a push from Allan on Jeremy Marshall-King in the lead-up drew a no-try ruling.
They had their second soon after though with Allan setting up Campbell Graham after another run of set restarts against Canterbury to make it 20-10 at half time.
The Bunnies dominated the opening exchanges of the second stanza and despite some huge try-saves from Smith and Jackson, Johnston eventually scored from a perfect Walker cut-out to close the gap to 20-16.
Brilliant link play from Allan has Graham scoring
Canterbury were able to get back into the grind with the help of some untimely errors from Souths and found a try with a kick from Brandon Wakeham that was batted back by Johnston and pounced on athletically by Chris Smith for his first NRL try.
There was still more than 20 minutes to play at that stage but other than Jed Cartwright dropping the ball over the line in the 69th minute, the Bunnies never really threatened to force the comeback as the Dogs clung on for a relieving late-season win.