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1971 grand final rewind: Brilliant Bunnies make it four in five years

As part of a series of fresh looks at the grand finals of yesteryear, NRL.com revisits the 1971 heavyweight showdown between Souths and St George at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

NRL.com has gone into the vault to find footage of the grand finals from the pre-NRL era dating back to 1966 and will be showcasing these games, including a full replay, match highlights and great moments from these memorable encounters.

Remarkably the Dragons and Rabbitohs had won 16 of the previous 17 premierships between them and the '71 decider added another thrilling chapter.

These were the days when just the top four sides played finals and it was Manly who had finished minor premiers, only to be knocked out in straight sets after losing to Souths in the semi-final and St George in the preliminary final.

Captained by John Sattler, defending premiers Souths boasted a pack brimming with internationals, including Ron Coote, Bob McCarthy and John O'Neill while the Red V were led by legendary No.1 Graeme Langlands and rugged halfback Billy Smith.

Match Highlights: Rabbitohs v Dragons

In front of 62,838 fans at the SCG, the first half was a dogfight with an Eric Simms field goal the only score posted, giving Souths a 1-0 lead at the break.

Simms was the game's field goal maestro, finishing his career with 86 in total, including five in grand finals.

Souths five-eighth Denis Pittard seemed certain to score the game's opening try after a dazzling burst in the 14th minute, only to be dragged down by Saints winger Geoff Carr.

The Bunnies finally cracked the Dragons in the second term when Ray Branighan finished off superb lead-up work by George Piggins, Gary Stevens and Ron Coote to score in the left corner. Simms' conversion attempt hit the posts and the score remained 4-0.

Coote then bagged a try of his own courtesy of a Sattler offload and Simms' conversion made it 9-0. The man with the radar boot added a penalty soon after to make it 11-0 and Souths looked in total control.

Barry Beath got the Dragons on the board after Billy Smith went down the blindside on the last tackle and Langlands converted from wide out to make it 11-5.

Lock Ted Walton snared the second try for the Red V as they dug deep to get back into the game and another brilliant Langlands conversion cut the margin to one point.

Souths' big guns upped the ante and created several tryscoring opportunities but the Dragons dug deep to stay in the game until the class of Coote set up barnstorming second-rower McCarthy for the match-sealer under the sticks.

Full Match Replay: Rabbitohs v Dragons - Grand Final, 1971

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When the final siren sounded, Souths had prevailed 16-10 over their arch-rivals, and Sattler was chaired from the field for the second year in a row - this time with his jaw intact and reputation enhanced.

Play of the day

With the match in the balance at 11-10, Ron Coote exploded onto the ball from 30 metres out and sucked in three defenders before delivering a magnificent inside ball to runaway train Bob McCarthy who crossed untouched.

Coote never failed to deliver on the game's biggest stage at the SCG and 'Macca' made a habit of scoring memorable grand final tries, including his long-range intercept try to sink Canterbury in 1967.

Extended Highlights: Rabbitohs v Dragons

Best player

Grand final specialist Ron Coote played in nine deciders between 1965-75, winning four premierships at Souths and another two under Jack Gibson at Easts.

The 24-Test lock was a constant threat in attack and his cover defence was legendary. His effort to deny Barry Beath a try in the first half was one of many key tackles he made in a tense decider.

Coote's remarkable record was equalled by Cooper Cronk in 2019, when he played in his ninth grand final.

Only Norm Provan (St George 1956-65) and Brian "Poppa" Clay (Newtown 1954-55, St George 1957-61, 1964-66) have played in more grand finals, while Eddie Lumsden (St George 1957-59, 1961-66) also played nine.

Ray Branighan scores another try in a decider

The quote

"It was like we were playing soccer. It was a really tough afternoon and we knew points would be hard to come by against a Jack Gibson team. Late into the second half it was 11-10 our way, so that field goal was important." - Souths great Ron Coote reflecting in the Sydney Morning Herald some years later about the bizarre half-time scoreline of 1-0.

The what-if moment

Down 11-10 but finishing hard, the Dragons had a chance to hit the front after a towering clearing kick by Graeme Langlands was fumbled by Souths winger Keith Edwards just 20 metres out from his line and the ball spilled towards Saints winger Geoff Carr.

Had Carr been able to gather it cleanly Saints would have had Souths at sixes and sevens but the winger also knocked on and a scrum was packed.

Saints won the scrum but Souths had caught their breath and got their defensive line set and the opportunity was gone.

Beath scores for the Dragons

Unsung hero

One of the toughest Bunnies ever to pull on a boot, George Piggins was called into the side to replace regular hooker Elwyn Walters, who had been part of the previous four grand finals.

At 26, Piggins had plenty of experience under his belt and he called on every bit of it to produce a superb performance in a rugged foward battle.

Some three decades later that resilience and passion would come to the fore again as Piggins led the two-year fight to have his beloved Bunnies reinstated into the competition.

The following year

Both sides made the finals again in 1972 and played each other in the first semi-final with the Dragons taking a measure of revenge for the grand final loss. Saints marched on to the preliminary final but went down 8-6 to Easts in a tight struggle. Now captain of Easts it was Coote again proving the Dragons' nemesis.