The Sydney Roosters have made it five wins in a row to shoot to the top of the NRL ladder after defeating bitter rivals South Sydney 18-14 in a taste of things to come for the impending 2018 Finals Series at ANZ Stadium tonight.
A terrific individual try from Roosters centre Joseph Manu proved the difference, with the unheralded youngster splitting the Rabbitohs defence and making a 30m dash to the line early in the second half to give his side the edge just when the Roosters desperately needed a big play. Manu's try gave his side the momentum to hold on and defend a late Bunnies fight back to rocket the Roosters to first place on the ladder until at least Sunday afternoon, pending the result of the Melbourne vs Cronulla clash to conclude Round 22.
It was a terrific defensive display from Trent Robinson's men, who only had 45% of possession - and while they are highly rated as premiership contenders for their deadly backline, tonight it was their defence that made the biggest statement. The Tricolours managed to constantly repel the Bunnies attack and kept livewire hooker Damien Cook relatively quiet after the Dally M favourite had been tearing opposition sides' apart in recent weeks.
The result capped off an unhappy night for the Rabbitohs, with fullback Alex Johnson leaving the field after just two minutes with a hamstring injury, combined with an out of sorts performance from Sam Burgess who made an astonishing five errors in a forgettable night for the Rabbitohs skipper.
While both sides were far from their best, the match was a grinding affair with the physical Roosters pack really lifting to show that they will be a force in September, despite lacking the physical size of the some of the forward packs currently sitting in the top four of the NRL ladder.
With the Rabbitohs sitting in first and the Roosters third on the NRL Ladder, positions on the table only added to the bitter rivalry and a semi-final intensity that was expected prior to kickoff. However the visitors started nervously when backrower Sio Siua Taukeiaho lost the ball off the kickoff and the Tricolours went into damage control, giving away back to back penalties. Souths' goalkicker Adam Reynolds took the start offered with a penalty goal to give the home side an early 2-0 lead after as many minutes.
The Bunnies lead was then soured, when fullback Alex Johnson left the field with a hamstring injury, which immediately caused a backline re-shuffle. Both forward packs then went to task, with Rabbitohs enforcer Sam Burgess and Roosters captain Boyd Cordner leading the way in the physicality stakes with some huge hits.
The Roosters then followed that method to score the first try of the night, when young backrower Victor Radley took the ball hard to the line and bounced off two Bunnies defenders and then offloaded to a supporting James Tedesco who crashed over to score and the Tricolours led 6-2 after 15 minutes.
An error from Sam Burgess combined with a penalty against John Sutton saw the Roosters extend the lead with another Latrell Mitchell penalty, which extended the home side's lead to a converted try.
South Sydney needed a spark and it was provided by their halfback, when Adam Reynolds grubbered close to the line on the last. The ball then came of Roosters backrower Isaac Liu and off Reynold's chest. The Rabbitohs number seven dived on the ball, and the Bunker correctly ruled try and the Bunnies clawed their way back into the match.
Roosters winger Blake Ferguson then looked to have put his side in a commanding position, when the lanky winger collected a Cooper Cronk bomb, but the Bunker found that Ferguson lost the ball and Souths fans breathed a sigh of relief.
Latrell Mitchell then broke the 8 all deadlock before the break with another penalty goal and the Roosters lead 10-8 at halftime.
After the break, Reynolds managed to again even the scores after Roosters interchange forward Zane Tetevano was penalised for a a lazy effort in the tackle and the game was in the balance.
Joseph Manu then broke the game open, when he received a pass from Blake Ferguson on the right edge and with nothing on, Manu split the Rabbitohs defence and spectacularly dived over to swing the advantage back in the Roosters favour.
Off the back of Manu's try, Souths gave away back to back penalties and again Mitchell took advantage, extending the Roosters lead to eight points.
Souths weren't done yet, and released their own unlikely hero, when youngster Braidon Burns threw a terrific flick pass to Hymel Hunt to score in the corner and the Bunnies had momentum heading into the final stretch, trailing by just four points.
However despite the Roosters losing their key strike weapon in fullback James Tedesco, who left the field with 10 minutes remaining due to concussion, the visiting side managed to hold on for a crucial victory over their traditional rivals.
The Tricolours now have a long turnaround before their next match, in which they will travel down the Hume Highway to face a dangerous Raiders outfit in Canberra next Sunday.
The Rabbitohs are also on the the road, where they will make an equally difficult visit to Suncorp Stadium, where they will face a desperate Broncos side to open Round 23 next Thursday night.