South Sydney have rejoined last season's Grand Finalists in the Roosters and the Storm at the top of the NRL ladder after a hard earned 22-18 victory over a very resolute Penrith in front of 14,931 at Panthers Stadium tonight.
In a game that was played at semi final intensity, Souths looked to have the game won when Souths five-eighth Cody Walker sliced through the Panthers defence and found centre Dane Gagai who slid over to extend the score to 22-12 with six minutes remaining to seemingly seal victory.
The Panthers to their credit failed to yield, when barnstorming Panthers backrower Villiame Kikau steamrolled no less than six Souths defenders to crash over at the death. Nathan Cleary converted from the sideline to give the Panthers a sniff with minutes to go. Souths however to their credit, managed to hold on to escape with a well earned victory and consolidate themselves in the Top 4.
It was a heartbreaking loss for Penrith, who put in a tremendous performance in the wake of a tough week which saw the club's executive general manager Phil Gould dramatically quit the club mid-week. Gould was on hand to witness a gutsy performance from Penrith, who will take a lot of positives out of the loss.
There was certainly a lot to play for coming into the match, with the Panthers desperate to kick-start their season after a solid performance last week and the Rabbitohs knew they needed to consolidate their position in the Top 4 to keep pace with the league leaders.
It was the Rabbitohs who exploded out of the blocks, when off a great run from lock Cameron Murray, Souths were able to get some quick ball to form five-eighth Cody Walker who hit a rampaging Kyle Turner with a short ball to crash over for the first try of the night. Adam Reynolds missed the conversion and the visitors lead 4-0 early in the contest.
The game was being played at high intensity, with the Rabbitohs pack led by skipper Sam Burgess and the Panthers hit men in James Fisher-Harris and Villiame Kikau making some bone crunching tackles. A penalty against Fisher-Harris for interference on a kick chaser saw Reynolds extend the lead for Souths to 6-0 after 20 minutes.
The Rabbitohs then took the momentum, when Walker put up a nothing kick, which was battered back by hooker Damien Cook. The ball then went through the hands to centre Gagai, who looked to have blown a certain try by not using his winger. However realising the error of his ways, as he fell, Gagai threw a miraculous pass off the ground, which found his outside man Corey Allen who scored a sensational try. Reynolds missed from the sideline and the Rabbitohs jumped out to a 10-0 lead.
The Panthers then looked to have scored their first try of the night, when hooker Sione Katoa grubbered in goal for Fisher-Harris who dived on the ball and celebrated a likely try. However the referees correctly ruled that Maloney had not played the ball straight in the lead up and disallowed the try.
Penrith then peppered the Rabbitohs line and were rewarded with a penalty just as the siren sounded, which was converted by Nathan Cleary and the Panthers trailed by 10-2 at the break.
The home side turned the tables in the second half, when Regan Campbell-Gillard charged towards the line and with a hit and spin found Maloney in support, who crashed over for the Panthers first try of the night. Cleary converted to narrow the Bunnies lead to 10-8.
The arm wrestle continued early in the second half, however back to back penalties to the Bunnies on the Panthers line proved too much, when Cameron Murray put Cody Walker over with a deft pass to extend their lead to 16-8.
The Panthers hit back, when they charged back upfield and secured a repeat set through Cleary, this saw his NSW halves partner Maloney then grubber close to the line which sat up perfectly for Dallin Watene-Zelezniak to score and cut Souths lead to four points after Cleary missed the conversion from the sideline.
Souths then looked to have the game won, when Walker who continues to firm for an NSW Origin call-up, was again instrumental in putting Gagai over with minutes remaining. However as was the script all night, the Panthers failed to go away and when Kikau skittled the Rabbitohs defence to give his side a late opportunity to pinch the result, the game was again in the balance.
The Rabbitohs managed to hold on however, and escape Penrith with a valuable two points in a win coach Wayne Bennett is surely to be proud of. Souths have now won six of their first seven matches, which now sets up a blockbuster next Thursday night, when Wayne Bennett returns to Brisbane for the first time to face his former club at Suncorp Stadium.
Things don't get any easier for Penrith, who travel down the Hume Highway to Wagga Wagga, where the city hosts its first ever NRL match against the in-form Canberra Raiders next Saturday.