South Sydney will face the Canberra Raiders next Friday night for a spot in the 2019 Grand Final after they defeated Manly 34-26 in a see-sawing affair at ANZ Stadium tonight.
The result was overshadowed by three separate Sin Bin offences, two to Manly and one to South Sydney. The final Sin Bin offence to Manly backrower Jake Trbojevic proved the most crucial however, with the Rabbitohs racing in two late tries, while the Sea Eagles were down to 12 men.
Souths backrower Cameron Murray was again outstanding for his side, with the NSW backrower scoring two tries, a try assist and again showed his versatility by moving to centre late in the match and continuing to perform at a high standard.
The Rabbitohs and the Sea Eagles had met twice already in 2019 and both were 1-point thrillers, going Manly's way in Round 4 and Souths' way in Round 17. This match promised to be another tight contest with everything on the line.
As expected, it was again and arm wrestle in the initial stages of the third and final clash, with Souths halfback Adam Reynolds kicking a superb 40/20 to give his side a great opportunity to open the scoring. The Sea Eagles obliged, when they were too keen off their own line to give away a penalty right next to the posts. Reynolds shockingly missed the penalty however and the score remained 0-0.
The Rabbitohs then scored the first try of the night, when five-eighth Cody Walker and John Sutton combined down the left-hand side to put their fleet footed winger Alex Johnson over for the opening try of the match. Reynolds missed the conversion and the Bunnies lead 4-0 after 9 minutes.
Souths fast start continued minutes later, when superstar lock Cameron Murray found some space close to the line and found Walker who crashed over and extended the lead to 10-0 following Reynolds' conversion.
If the Sea Eagles were stunned, it didn't last long when Souths prop Liam Knight gifted Manly a chance back into the game by spilling the ball on just the second tackle deep inside his own half. Former premiership winning Rabbitoh Dylan Walker then made his old side pay, providing a pass for his centre Brad Parker who ran a terrific line to get his side back in the match. Rueben Garrick missed the conversion and the Rabbitohs led 10-4 inside the first quarter of the match.
Sea Eagles skipper Daly Cherry-Evans then had his side on the back foot, by giving away a penalty for an accidental crusher tackle on Damian Cook. Reynolds nailed the penalty and Souths lead 12-4.
Dylan Walker was again involved close to the line for the Eagles, when he successfully isolated Sam Burgess and found rookie backrower Corey Waddell who crashed over for a try and narrow the lead to 12-10 following Garrick's conversion.
The game then boiled over when Manly pulled off a superb defensive display, driving Souths fullback Adam Douehi back in-goal. Manly backrower Jack Gosiewski then escalated things with an unnecessary shove on Douehi which saw Cody Walker sent to the Sin Bin for a punch on his former team mate Gosiewski.
Manly took advantage of the extra man, when Sea Eagles blockbusting centre Moses Suli picked up a sloppy pass and fended away from Sutton and found his winger Garrick in some space down the sideline. Garrick then drew the fullback Douehi and found his skipper Daly Cherry-Evans in support who scored a terrific try. Garrick converted and the Sea Eagles hit the front, leading 16-12.
Souths then swung back momentum before the halftime siren, when Damien Cook ducked out of dummy half close to the line and turned the ball inside to find Murray. Murray then leapt like an NFL quarterback close to the line to score. Reynolds' conversion from next to the posts gave the home side the lead by 18-16 at the break.
Daly Cherry-Evans then grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck in the second stanza, when the Queensland halfback set up two quick tries for blockbusting centre Moses Suli and then for fiery backrower Gosiewski who dived on superbly timed grubber and all of the sudden Manly were in front by 24-20.
The game then turned dramatically in the Rabbitohs favour when Jake Trbojevic was sent to the Sin Bin for pulling down Dane Gagai while chasing a kick. Replays showed Trbojevic did tug at Gagai's jersey, however the major discussion post-match will be whether the incident warranted a Sin Bin for the Sea Eagles forward,
With a man down and the game on the line, it was the cardinal and myrtle's most experienced player John Sutton, who collected the ball wide inside the red zone. The veteran then stepped off the left foot and inside the Sea Eagles goal line defence to score a crucial try and following the Reynolds conversion tied up the game at 26 all with just over 10 minutes left.
Sea Eagles outside backs Brendan Elliot and Jorge Taufua then collided when attempted to defuse a Reynolds bomb in a disaster for the Sea Eagles hopes late in the match. Makeshift centre, Cameron Murray then scooped up a loose ball to accelerate towards to try line and give his side the win.
South Sydney now march on down the Hume Highway next week, with a Preliminary Final at GIO Stadium in Canberra in order to decide who will make the 2019 Grand Final.
Manly have ended their season as the biggest surprise packet, with coach Des Hasler doing an amazing job to get his side minus one of the NRL's best attacking weapons in Tom Trbojevic to just fall a fraction short of a preliminary final. An outstanding effort considering they were one of the favourites for the Wooden Spoon before a ball was kicked in 2019.