It wasn't pretty but South Sydney almost literally pulled a rabbit out of the hat, or three to be precise, as a treble of late field goals from Adam Reynolds got them over the line against a courageous St George-Illawarra in their semi-final clash at ANZ Stadium last night.
With three minutes on the clock, the Dragons had narrowly pulled ahead by 12-11, but up stepped Reynolds to slot not one but two field goals to break the hearts of the Dragons and their fans alike. It was an old-fashioned tussle between the two sides, really befitting of finals' football.
With that, the Rabbitohs advance to play the Roosters next week in one of the preliminary finals, whilst the Dragons will look back on another season which started with so promise, but came unhinged at the end. Here are five things we learned from the match:
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1. Three field goals needed in ten minutes? Call Adam Reynolds
You could say they claimed it, stole it or engineered it, but when it mattered, the Rabbitohs found a way to win. Reynolds had previously slotted two field goals all season, and now within the space of one match has five and the most for the season, overtaking Shaun Johnson.
The lead changed constantly in the last ten minutes as Reynolds slotted his first field goal in the 70th minute to help South Sydney take the lead 11-10. A penalty goal from Zac Lomax four minutes from time took the Dragons narrowly back in front. Reynolds then responded with his second drop-goal two minutes later to even up the scores. Instead of looking for the win in golden point extra time the Dragons opted to run out of their own half instead of kicking in the final minute of play. It allowed the Rabbitohs the field position to cultivate another attempt at goal, which Reynolds duly obliged with, to set a up an unlikely, yet thrilling victory.
Usually when a halfback or five-eighth kicks a late field goal, it's a last option to settle the game. Therefore, the Dragons will lament giving Reynolds the space and opportunity to kick three of them in ten minutes, including in virtually the last play of the game when they should have been looking for territory. With Reynolds now in some clutch kicking form and a similar grind fest coming up against the Roosters, he may yet be called upon again to decide the game with his boot.
It put the stamp on an excellent game for the halfback who kicked well on defense for 326 metres to keep the Dragons at bay, whilst combining with Angus Crichton for a second-half try.
2. Ben Hunt will learn from this experience
Much maligned after the match and in the weeks' preceding it, Hunt had a decent match all things considered. With South Sydney having more runs with the ball and having 400 metres over St George-Illawarra, he did well to notch up 466 kick metres and keep their attack quiet, as they didn't score until the 60th minute. That is quite a feat for a team leading the tries and points tally this year against a side missing their five-eighth and other key players.
The Dragons got the better of the Rabbitohs as the first half wore on, and that led to Hunt opening the try-scoring late in the first half. With the Dragons attacking the line, Hunt had the ball with his backs outside him, and provided a lovely show-and-go dummy, leaving the Rabbitohs' defenders in his wake as he went over the line.
However, his match will, unfortunately, be remembered for his decision to run the ball on the Dragons' last tackle of the match instead of kicking away possession, which he will no doubt be rueing. With the Dragons in their own half at the time, it crucially allowed the Rabbitohs to get into the right field position and give the Reynolds the chance to slot the winning field-goal.
Hunt has shown glimpses of his potential during the season, and this season can be put down to experience, making him better for next year.
3. Murray makes a huge impact off the bench
The Rabbitoh's front row were in potent form, with Thomas Burgess cranking out 170 metres and making 30 tackles himself. While his brother George ran for 115 metres himself, a head clash between the two meant it curtailed his match to only 20 minutes across the game, after going off for a head injury assessment.
Up stepped Cameron Murray from the bench. The front rower put in 16 runs for 163 metres and complemented that with 31 tackles in his 60 minutes on the field. The 20-year-old usually comes off the bench into lock and rarely gets as much opportunity, having averaged nine runs for 86 metres per game this season. However, he was aggressive and hungry on defense all night, and pulled off a huge play late in the game. With four minutes to run, he made a tackle on Nene MacDonald, and the very next run he stripped the ball off Luciano Leilua, allowing the Rabbitohs to start their tackle count in the Dragons' half. It was enough to put Reynolds in a position to kick the second of his two field goals and level the scores at 12-all.
4. Lomax shows potential in young NRL career
He may only be 18-years-old and into his fourth first grade match, but Zac Lomax looks set for a bright future with the Dragons' going into next season. The live-wire centre made was thrust with the kicking duties last week after Gareth Widdop's injury and did so again in this match.
He kicked four goals for a perfect kick percentage and looked inventive on attack, putting in a grubber-kick and getting an offload away in his stints with the ball. He made seven runs for 63 metres. In defense he also looked very effective, making 19 tackles and not missing one in the process. His execution on plays were lacking, but he seems like a player that looks to try things, and has been an able replacement for Euan Aitken while he's been recovering from injury. He may not even be a bad option for Paul McGregor to trial in the halves in pre-season matches next year.
5. Rabbitohs move forward for a chance at redemption, Dragons left to rue unfulfilled potential
When South Sydney came away with a 24-10 win against St George-Illawarra in their round 10 clash earlier this year, it almost felt like a turning of momentum for both sides. They had squared the ledger at one apiece for the season, but the Rabbitohs have gone from strength to strength since that time, minus the odd blip here or there. However the Dragons, whilst they kept pace with the top four for most of the season, never really seemed like they could put the top teams away and be a force to be reckoned with in the finals. They appeared to stagnate mid-season and although they upended the Broncos in the first week of finals last week, form and injuries appeared to hamper them.
It will please both sides to have made the finals this year, with the Dragons having finished 9th last year whilst the Rabbitohs were a lowly 12th. The Dragons will look back on a second straight season however where they lit the competition on fire early on only to finish with a fizzle, something they will no doubt address in the off-season. It's unfortunate for a side that showed a lot of potential on the field. For the Rabbitohs they now have a chance to redeem themselves from last season, being one win away from the grand final. They have shown this season they can score tries and points quite comfortably, but with this win they have also shown they can grind out a victory in a low-scoring encounter when it matters - something the Storm, Sharks and Roosters have previously proven they can do.