The NZ Warriors endured another forlorn road trip to Western Australia, with a costly 34-18 loss to an injury-ravaged South Sydney overnight leaving them at a crossroads midway through the NRL season.
A sixth win in seven matches for the Rabbitohs means the Warriors are still languish in 12th, and should they ultimately fail to feature in the finals series this excursion will loom large as a missed opportunity.
The Warriors found the competition's longest road trip too taxing last year and again struggled to go the distance at nib Stadium despite South Sydney suffering a sequence of injuries highlighted by an ankle injury to Greg Inglis that sent shockwaves east to Queensland.
Kiwis World Cup centre Bryson Goodwin was another backline casualty while George Burgess and Jason Clark both had to clear concussion tests before being allowed to return to the field.
Yet despite those setbacks, the Rabbitohs remarkably recovered from a 14-6 deficit by posting 28 unanswered points to secure a win that sees them regain fourth position.
"I thought given the circumstances surrounding the opposition they were cherry ripe for the picking," admitted Warriors coach Andrew McFadden.
"We went away completely from what we've been practising and just lost our way. It was very disappointing, the way it ended.
"Even the way the tries were scored, that hasn't been us for the last month. They were soft tries."
South Sydney emerged as the true warriors during the back end of a brutal round 13 clash that mirrored their previous encounter in Perth.
The Warriors held a 13-6 lead at the break in 2013 before leaking 24 points, and again a 11.30pm (NZ time) kick-off again saw them virtually fall asleep after originally catching South Sydney napping.
An acrobatic finish by rookie wing David Fusitu'a and a Shaun Johnson try following a Suaia Matagi line break past Burgess had the Warriors off to a perfect start inside 10 minutes, though it was unstinting defence that provided the cornerstone of a 10-6 halftime advantage.
Johnson set the tone by unexpectedly stopping a rampant Sam Burgess in his tracks as the momentum swung to the Rabbitohs.
The Warriors completion rate dipped and their discipline saw the concession of three straight penalties before Dylan Walker got South Sydney on the board in the 25th minute.
A future NSW State of Origin centre, Walker took a smart inside ball from John Sutton as the Rabbitohs breached the Warriors' traditionally vulnerable right side defence on the back of a fourth straight set of possession.
Ultimately, the Warriors made 24 tackles inside their 20-metre zone - compared to South Sydney's seven at the other end of the field - emphasising the pressure exerted on, though defied by the Auckland side before injuries were supposed to work in their favour.
After all, the potent Inglis limped off with an ankle injury a minute before the break after Sam Burgess landed on the Kangaroos' star's right leg as he tackled Manu Vatuvei.
Goodwin joined Inglis on the sidelines eight minutes after the restart when he hyper-extended an elbow - and the Warriors were deceptively quick to capitalise on a rearranged right edge defence.
With inexperienced second rower Kyle Turner switched to centre and interchange forward Chris McQueen dispatched to the flank, Simon Mannering capitalised after palming off Adam Reynolds.
Johnson could not add the extras though a 40-20 in the 53rd minute set up prime attacking position - but a Jayson Bukuya knock-on alleviated the pressure before the Rabbitohs responded to adversity superbly.
Walker, who moved from centre to fullback for Inglis, initiated the recovery when he combined with Sutton again before wrong footing Sam Tomkins, Turner then pushed South Sydney in front entering the final quarter when he powered through Ngani Laumape.
The Rabbitohs' resources were stretched again when Clark was dazed after a collision with Jacob Lillyman just after the hour mark - ironically the worst possible scenario for the Warriors.
Clark was replaced by Dave Tyrrell, a prop who started his career in the outside backs, and his brace - either side of an untroubled Joel Reddy forcing a Reynolds cross kick - guaranteed the points before a trademark Konrad Hurrell burst provided scant consolation in the final minute.
Tyrrell's tries were set up by Kiwis hooker Issac Luke, who provided some deft touches in just his second game back following shoulder surgery, while his captain Sutton was also influential in orchestrating the Rabbitohs' recovery.
Man of the match Walker was also sublime despite being hampered by a thumb injury in the second spell.
"Dylan came up with some very special plays in the second half and really put us on the front foot," said South Sydney coach Michael Maguire, who added: "Individuals right across our team stood up.
"It was probably the most special game I've been a part of with this team. There were times there when people were off their feet and they just found a way to keep moving.
"We had no bench at one stage, it was just a hard-fought win for the guys and shows the character of our team," said Maguire, who took over in 2012.
South Sydney next face the Wests Tigers on Friday; the Warriors have ample time to mull over their shortcomings with a bye preceding the Brisbane Broncos' visit to Mt Smart on June 21.
South Sydney Rabbitohs 34 (D Tyrrell 2 D Walker 2 J Reddy K Turner tries A Reynolds 5 goals) NZ Warriors 18 (D Fusitua K Hurrell S Johnson S Mannering tries S Johnson goal) at nib Stadium. Referee: Jared Maxwell, David Munro. Crowd: 20,267
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