South Sydney Rabbitohs power past Sea Eagles
South Sydney have catapulted into premiership favouritism after knocking over competition front runners Manly in what might have been a grand final dress rehearsal at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Friday night.
Believe the hype Rabbitohs fans, this team is the real deal.
It's been said and found to be untrue in the past two years, but the difference between version three of Michael Maguire's Bunnies compared to the first two is the fact they haven't peaked too soon.
Over the past two years the Rabbitohs have been guilty of hitting their straps in the first half of the season, only to falter in consecutive preliminary finals.
But last night's eye-opening win against last year's runners up was South Sydney's best performance of the season, charging into premiership favouritism at the right time of year.
However, South Sydney have been here before.
In round 23 last year, in almost the corresponding round, the Rabbitohs left Gosford with a 22-10 win over Manly, only to bow out to the Sea Eagles 30-20 in the preliminary final six weeks later.
Sam Burgess' return from injury for the match in front of 27,062 at the iconic ground was a huge boost for the Rabbitohs, but it was the performance of their halves that would have pleased Maguire the most.
The Rabbitohs might have just found the halves combination to lead them to long awaited glory, with Maguire needing to find room in the forwards for injured skipper John Sutton in order to retain the Adam Reynolds-Luke Keary partnership.
The loss could come at a huge price for the Sea Eagles, who lost centre Steve Matai to a shoulder injury in the fifth minute of the match before prop Josh Starling was placed on report in the second half for a crusher tackle on former teammate Luke Keary.
Manly's presence through the middle is somewhat of a concern - they are ranked 14th and 15th this season for metres gained and tackle breaks, respectively - and they were again exposed by the giant South Sydney pack on Friday night.
The Rabbitohs came into the game as the No.1 ranked team in five of the major defensive categories, conceding fewer points and missing less tackles than any other team in the competition, upholding that reputation with a resilient display without the ball.
The win keeps South Sydney's minor premiership hopes alive, moving within two points of the Sea Eagles at the top of the ladder with four rounds remaining.
Peta Hiku joined Semi Radradra as the NRL's top try scorer when he crossed for his 16th try of the season inside six minutes to give the Sea Eagles an early 4-0 lead, however that's all Manly had to smile about in a disappointing first half.
South Sydney took the lead soon after when Kyle Turner burst through a yawning gap between Jamie Lyon and Daly Cherry-Evans off an Adam Reynolds short ball for his side's opening try of the night.
A knock on from Jamie Buhrer while his side were deep on attack saw Lote Tuqiri clean up the scraps and run 70 metres, before Kirisome Auva'a capitalised on an overlap to score on the next tackle.
With South Sydney leading 12-4 at the break, both teams went from end to end in search of first points in what was an enthralling second half.
But with 15 minutes remaining, the Rabbitohs finally cracked Manly's defence when Auva'a put Alex Johnston over for his 15th try in just his 11th game of his short career.
Sam Burgess then put the icing on the cake when he strolled through untouched from an inside ball from hooker Issac Luke, before a Reynolds field goal sealed the 19 point victory.
South Sydney Rabbitohs 23 (K Auva'a S Burgess A Johnston K Turner tries A Reynolds 3 goals A Reynolds field goal) Manly Sea Eagles 4 (P Hiku try) at Sydney Cricket Ground. Referee: Ben Cummins, Chris James. Crowd: 27,062
Sydney Morning Herald