The Rabbitohs scratched home 20-10 against the Cowboys to secure their place in the top eight, while the Cowboys missed a chance to finish in the top two with two late sin bins.
The Cowboys came from 14-6 down before Coen Hess and Kyle Feldt were sent to the trash to reduce the visitors to 11 men for the final minutes and Souths held on with a late try from Tom Burgess sealing the result.
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Scott Drinkwater was penalized for a strip, giving Latrell Mitchell a penalty goal to give Souths a 2-0 lead.
Drinkwater made amends by setting up Murray Taulagi for a long-range try through a weak Souths defense to give the Cowboys the lead.
Lachlan Ilias set up Keaon Koloamatangi for a brilliant run to the line to see Souths regain the lead in a see-saw first half.
Mitchell set up Alex Johnston for his 164th NRL career to try to extend Souths’ advantage.
“Magic Johnston is here,” Andrew Voss said on Fox League.
Kyle Feldt produced a brilliant long-range solo try as he showcased his footballing skills to set up a grandstand finish.
Coen Hess was booked for a shoulder to the head from Souths center Campbell Graham, reducing the Cowboys to 12 men for the rest of the game.
Feldt was convicted for taking Alex Johnston in the run to score a try reducing the Cowboys to 11 men in chaotic scenes.
Tom Burgess crashed under the posts to seal a scrappy victory to cement Souths in the top eight.
Here are the main takeaways from the game.
MURRAY INTERVENES IN COOK’S ABSENCE WITH MASTERCLASS
Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker get all the headlines and deservedly so for their attacking brilliance, but Cameron Murray is the glue that holds the Souths title charge together.
The Souths skipper was at his tireless best against the Cowboys who held the Rabbitohs line together in defense and proved a crucial link in attack.
Some of his tackles against Jason Taumalolo were pure courage personified and he doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff, despite being one of the smallest forwards in the game.
Greg Alexander thinks Murray made the difference between the two teams in a superb display.
“Cameron Murray was outstanding from the kick-off,” Alexander said.
“Murray was into everything. 23 tackles in the first half and a mountain of work around the ruck.
“His ball playing one out of the ruck is why the Suds look dangerous when in good position on the field.
“Murray was the linchpin tonight for just about everything.”
Murray finished with 103 yards of running, two tackle saves, one offload and 35 clean tackles in a true captain’s move to lead his team to the final.
SOUTH SECURE FINALS PLACE DESPITE BEING BELOW THEIR BEST
The Rabbitohs were well short of their brilliant best in an awkward performance against the Cowboys, but the fact that they won against a top-four team is a good sign for September.
The Souths’ final series arguably begins next week in a blockbuster clash with the in-form Roosters who trot seven wins with the rivals to battle to a full house to open the Allianz Stadium.
Their brilliant offense deserted them against the Cowboys, but the fact that they managed to contain one of the NRL’s best attacking teams to 10 points is a great sign ahead of the big year-end games.
Cooper Cronk noted that the Cowboys actually looked more dangerous, especially in the first half, but the Souths can just turn it on when they need to.
“South Sydney can just put it up whenever they want,” Cronk said.
“I actually liked the way the Cowboys were playing. They were more disciplined and more aggressive. They were kicking the Souths out of bad positions.
“But South Sydney just has that ability once they get past halfway they have so many shots they can score points.”
The Rabbitohs have the attacking game to mix it up with anyone in the competition when it clicks, but final footy often doesn’t go to the script, so the fact they can win lousy is a good sign.
If the Souths can get their defense in order, they have the offense to confuse most teams in the Finals.
COWBOYS MISS DEARDEN AS TAUMALOLO AND DRINKWATER SHINE IN BEATEN SIDE
The Cowboys may not have gotten the job done, but there was a lot to like about the performances of their captain Jason Taumalolo and five-eighth Scott Drinkwater.
Losing Tom Dearden and moving Drinkwater from the back was always going to have an effect on their cohesion on offense, but they still threw a lot at the Rabbitohs.
Taumalolo played like a possessed man particularly in defense with some fierce tackles notably on Tevita Tatola and Tom Burgess.
Corey Parker praised Taumalolo for leading the battle against the in-form South Sydney pack.
“Those are really good signs for the Cowboys,” Parker said.
“Taumalolo is not known for his striking or his aggressiveness with his defensive structures.
“He obviously goes after contact with the ball, but he had a shot at Tatola and a big hit at Burgess from the kick-off.
“He really set the tone for the Cowboys.”
Cooper Cronk believes Cowboys coach Todd Payten wants more impact from his defensive skipper ahead of the big contests at the end of the year.
“Todd Payten is a good coach and I think he looked at his skipper Taumalolo and said, I need you physically tonight,” Cronk said.
“Normally he does it with the ball in hand, but he really went after the Bunnies.”
Drinkwater has returned to the position he played for the Cowboys for most of the past few seasons and hasn’t seemed out of place in the point guard role.
It’s a nice luxury for the Cowboys to have to call on Drinkwater as a point guard when needed.
Greg Alexander was impressed with Drinkwater’s front row cameo.
“I thought Drinkwater was good in the first half,” Alexander said.
“A brilliant game that gave the Cowboys their first try with Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Murray Taulagi.
“He did a bit of everything tonight. He plays at the back in defense and hops around in attack.
However, the Cowboys will regret a missed chance to cement a top-two spot and will now have to face the Sharks away in Week 1 of the Finals.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs host the North Queensland Cowboys in a blockbuster clash at the Accor Stadium.
Damien Cook is out for the Rabbitohs due to Covid, with Siliva Havili starting at hooker. while Kodi Nikorima returns from a hamstring injury on the bench.
Winger Izaac Thompson was ruled out with a hamstring injury, with Taane Milne coming on the flank.
Thomas Burgess returns from a groin injury on the bench, while Michael Cheekam returns from a long-term injury on the pine.
For the Cowboys, Scott Drinkwater moves to five-eights for the injured Tom Dearden with Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow at fullback.
Tom Gilbert comes on the bench to cover Tabuai-Fidow’s promotion as a starter.
Coen Hess starts at the prop with Reuben Cotter moving to the bench, while Jake Granville comes on the pine, with Griffin Neame named 18th man.
The seventh-placed Rabbitohs must win to secure a place in the final, while the Cowboys can all but seal second place with a win setting up a crucial clash for both sides.
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