South Sydney defied all predictions to hand the Vodafone Warriors a serious setback tonight to their hopes of playing NRL finals football for the first time in five years.
The home side was eyeing its third straight victory while the Rabbitohs came into the contest on the back of nine straight defeats.
It didn't look like it, though, as South Sydney, buoyed by its display against Melbourne last week, weathered an early storm before pouring on points to lead 31-6 at halftime.
The Vodafone Warriors responded in the second half with three tries but couldn't build, let alone sustain, sufficient pressure to have any chance of mounting a comeback.
The result was all the more galling after the way the Vodafone Warriors began the match in the opening minutes.
From the kick-off, wing Manu Vatuvei tore in making back-to-back tackles, then defusing a bomb near his own line, carrying the ball back strongly and winning a penalty.
From the resulting set Shaun Johnson rolled in a grubber for goal-line dropout number one in the third minute. A minute later Johnson had set up a second goal-line dropout with another deft grubber.
Back the Vodafone Warriors came again, second rower Ryan Hoffman jumped out of dummy half, was stopped and Solomone Kata was taken out at the corner.
Referee Henry Perenara had played advantage, going back to award a penalty against Souths and this time the home side profited, Kata going low from dummy half and getting the ball down for his 13th try of the season. Johnson converted for a 6-0 lead after seven minutes, the least the Vodafone Warriors deserved for the way they’d opened up.
When they needed a solid set from the restart they erred, though. An error inside their 20 gave the Rabbitohs possession, then another set from a penalty. They went right, Adam Reynolds wasn’t contained by the defence and he slid through a perfect grubber for right wing Alex Johnston to score, Reynolds converting to tie it up 6-6 after 11 minutes.
The Vodafone Warriors enjoyed another spell at the right end of the field through a penalty set and then a David Fusitu’a kick producing an unlikely goal-line dropout. The Rabbitohs didn't flinch, averting danger with an intercept near their line and a minute after they had their second try, another Reynolds grubber in behind the Vodafone Warriors’ defensive line earning a try for left centre Aaron Gray. Reynolds made it 12-6 after 20 minutes.
From the restart the Vodafone Warriors conceded a penalty on halfway after sending the ball dead. More pressure and another penalty awarded against the home side. Reynolds went for goal but missed. From the repeat set, South Sydney forced another goal-line dropout.
The momentum had turned completely and the Rabbitohs made the most of it, hitting their left edge to create room for wing Joe Burgess to score wide out in the 26th minute, Reynolds on point with the conversion for an 18-6 lead few had seen coming.
The Vodafone Warriors were right under the pump as South Sydney loaded up with an aggressive defensive effort inside the home side's 20 and then came back at them through a powerhouse Greg Inglis run. It had the Vodafone Warriors on the back foot again, desperately trying to turn the rampant Rabbitohs away.
They couldn’t hold on, though. Again it was Reynolds playing the tormentor, slipping through another kick for Joe Burgess to score his second. With 32 minutes gone, the Vodafone Warriors were looking at a 6-24 deficit and in need of possession. It didn't happen.
Right on halftime the on-fire Rabbitohs, feeding off error-free football (completing all 16 sets), went in for the fifth time through some great ballwork for Inglis to score. With Reynolds slotting a late field goal, they went to the sheds with a 31-6 lead following a close to perfect performance after the Vodafone Warriors' opening try.
The Vodafone Warriors had to find a way back in somehow in the second half.
It came through an intercept - for the second time in a week - by Kata, scorching away 50 metres to score his 14th try of the season. This time he headed for the posts, too, with Johnson converting to bring the score-line back to 12-31.
The recovery was short-lived.
The Vodafone Warriors pushed through the left but Johnson's kick was blocked, centre Hymel Hunt picked it up and went more than 80 metres to score. With the extras from Reynolds the margin was out to an astonishing 37-12.
Almost immediately the Vodafone Warriors were back in scoring business, Bodene Thompson running a great line off Johnson, the halfback picking up an off load from his second rower and scorching across field to link up with Hoffman. To Kata it went and then to a powered-up Vatuvei who mowed through Johnston to score.
It narrowed the margin slightly but that was all. The Rabbitohs were too far ahead in this one.
They added two penalties to stretch to 41-16 before Vodafone Warriors hooker Jazz Tevaga had a consolation try, the first of his NRL career.
It didn't paper over a night of huge disappointment, leaving the Vodafone Warriors the task of winning their last three games to have a chance of making the finals.
In their previous nine games the Vodafone Warriors' defence had allowed an average of less than 17 points a game. The damage was more than double that tonight.
Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 22 (Solomone Kata 2, Manu Vatuvei, Jazz Tevaga tries; Shaun Johnson 3 conversions).
South Sydney Rabbitohs 41 (Joe Burgess 2, Alex Johnston, Aaron Gray, Greg Inglis, Hymel Hunt tries; Adam Reynolds 5 conversions, field goal; Damien Cook conversion, 2 penalties).
Halftime: 31-6 Rabbitohs.
Referees: Henry Perenara and Chris James.
Vodafone Warriors | Tuimoala Lolohea; Ken Maumalo, David Fusitu'a, Solomone Kata, Manu Vatuvei; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Jacob Lillyman, Jazz Tevaga, Albert Vete; Bodene Thompson, Ryan Hoffman (c); Simon Mannering. Interchange: Nathaniel Roache, Sam Lisone, Ben Matulino, Blake Ayshford.