James Maloney made an 11th hour bid for a NSW recall after leading Penrith to their fourth consecutive win with a 77th minute field goal against Souths at ANZ Stadium on Saturday.
With Maloney and incumbent Blues halves Nathan Cleary and Cody Walker involved in the match, there was much more than just two competition points on the line and the veteran playmaker did his best to remind NSW coach Brad Fittler of his match-winning qualities.
Maloney’s field goal from 20 metres out and to the left of the uprights secured Penrith a 19-18 win over the second-placed Rabbitohs.
Wayne Bennett's men are now four points behind competition leaders Melbourne, while the Panthers have climbed to within two points of the top eight.
Cleary and Walker were each involved in a try for their team but it is unclear whether either did enough to retain their places when the NSW team for Origin II in Perth is named on Sunday or if Fittler will opt for one or more unforced changes.
Match: Rabbitohs v Panthers
Round 14 -
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Newcastle halfback Mitchell Pearce and Maloney are the two contenders to replace Cleary or Walker or both but none of the four dominated on Saturday, with the Knights being crushed 34-4 by the Storm earlier in the day.
With George Burgess joining brothers Sam (shoulder) and Tom (suspended) on the sideline after being taken to hospital on Friday night with a stomach complaint, the Rabbitohs forwards stocks were severely depleted.
Lock Cameron Murray was also suffering from a virus which forced him to miss Friday’s captain’s run but he played and came up with the first try of the match after forcing the ball loose from Cleary in Penrith’s in-goal and getting a hand on it to score in the 17th minute.
Five-eighth Adam Doueihi converted after taking over the goalkicking duties from Dane Gagai, who had a missed an earlier attempt from in front.
Kikau try gets the Panthers back level
However, the absence of halfback Adam Reynolds and Sam Burgess and James Roberts being new at the club meant that the Rabbitohs had three new faces in their right edge and that is where the Panthers aimed their attack.
Giant Penrith second-rower Viliame Kikau eventually cracked Souths defensive line after running onto a Maloney pass to score in the 30th minute and put his team in the lead for the first time following Cleary’s conversion.
The Panthers went further ahead eight minutes after halftime when rookie centre Brent Naden leapt above the defence to grab a perfectly placed Cleary kick and score. It was Cleary’s first try assist since round six.
After putting through the grubber kick for Murray’s try, Rabbitohs hooker Damien Cook produced his 16th try assist of this season – the most by any player in the NRL - when he ran out of dummy half and put prop Liam Knight over in the 56th minute.
Maloney slots the match-winning field goal
Souths regained the lead just two minutes later when Walker threw a long pass on his own 20-metre line to put Roberts on the outside of Josh Mansour and the speedster sprinted into the clear before sending Gagai racing for the line.
Penrith winger Brian To’o hit back for the visitors to level the scores at 18-18 with his first NRL try 10 minutes from full-time after Cleary linked with fullback Dylan Edwards to create an overlap on the right edge.
Cleary missed the sideline conversion and To’o lost the ball in the set after the re-start to give the Rabbitohs an opportunity to set up for a field goal but Walker’s attempt went wide and Maloney made sure of his shot at the other end to secure the win.