South Sydney winger Campbell Graham all but ended St George Illawarra's finals hopes with a try as the full-time siren sounded after Dragons captain Gareth Widdop and hooker Cameron McInnes combined with rookie winger Jason Saab to spark a remarkable second-half comeback.
McInnes charged down an attempted field goal by Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds and outran Cody Walker and Braidon Burns to dive on the loose ball 40 metres from the St George Illawarra tryline in a 74th-minute play that appeared to have saved the Dragons' season.
Saab scored his second try of the night on the following tackle and Widdop levelled the scores at 14-14 with his conversion, before landing a 78th-minute penalty goal from 30 metres out and on the sideline in his first match back from shoulder surgery.
However the Dragons could not hold Souths out and Graham crossed on the final play of the game to snatch a 20-16 win that has left the Red V needing to win all of their remaining six games to have any chance of making the playoffs.
It was a cruel loss for St George Illawarra after a performance which highlighted how much Widdop's 18 week absence had hurt their season and his return coincided with a renewed energy and spirit within the team.
"He got us back in the game with that nice kick behind the line [for Saab to score] and then nailed the conversion, then nailed another one and obviously got that clutch one at the back end of the game," Dragons coach Paul McGregor said.
“He is obviously a class player and the one player we have missed all season so to have him back tonight just goes to show how much he was missed.
McGregor also praised McInnes, who captained the team in Widdop's absence and is likely to take over the role next season after his departure for Warrington in Super League.
McInnes also made 59 tackles, while lock James Graham made 60 and prop Paul Vaughan 50.
“He has done that all year, he hasn’t changed his effort from round one to now," McGregor said of the charge down that almost rescued St George Illawarra's season.
“That just shows his resilience and the type of leader he is going forward for the club."
The Dragons had two other try scoring opportunities but impatience cost then as halfback Ben Hunt was denied due to a double-movement and centre Euan Aitken was cut down just short by Souths fullback Adam Doueihi.
For the Rabbitohs, it was an important win in their quest for a home final as they are guaranteed to remain in outright second place ahead of Sydney Roosters and Canberra - regardless of other results this weekend.
Souths coach Wayne admitted he had been "pessimistic" about his team's chances after Widdop's late penalty goal.
“I had a speech prepared before the try that wasn’t anything like the one I gave after the try was scored," Bennett said.
"I saw in the box Paul McGregor signalling to take the two [points] when they had the kick on the sideline and they would have been elated with that moment, thought it was their game, and your emotions go down and you are thinking about why you lost the game and all the things you should have done that you didn’t do.
"When you get down to that last minute and all of a sudden in the last 10 seconds they score in the corner your whole world is turned upside down again and his world has gone the other way. He would be pleased with their effort but effort is not going to get them where they want to go."
Match: Rabbitohs v Dragons
Round 19 -
Venue: ANZ Stadium
- Nine Network
- LIVE PASS
The Dragons took an early lead when Widdop landed a fourth-minute penalty goal after a dangerous tackle by Souths hooker Damien Cook on his NSW Origin team-mate Tyson Frizell.
Saab gave the first glimpse of why McGregor handed the 199cm teenager his NRL debut when he leapt above Graham to tap back a Widdop cross-field kick only for centre Euan Aitken to knock on.
An Adam Reynolds penalty goal levelled the scores in the 19th minute and the game became an arm wrestle as both teams battled for field possession but the weight of possession heavily favoured the Rabbitohs.
After three consecutive sets on the Dragons line, Gagai crossed for his first try in the 31st minute when Walker ran from the left to right side to create an overlap out wide for the Rabbitohs against tiring defence.
Trailing 6-2 at the interval, St George Illawarra started the second half poorly when Hunt knocked on at first receiver in the 43rd minute and Walker dummied his way over to score on the following set of tackles.
Reynolds again missed the conversion but the Rabbitohs continued to turn the screw and four goal-line drop outs kept their opponents under pressure and starved them of possession.
The Dragons looked ready to capitulate when Hunt attempted a short goal line drop out and kicked the ball into Vaughan as he was attempting to get onside.
The comedy of errors resulted in a penalty against the Dragons and Gagai scored his second try in the 56th minute to put the Rabbitohs ahead 14-2 but the visitors rallied late to set up an epic finish.
Saab scored his first try in the 66th minute when he pounced on a Widdop grubber and he crossed again eight minutes later after McInness's charge down heroics to level the scores at 14-14.
Widdop appeared to have snatched victory with a 78th-minute penalty goal from the sideline but the Rabbitohs regained the ball from a short kick off and Graham broke the Dragons hearts when he dived over in the corner as the full-time siren sounded.
"We got ourselves back from a 14-2 deficit which was good, into a winning position," McGregor said. "Catch the ball, make the tackle, we win the game.
"We knew they'd kick off short, we loaded up that left edge but we didn't come up with the catch so we needed to defend the set and we just didn't. It's tough but that's footy."