RABBITOHS 29 DRAGONS 10
Reluctant head coach Paul McGregor was given a sobering reminder of the task in front of him as life after Steve Price showed no immediate sign of improvement for the embattled Dragons.
Just a week after casting aside many misgivings about replacing his good friend, McGregor watched an ill-disciplined St George Illawarra crash 29-10 to premiership big guns South Sydney at ANZ Stadium on Monday night.
And even a healthy dose of pre-match mind games from McGregor did little to fool a clinical Rabbitohs, who are warming to the task nicely after a sluggish start to the year.
By contrast the Dragons are a team stuck in reverse, fast falling out of finals contention before the half-way mark in the season. Remarkably they topped the competition following the first month.
There were signs of improvement at the end of a horror month which saw their coach axed, but a 7-2 penalty count in favour of the Rabbitohs plagued a struggling Dragons.
"I think tonight at different times we showed a fair bit of character and we played a very clinical football team ... a top four side," McGregor said. "It showed we've got a bit of work to do.
"They know how to build pressure and we haven't learnt that yet."
Quizzed on how he found his first game at the helm, McGregor said: "OK. It is what it is. It's a game of footy, isn't it? We've got to put things in perspective and work together as one."
Benji Marshall's second game in the Red V was only slightly better than his first. A cute kick leading up to Tyson Frizell's second-half try and an audacious flick pass the bright spots in a game where he still appears several wavelengths removed from his teammates.
But McGregor launched a spirited defence of the Dragons' mid-season signing, claiming he still needed time to fit into the Dragons' structures.
"We've got to be patient," he said. "We all know he can play. We can't expect him to play like the Benji of old when he's been in the game a couple of weeks."
Perhaps the only joy for the Dragons was Gerard Beale's try on the stroke of half-time, ending a torturous 122-minute scoreless drought for the Red V. But it was the only positive in a night where a miserable crowd in Sydney's west watched the Dragons crash to their seventh loss in their last eight matches.
They've been outscored 137-30 in their last four straight losses.
Saturday's local derby against the Sharks should have been a mouth-watering prospect at the start of the season. Considering their current plights, interim coaches McGregor and Peter Sharp will just be trying to pick up two points to inch away from the wooden spoon.
Souths never got out of second gear in truth, wrapping up the result and their third win over the Dragons in 2014 with tries to Adam Reynolds and NSW Origin contender Dylan Walker in consecutive second half sets. It powered them into fourth spot after a 1-3 start to the season.
"It is nice [to be fourth], but everyone is pretty close," coach Michael Maguire said. "We've built our way out of that and now we've just got to get stronger and stronger.
"The boys, from the start of the season, really put their heads down and have put themselves in a reasonable position at the moment, but we're aware there's a lot of football to be played."
McGregor played the double bluff card when lodging his first team sheet, officially naming Marshall in the centres with Adam Quinlan at halfback an hour before kick-off.
But from the moment the Dragons stepped onto a hollow ANZ Stadium it was going to be anything but. Josh Dugan, pressing for a NSW recall, switched to centre with Marshall retaining the No 7 and Quinlan at fullback. And didn't Souths anticipate it.
Maguire gave Sam Burgess a licence to roam on the Rabbitohs' left edge, arrowing the majority of their attack at the fledgling Dugan-Marshall defensive tandem.
So it came as really no surprise the hosts ran in all three first-half tries on that side of the field - two coming to winger Joel Reddy who was the beneficiary of the John Sutton and Greg Inglis show.
Sandwiched in between was a smash-and-grab effort from Sam Burgess, crashing over despite a number of Dragons swarming to stop the rugby union-bound international.
His brother George was controversially denied opening points in an even first quarter, ruled to have spilt the ball as it remained tenuously in his grasp with the line beckoning.
SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS 29 (Joel Reddy 2, Sam Burgess, Adam Reynolds, Dylan Walker tries; Reynolds 3, Walker goals, Reynolds field goal) defeated ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS 10 (Gerard Beale, Tyson Frizell tries; Gareth Widdop goal) at ANZ Stadium. Referee: Shayne Hayne, Henry Perenara. Crowd: 11,771.