ST GEORGE Illawarra fans were daring to dream, but their hopes of reaching a preliminary final were shattered by, not one, but three field goals from Souths halfback Adam Reynolds on Saturday night.
The Rabbitohs 13-12 win came after a stunning final 10 minutes that saw the lead change three times all on the back of one-on-one strips. Ben Hunt fired the first shot, shanking an attempt at field goal with 12 minutes left.
It gave up a seven-tackle set with Adam Reynolds making no mistake with his shot at a one-pointer at the other end, giving his side an 11-10 lead with 10 minutes to play.
It looked like it wouldn't be the Dragons’night when Cam McInnes was pinged for a crucial penalty for passing the ball into a grounded Cameron Murray, deliberately in the opinion of referee Gerard Sutton.
The Rabbitohs couldn't make them pay and when Tyson Frizell stripped Campbell Graham of the ball one-on-on 10 metres out from the Rabbitohs line, the game looked to be theirs again.
Cody Walker was penalised for hanging on to long in the ensuing tackle, with Zac Lomax stepping up and nailing the biggest two points of his young career to re-take the lead five minutes from fulltime.
The drama didn't end there, with Leeson Ah Mau incredibly also stripped of the ball by Murray, with Reynolds nailing his second field goal of the match to again lock the scores.
The match looked destined to golden point before the Dragons inexplicably didn't get to their kick on their final set, handing the ball over on halfway and allowing the Rabbitohs to march up the park and let Reynolds jag his third field goal, this one the match-winner.
Coach Paul McGregor admitted it was a hollow feeling, but still one preferable to previous seasons watching sides go round in September.
“It stings. We had it, we lost it, we had it, it came down to a field goal the difference in the end,” McGregor said.
“For me [in the sheds] it was about the year that was. It's been our most successful year since 2011. We came into the final series not in the best form or shape with a few injuries, and went up and put a nice score on Brisbane.
“Tonight, it came down to a field goal in the end so, as a coach, it's a great character building experience for a lot of people. Today's an opportunity lost, definitely, but [we've made] bounds forward not steps.
“I'm very proud of the performance they've put in the last two weeks given how much everyone thought we were outsiders. We are busted, there's a lot of guys who got needles, there's a lot of guys who didn't even train through the week.
“We needed to finish the game with 17 fit men and I thought the real turning point in the game was when Tariq [Sims] went off [injured] on that left edge which put some changes there and possession swung away from us.
“I'm super impressed with the attitude and that little bit of arrogance. When good teams are playing well they've got that arrogance about them and we got a bit of that back the last couple of weeks which is really important going forward.”
It came after the Dragons led 8-2 at halftime on the back of a brilliant solo try from Hunt five minutes before halftime, a four-pointer that even brought neutrals to their feet given the roller coaster he's endured this season.
Unfortunately, he'll likely cop the flak for the final play that turned possession over in the aftermath, particularly against the ruthlessness shown by his opposing No. 7 to ice the game.
“You can break the game down a fair bit if you like but that's not for this press conference,” McGregor said when asked about his side's final four minutes.
“I'm not going to turn it on a player who didn't make the right decision or anything like that. That's not for now.
"Going forward it's great experience for those guys to make sure next time we get that opportunity we make it right.”
Reynolds opened the scoring with a ninth-minute penalty goal after Ah Mau collected Sutton high, one of five straight penalties to start the game. Lomax leveled up with a goal of his own 12 minutes later, locking at the match at two apiece 17 minutes before the break.
Hunt crossed for the first try of the match four minutes before halftime, burning Sam Burgess for pace to score, with Lomax nailing the conversion for an 8-2 lead.
Sims limped off with an injured knee three minutes after the resumption before Lomax grabbed his second penalty goal to push the margin out beyond a converted try at 10-2 with 25 minutes to play.
It didn't last long with Reynolds putting Angus Crichton through a hole and backing up to score under the posts to cut the margin back to two in the next set.
He too control from there steering his side through the chaotic finals stages to seal the deal late and finish with all his side's points in the 13-12 win.