South Sydney blew the opportunity to move into pole position and grasp one hand on the minor premiership after slumping to a disappointing loss at home to a rampant North Queensland Cowboys.
More than 17,000 fans came to see a new league leader but instead witnessed the rise of an unexpected title challenger as the Cowboys put the rest of the league on notice with a hefty defeat of the favourites. They were slick, creative and disciplined in defence as they unravelled the Rabbitohs with an ease that made the mostly empty stadium all the more eery as the home fans were stunned into silence.
Souths scored the two late tries to mask an otherwise meager performance with a semi-respectable scoreline but there will be no hiding the influence this result will have on their aspirations for glory.
The Rabbitohs ran out with the confidence of taking first place, but they received a stern warning three minutes into the game when Kyle Feldt hauled the giant frame of Greg Inglis over the sideline deep inside Souths' half.
It was a jolt that failed to spark the Rabbitohs into life and it wasn't long until their defence was breached. Johnathan Thurston, who had another purler of a game, turned back inside to find Jason Taumololo in full flight and there was little Inglis could do as the powerful youngster steamrolled his way over the line. Souths' normally steely defence became as porous as their attack was toothless. A tame final play and poor kick-return allowed Michael Morgan to burst through the line to give his side a full set inside the attacking 20. From that position, there was only one outcome. Again Thurston proved the architect as he fed Feldt with a superb cut-out pass for the winger to score in the corner.
Another Feldt try sealed their fate in the first half. A clever sweeping move with a smart use of decoy runners gave the Cowboys winger the chance to cut inside and weave his way through a packed defence to clinch a 16-0 lead at the break.
There was more purpose in the title favourites after the restart and only a video referee decision denied Luke Keary a try as the Souths' half grounded the ball on the deadball line. It was a symbol of hope for a Rabbitohs resurgence that was quashed as quickly as it arose. Yet another intelligent sweeping move exposed space down the wing for the Cowboys with winger Antonio Winterstein seizing the overlap to score in the corner.
It blew the score to 22-0 with less than half an hour remaining in the contest. Souths were all but out when they received a rare moment of luck to score their first try of the match. A suspicious forward pass in the build-up to a Joe Picker try went unnoticed and the Souths' forward got his team on the board, but it proved to be little more than a consolation. Tautau Moga crossed late to salvage some credibility in an otherwise lacklustre performance.
To add injury to the result, Adam Reynolds was forced off the field with a suspected hamstring injury that may put him doubt for the final two games against the Bulldogs and the Roosters.
The Cowboys morale-boosting win moves them to sixth ahead of the Storm temporarily but more importantly, one step closer to ensuring finals football. A top eight finish will likely be celebrated with their home fans when they host Cronulla in Townsville next Monday night.