Many were expecting the Penrith Panthers to win but steely and resolute defence gave the South Sydney Rabbitohs a surprise win.
On the back of a quality finals game before it, it was second v third, and there was plenty to play for.
Win, and you get a week off. Lose, and you have to play twice just to reach the grand final.
The 16-10 upset win for the Rabbitohs shocked many as they were not given much hope with the absence of talismanic fullback Latrell Mitchell.
The fullback honours at the Rabbitohs fell to Blake Taaffe and despite being peppered by bombs, Bunnies coach Wayne Bennett thought he held his own.
“I think he did a tremendous job,” Bennett said post-match.
“I think we handled [the pressure with] him well but more importantly he handled himself well.
“We wouldn’t have put him out there if we didn’t believe in him. Not in a game like this.”
A penalty goal from Adam Reynolds would open the scoring in the game.
Penrith would get the first try, however, when a crafty banana kick by Cleary trickled through.
It was batted back by Paul Momirovski and Stephen Crichton was there to score.
Some average Penrith defence would let the Rabbitohs back into the contest and it was that man, Cody Walker who scored.
Dane Gagai brushed off would-be defenders, broke some tackles and found Walker on his inside to score under the posts to put the Rabbitohs up 8-6.
Another penalty, this time in Penrith’s favour, saw them opt for the two points to tie things up at 8-apiece.
A second Reynolds penalty goal would give the Rabbitohs the lead once more.
The scores would go into the break at 10-all when Cleary slotted his second penalty goal of the night.
Their left side gets all the plaudits but the Rabbitohs would score on the right side this time with ease.
A simple play saw Jaxson Paulo on the receiving end of a Taaffe pass and the winger did the rest to score.
At 16-10, the Rabbitohs had the lead and dug deep to hold on.
The Panthers were not at their clinical best and ultimately, they were unable to crack the Rabbitohs line once again.
Bennett praised his side’s resilience against Penrith, having been pummelled by them earlier in the season.
“I’m just thrilled with their effort and what they did tonight,” Bennett said.
“Penrith is a top team, there is no doubt about that, and we had to stand up to them, we knew that.
“From the 50-odd point defeat in Dubbo, it’s a real credit to them how far they’ve come and to be able to turn this around tonight.”
Despite a lot of talk post-match about the refs, Cleary said his side failed to ice certain moments and it cost them.
“That’s the challenge ahead of us [now],” Cleary said.
“We had to win three games in the finals to win [the title] and nothing has changed. I don’t think we’ll lose too many friends from tonight.
“It just came down to opportunities that we didn’t ice that you need to in those games, that’s just facts.”
NRL News Player of the Game
3. Thomas Burgess (SOU)
2. Stephen Crichton (PEN)
1. Blake Taaffe (SOU)