SOUTH SYDNEY secured a top-four berth with victory against the Newcastle Knights at Hunter Stadium last night, erasing painful memories of a lopsided loss in the corresponding game last year that denied them a place in the finals.
In what was effectively a play-off qualifier one week early, Newcastle won that match 40-24 to steal eighth spot, but they always trailed the Rabbitohs last night in front of a crowd of 24,127 on Knights Old Boys' Day.
The Knights (24 points) were already out of finals contention in 11th position but they defended grimly and made the Rabbitohs, who are heading to their first finals series since 2007, work hard for the win.
Souths are third on 36 points with a points difference of +121. They will stay there if fourth-placed Manly (34) lose to the Titans at Skilled Park tonight, or if the Sea Eagles - who have a +86 differential - win by no more than 36 points.
It was only the third win from 19 trips north for the Rabbitohs, who dominated field position and possession for most of the first half but had to settle for a 12-6 half-time lead.
The Rabbitohs made the most of a southerly gale at their backs in the first half, pinning the Knights on their own line with a series of towering, swirling bombs and awkward grubber kicks to establish a 12-0 lead after 18 minutes.
Knights fullback Darius Boyd spilled a Greg Inglis bomb in the second minute then was trapped in-goal after fielding David Taylor's grubber five minutes later.
Newcastle's defence cracked in the eighth minute when Roy Asotasi took a short pass from John Sutton and crashed over to score for a 6-0 lead after Adam Reynolds converted.
Souths skipper Michael Crocker charged at the line in the 14th minute, only to be dragged down short by Knights props Willie Mason and Kade Snowden, but the Rabbitohs remained camped in Newcastle territory and forced Boyd to bat another grubber dead in the 17th minute.
Inglis backed himself from dummy-half a minute later, powering between Chris Houston and Dane Gagai to score, and Reynolds converted from a wide angle.
Knights winger Akuila Uate spilled a spiralling bomb in the 21st minute but his team-mates defended his error, then he caught one four minutes later to allow Newcastle to build some pressure of their own.
Video referee Steve Clark awarded Boyd a controversial benefit-of-the-doubt try in the 27th minute. Boyd appeared to drag the ball to the line after being stopped short but Clark gave him the green light.
The Knights had one more scoring chance before the break after Souths winger Nathan Merritt was ruled to have knocked on Jarrod Mullen's kick in the 35th minute but Merritt then contributed to a four-man tackle to force Gagai into touch close to the Rabbitohs' line one minute later.
Mullen was up slowly one minute into the second half after he was steam-rolled trying to tackle Sutton.
Inglis made one of the plays of the season four minutes later when he launched himself at a runaway Uate, stopping him in his tracks, and stripping the ball to save a certain try.
Few other players in the game could have produced such a tackle on a player as strong and fast as Uate in full flight only metres from the line .
On Channel Nine, former NSW coach Phil Gould said: ''That might be the greatest play I've ever seen.''
SOUTH SYDNEY 18 (R Asotasi G Inglis J Sutton tries A Reynolds 3 goals) bt NEWCASTLE 6 (D Boyd try T Roberts goal) at Hunter Stadium. Referees: Matt Cecchin, Chris James. Crowd: 24,127