The Hollywood story of the season found itself a rather predictable finish. Canterbury, the minor premiers and heavy favourites, extinguished the South Sydney fairytale with a ruthless performance - after their opponents found themselves rudderless.
Bulldogs trounce Rabbitohs
Canterbury will face Melbourne in next week's NRL decider after defeating South Sydney 32-8.
Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds's first-half injury was always going to be difficult to recover from. They had not played a match this season without Reynolds and five-eighth John Sutton in the halves. Against the Bulldogs, on such a stage, their season fizzled out. The Dogs will march on and Des Hasler will resume his grand-final rivalry with Melbourne, just wearing a different-coloured tie.
The Rabbitohs' night started brightly but they lost control of it when Reynolds suffered a hamstring injury after 25 minutes. The club has had so many problems with halfbacks since the 1980s yet, even when they find one capable of ending their long search for a quality playmaker, their troubles in the position resurface. Up until then, they led the contest and it was the Bulldogs experiencing problems.
''Losing young Reynolds early didn't help them, such is the case in finals football,'' Hasler said.
Bulldogs captain Michael Ennis was thrilled to be leading his team into the final match of the season. ''It's unbelievable,'' he said. ''It's something you always dream of as a kid. The opportunity to play first-grade seems surreal. But it's an opportunity now. We can't just be happy to get there. We're up against a very good side.''
The Bulldogs' start had been ferocious. The Rabbitohs attempted to respond but co-captain Michael Crocker's effort was mistimed. In attempting to hustle Bulldog Kris Keating after a kick, he managed only to hit the halfback high after two minutes. After the ensuing penalty, the Bulldogs, who were not afraid to spread the ball from sideline to sideline in the early stages, found their way across the line through centre Krisnan Inu.
It had been just about the perfect start; the Rabbitohs had been rattled and the Bulldogs had found points for their pressure.
The momentum of the contest changed dramatically, though, when prop Sam Kasiano was penalised after, in lazy fashion, being caught offside from a dart by hooker Issac Luke. Moments later, Kasiano was caught out again when Luke dummied and scored from dummy half.
Souths edged further ahead when Bulldogs centre Josh Morris was penalised for dropping his shoulder into his opposite Dylan Farrell.
But then catastrophe for the Rabbitohs; Reynolds, the rookie of the year who had played in every game for the club this season, felt his hamstring go after a well-weighted grubber kick. He still made the tackle on winger Jonathan Wright, trapping him in the in-goal. Wright got up, but Reynolds did not, and the latter had to be helped off the field.
The Rabbitohs stayed in the fight as long as they could, but in the last four minutes of the first half, the Bulldogs reasserted their dominance; first winger Sam Perrett scored after Bulldogs five-eighth Josh Reynolds's pinpoint kick. Rabbitohs second-rower Sam Burgess made contact with Perrett after he touched down and the video officials awarded a potential eight-point try.
And then with single-figure seconds remaining on the clock, Ben Barba's grubber found Wright. The right team probably led at the break but the Rabbits had been subjected to some animal cruelty in the process. After their half limped off, the Rabbitohs limped home. Perrett, Frank Pritchard and Greg Eastwood scored to finally silence the South Sydney end. The best team of the season so far had beaten arguably the best story.
BULLDOGS 32 (S Perrett 2 G Eastwood K Inu F Pritchard J Wright tries K Inu 4 goals) bt SOUTH SYDNEY 8 (I Luke try A Reynolds 2 goals) at ANZ Stadium. Referee: Shayne Hayne, Ben Cummins. Crowd: 70,354.