James Segeyaro of the Panthers during the Round 21 NRL match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium on August 2, 2015 in Sydney, Australia. Digital Image by Mark Nolan.

Penrith Panthers’ finals hopes are on life support despite bravely pushing South Sydney Rabbitohs all the way in a 20-16 loss at ANZ Stadium on Sunday.

After going to the break locked up at 12-all, Penrith’s attack crumbled at key moments in the second half as the defending premiers just managed to pull away in the contest.

The defeat leaves the Panthers needing to win their final five games of the season to have any chance of sneaking into the competition’s top eight.

With Nigel Plum sidelined following last week’s head knock, Leilani Latu was called up to make his NRL debut as Penrith Panther number 550. Api Koroisau dropped off the bench to make way for the debutant forward.

A Rob Jennings error under the high ball gave the Rabbitohs the first attacking set of the game in the first five minutes but Penrith’s defensive line held firm.

At the other end of the field a few minutes later, Josh Mansour couldn’t handle a bullet pass from Jamie Soward just as the Panthers looked like finding space out wide.

After Luke Keary kicked out on the full, Penrith went on the attack again and opened the scoring in the 16th minute. On the fifth tackle and within a metre of the line, hooker James Segeyaro powered over with a strong scoot and burrow effort out of dummy half. Soward slotted the conversion for a 6-0 lead.

On the back of a penalty, the Panthers were on the attack again four minutes later and this time it was Bryce Cartwright who used his brute strength to get over the line in the tackle. Soward was successful with the conversion attempt and Penrith led 12-0 after 23 minutes.

However it wasn’t long before Souths hit back as Adam Reynolds delivered a nicely disguised short ball to John Sutton, who cruised over from close range. Reynolds then converted to make it 12-6 in the 28th minute.

The Panthers had only themselves to blame for the Rabbitohs’ next try as risky offloads ended with Glenn Stewart stripping Lewis Brown five metres out. The ball was quickly spread to the right edge and Alex Johnston strolled over in the corner. Reynolds was on target with the boot and suddenly the scores were level.

With five minutes remaining in the half Jennings left the field with a hamstring issue after being crunched in a heavy tackle.

However a fair amount of steel, combined with some desperate scramble, saw the Panthers manage to repel the Rabbitohs one more time as the siren sounded.

HALFTIME – 12-12

Within seconds of the restart, Cartwright broke through the line and charged downfield. Attempting to loom up in support, Will Smith was held off the ball and the Panthers earned a penalty – but six tackles later, it came to nothing.

In the 45th minute Souths’ Kyle Turner was knocked out attempting to make a tackle on Jeremy Latimore and after an extended period, was assisted from the field.

The Rabbitohs then hit the front for the first time in the game as Reynolds slotted a simple penalty in the 49th minute.

In a concerning sign for Penrith, Souths were beginning to punch holes up the middle and make seemingly easy metres out of dummy half. It was only the Panthers’ desperate last-ditch defending that was keeping them in the contest.

With 22 minutes left to go it was the Panthers on the break through Isaac John but the last pass on the inside to Tyrone Peachey didn’t stick.

In a crucial play in the context of the game, a fifth-tackle grubber from John cruelly rebounded off the defenders for Souths to break down field in the 65th minute.

Moments later, Penrith’s defence wasn’t able to recover and some smooth hands saw Dylan Walker touch down for a try on the right edge. Reynolds’ conversion made the score 20-12.

However the Panthers weren’t going to back down. With seven minutes left a Soward chip over the top was gathered by Cartwright, who offloaded back to the playmaker to duck, weave and eventually spread the ball wide. Lewis Brown powered his way over for the try but the missed conversion attempt left the score 20-16.

Penrith pulled out the party tricks as they chased the try they desperately needed in the final minutes, but to no avail.

The Rabbitohs defused a Soward bomb with only seconds left to hold on for victory.

FULLTIME – Souths 20-16