Ben Hannant | Colin Whelan ©NRLphotos.com

Defending premiers South Sydney have outclassed a despondent North Queensland outfit with an aggressive and determined second-half performance to triumph 31-18 in the teams’ Round 23 National Rugby League clash at 1300SMILES Stadium tonight.

The Cowboys dropped their sixth game of the season – and fourth on their home turf – despite a strong first half which had them trailing 13-12 following Lachlan Coote’s try in the shadows of half-time.

But consistent penalties against them, inopportune handling areas and determined Rabbitohs defence conspired to hand the Cowboys back-to-back losses – following last weekend’s 30-18 loss to the Sharks – since rounds two and three earlier in the year.

The Cowboys stay on 34 competition points, equal with the Broncos, but still in second place on the ladder given their inferior for-and-against record.

The home side actually won the penalty count 10-8 and completed at 78%, but the timing of the errors and infractions hurt the team in terms of field position and points scored on them.

Having made a bad habit of conceding early points this season, the Cowboys may have thought they were in a time warp when, after three minutes, talismanic Rabbitohs captain Greg Inglis showed great speed and skill to score a trademark solo try after just three minutes. At that stage, the Cowboys had already conceded two penalties, gifting their opposition field position.

But once the Cowboys received some good ball in good position, their attack looked, and when Justin O’Neill careened over in the left-hand corner at the 15-minute mark – and Johnathan Thurston’s subsequent conversion – the Cowboys drew level.

Again, though, a rash of penalties saw the Bunnies marched down the field and burly interchange forward Thomas Burgess crashed over to make it 12-6. A crafty Adam Reynolds field goal two minutes from the break gave Souths a seven-point buffer, but fullback Lachlan Coote was on the end of a wonderful team movement on the stroke of halftime to have the Cowboys 13-12 in arrears and full of confidence.

The stop-start nature of the game persisted, both through penalties and other stoppages in play, a trend which frustrated momentum and one South Sydney took advantage of with tries in the 50th, 60th and 73rd minutes to end the match as a contest.

A Michael Morgan consolation try close to full-time bridged the scoreboard gap to 31-18.

The team will have a longer time between matches, with their Round 24 assignment the Warriors in Auckland.

SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS 31 (Greg Inglis, Thomas Burgess, Jason Clark, Alex Johnston, Dylan Walker tries; Adam Reynolds 5 goals, field goal) def NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS 18 (Justin O’Neill, Lachlan Coote, Michael Morgan tries; Johnathan Thurston 3 goals) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Crowd: 16,685