Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Canterbury Bulldogs v South Sydney Rabbitohs
It’s always a huge occasion when two traditional Sydney clubs square up at this time of year, but there is something special about Saturday’s grand final qualifier between Canterbury and South Sydney.
A throwback to the so-called glory days of the late 1960s – particularly for long-suffering Rabbitohs fans – this looms as more than just your usual grand final qualifier (if there is any such thing).
Twelve months ago Canterbury were in disarray. Having missed the finals two years running, they had yet to even settle on a coach for season 2012 and thoughts of minor premierships and grand final playoffs were the furthest thing from their collective minds.
Des Hasler has changed all that.
In the space of just a few short months he turned the Bulldogs from a bits-and-pieces squad into the hottest side in the NRL – a memorable 12-game winning streak between Rounds 11-24 setting the stage for their first minor premiership in 18 years.
It has been quite the evolution out Belmore way. Last year they were criticised for playing dull, unimaginative football; this year their game has been based around a forward pack boasting rare skill and the individual brilliance of Dally M Medal-winning fullback Ben Barba. Even for fans of their most-hated opponents – the likes of Parramatta, Manly and the Dragons – they’ve been a joy to watch when in full flight.
South Sydney have undergone a similar resurrection in 2012, although should they go all the way this season it would surely be even more significant.
Once the pride of the league, it is now 41 years since the Rabbitohs’ last premiership success but most frustrating for Souths fans is the fact that they have featured so rarely come finals time since their last preliminary final back in 1989. Incredibly, until this year, they had played just a single finals game since ’89 – a 30-6 loss to Manly in 2007 – so their performance this season is already significant.
Still, a grand final berth after so many years of waiting would not only prompt enormous celebrations in and around Redfern, it would also do wonders for the NRL publicity machine. The stories write themselves.
Beating up on Canterbury won’t be as easy as doing the ultra-impressive number they did on Canberra last week, but the prospect of two of the game’s biggest forward packs coming together is an enticing one no matter who eventually prevails… not to mention the battle of superstar fullbacks Ben Barba and Greg Inglis.
Either way, a fairy tale looms for one team.
The Bulldogs have named an identical squad to the one that downed Manly a fortnight ago and will be well rested after enjoying the week off.
Souths welcome back veteran winger Nathan Merritt for his 200th NRL game after he missed the win over Canberra with a shoulder injury. His return means that Justin Hunt drops back to a six-man bench alongside Jason Clark, who has also been named after missing last week’s game with an ankle injury.
Watch Out Bulldogs: There will be no time to rest in defence for the Bulldogs against a South Sydney side boasting one of the most lethal attacking outfits in the NRL. The Rabbitohs produced more line-breaks than any side other than North Queensland during the regular season in 2012 with 127 – and they do so through a number of different avenues. Not only have they produced the most line-breaks from dummy-half this season with 12, they also rank first for line-breaks directly from an offload with 28.
Danger Sign: Issac Luke’s reinstatement as the Rabbitohs’ starting hooker last week is significant. Luke ran for 142 metres from 12 dummy-half runs and it is his work this season that has formed the basis of the side’s attack. With Luke at the helm, Souths are the most prolific side in the Telstra Premiership out of dummy-half. They have made the second-most runs (611) and the most metres (4878) out of dummy-half, rank first for both try causes (14) and half-breaks (13) and third for tackle-breaks (42).
Watch Out Rabbitohs: The Bulldogs’ forward pack is their great strength and South Sydney’s big men will need to step up to match them. Notably, Canterbury’s pack ranks second behind only Cronulla this season for total metres made from hit-ups with 13,160 at 526 per game – well above the Rabbitohs’ 12,134 at 466 per game (10th). And they will test their opponents with their ability to promote the football this week, having produced the most offloads in the NRL this season with 313.
Danger Sign: Canterbury’s ability to score from anywhere on the field has been one of their greatest assets this season, with Ben Barba and Josh Morris proving difficult to contain even deep inside their own territory. The Bulldogs rank first for both tries scored from inside their own half in 2012 (with 20) and tries scored between the 20-metre and halfway lines (with 29).
Ben Barba v Greg Inglis: One of the great individual match-ups of the year, there is no doubt that the contributions of Ben Barba and Greg Inglis have been central to the success of their respective sides in 2012. Barba has scored 22 tries this year – more than any other player – as well as contributing 122 metres per game and 164 tackle-breaks while the devastating Inglis has averaged 148 metres and made 157 tackle-breaks. He has also contributed 22 line-breaks, 14 try assists and 13 line-break assists.
Where It Will Be Won: Around the rucks. For the Bulldogs, the focus will be on shutting down Issac Luke who makes plenty of metres out of dummy-half. Likewise, dominating in the middle will enable the big Canterbury forwards to exhibit their skill and really test the South Sydney defence.
The History: Played 144; Bulldogs 76, Rabbitohs 64, drawn 4. The Bulldogs boast a tremendous record in clashes at ANZ Stadium with 11 wins from 14 games. They have also won six times from their past eight meetings overall.
The Last Time They Met: The Bulldogs continued to build momentum in their remarkable 12-game winning streak as they took care of South Sydney 23-18 in wet conditions at ANZ Stadium in Round 13.
A clash of the competition heavyweights saw Souths burst out of the blocks with two tries in the opening 15 minutes giving them an early 12-0 lead. The first saw a superb interchange of passing on the left edge hand Justin Hunt a saloon passage to the try-line while the second was all about big Dave Taylor as he burst through before stepping past Ben Barba to score underneath the black dot.
However, a clash of the English giants saw the game turn on its head as Rabbitohs forward Sam Burgess locked horns with his Test team-mate James Graham. Burgess was penalised for raising his forearm during the scuffle and from the ensuing set the Bulldogs opened their account with a Barba cut-out pass gifting Krisnan Inu a try.
Moments later they were in again thanks to some clever finishing from Jonathan Wright out wide and when Ben Barba collected a Josh Reynolds chip to score alongside the posts, the Bulldogs had turned a 12-0 deficit into an 18-12 half-time lead in the space of just nine minutes.
Souths hit back to level the scores again 12 minutes into the second half when Dylan Farrell produced a stunning put-down after chasing through a John Sutton grubber; however after a tight 20 minutes of action it was a surprise hero that came to the fore for Canterbury as Krisnan Inu booted a 30-metre field goal with six minutes remaining to give his side the lead.
Then came the play of the game. With the clock counting down, Burgess broke through down the left edge and sent Farrell away for what looked like the match-winning try… until Barba came screaming across and produced a miraculous try-saving tackle with Farrell’s boot touching the sideline a millisecond before he slid over the stripe.
David Stagg put the icing on the cake with a last-minute try to secure a 23-18 win.
Despite the difficult conditions, the Bulldogs produced 10 offloads to Souths’ five while completing their possessions at 71 per cent compared with 67 per cent for the Bunnies.
Their better control saw them make 47 fewer tackles than Souths as they enjoyed a 55 per cent share of the ball.
James Graham was particularly impressive for the home side with 155 metres and 31 tackles while Greg Inglis again starred for the Rabbitohs with 178 metres from 16 runs and five tackle-breaks.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Luke Potter; Video Referee – Chris Ward & Bernard Sutton.
The Way We See It: This is a game that South Sydney can win if they play to their potential – and the manner in which they disposed of Canberra’s monster pack last week was particularly impressive. However, the Bulldogs have been the benchmark for most of the year and we’ll stick with them for now. The test for Souths will be whether or not they can hold their own against Canterbury’s pack, which will present different challenges to those they faced against the Raiders last week due to their offloads and ability to pass at the line. Bulldogs by four points.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm; Fox Sports 3 – Delayed 10.30pm.
*Statistics: NRL Stats