Ryan Hinchcliffe says the Storm are particularly worried about the damage hooker Issac Luke can do for the Rabbitohs. Credit: NRL Photos Copyright: NRL Photos
Not the battle of the brilliant No.1s. Not even the personal duel between coaching-colleagues-turned-NRL-opponents Craig Bellamy and Michael Maguire, and not the showdown between two of the game's hottest halfbacks in Cooper Cronk and Adam Reynolds.
Nope, according to camp insiders the South Sydney-Melbourne Storm top-of-the-table clash on Saturday night will be won and lost in the battle of the forwards.
The Rabbitohs meet the Storm at ANZ Stadium in the match of the 2013 NRL season so far, and both sides – the only undefeated clubs after five rounds – are prepared for a brutal battle as they crank up their engine rooms.
"It'll be won through the middle, there's no doubt about that," Storm lock Ryan Hinchcliffe told NRL.com.
"Obviously Cameron Smith and Issac Luke, the influence they can have on each of their teams is huge, and I think if we can slow down their big boys and take Issac Luke out [of play]… I'm sure they're going to do the same to us. That's going to be a huge part of where the game's going to be won and lost."
Statistics show the Rabbitohs' outstanding start to the season – they've beaten the Warriors, Bulldogs, Panthers, Sharks and Roosters – has been built around a solid and uncomplicated game plan that sees the forwards dominate centre-field before shifting deep and wide to some of the most dangerous ball runners in the competition in Greg Inglis, Nathan Merritt and John Sutton. Hinchcliffe knows that in facing a team dominant in metres gained (1424.2 per match – third in the NRL) and tackle-breaks (33.2 per game – ranked No.1 in the NRL), it is up to his forwards to resist the onslaught.
"I think they've got consistency in their game and their forwards are doing an outstanding job for them," Hinchcliffe observes.
"The big Burgess boys… Jeff Lima who's come back from England has been doing a great job for them… their whole forward pack has really been rolling forward and Issac Luke's been quite dangerous… they're strong right across the park, and they've got that consistency in their game at the moment and we know we're in for a tough contest but we're looking forward to the challenge."
Last Monday night the Storm had arguably their closest shave of the 2013 season, with a determined, committed and aggressive Wests Tigers team threatening to inflict an upset before a late rally by the home side secured their club-record 13th consecutive victory. Hinchcliffe, though, rejected the claims that the Tigers – and their coach Michael Potter – might've given other teams a blueprint on how to beat or at least challenge last year's premiers.
"We know when any side comes up against the Melbourne Storm, we know we're in for a tough game," Hinchcliffe says. "We play sides who are under a bit of pressure or whose form hasn't been that great and they come out and play really great against us. We're used to that and it gets us playing at a high level each week. The Tigers were really good, full credit to them. They defended really well and I thought they played outstanding.
"We're glad we could take away the two points. [The game] showed a lot of areas we can improve but we showed a lot of fight to come back and win the game the way we did.
"We just had to bide our time and we did that and even though we scored some tries at the end, that blew out the score – the scoreline didn't show how tough the contest was."
The Storm are predicting a slugfest on Saturday night – particularly from a team as disciplined as the Rabbitohs.
"It'll be a real battle," Hinchcliffe says. "If a team clocks off for one second, they'll be the team that gets put under pressure or gets a try scored against them.
"It's going to be a real arm-wrestle for the full 80 minutes and the side that can hold on to the ball and defends well will kick on and get the result. It is exciting – and it is exciting for the fans. Both teams are five-and-zero; it's going to be a great build-up, a great challenge and we're really looking forward to it."
South Sydney's success story over the past season and a half has not surprised Hinchcliffe. The No.13 saw Rabbitohs' coach Maguire develop in Melbourne under the tutelage of Bellamy, and could tell he'd settle for nothing but the best from his players when he arrived at Redfern at the start of last season.
"He's certainly got a lot of discipline – you could even tell when he was assistant coach here that he's all about discipline and getting everyone on the same page," Hinchcliffe reveals.
"When he went over to England he got everyone doing that in a short period of time and I don't think it's a surprise to anyone that he's come back and he's had the success. Obviously he came back last year and they had some success (making the preliminary final), but they've built on last year again this year. I don't think it comes as a surprise to anyone… that they're going so well.
"Madge (Maguire) was assistant coach here in 2009 when we won the grand final and I got along great with Madge and I've certainly got a lot of respect for him in the way he goes about his business.
"You've really got to admire what he's doing up there with South Sydney, but when we go out there on Saturday night he coaches South Sydney and I play for the Storm. That's the way it is."
Maguire himself is looking forward to coming up against his old team – so long the benchmark of rugby league in the NRL – and assessing where his team is truly at in 2013. The Rabbitohs coach, rumoured to be close to signing a long-term deal that would tie him to the club until the end of 2018, also believes the game will be decided in the middle of the park.
"[The match will be won in] the forward pack," Maguire agrees.
"We've got to make sure we're turning them around and putting them back down their end. The forward pack is a major part of what we build our game on and what they build their game on. You've got to have the go-forward so then those guys out the back can create the opportunities. And that's where Billy (Slater) and 'GI' (Greg Inglis) come into the game."
The battle of the game's finest fullbacks – two of the best players of all-time – appears as though it'll be just the icing on the cake.