Rabbitohs v Broncos
Back in the day, Thursday nights were reserved for team runs as a tune-up for the footy to follow on the weekend but as the Rabbitohs eye a first minor premiership in 25 years and the Broncos cling to hopes of a finals appearance, this game is no training run.
The first in a month of Thursday night football to round out the regular season, the two most well supported teams in the competition square off in a curtain-raiser to The Footy Show in vastly different states than which they have been for much of their 26-year rivalry.
For more than a decade the only semblance of pride South Sydney fans were able to muster when discussing their record against the Broncos was an unforgettable upset in the 1994 Tooheys Challenge pre-season final in Albury.
The two teams finished the 1993 season at opposite ends of the competition table and after the Rabbitohs' fleeting moment of glory in February the following year they had to wait 12 years and 12 losses before they tasted success again.
The tables have evened out in recent seasons with four wins apiece from their past eight encounters and this clash has the potential to have far-reaching ramifications with the Rabbitohs eyeing a first minor premiership in 25 years and the Broncos trying to send coach Anthony Griffin out with a first finals appearance in three years.
In order to keep their finals hopes alive the Broncos will need to shut down the 'predictable' power game of the Bunnies and have included big boppers Ben Hannant, Martin Kennedy and Jarrod Wallace on an extended bench to support a starting forward pack laden with internationals.
Faced with the Bulldogs' behemoths last weekend the likes of Corey Parker, Matt Gillett and Josh McGuire were unrelenting and gave halfback Ben Hunt the space he needed to return to the form that has him prominently placed in Dally M voting.
The Rabbitohs are on a five-game winning streak and for the third year in succession are being talked as genuine premiership contenders but with the injection of youthful exuberance in the backline that gives them far greater potency than they have had throughout Michael Maguire's reign as head coach.
Thomas Burgess has been promoted to the South Sydney starting side to replace his twin brother George who is serving the first week of a two-week suspension while doubts still remain over whether Justin Hodges will turn out for Brisbane.
Hodges trained on Saturday and Monday but wasn't named in coach Griffin's team on Tuesday as the Maroons Origin star battles a hamstring injury that kept him out of last Friday's 41-10 win over the Bulldogs.
In honour of Close The Gap Round the Rabbitohs will wear a special Indigenous-inspired strip designed by former NRL star Sid Domic. Crown Resorts have also donated their front-of-jersey position to KARI Aboriginal Resources who work in supporting Indigenous foster families and other initiatives.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: The Origin period may have taken something of a toll on Broncos back-rower Matt Gillett but he showed against the Bulldogs on Friday night that his explosive power and football smarts are back in tune just when his team needs them the most. Gillett provided the last pass for tries for Dale Copley and Corey Oates, one an instinctive back-handed flick, the other a well-measure short pass to a surging Oates close to the Bulldogs line. His charges off Ben Hunt back on the angle are a stern test of any defence and his presence outside Hunt on the right edge has probably contributed significantly to the No.7's 10 tries this season, the most of any halfback in the competition. Gillett's 29 touches and 16 runs are his best numbers of the season and he'll be keyed up for a big showing against the heralded South Sydney pack.
Watch Out Broncos: When the Broncos first sighted Alex Johnston they had to dig around for videotape from the under-20s and NSW Cup and after scoring a try on debut in Round 8 he has added a further 14 tries from just 10 games to come right into calculations for Rookie of the Year honours. He has scored eight tries in his past four games at a rate that not even Jarryd Hayne can match and is benefiting greatly from the work inside of young stars Dylan Walker and Kirisome Auva'a. It is said that even Greg Inglis can't catch him when he gets into the clear at training so it will be in Brisbane's best interests to make sure he doesn't get space outside his man for the entire 80 minutes.
Plays To Watch: Perhaps it was a hangover from missing eight weeks through injury earlier in the year but it is no coincidence that South Sydney's excellent form in recent weeks has come when their hooker, Issac Luke, has been at his best. Luke's four best metre-gaining stats for the season have all come in the past month and that push through the middle has enabled Adam Reynolds to take control with more time on his hands. The Broncos are still coming to terms with Ben Barba at five-eighth but there were good signs against the Bulldogs as his running game complements the more direct nature of half Ben Hunt. Look for Hunt to square up the big Rabbitoh forwards to create space on the outside for Barba, Hodges and Copley.
Where It Will Be Won: The Rabbitohs' outside backs may be getting plenty of plaudits for their try-scoring exploits but a look at their defensive statistics is a better indicator of why they are so well position to give the premiership a tilt. They concede fewer points, fewer line breaks, fewer offloads, and miss fewer tackles than any other team in the competition. They have also conceded 20 points just once since Round 10's 27-14 loss to the Storm. In order to break that defensive wall down at all, the Broncos will need to lean on their skipper and most prolific offload exponent in the competition, Corey Parker, to expose some chinks and provide opportunities for Hunt and Barba to play at a staggered defensive line.
Played 29; Rabbitohs 7; Broncos 21; drawn 1. It's been more than a decade since the Broncos have got the better of the Bunnies in Sydney but with only two fixtures since 2003 – and none since 2006 – there are no lasting scars to concern the current Brisbane squad. The scars they do have, however, are still healing after an Adam Reynolds penalty goal stole a 28-26 win in Round 8. Only two players from either team from the last time Souths and Brisbane met at ANZ Stadium will line up on Thursday – Corey Parker and Ben Hannant.
What Are The Odds:
There’s more than twice the money placed on the Rabbitohs ($1.36) according to Sportsbet, and almost all of the interest in line betting is with Souths, giving away eight points start. Souths' price is certain to shorten as we draw nearer to kick-off. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee – Shayne Hayne; Assistant Referee – Dave Munro; Touch Judges – Nick Beashel and Russell Turner; Video Referees – Jared Maxwell and Henry Perenara.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live, 7.30pm.
How We See It: The big win over the Bulldogs was a timely confidence boost for the Broncos but they face a team with a big scalp of their own and with a growing belief that they are building to something special. The combination of Reynolds and Keary in the South Sydney halves is bedding down nicely and the big boys in the middle are giving the young outside backs plenty of opportunities to thrill their fans.
The Broncos forwards stood up manfully to the big Canterbury pack last week and need to produce something similar to quell any momentum the Rabbitohs rely on through the middle. But the way they are rolling at the moment, it's hard to see anything but a South Sydney victory. Rabbitohs by eight points.