South Sydney Rabbitohs v St George Illawarra Dragons
Saturday 7.30pm (AEDT)
South Sydney’s new regime under Michael Maguire gets its first serious hit-out as the bunnies look to avenge last year’s 32-10 loss to the Dragons in the annual Charity Shield contest, with both sides using the clash as a barometer to settling on key positions and combinations as the 2012 NRL season fast approaches.
Already Maguire has sprung a major surprise: with marquee player Greg Inglis sidelined with an ankle injury it was anticipated veteran new buy Matt King would be rushed into the centres – but ‘Madge’ has shifted King to the wing, naming inexperienced Blake Judd to partner Shaune Corrigan in the centres, with unknown quantity Andrew Everingham on the other wing. Judd, 21, spent last year in the NSW Cup with North Sydney after playing in the 2010 Toyota Cup grand final in his final year in the NYC. Everingham, 25, is a rangy speedster who most recently played NSW Cup for Western Suburbs.
Elsewhere, Indigenous All Stars representative Nathan Peats has been handed the starting hooker’s role, with Issac Luke to play off the interchange, while the starting pack of Roy Asotasi, Luke and Sam Burgess, Eddy Pettybourne and Michael Crocker, plus Dave Taylor and Dave Tyrrell off the interchange, threatens menace.
However, Maguire’s major focus will be on halfback Adam Reynolds as he settles in directing play as Chris Sandow’s successor in the No.7.
While this is still very much a trial Souths will be keen to post a victory after successive losses to Warrington (34-28) and the Warriors (22-14).
Meanwhile the Dragons embark on life after Wayne Bennett and Darius Boyd, with new coach Steve Price hoping Kyle Stanley can offer star power of his own in the No.1 jersey, and that Kyle’s older brother Chase can step up and lay claim to the centre position vacated by the retired Mark Gasnier.
The most intriguing positional battle, however, is between Cameron King and Mitch Rein for the starting hooker role. King impressed in last year’s Charity Shield before injury ruled him out for the season – with Rein seizing the opportunity in first grade. Both players have been named in the Dragons’ squad of 25 and their one-on-one battle, should it eventuate, should ensure the Red V gets plenty of spark around the ruck.
Prop Dan Hunt’s rib injury, which will sideline him for five weeks, presents an opportunity for former Warrior Jeremy Latimore and 2011 Toyota Cup Player of the Year Jack De Belin to push their claims.
As with the Rabbitohs, this is the litmus test for St George Illawarra after their under-strength outfits fell to the Bulldogs (28-18) and Cowboys (18-12) in recent weeks. Like the Rabbitohs, with a hat-trick of pre-season losses looming, a win here is desperately sought.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Wingers Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale simply love to get involved in Charity Shield stoushes. Fresh from his appearance for the NRL All Stars a fortnight ago, Nightingale in particular will be dangerous – over the past four Charity Shield match-ups he has been the biggest threat from either team, running for the most metres (449) and making the most tackle busts (13). And Morris has found open space the most, making three line-breaks. Centre Matt Cooper will be hoping to pick up where he left off last year when he finished second to Ben Barba for most line-breaks, with 19 of his own.
Defensively the Rabbitohs were their own worst enemies in 2011 – Maguire will be keen to see dramatic improvement in their missed tackles after the side finished rock bottom with the most misses last season (40 a game).
Danger Sign: The Dragons carved out the most metres by any side last season, largely on the dependable boot of five-eighth Jamie Soward. If Soward can turn around Souths’ big forwards with accurate, deep kicks late in the tackle count it will sap their energy and leave them susceptible to the Dragons’ sweeping backline plays.
Watch Out Dragons: While the Dragons made plenty of metres in attack in 2011 they also conceded plenty of territory each game – the fourth most by any side, in fact. This was partially because Wayne Bennett demanded good discipline: as a result they conceded the third-fewest penalties, but it cost them metres as teams got on a roll around the ruck. That’s where Issac Luke can punish the Dragons – he was the leading dummy-half runner in the NRL last year (260) and ranked fourth for tackle busts (114). If Sandow can scurry out of dummy-half often and link with his big forwards, as well as shifting the ball wide to Sutton and Merritt, the Rabbitohs can run the Dragons ragged.
Danger Sign: If Nathan Merritt makes inroads early the Dragons could be in for a long night. Merritt was the NRL’s equal leading try-scorer alongside Ben Barba last year (22 tries each) – but Merritt crossed 13 times in just six appearances in the No.1 jersey.
The History: Played 28; Dragons 15, Rabbitohs 9, drawn 4. Over the past decade the ledger stands at four games apiece, with two draws. The Rabbitohs secured their biggest win – 30-6 – in 1988, while the Dragons’ biggest win was 34-8 in 2004. The Dragons hold the attacking edge, having scored a total 487 points to the Rabbitohs’ 409.
Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Russell Turner; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.
The Way We See It: There’s no question the Rabbitohs’ formidable pack holds the key. If their inexperienced backs can withstand the Dragons’ attacking raids their forwards should be able to manoeuvre into position and ask plenty of questions. There won’t be much in it – the Rabbitohs by four points.
Televised: Live – Fox Sports 2 from 7pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats