Nigel Wall, NRL.com
South Sydney Rabbitohs v St George Illawarra Dragons
Specialist game-stealers South Sydney will be hoping they can get the job done a little easier in their season rematch with the Dragons on Saturday night – although livewire hooker Issac Luke’s three-game suspension has thrown them a massive curve ball as they strive for an all-important top-four berth through the scheduled rounds.
Souths’ miracle victory over the Roosters last Monday added to their impressive at-the-death resume in 2012 – which also boasts a golden-point win over the Dragons back in Round 11.
However, a big concern now is how they will roll forward through matches without linchpin dummy-half runner Luke after he pleaded guilty to a dangerous tackle on Rooster Shaun Kenny-Dowall in last Monday night’s game.
The Rabbitohs made it three wins in a row for the first time in 2012 when downing the Roosters in dramatic fashion at Allianz Stadium, climbing two rungs on the ladder to sit in fourth position. A semi-finals berth seems guaranteed – the only question is how high can they climb?
Meanwhile the Dragons showed a surprising carefree attitude in attack to lower the Sharks’ colours in Wollongong last Sunday. Despite being without playmaker Jamie Soward they outscored their neighbours from the Shire three tries to two, tallying 23 offloads in the process.
A major downside however was losing utility back Kyle Stanley for up to 12 months after he ruptured the ACL joint in his right knee.
The Dragons’ win saw them tread water in 10th position on the ladder on 20 competition points; they need to win a minimum four of their remaining seven games to figure in the playoffs. With tough games ahead against the Storm, Wests Tigers and Cowboys, jagging a win against the odds – such as this one – would be a huge boost to their top-eight hopes.
In team changes, Souths will start Nathan Peats at hooker for Issac Luke in an otherwise unchanged line-up. Coach Maguire has also added Ben Lowe and Dave Tyrrell to the bench.
Meanwhile Dragons coach Steve Price welcomes back Jamie Soward at five-eighth after the playmaker was a late withdrawal with back spasms last week. Dean Young will start at lock with Jack de Belin benched.
It’s a milestone week for Dragons interchange Nathan Fien who plays his 250th NRL game.
Fien has a great strike rate in attack; from 249 games he has registered 53 line-breaks and 95 try assists.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Brett Morris has 15 kilometres of career runs within sight. The flyer, who scored a dazzling 75-metre turnover try last Sunday, needs just 83 metres to hit the mark. Morris has been a sharp edge for an otherwise blunt Dragons attack in 2012. He ranks fourth overall for tackle-breaks (with 82), has made nine line-breaks and scored six tries. He’ll prove a handful for Rabbitohs right-side defenders Dylan Farrell, Andrew Everingham and Dave Taylor.
Mitch Rein’s gritty efforts in the centre of the park have helped offset the side’s lack of penetration out wide. Rein has caught opponents napping out of dummy-half to make seven line-breaks so far, the most by any hooker. He has scored five tries, including three from close range out of dummy-half in his past two games. He needs just one more try to equal Mark Riddell’s record for the most scored in a season by a Dragons’ No.9.
Steve Price has gone back to the tried-and-true left-side combination of Ben Hornby, Ben Creagh, Matt Cooper and Brett Morris. If Jason Nightingale can channel Darius Boyd and offer good assistance chiming in from fullback, their potential for points is huge.
Suspended hooker Issac Luke leads the NRL for dummy-half runs (205) and offloads (36); no question that Souths will struggle without him.
Danger Sign: St George Illawarra have thrown caution to the wind of late in an attempt to get back their attacking groove, rising to third in the offloads category (10.2 each game). They made 23 last week – the most by any team all season. Meanwhile the Rabbitohs concede 10 offloads a game but will do well to counter the threat the likes of Trent Merrin (33), Brett Morris (30), Jason Nightingale (19) and Beau Scott (14) will pose.
Watch Out Dragons: The Red V need to psych themselves up for contests away from home – they have the equal worst ‘away’ record in the league, winning just once from eight games so far (a mark shared by the Eels). Some comfort though is they’ve won 11 of their past 14 games at ANZ Stadium.
Matt King will be looking forward to running out against a favourite opponent – King has been on a losing side against the Dragons only once in 11 matches! During that time he’s crossed for nine tries and added seven line-breaks and seven try assists. He has just one try so far in 2012 but will fancy getting across the stripe here.
Souths bust open oppositions with greater regularity than all teams, with 5.4 line-breaks every game. Greg Inglis (15) and Dave Taylor (11) are the dangers on the left and right, while Sam Burgess (seven) and Michael Crocker (five) will punch holes up the guts.
Danger Sign: Sam Burgess will lift a gear in Luke’s absence and his rushes from close range, as well as his dangerous offloads, have the potential to blast the Dragons out of the contest. Burgess scored a try from close range last time they met and he ranks second to Luke in promoting second phase for his team (24 offloads).
Greg Inglis v Beau Scott: Not a positional head-to-head battle, but a vital one nonetheless. Inglis continues to bamboozle oppositions chiming in down the left-hand side of the field. He was at it again last Monday night against the Roosters, slicing through Mitchell Pearce before sprinting away on his 15th line-break of the year, then touching down for try number seven. Inglis is the hardest player to halt in the league, leading all players with 93 tackle-breaks. How NSW Origin back-rower Scott, one of the sturdiest and effective edge defenders in the NRL, handles shutting down the Rabbitohs No.1 will prove pivotal to the result.
Where It Will Be Won: Pressuring the kicker. The Dragons will give rookie halfback Adam Reynolds a hard time given stats show Souths have managed to kick the ball to open space on fewer occasions than any other team, recording a lowly 42 per cent success rate. (The Dragons find open space 56 per cent of the time.) The Dragons’ back three of Nightingale, Morris and Daniel Vidot are each ranked in the top 10 for making metres returning kicks.
The History: Played 19; Dragons 14, Rabbitohs 5. Despite the Dragons’ apparent head-to-head dominance the recent record is shared four games apiece. However, the Rabbitohs have won just one of the five games played at ANZ Stadium.
The Last Time They Met: Adam Reynolds’ field-goal in the 82nd minute secured the Rabbitohs a nail-biting 19-18 golden-point victory at WIN Jubilee Stadium back in Round 11.
It was the second successive extra-time defeat suffered by St George Illawarra after their loss to Penrith the previous round.
The Dragons drew first blood with just three minutes gone when winger Jason Nightingale outleapt Justin Hunt to field a Jamie Soward cross-field kick to score in the right corner. They extended their lead to 12-nil 14 minutes later when Soward scored his first try of the season after some lovely lead-up play from fullback Brett Morris through the centre of the ruck.
However, Dragons fans groaned when Sam Burgess powered over under the posts for an all-too-easy try from close range (29th minute) and winced when Adam Reynolds touched down with just eight seconds of the first half remaining after the Dragons failed to defuse a mid-field bomb. Reynolds’ conversion saw the sides head to the break locked at 12-all.
Matt Cooper seized the advantage for the home side early in the second half, ducking out of dummy-half down the short blindside to surprise the Rabbitohs’ line defenders to make it 18-12 with 48 minutes gone.
The game was all locked up again on the hour when Andrew Everingham beat Brett Morris and Daniel Vidot to grab Adam Reynolds’ grubber kick and score.
As the clock wound down both sides’ playmakers attempted to break the deadlock; however Jamie Soward missed two field-goal attempts, Ben Hornby one and Adam Reynolds two for the bunnies.
Reynolds secured the win two minutes into extra time with a last-tackle snap from 35 metres out.
It was a high-quality contest with both sides completing their sets in excess of 80 per cent and just a combined 47 missed tackles tallied all afternoon.
The Rabbitohs showed more flair, with 11 offloads to the Dragons’ six.
Hooker Issac Luke was a standout for the visitors with 23 runs, six offloads and six tackle-breaks.
Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Adam Gee; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.
The Way We See It: For all of the Dragons’ hot-potato flair against the Sharks last week they still didn’t achieve a great deal in attack, with a barge-over try from dummy-half and a long-range try against the run of play dotting their scoring sheet. Until they put it all together the jury remains out. But Issac Luke’s suspension is a huge blow to the red and green – he is responsible for their momentum and good field position and without him Souths may find it tough to claw out the yardage they have grown accustomed to. Plus, we’re anticipating that the Rabbitohs will be a little ragged around the edges this week as they struggle to overcome the adrenaline drain that must surely have followed the euphoria of last Monday night’s heroics. We sense an upset – Dragons by eight points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats