Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
South Sydney Rabbitohs v Canberra Raiders
How quickly the tables can turn. It was barely two months ago that Canberra coach David Furner was facing another barrage of speculation about his job security, with the Raiders struggling to find any sort of consistency and languishing in 13th spot on the NRL ladder.
At that stage a finals berth seemed little more than a pipe dream, yet so stunningly have they turned their season around that they head into week two of the finals as one of the form teams of the competition and with a real chance of booking a grand final qualifier against Canterbury. (Let’s not forget, should that happen, that Canberra is the only side since Round 10 to defeat the Bulldogs with a shock 34-6 thrashing three weeks ago.)
The Raiders’ resurgence has been all about going back to basics. Having cut their error rate to the lowest in the NRL, they use their monstrous front row to power the side forward before unleashing a backline jam-packed with both size and speed. They started slow against Cronulla last Sunday and paid the price early on, but when they got it right in the second half they proved far too much to handle, with four snappy tries in the final 14 minutes.
While Canberra rides high on the back of their six-game winning streak, questions are suddenly being asked of South Sydney’s premiership credentials despite their impressive third-place finish after the regular season.
Playing their first finals series in five years and just their second since 1989, Souths appeared to be Rabbits in the headlights as Melbourne raced to an 18-0 half-time lead before cruising to a 24-6 victory.
To be fair, it’s probably harsh to jump to such conclusions given that the bunnies have been in or around the top four for most of the season. And of course, Melbourne in Melbourne has long been one of the NRL’s toughest road trips.
Also, Canberra will no doubt recognise that South Sydney have far more weapons to throw at them than Cronulla with Greg Inglis, Dave Taylor and John Sutton all key game-breakers.
Nevertheless, it is up to the home side to prove that their lack of finals experience won’t be a burden.
A broken arm suffered by Matt King last week has seen him ruled out for the season with Andrew Everingham filling his centre spot and Justin Hunt coming in on the wing. Shaune Corrigan has been added to an extended bench.
Canberra have also lost a centre with Jarrod Croker suffering a fractured cheekbone against the Sharks. Joel Thompson moves into the backline in Croker’s place with Joe Picker coming into the starting side in the second row.
Rookie Jack Wighton moves onto a seven-man bench alongside Travis Waddell, Jarrad Kennedy and Dimitri Pelo.
It will be a big night for veteran Souths duo Nathan Merritt and Michael Crocker who will both play their 200th NRL game this week. No doubt both will be hoping history repeats, too: the last time Souths played on September 15 they won the 1928 premiership!
Worryingly, though, will be the fact that they have been held to a single try in three of their past five games while Canberra will come in with plenty of confidence given that they are enjoying their best away season in a decade with seven wins and five losses.
Canberra bookends David Shillington and Dane Tilse are both playing their 150th NRL game.
It will be interesting to see who coach David Furner chooses to fill Jarrod Croker’s goal-kicking boots with Josh Dugan, Blake Ferguson and Sam Williams all in the mix. Their respective records through both NRL and NYC are: Dugan 112 from 163, Ferguson 4 from 6 and Williams 15 from 22.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Canberra’s right-side attack has proved almost unstoppable since the arrival of winger Sandor Earl from Penrith mid-season, with he and centre Blake Ferguson forming a formidable duo. In 24 games in 2012 Ferguson has averaged 126 metres, scored 12 tries, made 11 line-breaks and added 109 tackle-breaks while Earl has capitalised on the good work inside him with an average 123 metres, seven tries and five line-breaks in 11 appearances for the Green Machine.
Danger Sign: South Sydney have plenty of work to do on their kicking game over these final weeks of the season given their struggles to find open space with their clearing punts in 2012. The Rabbitohs have found grass just 99 times this season while hitting the chest of their opposition back three 123 times. Their 44.6 per cent accuracy with the boot places them above only Penrith and well behind the likes of benchmark Melbourne (60.1 per cent).
Watch Out Raiders: It is no secret that South Sydney are the masters of dummy-half running, but knowing about it and stopping it are two different things. They rank second behind Brisbane for total dummy-half runs in 2012 with 590 and first for try causes with 14. They have also made 10 line-breaks and produced 12 line-break assists from dummy-half, with the Nathan Peats-Issac Luke combination working well in recent weeks.
Danger Sign: It will be interesting to see what impact Joel Thompson’s move to the centres in place of Jarrod Croker will have on Canberra’s left-side defence. The Raiders have leaked tries on that edge this season, with 49 conceded compared with 33 on their right. And they can certainly expect to be tested there again this week with big Dave Taylor situated on that side of the field.
Greg Inglis v Josh Dugan: Last week it was Billy Slater that recently converted fullback Greg Inglis found himself up against, this time it is Josh Dugan. Dugan has again starred for the Raiders this season with an average 143 metres, seven tries, nine line-breaks and 98 tackle-breaks from his 16 games although there is no doubt Inglis has played a key role in the Rabbitohs’ surge. Along with his average 145 metres, Inglis has contributed 21 line-breaks, 14 try assists and 13 line-break assists.
Where It Will Be Won: Edge defence will be crucial given that there will be plenty coming the way of both sides. Canberra in particular have struggled defensively out wide in 2012 and Souths base a lot of their attack on the good work of their back row, so it is vital that the Raiders stiffen up. That said, Canberra is also a lethal attacking outfit out wide so making those one-on-one tackles on the edges could decide the outcome of this clash.
The History: Played 45; Raiders 27, Rabbitohs 18. The honours are even four games at apiece over the past eight clashes between the sides, although results have tended to come in clusters: the bunnies have won the past three match-ups but before that Canberra managed a sequence of four consecutive wins. The Raiders boast a 3-2 advantage at Homebush.
The Last Time They Met: Greg Inglis and Dave Taylor ran riot as South Sydney defeated Canberra 36-18 at ANZ Stadium in Round 12.
The Rabbitohs exploded out of the blocks to lead 14-nil after just 18 minutes through tries to Justin Hunt, Taylor and then Inglis before a Jarrod Croker double inside the space of six minutes, plus a try to Joel Thompson on the stroke of halftime, saw the teams head to the sheds with the home side leading just 14-12.
However, the second half delivered a red-and-green blitzkrieg, with Souths having the game firmly in their keeping at the 57-minute mark following tries to Ben Lowe, Dylan Farrell and Taylor’s second of the night for a 32-12 lead. Inglis added salt to the Raiders’ wounds when he crashed over on the right edge for his second try with 10 minutes remaining.
Canberra fullback Reece Robinson, deputising for the injured Josh Dugan, scored a consolation solo try for the visitors in the 73rd minute after dashing 20 metres through the centre of the ruck.
The Rabbitohs’ victory was achieved through a devastating display of attacking rugby league, with 11 sizzling line-breaks posted compared with the opposition’s five.
Souths’ cohesion and teamwork were evident throughout; also new coach Michael Maguire’s stamp was there to see when Issac Luke, John Sutton and Inglis combined near halfway in a carbon-copy of the Storm’s successful outside-in pass exchange at the ruck, with Inglis streaking away to score his first try of the night midway through the opening 40 minutes.
The Raiders tried hard to ignite their attack with a whopping 21 offloads (they also completed their sets well at 82 per cent) but Souths held firm, leaking only a modest 26 tackles.
Canberra didn’t miss too many tackles either (just 34) – but the ones they did fall off were crucial in the scheme of things (centre Croker missed four tackles while five-eighth Josh McCrone missed six).
Inglis and Taylor had a field day in attack, with Inglis scoring twice and offering two try assists, while Taylor’s bulk was unstoppable on the right edge – he finished with two tries and three line-breaks.
Centres Croker and Thompson were the Raiders’ best in attack, while lock Shaun Fensom kept the opposition guessing with four offloads.
Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Russell Turner; Video Referees – Russell Smith & Sean Hampstead.
The Way We See It: This is a tough one to pick. We lean towards South Sydney on the back of their strong season and the fact that there is no shame in losing away to Melbourne, but they do need to prove they have what it takes to perform at the business end of the season. And never forget the value of momentum, with Canberra having won their past six. This will go down to the wire. Souths by four points.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm; Fox Sports 3 – Delayed 10.20pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats