Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles
Another week, another NRL blockbuster as Manly make the trek up the F3 for the second week in a row to take on fellow heavyweights South Sydney.
With four rounds remaining until the finals, there is a whole lot at stake in this clash. A win for the Rabbitohs would just about secure a priceless top-two finish and, more importantly, put an end to the worrying form slump that is threatening to derail their premiership campaign. A win for Manly would see them close to within one point of the Bunnies and no doubt rattle their opponents’ confidence even more in the process.
With three losses from South Sydney’s past four games, a season that looked set to bring them their first minor premiership since 1989 is instead in the midst of a mini-crisis. Much of that has to do with injury, with Greg Inglis and John Sutton sidelined over the past few weeks, and the imminent return of Inglis in particular will provide a huge boost.
But has their confidence taken a debilitating hit? After suffering a shock loss at the hands of St George Illawarra in Round 19, Souths have lost consecutive games against North Queensland and Melbourne and there is no doubt the great momentum they built over the course of the season has now well and truly dissipated.
By comparison, this week’s opponents Manly are one of the hottest sides in the competition with six wins in a row including last Sunday’s impressive 27-12 decision over the Warriors. The Sea Eagles suffered their own mid-season slump but have certainly made amends of late having scored a whopping 225 points in their six-game winning run.
Key to Manly’s success has been the emergence of their left edge as a weapon just as potent as their right. Once the little brother, the combination of Kieran Foran, Justin Horo, Steve Matai and Jorge Taufua has proven just as lethal as Daly Cherry-Evans, Anthony Watmough, Jamie Lyon and David Williams in 2013 with opponents rarely given an opportunity to relax.
It seems that personnel will be the key for the Rabbitohs as the finals approach. At full strength they are a scintillating attacking side and a real shot at going all the way in 2013 but they will be sweating on the return of Inglis and Sutton, while Sam Burgess is also facing a two-week stint on the sidelines on a contrary conduct charge following Friday night’s loss to Melbourne.
Souths have named both Inglis and Sutton for this week’s game alongside a six-man bench that includes Jeff Lima, Justin Hunt and Jason Clark.
Manly welcome back Justin Horo, although Anthony Watmough is out with a knee injury, with Jamie Buhrer coming into the starting side.
Souths winger Nathan Merritt has had a tough time of it since his NSW debut and faces the prospect of going without a try in six straight games for the first time since 2008. The Rabbitohs haven’t beaten Manly twice in a season since 1986.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Manly have looked a different side since the return from injury of fullback Brett Stewart. Stewart isn’t a huge metre-eater like some of his premiership rivals but his ability to chime into the backline has been a huge plus for his side in 2013 and he leads the club for line-break assists (12) and ranks second for try assists (14) this year. Stewart has also made a huge contribution in defence with his ability to snuff out dangerous situations a notable feature of Manly’s six-game winning run.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Could Matt King be South Sydney’s secret weapon in the run home to the finals?
Having suffered a recurrence of the broken arm he originally copped late last year, King made his long-awaited return from injury three weeks ago and has been in superb form since with an average 141 metres per game. With the likes of Greg Inglis and the Burgess brothers also well over the 100-metre mark each game, that’s a lot of metres on offer for the Rabbitohs.
Plays To Watch: The Issac Luke dummy-half run. It will be interesting to see who takes the next hit-up from a George Burgess charge given that Sam Burgess has typically been the man to follow his younger brother.
Keep an eye on Kieran Foran when he receives the ball for a set play on the left. Inevitably he will have Justin Horo running off his hip and Brett Stewart sweeping around the back with both being dangerous options to receive the ball.
Key Match-Up: Adam Reynolds v Daly Cherry-Evans. There is every chance that in a few years’ time this will be the State of Origin halves battle with Adam Reynolds widely tipped to don the NSW jersey sooner rather than later and Cherry-Evans already a part of the Queensland squad. They will orchestrate their teams’ attack again this week in what promises to be a thrilling battle.
Where It Will Be Won: Defence on the edges will be crucial. Manly has destroyed all-comers of late with their lethal left-right combination while Souths boast attacking weapons all over the park. The imminent return of Inglis and Sutton will weigh heavily on Manly’s minds this week.
The History: Played 129; Sea Eagles 71, Rabbitohs 58. Manly have won 10 of 12 games at Bluetongue Stadium.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Nick Beashel; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Matt Rodwell.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week, including the Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
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Televised: Channel 9 – Live, 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9,30pm (Qld).
The Way We See It: A fascinating game that will largely hinge on the fitness of Greg Inglis and John Sutton who are hugely important to the South Sydney cause. Will they be fit to play? Hard to know and with a few games out we’re going to take the safe bet and tip the in-form Sea Eagles to score a narrow win. Sea Eagles by four points.
* Statistics: NRL Stats