Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles
Twelve months after they fell short against Canterbury in their first preliminary final since 1968, South Sydney have the chance to make amends when they take on a bruised and battered Manly side at ANZ Stadium.
Having gained valuable finals experience with last year’s run, the Rabbitohs will see this as their big opportunity to reach the grand final and hopefully shoot for their first premiership in 42 years. A confidence-building win over Melbourne in Week One of the Finals followed by the week off should have them refreshed and they head into Friday night’s clash warm favourites to progress to the big one.
Yet even though Manly have limped through the past few weeks with a number of players carrying injuries, they boast one significant advantage over the Rabbitohs – they’ve been there and done it all before.
Premiers in 2008 and again in 2011, the Sea Eagles know just what it takes to win the big games and still boast the core of the side that beat the Warriors to lift the trophy two years ago.
They will also be well aware that an era is coming to a close and will be keen to send departing stars Brent Kite, George Rose and, potentially, David Williams out on a high.
Again though, question marks remain over their fitness and ability to contain the big South Sydney forward pack. Captain Jamie Lyon and back-rowers Anthony Watmough and Jamie Buhrer have all been cleared to play despite suffering injuries last week, while star fullback Brett Stewart continues to race the clock to be fit after missing the past three games with a hamstring injury.
While his replacement Peta Hiku has done a superb job in his absence, the Sea Eagles have missed Stewart’s incisiveness and his availability could make or break their season.
As far as Souths are concerned, this will be about business as usual. With no major injury worries, they will be confident their big men can get the job done while the likes of Greg Inglis, Issac Luke, John Sutton and Adam Reynolds will certainly test Manly’s defensive mettle.
This also looms as a fascinating battle of two young coaches who have already impressed since taking over their respective clubs in 2012. Michael Maguire is just the fifth Souths coach and Geoff Toovey the sixth Manly coach to achieve a top-four finish in each of their first two seasons in charge. Ironically, Maguire’s first grade debut as a player for Canberra came against a Sea Eagles side that featured Toovey – Manly prevailing 15-14 in 1992.
Neither will leave any stone unturned this week as they look to guide their side into the 2013 NRL grand final.
The Rabbitohs have shuffled their pack for this game with Dave Tyrrell and Sam Burgess swapping places – Burgess moving to the back row and Tyrrell to prop. An extended bench sees Ben Lowe, Luke Keary and Matt King all part of their 20-man squad.
Manly have named Stewart to return at fullback pending a late fitness test, with Hiku, James Hasson and David Gower on their extended bench.
Manly will be looking for a fast start again this week. In 2013 they have outscored opponents 80-18 in the opening 10 minutes of matches. Veteran back-rower Watmough moves into the top 50 most-capped players of all-time with his 265th first grade game and he also requires just 97 more metres to become just the 10th player in NRL history to record 30,000 career run metres.
Issac Luke becomes just the third Rabbitohs hooker to reach 150 club games, after Mario Fenech and Ernie Hammerton.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: If there is one thing Souths can be sure of it’s that Manly will throw plenty at them in attack. Always dangerous with the ball in hand, the Sea Eagles rank second in the NRL for total line-breaks in 2013 (regular season) with 126 including a competition-best 45 from busts and 71 clean breaks (2nd). The Sea Eagles are also lethal from long range with an NRL-leading 38 tries coming from outside the 20-metre line.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Manly have endured a brutal few weeks on the field with their bruised and battered side fighting hard to recover in time to face a monstrous Souths pack. South Sydney rank second in the league for tackle-breaks this season with 740. Topping the count are Greg Inglis with 102, George Burgess with 86, Issac Luke with 76 and Sam Burgess with 66.
Plays To Watch: There are a number of plays South Sydney have used this season with great success – none more so than the Adam Reynolds cross-field bomb to his back-rowers. Reynolds is a master at putting his kicks right on the spot and he loves landing them either just to the left or just to the right of the posts where the likes of Chris McQueen will be on hand to leap high. Watch also for big George Burgess taking a hit-up inside the opposition 20-metre line. Rest assured the next play will see his brother Sam charging onto the ball as he looks to take advantage of the retreating defensive line.
Manly have a great set play on their left edge which will benefit from the return of Brett Stewart. It sets up as a typical second-man play with Stewart sweeping around the back and Justin Horo the decoy, but the Sea Eagles have done well when they have switched it up and hit Horo with the short ball.
Key Match-Up: Adam Reynolds v Daly Cherry-Evans. There is every chance these two will be battling it out on the State of Origin arena in years to come. Souths halfback Adam Reynolds has been tipped as a future NSW star and his kicking game will be crucial in this one. Cherry-Evans tasted Origin for the Maroons in 2013 and has been his side’s star player during the finals series. Manly will need his calmness under pressure if they are to cause an upset and move through to the decider.
Where It Will Be Won: This is all about the forwards. How will Manly’s battered big men cope with the relentless onslaught of South Sydney’s enormous pack? There is no doubt the Rabbitohs will look to target Manly through the middle and if they get on top early it could be a long night for the Sea Eagles, but if they can weather the storm this game could go either way.
The History: Played 130; Sea Eagles 71, Rabbitohs 59. Souths have only defeated Manly three times in a season twice before – in 1951 and 1970. They have also lost at ANZ Stadium only once in the past three seasons, which happened to be against the Sydney Roosters in Round 26 this year. Manly have won eight of their past 10 ANZ Stadium fixtures and enjoy an 18-5 record in preliminary finals.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Grant Atkins; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Luke Patten.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles finals clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: What a thrilling encounter this promises to be. South Sydney have been one of the best sides in the NRL all year and with their huge pack and the strike provided by Greg Inglis and Issac Luke they will take plenty of stopping. But Manly have been here and done it all before. They still boast 11 players from their 2011 premiership-winning side and certainly have the ability to go all the way again. We’re just not sure they have the energy to combat this Rabbitohs pack given their tough games against the Roosters and Sharks. Rabbitohs by eight points.
* Statistics: NRL Stats