Nigel Wall, , NRL.com
Rabbitohs v Sharks
It’s the battle of irresistible force up against irresistible passion as emerging super-side Souths looks to blunt the teeth of the under-siege yet upbeat Cronulla Sharks at Homebush.
Running a line through Souths’ devastating form in disposing of the much-touted Roosters 28-10 in their season opener, and adding the ridiculous ease with which last Monday night’s encounter unravelled at the feet of the Knights, chances are the Shire boys will need to pull out personal-best efforts to remain undefeated.
Despite conceding the first points of the 2013 season Michael Maguire’s Rabbitohs showed great composure to strike back with five unanswered tries to have the game wrapped up by the hour mark. In particular fullback Greg Inglis was devastating, setting up three tries with deft passing and using his athletic skill and speed to great effect, while gun halfback Adam Reynolds showed he is all but inoculated against a dose of second-year syndrome.
Throw in the bulldozing Burgess brothers – with little bro George outshining older sibling Sam in a sparkling cameo that any player will find tough to top this year – and a pants-on-fire running effort from hooker Issac Luke, and South Sydney set the bar for this year’s premiership at nosebleed height.
Meanwhile the Sharks drew on their deep mateship reserves to hold off the Titans at Sharks Stadium last Sunday. Led by Paul Gallen, who wore a handwritten tribute to fallen club staff and also sidelined coach Shane Flanagan on a makeshift armband, Cronulla lifted on a wave of crowd support to register a deserved win. The Sharks were up for the scrap and while they didn’t set the earth on fire they did enough to bank the two competition points.
Souths have two changes this week: Jeff Lima, who plays his 100th NRL game, has been promoted to the starting side after Sam Burgess was suspended for one game, copping the early guilty plea for his high shot on Mitchell Pearce; and Bryson Goodwin replaces the injured Beau Champion (shoulder, back Round 5) in the centres. Dave Tyrrell is the new face on the interchange.
Caretaker Sharks coach Peter Sharp has made just the one change (or perhaps it was Shane Flanagan by text?), elevating Wade Graham to the starting 13 with Chris Heighington to come off the bench. A further show of unity is the fact the Cronulla bench comprises seven faces, with Jason Bukuya, Sam Tagataese and Chad Townsend the players likely to miss out.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Souths may have swamped the Roosters in attack but their defence was patchy at times, conceding a worrying six line-breaks – three through the forwards and three through the backs. That will hearten the Cronulla ball-runners, particularly the hard-chargers close to the advantage line including Andrew Fifita who scored this way last week. Fifita also scored in the same fashion when the sides last met, in Round 24 last year, so we’re not channelling Nostradamus by predicting the play will be attempted again.
Paul Gallen can single-handedly seize control of this game, with his offloads a major catalyst to the Sharks’ attack. He made four last week, the same number he made the last time these teams met. Watch for fellow back-rower and noted offloader Anthony Tupou to chance his hand more often assisting Gallen. If the pair can generate some flair early on it will lift the visitors.
Watch Out Sharks: Rabbitohs hooker Issac Luke looms as the game-changer – against the Roosters the nuggety No.9 ran 14 times (most by a hooker in Round 1) for just on 100 metres, giving his side huge momentum out of dummy-half. That spells danger for a Sharks side that conceded more metres than any other team last week (1555).
Souths are unlikely to offer Cronulla much by default. Increasingly Michael Maguire has them looking like a Storm clone, working hard for each other up front before unleashing the ‘hounds’ in the backline. They showed tremendous respect for the ball last week (NRL-low seven errors) and won’t be far off that mark again. Consequently the Cronulla pack needs to muscle up and make a statement early and try to bustle them into mistakes.
Plays To Watch: George Burgess breaking through the Sharks like they were made of Gladwrap – last week he made 16 runs, 147 metres and a try in just 29 minutes; John Sutton’s spellbinding ball-playing (three offloads last week); Souths hitting the left edge often, with Inglis chiming into the loop; Nathan Merritt adding to his tries tally that currently stands at three; Wade Graham ‘punching’ above his weight in the Sharks’ defensive line with some without-fear hits; Beau Ryan getting busy in at dummy-half; John Morris putting teammates into holes with select passes (two line-break assists last week).
Key Match-Up: Greg Inglis v Michael Gordon. A head-to-head clash to savour, pitting the size, speed and skill of Inglis up against Gordon’s tenacity and ground-covering ability.
Inglis was a standout performer against the Roosters, with a line-break, line-break assist, two (should have been three) try assists and a total of 163 metres. Despite drawing plenty of attention from opposition defenders he still managed to exit the arena as man of the match – the true measure of his stardom.
Meanwhile Gordon looked right at home in the No.1 for Cronulla last week, running 19 times for 151 metres. He could add even greater territory here – he ranked second in the comp in the past two seasons with averages of 167 metres and 179 metres a game respectively. Given he averages five tackle busts every 80 minutes the Souths defenders will need to make sure their kick chase is effective.
Where It Will Be Won: Attitude. It’s very easy for sides that performed well to come crashing down out of the clouds, so Souths need to bring the same application and intensity that got the job done last week. Conversely it will be tough for the Sharks to top up their emotions after the huge psychological release that must have accompanied their stirring victory under such trying circumstances. They run a real danger of entering this game more than a little flat.
The History: Played 79; Sharks 41, Rabbitohs 35, drawn 3. The Rabbitohs have won five of their past nine clashes between the sides.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Adam Gee; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Ashley Klein & Matt Rodwell.
Televised: Fox Sports 1HD – Live 7pm.
The Way We See It: Even without the off-field distractions Cronulla would be up against it here, given the Rabbitohs’ sizzling form from last week. Sorry fans in the Shire but we lean towards Souths by eight points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats