Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Rabbitohs v Storm
Here we go! A full 26 weeks since South Sydney kicked off the 2013 Telstra Premiership season against the Sydney Roosters, they’re back to do the same for the finals series as they line up in a genuine blockbuster to welcome in the business end of the year.
Truth be told, this clash looms as a real test of the Rabbitohs’ premiership credentials. Despite sitting top of the Telstra Premiership ladder for much of 2013, Souths would have preferred to avoid a Week 1 game against Melbourne given that they have won just three of 19 games against them and lost both previous encounters this season.
In Round 6, a thriller at this same venue saw the Storm eke out a 17-10 win while the return game in Melbourne in Round 22 saw them roll to a comfortable 26-8 win.
Having lost the chance to claim the minor premiership with their defeat at the hands of the Roosters last week, consecutive losses could prove a crippling blow for Michael Maguire’s men as they look to go one better than last year’s preliminary final exit.
However, Souths have also shown time and time again just how lethal they can be. They boast the biggest forward pack in the NRL with the four Burgess brothers recently linking in first grade for the first time; hooker Issac Luke provides a constant threat with his dummy-half running and direct style of play; and fullback Greg Inglis remains the X-factor that all other sides fear.
Notably, while they haven’t been at their absolute best over the past month, neither have the Storm who crashed to a big loss away to Manly in Round 25 and barely scraped through against the Gold Coast in golden point last week.
Melbourne’s big advantage at this time of year is the knowledge that they’ve been here and done it all before. Although they were stripped of their 2007 and 2009 premierships, the experience of those games remains and of course they did it all again last year on their way to a legitimate title.
As always, their big three of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk are key and again their big game experience is significant with 64 State of Origins and 67 Tests between them.
But the challenge is different in 2013. Last year they stormed into the finals on the back of five consecutive wins and kept that momentum going all the way to the grand final. They also had the luxury of a top-two finish and a home semi-final. Neither of those is the case this year.
The NRL implemented its new finals format for the first time last season which eliminated the one-sided contests we used to see all too often with 1 v 8 and 2 v 7. Instead, the very first game of the finals series in 2013 could well be one of the best of the year. Bring it on!
Both coaches have named the same sides that took the field last week although Melbourne have added Gareth Widdop as 18th man in what would complete a remarkable recovery from a dislocated hip if he was to make his return this week. Widdop is on standby for Brett Finch who injured his shoulder in the win over the Titans.
Souths five-eighth John Sutton will equal club legend Eric Simms for the third-most appearances for the Rabbitohs with 206.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Melbourne are the masters at winning the battle for territory and putting opponents under pressure, thanks largely to the dual kicking games of Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith. This season they have found open space with their long kicks 107 times while hitting the chest of the opposition just 56 times for a success rate of 65.6 per cent. That level of kicking would certainly make life difficult for Souths if they can replicate it this week – and they will be keen to avoid giving Greg Inglis room to move.
Watch Out Storm: South Sydney’s attacking kicking game is arguably the best in the NRL and it is no surprise that they have scored more tries from kicks than any other side in 2013 with 27. They are also a side that can launch an attacking raid from anywhere on the field, having scored 17 tries from inside their own half. No other side has scored as many.
Plays To Watch: Cooper Cronk’s bag of trips continues to expand. The past two weeks he has produced the an identical play on two occasions – taking the ball one off the ruck in mid-field and launching a surprise cross-field chip for his outside men to run through and catch. This is exactly how they scored their first try against the Titans last week.
Watch too for that old chestnut which sees Cameron Smith go right from dummy-half to Cronk who will then fire a quick inside ball to a flying Billy Slater.
Souths play more of a power game and their favourite play is a Burgess one-two punch. It will see George Burgess take a strong hit-up inside the opposition 20-metre line with the goal of luring in defenders and forcing a quick play-the-ball. From that play, Issac Luke will then fire a quick pass to the right for Sam Burgess to crash over and score.
Key Match-Up: Greg Inglis v Billy Slater. What a clash. The best fullback in the world up against the only other man who might dare lay claim to the title. There is no doubt that both of these players will feature heavily here. Slater averages 135 metres this season as well as making 24 line-breaks and scoring 17 tries while Inglis averages 152 metres with 12 line-breaks, 14 tries and 97 tackle-breaks.
Where It Will Be Won: The big test for Melbourne will be holding firm through the middle against the sheer size and power of the South Sydney forward pack. There is no doubt that this is where the Rabbitohs will look to gain the ascendency. If they can roll through the middle they will go a long way towards winning the game and limiting the influence of the Storm’s little men. Conversely, if Melbourne can stand up to them they will hamper the ability of Adam Reynolds, John Sutton and Issac Luke to have their say.
The History: Played 22; Storm 19, Rabbitohs 3. Melbourne boasts a better win rate against Souths than any other side at a whopping 86.4 per cent.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Jared Maxwell; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Nick Beashel; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Luke Phillips.
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 Storm 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: There isn’t a struck match between these two sides. Souths boast a terrible record against Melbourne but home ground advantage will be a significant advantage. The big question is how the Rabbitohs handle the ‘big stage’ given they boast far less big-game experience than Melbourne do. But after last week’s loss to the Roosters, we can see them lifting enormously this week. And if their forwards get going they will be hard to contain. Rabbitohs by six points.
* Statistics: NRL Stats