Ben Blaschke,, NRL.com
Roosters v Rabbitohs
Thursday 8.05pm AEDT
What a cracking game to start the 2013 season! Last year the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs produced arguably the two most remarkable games of the year, with the Roosters scoring two tries in the final two minutes to steal a 24-20 win in Round 1 and Souths returning the favour in freakishly similar circumstances to claim a 24-22 win in Round 19.
As it turned out, the Rabbitohs went on to play a leading role in the semi-finals – falling just one game short of the grand final – while the Roosters slumped to a 13th-place finish that ultimately cost coach Brian Smith his job; but with mass changes at Bondi Junction, Thursday night’s clash could well prove to be a preview of the 2013 finals.
No side has undergone as dramatic a transformation over the off-season as the Roosters. Off the field, Smith has been replaced by his former assistant, with 35-year-old Trent Robinson becoming the youngest coach in the NRL this year. On the field there have been four huge signings that have fans suddenly dreaming of premierships again after a few lean seasons – none moreso than the arrival of Sonny Bill Williams.
Williams has polarised opinion since he walked out on Canterbury five years ago and his return to rugby league hasn’t been all smooth sailing either as the Roosters scrambled to have his contract registered late, but there is no doubting his talent and ability to pull a crowd (as evidenced by the rush for tickets to this game). His presence alone will have opponents jittery.
Former Warriors five-eighth James Maloney has also arrived to revitalise the side’s attack, his partnership with Mitchell Pearce potentially one of the most potent in the competition.
Towering back-rower Luke O’Donnell, who returns to the NRL after two seasons in England with Huddersfield, will be looking to force his way back into the NSW State of Origin side.
And having fallen out with the Panthers, NSW centre Michael Jennings suddenly found himself headed east in January to add some more star power to the Roosters’ backline.
Whether this all adds up to immediate success remains to be seen but it certainly makes Thursday’s season opener one of the must-see games of the year.
For Souths, this clash will be about building on the giant strides they made in 2012. Unlike the Roosters, they haven’t undergone any significant changes from last year and will be looking to their monstrous pack to counter any damage SBW may throw at them while out wide the likes of Greg Inglis, Nathan Merritt, Andrew Everingham, John Sutton, Adam Reynolds and the returning Beau Champion make up one of the most dangerous backlines in the NRL.
However, when it comes to this Round 1 clash, it could well be a case of whichever side handles the hype best comes out on top. They’ve talked the talk – and there has certainly been plenty of talk about this one in recent weeks – but who will walk the walk?
The Roosters haven’t sprung any major surprises, with both Williams and O’Donnell making their club debuts from the bench behind starting back-rowers Aidan Guerra and Mitch Aubusson. Robinson has named an extended bench, with Daniel Mortimer, Martin Kennedy, Boyd Cordner, Michael Oldfield and Tinirau Arona fighting for a spot.
Watch Out Roosters: The Tricolours struggled defensively last season, particularly through the middle where they conceded a whopping 23 tries (only Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Penrith conceded more) and they will need to be on the ball against a South Sydney outfit that loves the direct route.
The Rabbitohs are the NRL’s greatest exponent of dummy-half running, with Issac Luke and Nathan Peats relentless in their forays around the ruck: their 611 dummy-half runs last season was second only to Brisbane’s 621 and they were far and away the most dangerous side from dummy-half, ranking first for tries scored (14), half-breaks (13) and line-break assists (12). Notably, Luke ran from dummy-half far more than any other player in the competition with 228 runs.
And the Roosters can expect to be punished if they continue to be lax through the middle because while they conceded 23 tries there last season, Souths ranked equal first alongside Canterbury for most tries scored under the black dot with 26.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: What can South Sydney expect from Sonny Bill Williams? Well, let’s take a step back in time and see…
In his former life, Williams was a destructive force on Canterbury’s right edge where he was renowned for his ability to break through the tackle and promote the football. In fact, in his last full season in the NRL in 2007 he topped the competition for offloads (for the second year in a row) with 60 and added 73 tackle-breaks while averaging around 64 minutes per game. He also had quite the knack for finding the try line, scoring 14 tries in 22 appearances to go with his 11 line-breaks and 13 line-break assists.
Williams’ arrival adds even more starch to a side that already boasts a considerable physical presence – in 2012 the Roosters produced more tackle-breaks than any other side with an average 35.6 per game and eight different players notching 40 or more. It’s worth noting that their two most prolific players when it comes to tackle-breaks, wingers Sam Perrett and BJ Leilua, have now left the club; however SBW and Luke O’Donnell – who produced 35 tackle-breaks in 13 games for North Queensland in 2010 – should more than make up for their absence.
Plays To Watch: The second-man play wide to the left, with Greg Inglis wrapping around, taking a John Sutton pass and looking to slice through the gap created. It worked a treat in Inglis’ first game at fullback against Penrith in Round 3 last season – and the Roosters are no strangers to the play either, given that it worked against them in their Round 19 thriller.
Key Match-Up: Sonny Bill Williams v Sam Burgess. The Roosters have been coy when it comes to how and when they will use Sonny Bill Williams when he finally makes his debut for the club this week; however we have no doubt these two giants will come together at some stage – and what a match-up it promises to be. Williams has built a career on physically dominating his rivals, while Burgess is South Sydney’s most damaging forward and will be looking to make an early statement.
Where It Will Be Won: There may be plenty of strike power out wide but this is all about the forwards. The first game of the year always brings with it plenty of intensity and with all the hype that has surrounded the Roosters’ new-look back row we expect fireworks. From a Roosters perspective, particularly in the back row, spots in the 17 are at a premium with the likes of Boyd Cordner, Mitch Aubusson and Aidan Guerra no doubt keen to make it known that this year isn’t all about SBW, while Souths have spent a full off-season listening to the talk out of Bondi and would love nothing more than to silence the cheers with a dominant display.
The History: Played 205; Rabbitohs 107, Roosters 93, drawn 5. The Roosters have won six of the past 10 clashes (and four of the past six) and hold a 21-11 advantage in games at Allianz Stadium.
The Last Time They Met: One of the most memorable games of 2012 saw South Sydney stun their old foes with two tries in the final two minutes to steal a phenomenal 24-22 win – reversing their Round 1 result when the Roosters had done exactly the same to them!
Trailing 22-12 and still 40 metres out from the tryline when the clock ticked over to 78 minutes played, Souths rolled the dice as they put it through the hands to the left with Chris McQueen breaking through to send Nathan Merritt over between the sticks. Then from the kick-off, big Dave Taylor drew two defenders before sending McQueen clear again, the makeshift winger racing 50 metres before linking up with Merritt and then Issac Luke before his ‘Hail Mary’ pass over his left shoulder was swooped upon by Adam Reynolds to score.
The stunning finish had the crowd going wild, while Fox Sports commentator Warren Smith summed up the thoughts of everyone as he screamed: “You can take me now, I have seen it all!”
As it was, the match had looked anything but an NRL classic at the half-time break with South Sydney leading 12-4 and looking comfortable thanks to first-half tries to Merritt and Andrew Everingham. The momentum shifted eight minutes into the second half when Souths wasted a golden opportunity to score after Issac Luke broke clear. Instead, having pounced on a loose pass, it was the Roosters that went end to end two plays later, with Tautau Moga racing away to score and BJ Leilua putting his side ahead for the first time when he crossed in the corner in the 65th minute.
The Roosters then appeared to have sealed victory when Mitchell Pearce toed ahead to score, only for their season to be dealt a crippling blow by South Sydney’s late surge.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Nick Beashel; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Luke Phillips.
Broadcast: Watch the match from your smartphone via the NRL Live 2013 app (iphone or android). Channel 9 – Live 8pm AEDT; Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 10pm.
The Way We See It: Picking clear winners at this time of year tends to be more good luck than good calculation – particularly when one side has undergone such significant change.
There is no doubt that the Roosters have recruited superbly for 2013 and we expect them to give the competition a shake; however, will it take some time for them to come together as a unit?
South Sydney are fielding a near-identical side to the one that reached Week 3 of the finals last year and their impressive key-position quartet of Greg Inglis, John Sutton, Adam Reynolds and Issac Luke remains intact, so we’re leaning towards victory for the red and green to open the season. Souths by four points.