Melbourne Storm v South Sydney Rabbitohs
Much like the mouth-watering match-up between rivals Manly and Canterbury, Saturday night’s similarly intriguing clash between Melbourne and Souths is enough to sell the NRL’s new finals system as the right way to go.
If Canterbury-Manly is all about rivalry and the Queensland derby all about passion, this one must surely loom as the most exciting with two of the Telstra Premiership’s most dazzling attacking outfits fighting it out for a spot in the grand final qualifier.
And given that Melbourne has made a habit of finishing high on the ladder – earning a clash with the 7th- or 8th-ranked side under the old McIntyre System – they’ve never faced as tough a test as the Rabbitohs in Week One of the finals.
Still, this is familiar territory for the Storm. With the exception of 2010 when they were docked all competition points for salary cap breaches – they have played in every finals series since 2003 and enjoyed a top-two finish on four separate occasions.
With their big three of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith fit and firing, they have also warmed up well for the finals with five consecutive wins including that stunning last-minute victory against Cronulla two weeks ago and a 26-6 demolition of Wests Tigers last Saturday.
Certainly they are in better shape than they were 12 months ago when they headed into the finals on the back of a 40-8 loss to Sydney Roosters and failed to reach the grand final.
South Sydney, on the other hand, is entering uncharted waters. This will be just their second finals appearance since 1989, having fallen to Manly in Week One of the 2007 series… although they are a far more damaging prospect this season than they were five years ago.
Coach Michael Maguire has worked wonders with the Rabbitohs in 2012 – unleashing the attacking brilliance that has always bubbled just beneath the surface and giving them a hard edge that has undoubtedly been missing in the past.
Key to their success has been the emergence of young halfback and Dally M Rookie of the Year Adam Reynolds, while the decision to move Greg Inglis to fullback early in the year was a masterstroke. Inglis alone has the ability to spark the side to a genuine premiership run over the coming weeks.
Nevertheless, it is now – when the pressure is really on – that we will learn most about this South Sydney side. We know what to expect from Melbourne, but can the Bunnies match them?
The Storm welcome back Justin O’Neill and Anthony Quinn on their left edge this week with Will Chambers and Mahe Fonua dropping out.
A pec muscle injury has ruled Todd Lowrie out, with Ryan Hinchcliffe starting at lock in his place. Ryan Hoffman returns to the starting side with Kevin Proctor dropping back to the bench while Jason Ryles returns in the front row, with Bryan Norrie joining Proctor on the bench. Coach Craig Bellamy has named an extended six-man bench that includes Richie Fa’aoso and Siosaia Vave.
Souths have named the same 20-man squad that downed Newcastle last week.
Incredibly, this will be South Sydney winger Nathan Merritt’s first ever finals game in his 199th appearance – ending the longest non-appearance streak of any player in premiership history.
If Ben Lowe plays for the Rabbitohs it will be the first time he has played against brother Jaiman in a first grade game. Jaiman played 44 games for Souths between 2006-10 before moving to Melbourne where he has made 35 appearances in two seasons.
Watch Out Storm: Melbourne can expect their centre defence to be tested, with South Sydney the masters of punishing sides through the middle. The Rabbitohs have scored 26 tries under the black dot in 2012 – a figure matched only by minor premiers Canterbury – so the Storm can expect them to be direct this Saturday night.
Danger Sign: The Rabbitohs are the most dangerous side in the NRL from dummy-half. In 2012 they rank second for most runs (576) and most tackle-breaks (41) from dummy-half, and first for try causes (14), line-break assists (12) and half-breaks (12). Hooker Issac Luke is the most prolific dummy-half runner in the competition with a whopping 228 runs this season.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: With Justin O’Neill and Sisa Waqa paired together on Melbourne’s right edge this week, Souths should expect to see plenty of ball heading that way. The side usually scouted by halfback Cooper Cronk, the Storm heavily favour their right side in attack with 51 tries scored on that edge in 2012 compared with 35 on the left.
Danger Sign: Melbourne’s kicking game has been a feature of their success this season. Their 15,305 metres at 638 per game is the most gained from the boot by any side in the competition and they are also the only side to have finished the regular season with an accuracy percentage over 60 per cent. In 2012, the Storm have found open space 124 times with an accuracy percentage of 60.5.
Billy Slater v Greg Inglis: The single most anticipated individual match-up of the weekend – and possibly of the entire season – pits the world’s best fullback Billy Slater against the one man who can give him a run for his money in regards to that title. Slater’s influence on Melbourne’s attack is well known, while Inglis has been devastating since donning the No.1 jersey. He has averaged 142 metres, made 20 line-breaks, scored 11 tries and contributed 14 try assists and 13 line-break assists in 2012.
Where It Will Be Won: The battle of the dummy-halves will be crucial in this one given the enormous influence both have on their respective teams. Cameron Smith is a master at controlling the ruck and his kicking game is second to none, while South Sydney’s Nathan Peats/Issac Luke tag-team combination has proven devastating this year. No side tests the opposition from dummy-half as much as the Rabbitohs.
The History: Played 19; Storm 16, Rabbitohs 3. Melbourne have dominated clashes between these two sides. The Rabbitohs have lost both games at AAMI Park and have won just two of their past eight games against the Storm.
The Last Time They Met: The first match-up between Michael Maguire and his former mentor Craig Bellamy saw the apprentice taught a valuable lesson as Melbourne powered to a 24-10 win in Round 2 this year.
The Rabbitohs started with plenty of fire in the belly but it was Melbourne that crossed first after 11 minutes with quick hands to the left seeing Dane Nielsen over.
Minutes later they were in again – Billy Slater’s quick stepping throwing the defence off balance with Matt Duffie capitalising to score in the right corner.
At that stage it was looking ominous for the visitors but they finally opened their account on 26 minutes with Chris McQueen finishing off a nice backline move to make it 10-4.
And by half-time scores were locked at 10 apiece as Issac Luke turned an inside ball from close range for Sam Burgess to crash over.
However, the second half was all Melbourne. Slater handed the lead back to the Storm when he swooped on a Cooper Cronk bounced pass to score out wide, Nielsen scored his second after finishing off a brilliant set play, and Slater made it four tries in two games right at the death as Nielsen kicked through for him to pounce.
Slater was the star for Melbourne with 112 metres, two tries, two try assists and six tackle-breaks while Cameron Smith contributed 54 tackles. Issac Luke made 142 metres and 24 tackles for Souths.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Jason Robinson; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Henry Perenara; Video Referees – Russell Smith & Bernard Sutton.
The Way We See It: There is no doubt South Sydney have the ability to win this game but with home ground advantage and a proven track record in big games it’s impossible to tip against the Storm. They boast a particularly strong record against Souths and are finding form at the right time of year. Storm by eight points.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 5.30pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats