IF last season’s statistics are anything to go by, the Roosters should have no problem overcoming Souths. Having scored 12 more tries and conceded a massive 43 less, it should be a walkover. But stats are deceiving…
It’s been 12 months to the week since the Roosters effectively ended Souths’ 2008 campaign with a controversial late hit on defector and star playmaker Craig Wing. And the Rabbitohs have long memories. The Riley Brown tackle went on to become known as the ‘prowler’ manoeuvre, and incidentally and despite last season’s damning stats, it’s the Rabbitohs who are framing as favourites to sneak up on the top eight this season after an impressive Charity Shield drubbing of the highly fancied, new-look Dragons.
Souths always set out to prove a point against their glamour nemesis, and if both teams’ trial form is anything to go by, a powered-up Souths look the goods over a Roosters side still missing Willie Mason.
The Bunnies welcome livewire duo Rhys Wesser and Colin Best to the side, which will vastly improve their try-scoring rate, while the Roosters’ side remains largely unchanged from the one that faded out of grand final contention in ‘straights sets’ last season – and, worryingly, which narrowly won just one of its trial matches.
With experience and speed, and the return of the world’s best prop in Roy Asotasi, Souths could buck the trend and win the traditional Round 1 clash for only the second time in five seasons.
Watch out Souths: For the first time in four seasons, Golden Boot winner and representative fullback Anthony Minichiello has not only completed a full pre-season, but he’s come out the other end unscathed.
His well-documented struggle with a back injury that threatened to end his career over the past three years has not only cost the Roosters experience, but his leadership from the back and ability to slot in as an extra playmaker to create extra attacking options has also been sorely missed. If Minichiello is indeed 100 per cent, Blues halfback Mitchell Pearce and Braith Anasta’s games could go to a new level.
It also gives the Roosters another point of attack, making it harder for defenders to zero in on just the young halfback or five-eighth.
Watch out Roosters: Since he burst onto the scene midway through 2008, diminutive halfback Chris Sandow’s presence has been felt on the football field.
His sharp kicking game, deadly running game and cheeky passing game inspired a Souths revival late in 2008, and with a full pre-season under his belt and an extra 5kg to his frame he will only get better – you only need to look performance in the Charity Shield two weeks ago, timing to perfection a grubber drop-out and regather from his own line, to see his natural flair and talent.
With Asotasi back to lead the forwards after his self-proclaimed worst season on record, and the addition of Best and Wesser, Sandow and livewire playmaker John Sutton have the potential to cause some serious damage.
Where it will be won: Expect the Roosters to push on with the same tactics that saw them finish top-four last season: hard slogging up the middle through the likes of Mark O’Meley, Nate Myles and Setaimata Sa, before turning to Pearce and Anasta’s pin-point kicking games to provide tries for their outside men.
The Roosters scored more tries through kicks than any other side last season, and with high-ball specialist Minichiello back, there’s no reason the tactic can’t work again. However, with Willie Mason still sidelined through knee injury and the likes of World Cup-winning Kiwi enforcers David Fa’alogo and David Kidwell lining up for the Rabbitohs, the Tri-Colours could find it tough going up the middle.
Throw in champion leaper Best and safe-as-houses winger Fetuli Talanoa out wide for Souths, and the Roosters could just struggle to get over the line after releasing prolific try-scorer Amos Roberts. They were beaten convincingly in trials by the Dragons and Eels, and with Braith Anasta shifted back to five-eighth after an unsuccessful experiment of Sa in the six, one must wonder how stable coach Fittler’s attacking combination is.
Look for the Souths line to be in constant movement in attack, with the likes of Best, Wesser and Beau Champion popping up wide of the ruck early in the tackle count to pick up sneaky balls from offload-happy forwards Asotasi, Kidwell, Michael Greenfield and Eddy Pettybourne. And there will be sneaky metres aplenty from World Cup-winning hooker Issac Luke.
The history: Played 197; Rabbitohs 103, Roosters 89, drawn 5. Including all matches dating back to 1908, Souths have an enviable record, but since the late 1980s it’s the Roosters who have had the wood on the Rabbitohs. Souths have won just two of the sides’ eight clashes since returning to the NRL, their latest win coming in early 2007 and before that back in 2005. The Roosters overcame a fighting Bunnies outfit 22-20 in their last meeting at the SFS in 2008.
Conclusion: After missing the top eight and losing all but one of their first 10 games last season, Souths will be out with a real point to prove this year. And you can guarantee revenge for Craig Wing is still fresh in their minds. Throw in the emergence of Sandow, the obvious talent of Blue-in-waiting John Sutton, the creative brilliance of Luke and Wesser, and the go-forward from the likes of Luke Stuart, new recruit Kane Cleal and the Lowe brothers, and the Rabbitohs look the goods against a Roosters side the lacks genuine experience and flare out wide. Creativity and attacking options should see Souths get the points in what many would view as an upset.
Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Mohamad Fajajo. Video ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed, 4pm; Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 6pm.
* Stats: NRL Stats
2009 season preview: Roosters