Glory, glory to South Sydney? There aren’t many fans thinking as much this week after last weekend’s capitulation to the Wests Tigers – and now the Bunnies face what is quite simply a must-win encounter against Penrith.
The Rabbitohs’ players are reportedly a little miffed at the fact their coach said their 54-20 loss against the Tigers “wasn’t up to NRL standard”. But newsflash guys – it wasn’t.
And if the side plays the same way for the remainder of the year they will not win another match. If that happens their current five-game losing streak will be extended by another nine games to be their second worst in history.
They may be sitting in 11th spot on the ladder but they are five competition points adrift of the eighth-placed Panthers and a loss to them here would surely make it a bridge too far to figure in the semis.
With Michael Crocker and Craig Wing off on Origin duty the side has a few changes.
Issac Luke comes off the bench to start at hooker and Eddy Pettybourne does the same to join the starting second row.
Luke Capewell is out, with Nathan Merritt going back to fullback and Jamie Simpson reverting to the wing to allow for Beau Champion to return at centre.
Luke Stuart moves from the second row to prop, with Scott Geddes moving to the bench and Ben Lowe coming into the back row.
Beau Falloon and Dave Tyrrell are the new faces on the bench which has five men at this stage.
Many expected the Panthers to struggle after they lost skipper Petero Civoniceva to injury but the big cats purred loud enough to get a last-ditch win against the Eels in a high-scoring shootout last weekend.
It has kept their finals prospects firmly in their hands and this clash against the Bunnies is certainly vital as they must battle without several big names like Michael Jennings, Civoniceva, Luke Lewis, Frank Pritchard and Trent Waterhouse due to injuries and Origin duty.
With Jennings out, Brad Tighe moves from wing to centre with Ben McFadgean coming onto the wing. Geoff Daniela also comes into the centres with Gavin Cooper taking Waterhouse’s position in the second row.
Joseph Paulo replaces Pritchard in the second row, with the new bench faces being Adam Woolnough, Sam McKendry and Andrew Emelio.
Watch out Rabbitohs: The Panthers are looking to go rabbit hunting down the left edge of the field.
Even without the deadly Frank Pritchard the Panthers know they can get plenty of success on the left fringe, as they have done all year. They have now scored 21 tries on the left fringe and considering the area is the Rabbitohs’ worst defensively, having conceded 19 tries of their own there, the mountain men are locking in their radars.
Had Waterhouse and Pritchard been lining up here they would have been licking their lips but instead the likes of Gavin Cooper will be primed to exploit the weakness.
Watch out Panthers: Beware wounded pride. There is plenty of this in the Rabbitohs’ camp but perhaps none more so than the mountain of it surrounding five-eighth John Sutton who was hooked during last weekend’s game.
Sutton was being talked about as an Origin player earlier this season but a broken hand and a dip in form put paid to that. Nonetheless, he comes into this clash knowing he has to atone and show there is indeed plenty of pride in those who wear the famous South Sydney jersey – particularly the local juniors like himself.
Sutton is averaging 69 metres gained a match but will no doubt run more this weekend as having just the one line break and no tries all year makes for far from pretty reading. He has been prolific for his team-mates though, with nine line-break assists and 15 try assists, although many of the try assists have come from kicks. His chance to shine is now.
Where it will be won: It seems neither side has had much interest in defence in recent weeks but it is the side that puts their bodies on the line that will prove victorious.
The Panthers are missing almost 32 tackles a match and the Rabbitohs are even worse missing almost 36 a game, which points to another high-scoring affair here.
The Panthers are without their main strike-weapon in Jennings so they can’t rely on some of his brilliance to tick over the scoreboard. Instead they need to build pressure and try to grind out some points, which means their defence needs to be solid – unlike last weekend.
Meanwhile the Rabbitohs will target the Panthers’ halves Luke Walsh and Wade Graham and also hooker Paul Aiton as the potential weak links.
On the other side of the coin Chris Sandow will get plenty of attention, as he does most weeks, while Jamie Simpson also needs to be more solid in defence if he is to become a more accomplished first grader.
Defence is about attitude. If one of these sides brings the right frame of mind to the match and the other doesn’t, they could really do a number on the other.
The history: Played 66; Rabbitohs 36, Panthers 29, drawn 1. The Panthers have won four of the past six including the past two clashes between the two clubs – although they are yet to beat the Bunnies at ANZ Stadium in the two previous encounters at the venue.
Conclusion: South Sydney are well and truly under the pump now and surely, surely they will aim up(!?) But the same could have been said going into last weekend’s game… and look what was dished up; it hardly garners confidence in their ability.
Souths have failed to show any real form in what feels like forever, making it extremely hard to tip them.
But the Panthers are severely under-strength here. They are without their go-forward leaders and also without their attacking ace, which makes life very difficult for them also.
This is a 50:50 call. Trust your instincts but there is a lean towards the Panthers.
Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Adam Devcich; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.