Yee-ha! The doubters who predicted the Broncos’ run of consecutive finals series would end at 18 might be getting ready wipe some egg off their faces.
True, they started the season winning just two of their opening six games but with four wins on the trot – the latest a domination of the Sea Eagles at Brookvale – the Broncos are well and truly “back on the horse”.
They sit in seventh place with a points differential of 7 – seemingly a world away from the precarious position they were in after Round 8, in 14th position with a differential of -68.
While they have found some steel in defence to match their entertaining, expansive attacking play, they meet a similar opponent this week, both in form and style.
The Rabbitohs sit third on the ladder with a 101-points differential – the second best in the league behind the Dragons (148). They’ve won three of their past four, their only hiccup a 26-24 loss to Warriors in Auckland in Round 11 (where they let the home side off the hook).
John Lang has instilled dome discipline into the Bunnies in 2010 and the consistency that comes with that is paying them huge dividends.
However, “contingency” is the buzz word for both sides as they lose players to State of Origin, Test duty and suspension.
The Broncos lose skipper Darren Lockyer, ace back-rower Sam Thaiday and controversial centre Israel Folau. Matt Gillett moves from the bench to cover for Folau, Toyota Cup halfback Corey Norman slips into Lockyer’s no.6 jersey and enigmatic Ashton Sims slots into the second row for Thaiday. Scott Anderson and Nick Kenny are the new faces on the bench.
Meanwhile Souths need to adapt following the loss of Dave Taylor to the Maroons, his punishing back-row partner Sam Burgess to England Test duties, and livewire hooker Issac Luke to suspension (for his late hit on Johnathan Thurston last week). Eddy Pettybourne starts for Burgess, Jason Clark steps up for Taylor.
But the biggest hole is left by Luke; he’s been replaced by NSW Cupper Beau Falloon, who has played 20 first grade games but is yet to suit up for the Rabbitohs in 2010.
Souths’ task is made harder by the fact they’ve won just two of eight games at Suncorp Stadium – although their last trip north yielded their best ever win over the Broncos, 44-12.
Watch out Broncos: While it’s pretty standard to suggest a side needs to watch their opposition when they are attacking from 10 metres out, the Broncos really need to watch the Rabbitohs any time they attack from 50 metres.
The Rabbitohs aren’t runaway performers at scoring from inside their own half, but they are second best in the comp at scoring from between the 20-metre line and halfway (with 15 four-pointers scored). The Broncos have leaked eight tries this way in 2010.
They’ve also scored the second most tries side in opposition territory of any side (50 of a total 60).
Individually, John Sutton is their go-to man – he has 14 try assists to rank second in the comp and has built an outstanding combination on the right side of the field with centre Beau Champion (10 line-breaks and 14 tries).
Watch out Rabbitohs: Broncos hooker Andrew McCullough will be breathing a huge sigh of relief now that Luke won’t be lining up opposite him. He may even look to dish out some Luke-style play of his own.
Already this year ‘Mac’ has made four clean breaks from dummy-half (second in the NRL behind Luke). While he’s only broken 15 tackles (to Luke’s 59), he thrives at offloading to supports once the break has been made.
With the Rabbitohs’ marker defence likely to be a little suspect with the upheaval Taylor and Burgess’ absence has caused, McCullough could be the player to tear the game apart for the home side.
Where it will be won: Emotion. With both sides missing key personnel, it becomes a matter of hunger – and that’s where the home crowd comes into play.
Incredibly, the Broncos have enjoyed crowds of 20,000 or more in their past 65 appearances at Suncorp Stadium. While that will fuel the under-strength Brisbane outfit, it may also have a debilitating effect on a Rabbitohs side missing the drive of Luke and the punishing work of back-rowers Burgess and Taylor.
The history: Played 22; Broncos 17, Rabbitohs 4, drawn 1. Honours are shared four games apiece over the past eight games (meaning the Rabbitohs have earned all their victories over Brisbane since 2004). The last time they met at Suncorp Stadium in Round 19 last year, the Rabbitohs dished out their biggest ever win (44-12).
Conclusion: While it’s not a must-win game for either combatant, the winner will push higher into the top eight, while the loser will slip back to the dogfight zone in the race for a finals berth – with that in mind both coaches will have their sides primed and motivated.
Continuity could be the key – the Broncos have lost a forward and two backs, while the visitors’ lethal backline remains intact. The question is whether the forward reshuffle will lay a solid enough platform for Sutton and co. to pile on the points. Our guess is, perhaps not.
Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Steve Clark.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 6pm.