Rabbitohs v Dragons Preview

Rabbitohs v Dragons
ANZ Stadium
Friday, 7.35pm

What could be more fitting to kick off Rivalry Round than a clash between two fierce, traditional protagonists who are fit, firing and hungry for more success? Judging by the way the home side ripped in against neighbours the Roosters last week, get set for the intensity levels to be turned up to 11 here.

While Souths’ form on paper appears a little shaky, with three losses from their past four games dipping them to seventh on the ladder eight points adrift of the pace-setting Dragons, they remain one of the competition’s better-performed units. They were monstered 50-22 in Brisbane in Round 14 by a Broncos team that would have beaten anyone that night, before back-to-back Trent Hodkinson field goals saw them felled by a point at Brookvale Oval by the Sea Eagles in Round 15.

They finally saw a close one go their way with a gutsy 16-14 win over the Storm before their Round 17 bye, then again let a game get away from them when a late Mitch Aubusson try saw the Roosters triumph 18-14 last week.

The side probably “went off” a little early last week, with winger Fetuli Talanoa exhibiting some extensive post-try celebrations and halfback Chris Sandow raising his hand to his ear to mock the silent Roosters crowd after converting Talanoa’s 64th minute try for a 14-12 lead. Coach John Lang would have drilled into his side that that kind of showmanship looks arrogant and stupid when you lose.

Certainly if they play cocky against the Dragons, Wayne Bennett’s merciless outfit will strip their skins.

The Dragons resume their premiership campaign off their second bye, a fortnight after being rolled at home by an under-strength, Origin- and injury-depleted Panthers side. 

The Dragons, who were also missing four Origin stars, weren’t woeful that Monday night, but they were out-enthused by the Panthers (who possibly suffered some serious mental letdown in falling to the Warriors last week).

The Rabbitohs will field the same 17 that battled courageously against the Roosters in what was a stiff, bruising encounter. Beau Falloon retains the no.9 jersey, substituting for the injured Issac Luke.
 
Meanwhile the Dragons rush back Darius Boyd, Brett Morris, Beau Scott and Neville Costigan. Matt Prior and Trent Merrin are the starting props, with Mark Gasnier joining Jon Green, Ricky Thorby, Nick Emmett and Jarrod Saffy on an extended bench.

All eyes will again be on Gasnier, who had little impact and whose timing was way off in his NRL return against the Panthers. It’s clear he’ll need several weeks to build his fitness and increase his bulk, but he’s too great a talent to take lightly.

Watch out Rabbitohs:
While the Dragons’ strength down the left side of the field is well known (35 tries down the left edge and just 13 down the right), the Red V would be mad to not target the Rabbitohs’ left-side defence – the Rabbitohs have conceded 40 of their 59 tries between the centre of the field to the right sideline.

The defensive reads and efforts of winger Talanoa (ineffective one in four tackles) and fullback Rhys Wesser (ineffective one in three tackles) will be crucial, with either Gasnier or Beau Scott (31 offloads) sure to assist right winger Jason Nightingale (10 tries) on his way to the white stripe.

Watch out Dragons: You think Russell Crowe wouldn’t have sent Sam Burgess a special edition of The Book of Feuds detailing the rivalry between these sides? This game has the potential to be the making of the Rabbitohs for 2010 and Burgess will be looking to inflict as much (legal) pain as he can, judging by his huge hits last week.

Any Dragon who saw Burgess’ near coat-hanger on Roosters halfback Mitchell Pearce may be thinking twice about hitting the line hard and straight.

Roy Asotasi may be the Rabbitohs’ captain, but Burgess (11 big hits, second in NRL to Ben Te’o) is the man who’ll get the fires burning in his team-mates’ eyes. And it won’t be confined to defence, either – he averages 125 metres a game in attack, with seven line-breaks, 50 tackle busts and three try assists.

Former Dragon Colin Best will get the chance to test Gasnier at some stage, and has the game to make an impact. Best has 50 tackle-breaks for the year, plus six try assists and 21 offloads.

On the other side of the field five-eighth John Sutton (15 try assists, 26 offloads) will be looking to get right centre Beau Champion (10 line-breaks, 14 tries) past Dragons rookie Kyle Stanley.

Where it will be won:
Patience. After the big hits, the power plays, the rushes and the errors, these sides need to settle down and play football. And to date no side is doing it better than the Dragons.

They are completing close to 80 per cent of their sets, still way ahead of their opponent’s 73 per cent. And while the Rabbitohs are scoring three points more a game, the Dragons are conceding almost two tries less each 80 minutes.

The history: Played 14; Dragons 11, Rabbitohs 3. Sounds a bit of a one-way rivalry – although the Rabbitohs secured their biggest ever win over the Dragons last time they met, walloping them 41-6 at ANZ Stadium in Round 25 last year. Still, the visitors have won six of the past eight games.

Conclusion: With a few Roosters needing their heads bandaged during last week’s game with the Bunnies, the Red V medical staff had better check they have plenty of gauze and tape in their first aid kits – because this looms as the most explosive and confrontational game all year.

Last time these sides met the Rabbitohs slotted into an exquisite groove and were unbeatable. They’ll need that kind of performance again if they’re to grab the competition points.

If they go try-for-try with the Dragons, their opponents will pull away from them late in proceedings. No; they need a try, try, try start to get the points.

Still, anything’s possible in 2010.

Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – delayed 11.30pm.