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Rabbitohs v Eels
ANZ Stadium
Friday, 7:35pm
Well, here it is. The absolutely final throw of the dice for two of the teams at the very bottom echelon of the finals equations. Of course, even a win here followed by another in Round 26 no longer guarantees either of these teams a shot at finals glory.

They’ll still need a bucketful of other results to go their way with the Broncos, Raiders and Knights all involved in a bottom-of-the-eight stoush and even the Warriors, Eagles and Roosters still in doubt. You’d almost need a Harvard degree in theoretical physics to understand every permutation possible over the next two rounds but for the Eels and Rabbitohs the immediate equation is blindingly simple – win here or start making plans for 2011.

Parramatta have the added hurdle of a poor for-and-against, which means even if they win back-to-back matches AND get the other results they need, they still have to overcome the points differential of teams ahead of them. They have a slightly more favourable (but by no means easy) Round 26 match-up at home to the Warriors, whereas Souths travel to WIN Jubilee to face the top-of-the-table Dragons.

The Bunnies could be forgiven for thinking the football gods haven’t been in their corner in 2010, as injuries to key players at crucial times cruelled their chances. The absence of John Sutton, David Taylor and co. was felt keenly last week as the Bunnies capitulated against a Panthers outfit that had won just one of their previous six games – and it doesn’t get much better this week as Souths undergo a major reshuffle.

Eddy Pettybourne has taken the early guilty plea and accepted a one-match ban for a careless high tackle, although Dave Taylor returns from a broken collarbone as a direct swap in the back row. Dylan Farrell moves into the starting side for centre Beau Champion who broke his leg against Penrith, with Jamie Simpson joining the bench. Jason Clark starts at lock, Sam Burgess moves to prop and Jaiman Lowe goes to the bench.

After sleeping their way through the first 60 minutes last week the Eels finished all over a Tigers outfit that should have been ahead by a lot more than four points at half time. You’d have been very brave to bet against an Eels win had the game gone to golden point but Luke Burt’s amazing missed penalty shot in the final minute allowed the Tigers to escape with the win.

It’s a cruel blow for a man who is legendary among the Parramatta faithful for his cool head under pressure. When you think Luke Burt, you think a calmly slotted field goal in the dying seconds or a sideline conversion drilled over the black dot to win a game. We may never know what caused Parramatta’s ‘Mr Reliable’ to skew a shot he would normally tap over blindfolded but Burt and the Eels will need to get back on the horse for one more tilt at an unlikely finals berth.

They will have the services of Ben Smith for this match after he returns from a two-match ban following an unsuccessful challenge against a dangerous contact charge, pushing Justin Horo back to the bench and Taniela Lasalo out of the side. Daniel Mortimer should be well rested by now for his return at five eighth with Kris Keating moving to halfback to cover for Jeff Robson who is out with a knee injury.
Watch out Rabbitohs:
Ben Smith will be fired up and ready to go after a two-week enforced layoff. The hardworking back-rower will be fuming that he missed last week’s nailbiting loss against the Tigers and will be out to make amends here.

Smith leads the competition for kicks charged down with six, alongside Bulldog Michael Ennis, and Feleti Mateo is just one behind them with five. What’s more Jarryd Hayne and Nathan Cayless also figure in the top 10 for the league with three and two charge downs respectively, making the Eels the real charge down merchants of the NRL.

Chris Sandow and John Sutton have taken almost 90 per cent of the Rabbitohs’ 391 kicks this year, while no other Souths player has put boot to ball more than eight times all season. With Sutton out this removes one of the Bunnies’ two real kicking options and puts enormous pressure on young halfback Sandow to shoulder the kicks in play. He needs to handle the pressure of the Eels forwards bearing down on him at the end of every set and may want to think about kicking on tackle four to make sure he gets a decent kick away.

Watch out Eels: Some men just don’t know how to give less than 110 per cent. They look like they’d rather run through a brick wall than give up on their team-mates. Sam Burgess is one such man. Even in a badly beaten team last week he never stopped hurling himself at the opposition, easily topping the tackle count for either side and running for more than 90 metres.

Amongst forwards the big Brit has the fifth most hit-ups this year with 317 and is fourth for average metres gained at 127. He’s also popped 41 offloads to be seventh in the NRL.

But there’s one stat that should really put the Eels on notice – Burgess comfortably leads the competition for “Big” tackles with 16 – no other player has more than 13. And he’s not afraid to let the little men have it if they venture into his territory, as Daniel Mortimer found out the hard way back in Round 6.

If Souths lose this one it won’t be because Big Sam gave up without a fight.

Where it will be won: The kicking game. As stated above, the Rabbitohs are down to one frontline kicker, while the Eels will have three genuine kickers in Hayne, Mortimer and Kris Keating. stats this week revealed that despite their territorial woes the Eels make the third most metres in the competition from kicks, while the Rabbitohs are down in 11th – and these stats are based on them having both Sandow and Sutton available. Whichever team dominates in the kicking metres will be hard to stop here.

Putting further pressure on the Bunnies, they are one of the worst teams in the league at defusing incoming kicks. They successfully negotiate just 68 per cent of bombs to be fourth worst, and 70 per cent of overall kicks to be third worst in the NRL.

The Eels will use Hayne’s long boot to get within range so they can test the Bunnies out with some spiral bombs. Sandow will need to follow the example set by the Roosters and the Titans and kick into space to shut down the threat of Jarryd Hayne.

The history: Played 111; South Sydney 58, Parramatta 50, drawn 3. Souths may be slightly ahead overall but the Eels have had their measure recently, winning six of the past eight clashes between these two sides.

At ANZ Stadium it’s two apiece with one draw, and the Eels have won all three of their games at ANZ this year – two against the Bulldogs plus the 22-8 win over Souths in Round 6.

Conclusion: While the Eels were sub-par for three quarters of their game last week, Souths were absolutely woeful in their opening 60, going behind 46-0 before showing some fight. The venue favours neither side, although the short turnaround won’t help the Eels.

We’re prepared to take the Eels here purely on the number of quality first graders Souths will have watching from the sidelines.

Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Steve Carrall; Video Ref – Steve Clark

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

* Statistics: NRL Stats.
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