Round 1 Preview: Roosters v Rabbitohs

Roosters v Rabbitohs
Sydney Football Stadium

Friday 7.30pm (NSW time)

Let the season begin! This battle between arch Sydney foes is sure to deliver fireworks up front as two hardened packs lock horns in their attempts to deliver early competition points.

Todd Carney’s late unavailability through injury (he failed a behind-closed-doors fitness test early in the week) robs the clash of some sparkle – but there’s still the mouth-watering prospect of seeing Greg Inglis in the red and green to get excited about. You can bet the Rabbitohs have their fingers crossed high-profile recruit Inglis can make an impact from the word go. 

It could be argued the corresponding season opener at ANZ Stadium 12 months ago set the Roosters up for their blistering 2010 season. They smashed the Bunnies 36-10, won three of their next five games, pressed cruise control and glided along in the top eight.

The Rabbitohs, meanwhile, can’t afford a poor start like last season when they lost their opening two games. Although they quickly recovered, winning four of their next five, the back half of the season again found them out and they disturbingly ran out of puff. They can’t put too much pressure on their back-end performance again, so need to jump out of the blocks.

The Roosters have shifted skipper Braith Anasta to five-eighth to cover for Carney; heading back to his favourite position, on top of re-signing at Bondi for two more years in the past week, could spark something special from him.

Martin Kennedy has been given the role of supporting Jason Ryles up front, with Nate Myles packing the scrum; Mark Riddell is on a five-man interchange bench.

The Rabbitohs are pretty much full-strength, albeit minus Michael Crocker.

Watch Out Roosters: English import Sam Burgess had a blistering first season in the NRL, his unerring passion, brutal hits and brace of skills inspiring team-mates to follow his lead.

In 2010 Burgess contributed 44 offloads (ranked 6th), an average 126 metres from 16 runs, plus 68 tackle-breaks and an average 28 tackles (with a team-high 53 dominant efforts). He played a touch under 70 minutes a game and will be counted on for at least that much effort in 2011. The home side need to keep a lid on his bubbling enthusiasm and wrap him up ball-and-all.

Danger Sign:  If the Roosters drop off their intensity Burgess’ second-row partner big Dave Taylor will hurt them on the left side from close range.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: Aside from the obvious threats in the Roosters’ backline, Mitchell Aubusson looms as an ominous attacking force on the fringes. The unassuming back-rower was the most damaging ball-playing forward in the NRL last year, leading his position for line-breaks (16) and notching the second most line-break assists (seven). His eight tries were third most. If the Bunnies’ left-side defenders concentrate too hard on Kenny-Dowall, Aubusson will leave his stamp.

Also, the Rabbitohs need to watch their errors – in the corresponding game last season they blundered their way to 15, while the Roosters gave up little, spilling the pill just seven times.

Danger Sign:  If the Rabbitohs start dropping off their tackles and let the Roosters’ skilful offloaders Frank-Paul Nuuausala (NRL-high 57 in 2010), Shaun Kenny-Dowall (40) and Nate Myles (27) do their thing, there will be no way back for the red and green. Last season no side missed more than Souths’ 40 tackles a game – they missed 43 against the Roosters in Round 1 last year – while their 13.9 offloads conceded was third most. The Roosters will punish from anywhere on the park – they scored the second most tries from over halfway last year (18).

Where It Will Be Won: Field position. The Rabbitohs are certainly capable of making inroads through a relentless assault up the middle – last year their starting forwards averaged the most metres (602) of any pack in the comp. But they need to match that with their kicking game. In the corresponding clash last year the Roosters made 726 kick metres to the Rabbitohs’ 440. This helped them to an almost 250 metres territorial advantage. Chris Sandow needs to bring his kicking boots.

The obvious focal points will be the battles between the halves and the centres. Mitchell Pearce and Carney are the anointed New South Wales playmakers. Sandow and John Sutton are confidence players who are capable of anything if they get on a roll. Sutton’s 16 try assists were the second most in the comp last year, so he’s certainly capable of the big plays.

The battle of the centres will be compelling, in particular Kenny-Dowall marking up on Inglis. On the other side of the field, the impressive Kane Linnett (12 games) goes up against youngster Dylan Farrell, playing just his sixth NRL game. The Roosters have built good continuity in the centres; the same isn’t true for the Bunnies and the Roosters’ outside runners will look to expose any deficiencies in defence. In particular, look for veteran Anthony Minichiello to chime in down the left, targeting Farrell.

Plays To Watch: Will the refs follow the new guidelines and crack down hard on the free-spirited games of dummy-half runners Sam Perrett and Issac Luke, who feed off the fast play-the-balls of team-mates? These opponents were the leading dummy-half runners in 2010, with 210 and 192 scoots respectively. And Perrett had more fast play-the-balls (87) than any player in the NRL.

However, it’s up to their team-mates to make sure they don’t muck up their ruck plays in an effort to get fast ball to these damaging runners; if they don’t, some costly penalties will see the initiative swing to the opposition.

The History: Played 201; Rabbitohs 105, Roosters 91, drawn 52. The Roosters have won five of the past eight, including a hard-fought 18-14 win the last time they met at the SFS.The Roosters hold a 2:1 winning ratio from the 30 games played at the SFS.

Conclusion: It’s hard to get excited about the Rabbitohs. Their trial form has largely been poor and their key players need more miles under their belts. Of course all eyes will be on Inglis – but it would be foolish to think he’ll provide a barrage of good things first up, and instead simply feel his way into the side. Inglis may make a line-break but he’s weeks away from peak fitness and if his hopeful team-mates look to him for all the answers, they’ll draw a blank.

There’s no doubting the Bunnies’ roster are capable of a heap of points – their 584 last season was a new club record. They may very well get on the scoreboard first, and the likes of Sam Burgess, Dave Taylor and John Sutton may deliver flashes of brilliance. But we expect the Roosters to do the job comfortably. The home side by 10 points.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Russell Turner; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

See the official team lists for round one.