Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles preview

Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles
Bluetongue Stadium
Friday 7.30pm

A curious decision by Souths to take this game to Gosford, where traditionally the Sea Eagles garner good support and have an unbeaten record – but they won’t be too afraid given the wonderful bounce back to form from star recruit Greg Inglis last week as the Bunnies climbed over the Eels to register their first win for 2011.

You could sense the Rabbitohs players’ spirits soar as Inglis gave a master class in centre play and it’s just the tonic they need as they come up against a lively young Manly-Warringah backline – with an average age of 23.2 years, the second youngest in the NRL behind the Bulldogs (22.1).

Souths have some minor bumps to overcome though. After originally naming fullback Rhys Wesser and second-rower Sam Burgess in their squad on Tuesday they’ve been forced into a reshuffle, with Wesser out with a hamstring strain and Burgess’ planned return from his shoulder injury scuppered midweek. Consequently, Nathan Merritt looks likely to shift to fullback, with his wing replacement to be determined. Elsewhere, Michael Crocker will start the game in the second row for Burgess, who was slotted to replace Eddy Pettybourne, out with a three-game suspension following a dangerous throw last week.

For Manly, skipper Jamie Lyon returns having recovered from his hamstring complaint. Michael Oldfield, who had a sensational game at centre against the Knights with 146 metres, a try assist and three line-breaks, will probably shift to wing to cover for the likely late withdrawal of David Williams, who has been named but is in extreme doubt.

In a worrying omen for the Rabbitohs, the Sea Eagles have won all six games at Bluetongue Stadium – by the whopping average scoreline of 39-14. And fullback Brett Stewart must be destined to cross the tryline soon – he has failed to score in his past five appearances, making it the biggest tryscoring drought of his career.

His opposite, Nathan Merritt, has the opportunity to become the outright leading tryscorer against Manly by an active player. Merritt has scored 11 tries against the Sea Eagles from 12 games, and currently shares the mark with the injured Wesser.

Expect plenty of points – the losing side in the past five match-ups between these teams has scored an average 22 points!

Watch Out Rabbitohs: Anthony Watmough loves it up Gosford way – he’s played in all Manly’s wins there and has a venue record of an average 14 runs for 110 metres, with 22 tackles, four tackle-breaks and two offloads, scoring two tries to boot. Last week he ran 15 times and made 33 tackles, with two offloads.

At his best, Watmough inspires his team-mates with a combination of feisty aggression and 80-minute energy. He’ll relish locking horns with Sam Burgess.

Danger Sign: Watmough tops the NRL for runs made by a second-rower in 2011 with 45 – 15 in each game. He’s been spreading his workload evenly in each half – but if he makes five or more runs in the opening 20 minutes you’ll know he’s focussed on some serious involvement.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Obviously Greg Inglis is the danger man, but we’ll get to him in a moment. Elsewhere though, the maroon and whites should be wary of the size and strength of David Taylor lurking on the South Sydney left edge.  

Souths now have the wonderful luxury of two awesome attacking options on the left side with Inglis and Taylor. It’s a formidable combination of flair and impact. Taylor leads the NRL for offloads through three rounds with 10, and tops second-rowers for try assists and line-break assists with two apiece. His late offload for Fetuli Talanoa to score in the first half last week, after being collared by three Eels, was remarkable. Young Sea Eagle Michael Oldfield doesn’t have the experience of David Williams and you can bet Taylor will try to sucker him into making a poor defensive read before offloading to Talanoa.  

Danger Sign: With six of Manly’s eight tries conceded being scored on their right side of the field, there will be no prizes for guessing where John Lang will have his troops aimed. But in saying that, he may try a sting – Souths have scored evenly across the field but actually have crossed the most in the corridor midway between the goal posts and the right corner post (four scored).

Plays To Watch: Roy Asotasi continuing his career revival with bullet-straight runs and bruising hits; John Sutton inside balls to Rhys Wesser on the trail; Inglis’s one-arm ball carry and staggered runs that confuse defenders – not to mention that fend; Anthony Watmough's intensity; Chris Sandow shoulder-charging his bigger opponents; Brett Stewart’s no-look cut-out passes to Michael Robertson; Kieran Foran taking on the line; William Hopoate running inside the Rabbitohs’ 10-metre zone.

Where It Will Be Won: In the centres. Just as Inglis tore apart the Eels last week, so too did young Sea Eagle William Hopoate rip the Knights apart. This week Lyon marks up on Inglis, while Hopoate shifts to the left side of the field where he’ll line up opposite Dylan Farrell.

They’re two intriguing match-ups. Farrell wasn’t asked to contribute much last week, but is a capable ball runner who knows his way to the tryline. Hopoate scored a determined double last week, barging through from close range before another powerful run and fend earned him his second four-pointer.

But Inglis is the man. He made more territory against the Eels (114 metres) than his return from his opening two games combined. And it was the first time since 2007 he scored, made a try assist (with two), line-break (two) and line-break assist all in the same night. His combination with Taylor and Rhys Wesser yielded four tries down the left – just the third time in four seasons they’ve banked that sort of return.

Jamie Lyon is a solid defender, although he missed nearly two tackles a game in 2010. Two missed tackles here could yield 12 points.

Elsewhere the Rabbitohs need to be wary of set plays, especially from penalties defending close to their line. Manly have an NRL-high three tries from structured plays this season, which accounts for more than a third of their four-pointers.

The History: Played 125; Sea Eagles 69, Rabbitohs 56. The Sea Eagles have won five of the past eight clashes, including a 26-25 nail-biter the last time they met in Round 15 last year. This is the first time the sides have met at Bluetongue Stadium

Conclusion: Souths were brilliant in spurts against the Eels – but not too many people are getting excited about Parramatta’s chances in this premiership.

The Sea Eagles were steely against the Roosters a fortnight ago but seemed to switch off last week amid Newcastle’s mounting injury toll. They got the job done, but were a little flat – literally – in attack.

Souths’ game plan won’t vary all that much from last week: it falls on the Sea Eagles’ defence to be up to the task of halting Inglis. Expect plenty of razzle-dazzle from both sides, but we think the Sea Eagles will out-enthuse their opponents. Manly by eight points.  

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

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

* Statistics: NRL Stats.