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Wests Tigers v South Sydney Rabbitohs
Sydney Football Stadium
Friday 7.30pm

It’s almost inconceivable, given both sides’ stirring early form in 2011, that this Heritage Round opener is actually a battle between 10th place (Souths) and 11th place (Wests Tigers). But that just illustrates the incredible high standard in the Telstra Premiership.

Still, fans couldn’t ask for a better way to kick off a round that draws heavily on the past than a game featuring two of the most entertaining sides in the NRL, who share a proud rivalry way beyond the Wests Tigers’ formation 11 years ago.

And their perilous positions on the ladder, even at this early stage, ensure this game will lack for nothing.

The home-side Tigers have endured a horror run with injuries to key personnel. Last week their under-strength unit went down (albeit swinging) 20-6 to the Roosters. They retain the same 17 players but in a pack reshuffle, Bryce Gibbs moves to starting prop from lock, with Andrew Fifita benched and Chris Heighington moving from the back row to lock the scrum. Alan Schirnack starts in the second row.

The Rabbitohs are boosted by the return of back-rower Sam Burgess and fullback Rhys Wesser; both were named last week but were midweek pullouts. Their inclusions see Nathan Merritt drop back to the wing in place of Kane Morgan, while Michael Crocker moves to the bench for Burgess and Nathan Peats drops out.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: Chris Sandow is in career-best form with the ball in hand. His kicking game is varied (13 last week for 472 metres), he has three try assists, and he’s not afraid to run either, with an average 54 metres a game – including 25 from kick-returns. This overall involvement is really sparking the Rabbitohs and providing the platform for John Sutton, Greg Inglis and Rhys Wesser to inflict damage.

Blake Ayshford will have his work cut out trying to repel fringe raiders Inglis and Taylor, who have monstered their opponents the past fortnight. Trying to get a read on what Taylor might do inside the opposition danger zone is proving a nightmare – he has three try assists for the year, mixing offloads (12 – 2nd in the comp) with kicks.

Danger Sign: If the Rabbitohs are gifted good field position they will definitely score points. The Tigers’ defenders need to find a way to minimise their time within their 20-metre zone late in tackle counts.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: If Sandow’s kicking game is off, and the razzle-dazzle of their stars is contained, there isn’t much else to shout about in the Rabbitohs’ line-up. Only two players have busted out triple figures each match – captain Roy Asotasi (127) and fullback Wesser (129).

It’s true they’ve been entertaining – Kane Morgan’s assist for Dylan Farrell last week was close to try of the week, while Dave Taylor’s kick assist for Fetuli Talanoa wasn’t far behind – but it will be interesting to see how they handle a touch of adversity.

Sandow, Wesser and hooker Issac Luke remain liabilities in defence – Sandow may be shining in attack but he is still a paper-thin defender, missing an NRL-high 28 tackles so far. Luke ranks third with 21 misses. No doubt it has a lot to do with their 21 tries conceded – the most by any team (ahead of Penrith’s 18).

Danger Sign: If the Tigers start to ‘spot’ Sandow and Luke in the defensive line inside their opponent’s 30-metre zone, it could be just a matter of time before points follow.

Plays To Watch: Benji Marshall looking to sucker Rhys Wesser off his line defensively; Robbie Farah looking to score his eighth try in his ninth game against Souths – it would see him equal Danny Buderus for most tries by a hooker against a single opponent; Keith Galloway singling out Issac Luke and replicating the big hit he put on Roosters hooker Jake Friend last week; Sandow chip-kicking wide for supports; Inglis looking for space down the left edge; John Sutton’s inside balls for Wesser; Dave Taylor up to his armpits in everything.

Where It Will Be Won: The plan for the Rabbitohs is simple – score more points than the opposition, then try hard not to leak at the seams, especially late in the game. This year Souths have conceded 38 points in the final 10 minutes of matches (most in the NRL) yet have scored just the one four-pointer in attack (that’s the fewest).

Meanwhile the Wests Tigers need to come up with a better return close to the opposition line than they did last week against the Roosters, when they had 42 tackles inside the tri-colours’ 20-metre zone but were able to score just one try. While the Tigers have shown flashes of brilliance from long range, that was before the injuries to Chris Lawrence and Lote Tuqiri. The stats show they’ve scored 11 of their 14 tries from inside the opposition 10 and this again looms as their best avenue for success.

Souths have surrendered 11 of 21 tries from 10 metres out.

The History: Played 16; Wests Tigers 8, Rabbitohs 8. Souths have won three of the past four clashes between the sides, including their biggest win over the black-and-golds – a thumping 50-6 win at the SCG in Heritage Round last year.

Conclusion: The Rabbitohs hold the dubious honour of having scored the most points in attack, but also conceding the most points. While their 112 points scored trails only their 121-point start after the first four rounds of their 1937 season as their most prolific, their tackling woes could prove their downfall.

The Wests Tigers have yet to really catch fire. They’ve made a respectable 21 line-breaks (fourth most) but have banked just the 14 tries – the sixth fewest by any side. But perhaps the key to this game, all of the above taken into consideration, is that the Tigers have by far the most half-breaks (a whopping 15 – five more than the next best Newcastle and Melbourne). Given the Rabbitohs’ suspect defence, we suspect half-breaks will become line-breaks – and points – in this encounter.

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

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

* Statistics: NRL Stats.