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Rabbitohs v Titans
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Souths’ coach John Lang knows that unless his Rabbitohs kick into a new gear, starting this week against the similarly inconsistent Titans, they can kiss all hopes of a finals berth goodbye.

The bunnies head to rain-sodden ANZ Stadium fresh off the bye but also on the back of a hat-trick of losses to the Warriors, Panthers and Storm that has seen them slump to 12th on the ladder – but just two wins away from the eighth-placed Bulldogs.

They were a little unlucky against the Storm last game, charging out to a 6-nil lead early and trailing just 10-6 at halftime before Cameron Smith put the issue beyond doubt with a try two minutes from full-time. They played some gritty, no-nonsense football but ultimately it was their lack of spark that brought about their undoing – they failed to make a line-break (to the Storm’s four) and didn’t throw a single offload the entire first 40. For a side boasting the likes of Dave Taylor and Issac Luke it will be interesting to see whether they adopt a similar game plan here.

They’ll be keen for some revenge given the Titans stole the points in their last clash in Round 2 last year when Scott Prince nailed a field-goal in the second minute of extra time.

Personnel-wise, Dylan Farrell has been recalled to the centres for Shaun Corrigan, who joins an extended bench of 18; Farrell will partner Maroons centre Greg Inglis who along with second-rower Dave Taylor will back up from Origin (fitness permitting).

The only other change from their last-start defeat is that Jason Clark bumps Deon Apps off the pine.

Meanwhile the Titans have avoided rushing new signing Beau Henry (ex-Knights) into their top squad. Queensland lock Ashley Harrison is their only change to the starting line-up that took down the premiers last week; as a result Luke O’Dwyer moves to an extended bench that also boasts Blues’ lock Greg Bird in jersey No. 19. If he comes through Origin okay, expect him to be injected off the bench.

Although semi-finals football would be the furthest thing from coach John Cartwright’s mind the closeness of the competition, plus some indifferent form from sides hovering around the middle of the table, leaves the door open for any team that strings together a significant run of wins. The Titans may be in 14th place on just 10 competition points but of all the cellar dwellers they probably have the most upside, as they showed last week when captain Scott Prince masterminded a second-half onslaught that left the Dragons sucking in the big ones.

It’s a huge career milestone for Prince, who plays his 250th NRL game.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: Scott Prince had made just four try assists prior to Round 14 but against the Dragons he added a further two and scored a decisive try. That game could’ve been just the confidence boost he needs to get back to his blistering best.

In particular he’ll fancy his chances targeting the Rabbitohs’ right-side goal-line defence, where Dylan Farrell and Chris Sandow have been shaky. Farrell averages three tackle misses a game, Sandow 5.5 (the most in the comp). A clever delayed pass for Mark Minichiello or Clinton Toopi could yield dividends.

Most importantly, the home side can’t afford to simply soak up the runs of Titans prop Luke Bailey or his relentless charges will take their toll. Bailey made a game-high 17 runs for 186 metres last week and his season-average 133.6 metres ranks fourth among all front-rowers. The Rabbitohs need to halt his go-forward and bend him back at the line, or it will all add up.

Danger Sign: If Bailey and fellow prop Michael Henderson (144 metres last week) continue to get over the advantage line it will limit the time the Rabbitohs have to reset their defence. Given the Bunnies miss the most tackles of any side (39.2) that will lead to problems. 

Watch Out Titans: Souths halfback Chris Sandow was conspicuous by his lack of impact the last time these teams met, with Scott Prince handing him a master class in attacking halfback play with two try assists and three offloads. By comparison Sandow didn’t make a solitary run or metre of territory, made just one tackle-break and committed a game-high three errors. That would rile him no end and you can bet he’ll be looking to build on his six line-break assists and four try assists. Plus he’ll be out to confirm his reputation as the best booter of 40/20s in the comp (four to date).

Also, the Titans need to be wary of Sandow kicking short, either for himself (26 good chases made) or else the right flank for Nathan Merritt, Chris McQueen or Dave Tyrrell.

Although Prince is renowned for his long-kicking game he’ll need to improve his kicks to space or the powerful and speedy Rabbitohs’ back three will be quick to counter-attack. Prince is hitting open space just 45 per cent of the time – last week Dragons fullback Jason Nightingale made in excess of 200 metres carting it back and last time these teams met fill-in No.1 Nathan Merritt did the same. Fullback Rhys Wesser has averaged 12 metres on each of his 55 kick returns. Merritt averages 10 metres on kick returns and left winger James Roberts seven metres. 

Danger Sign: Wesser may be in his twilight years but he still has a lethal dash that can hurt sides that are complacent with their kick-chase. The evergreen No.1 has tallied 39 tackle-breaks and a team-high eight line-breaks from his nine games.

Plays To Watch: Wesser skipping, then pushing the accelerator; Dave Taylor showing silky offloading skills on the left edge with James Roberts happily accepting; Inglis using his ‘don’t-argue’ fend to find space; Issac Luke catching the marker defenders napping; Scott Prince drifting right, showing the ball in one hand before grubber-kicking through or throwing a cut-out pass for David Mead out wide; Luke Bailey’s charges; Mark Minichiello and Anthony Laffranchi’s offloads and charges close to the line.

Where It Will Be Won: Commitment for the full 80. For Souths that means signing off on all of the little things – the one percenters – that can add up to a victory. For example, they need to focus on a concerted kick-chase – at the moment they tally the second-most poor chases in the league (25). They need to work for each other in defence, not just in the early stages when they are often on top, but right to the final siren. They need to make certain their tackles are completed and do better than their 13.2 offloads conceded – third most in the comp.

For the Titans, it means eliminating the errors that have hounded their campaign – their 14.2 a game are easily the most by any side. They also need to hustle Sandow and John Sutton when they kick, given their atrocious 31 per cent defusal rate of cross-field bombs.

Whichever side switches off early is bound to come up short.

The History: Played 6; Titans 4, Rabbitohs 2. The Titans have won the past three matches between the sides, including the past two that were played at ANZ Stadium.

Conclusion: History suggests this could be a nail-biter – all six matches between them to date have been decided by eight points or less. And four of the five times the Titans have played at ANZ Stadium the outcome has been decided by that similar margin.

It’s a tough call; the Rabbitohs are capable of a devastating display but they’ve hardly instilled confidence in their past few matches. Meanwhile the Titans were very good in the second half last week, admittedly against an inexperienced side that ran out of puff.

Don’t hold us to it but we feel the Titans, now they have the whiff of a victory in their nostrils, may just embark on a bit of a run.  

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Henry Perenara; Video Ref – Pat Reynolds.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 9.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 1am.

* Stats: NRL Stats