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Rabbitohs v Broncos
NIB (Perth)
Friday 7pm (WA time), 9pm (AEST)

South Sydney began their long trek back to semi-finals contention with a spirited victory over the disjointed Titans last week but they face their litmus test this week. Coach John Lang is aware the bunnies must maintain or even increase their intensity against the Broncos, who kicked up their heels with a season-best display when toppling the Dragons last Friday night.

The Rabbitohs’ victory arrested an alarming hat-trick of losses and elevated them from 12th to 11th on the ladder behind the Panthers who are also on 14 points. They are in a logjam of sides competing for the bottom places in the eight and, amazingly, are just one win away from the sixth-placed Wests Tigers.

The clash in Perth, a venue the Rabbitohs will embrace once a season for the next three years, will see two of the most anticipated match-ups of 2011 – Rabbitohs’ left centre Greg Inglis on Broncos’ right centre Justin Hodges and Queensland second-rowers Dave Taylor and Sam Thaiday locking horns. The game marks the return of Hodges after four weeks out with a hamstring tear and is the star’s last chance to convince Maroons’ coach Mal Meninga he has the form and sufficient fitness level to mix it in the Origin decider on July 6.

It’s also the first time Rabbitohs’ back-rower Dave Taylor will take the field in an NRL game against his former team-mates after leaving Brisbane in 2009 and missing their Round 14 clash last year through injury. You think he won’t be up for this?

And will the Broncos have a special welcome in store for Inglis, who reneged on a deal to join them over the off-season before signing with Souths? They say no… but we suspect otherwise.

Taylor and Inglis shredded the Titans last week with a purpose and energy previously lacking this season. The impressive thing about the win was the way they put their opponent to the sword late, running in three tries in the closing six minutes.

Meanwhile the Broncos earned a gritty 21-14 victory over the injury-depleted premiers by making the most of their chances and capitalising on the Dragons’ errors. They won all the stats that matter – 160 metres more territory, 13 fewer missed tackles (not often that occurs) and two more line-breaks.

As expected, coach John Lang has retained the 17 players who demolished the Titans; there are no injury concerns.

Meanwhile the Broncos will miss Andrew McCullough’s creativity around the ruck after they dropped him for a drunken off-field incident during the week. Kurt Baptiste is his replacement.

Hodges’ return at right centre sees Jack Reed shift to left centre, with Gerard Beale taking over from Dale Copley on the left wing. After a week’s rest Corey Parker returns at lock for Dunamis Lui who moves to an extended bench that sees Matt Gillett return for the injured Mitchell Dodds.

Milestone watch: Corey Parker needs just four goals (or two tries) to notch 800 career points for the Broncos. And halfback Peter Wallace plays his 100th NRL game.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: Despite being battered and bruised Darren Lockyer delivered a master class in understated excellence backing up just two days after Origin II. Locky offered three try assists and booted a decisive field-goal that put the game beyond reach. With retirement now closer than when he kicked off the season the 34-year-old veteran is out to make every week count. Which spells trouble for the Rabbitohs’ edge defenders – particularly their right-side where they have conceded 22 tries to date. Expect Lockyer to pump plenty of ball Jack Reed’s way. 

There’s no better schemer than Lockyer with some space to move, which could mean massive problems for the Rabbitohs given they have surrendered a whopping 16 tries from between 21m-50m – the most by any side and three more than the next-worst Warriors and Eels. 

Fullback Josh Hoffman continues to rise up the ranks; last week he made huge inroads against the Dragons, tallying 222 metres. Souths kickers Chris Sandow and John Sutton will need to maintain their good record of finding space with long kicks (65 per cent, second best in the comp).

Ben Hannant is a huge threat up the guts. In what was arguably a career-best effort last week the ‘Bundy Bear’ made 54 tackles but still found the energy to make 17 runs for 124 metres. Yes, Paul Gallen has certainly raised the bar on prop forward play, but Hannant looks the prop most likely to get close to his benchmark. 

Danger Sign: When the Broncos get inside the Rabbitohs’ half with tackles up their sleeve, expect them to display plenty of ball movement and put on potential scoring plays rather than just grind towards the opposition goal line. Hodges, Hoffman, Jack Reed and Yow Yeh are likely to be the destroyers.

Watch Out Broncos: Souths hooker Issac Luke has always been at his most dangerous when allowed to run freely and he delivered in bulk last week, darting 18 times for a massive 185 metres – way up on his season average of 106 metres to that point. He also defended tenaciously, making 29 tackles but significantly missing just one. Luke has clearly heeded the advice of coach Lang about needing a better attitude in defence. Although the No.9 ranks third for most missed tackles in the NRL this season (61) he has steeled himself recently and has missed just five tackles in his past three games – after missing seven in their Round 11 loss to the Warriors.

McCullough’s drunken escapades mean the Broncos will be weakened around the ruck – the perfect environment for Luke to wreak more havoc from dummy-half. 

Danger Sign: If Luke manages to breach the Broncos, chances are he’ll turn to see fullback Rhys Wesser looming in support. The veteran has 46 support plays in 2011 (ranked 15th) and contributed a game-high two line-breaks against the Titans.

Plays To Watch: Yow Yeh giving rookie James Roberts the run-around; Inglis stepping Hodges and Hodges stepping Inglis; Lockyer making a last-second dash down the blindside at first receiver and creating an overlap; Ben Hannant looking to put Dave Taylor on his backside; Wesser’s sneaky supports; Sandow’s short kicks for himself and outside supports; Michael Crocker reminding Queensland selectors he’s still an enforcer; Sam Thaiday bending the line.

Where It Will Be Won: Attitude – and there are telling stats that indicate the Rabbitohs need to improve this aspect of their play. In particular their commitment to chasing kicks is revealing. While Sutton and Sandow have been great at kicking to open space, their good work has been let down by a half-hearted chase – the Rabbitohs have made what statisticians classify as a ‘poor chase’ (not getting chasers in numbers downfield quickly) 25 times to date. That’s the third most in the comp. In isolation that’s bad enough – but coupled with the fact they number the sixth-fewest ‘good chases’ (155) they’re making a rod for their own back.

By comparison the Broncos have the second-most good chases (231) and the sixth-fewest bad chases (16).

Put in a poor chase, or not hustle the extra yard to put in a good chase, and oppositions will rack up the territory. It’s one of the big reasons the Rabbitohs concede the third-most metres of all teams (1402). If they switched on and chased hard every week there’s no telling how good these guys could be.

The History: Played 23; Broncos 18, Rabbitohs 4, drawn 1. The Broncos have won five of the past eight clashes with one game drawn – although two match-ups ago the Rabbitohs inflicted their biggest win over Brisbane with a 44-12 trouncing at Suncorp Stadium. The Rabbitohs have won at the venue, defeating the Storm in Round 16 last year. The Rabbitohs’ past two wins are their only victories over the Broncos since the 1980s!

Conclusion: Big Dave Taylor isn’t a bad barometer to Souths’ chances in games. If he’s pumped up and pounding into the opposition all match, like he was last week (16 runs, 192 metres, two line-breaks, and 28 tackles), then Souths are a show. But if he drifts in and out of the contest, with fleeting moments of brilliance, the rest of the team will drift off too.

The best chance for the ‘home’ side is to fire out of the blocks and sustain the effort for as long as they can. The Broncos can’t help but experience some physical and mental letdown following a tough 10 days with Origin and victory over the premiers. If they are anything under 90 per cent focused the Rabbitohs can spring a massive upset here.

That said, you wouldn’t want to tick the home side’s box in your footy tips comp if you are in with a shot of winning a prize. Broncos by four points. 

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & Steve Chiddy; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

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

* Stats: NRL Stats