Raiders v Rabbitohs
Dare to dream Rabbitohs’ fans! A semi-finals berth is there for the taking if your boys can replicate last Monday’s blistering form for the remainder of the scheduled rounds.
The 50-point annihilation of the Eels, on the back of the scalp of the Dragons, rocketed Souths to ninth on the ladder – still four points adrift of the top eight but with the Warriors (6th) and Knights (7th) going head to head this week a win over the hapless Raiders would see them just one win back from the finals zone.
The 10-try massacre did their points differential a world of good too – they now have a 26-point buffer over the Bulldogs who share their ladder rung on 22 competition points.
Meanwhile Raiders’ fans will be hoping their injury-racked team can recapture the form of three weeks ago when they took down the Dragons in Wollongong. Since that emotion-charged afternoon they’ve suffered successive defeats to the Warriors and the Knights, who pummelled them 40-8 in Newcastle last week. This week they stare down a side mounting the sort of late rally they embarked on last year.
Injuries continue to maim the Raiders’ season with hooker Glen Buttriss the latest casualty. These are perilous times: a loss here and they’d remain just two competition points ahead of the cellar-dwelling Titans (assuming the Gold Coast don’t spring any surprises in their clash with the Storm on Saturday night).
A major worry for the Raiders is that they haven’t strung together consecutive wins at their former Canberra Stadium ‘fortress’ all year. Balancing that out somewhat, the Rabbitohs hate the bus ride south – they’ve won just three of 11 games in the nation’s capital.
Winger Daniel Vidot is gone from the Raiders’ line-up this week, replaced by Reece Robinson, while Bronson Harrison returns to start in the second row with Josh Papalii benched. Captain Alan Tongue replaces Buttriss at hooker, while Sam Mataora replaces Dane Tilse on the pine.
Just the one cosmetic change to the Rabbitohs’ line-up, with right winger Shaune Corrigan swapping jerseys with right centre Dylan Farrell.
Watch Out Raiders: No side rumbles downfield quite like the Rabbitohs when they are ‘on’. Their 1774 metres gained against the Eels was the third most by any side all year. It was achieved on the back of relentless charges out of dummy-half from hooker Issac Luke, as well as a bamboozling team offloading game.
Luke’s agility at the ruck is incomparable. Last week he made 16 runs for 176 metres to have the Eels back-pedalling all night. He leads the NRL for dashes from the ruck (214) and has tallied the fifth-most touches all year (1758).
The Raiders need to slow down the speed of the ruck by winning the battle of the wrestle, at the same time not overstepping the mark and gifting the Rabbitohs a penalty. It’s a fine line but they need to make their intentions known from the start – the Rabbitohs thrive on confidence but when things don’t go their way they can look a little rudderless.
Greg Inglis showed his true worth last week because the Rabbitohs were able to get on the front foot and dominate – something Inglis was used to at the Storm. Inglis was devastating making 133 metres, a line-break, try assist, two offloads and six tackle-breaks. Jarrod Croker needs to improve his defence from last week, when he and Daniel Vidot allowed Adam MacDougall to run through them to set up a try for Akuila Uate, or it will be Groundhog Day all afternoon.
Danger Sign: When their confidence is up the Rabbitohs work for each other like no other team. Last week they made 14 offloads and their nine try assists – the most by a side in a game in 2011 – was achieved by nine separate players. Forcing them into errors with a physical and bustling defence is the key – the Rabbitohs average nearly 12 errors a game. When they drop the ball they can drop their heads.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Shaun Fensom is an understated achiever for the Raiders. He was easily their best player last week, with 51 tackles, three offloads (he leads the team with 32 for the year) and a line-break plus 12 runs. But his busy work off the ball also makes him a threat. Fensom leads the NRL for decoy runs (121), way ahead of next best Nathan Hindmarsh (100), making him a vital cog as the Raiders deploy their sideline sweeps.
The Rabbitohs need to watch Raiders’ five-eighth Josh McCrone when he gets the ball at first receiver close to their try line. McCrone has six tries this year, including a dummy-and-go from inside 10 metres last week. He will fancy his chances up against a side that’s leaked a league-high 48 tries from close range. He’s also capable of a sneaky offload (17 made).
Josh Dugan needs to step up after being well contained by the Knights. He’ll see plenty of ball, as will right winger Blake Ferguson who is their leading tryscorer with 12.
Danger Sign: Ferguson and Dugan will test out the Rabbitohs early. Ferguson has 87 tackle-breaks for the year while Dugan is averaging nearly six a game from just 10 outings. If they wind up and leave red-and-green jerseys lying in their wake the Raiders can create havoc.
Plays To Watch: Josh Dugan’s kick returns; Jarrod Croker attacking down the left edge where the Rabbitohs have leaked an NRL-high 41 tries; Brett White’s big defensive hits; Nathan Merritt’s speed and uncanny support play; Greg Inglis putting the “don’t argue” on Joel Thompson; Dave Taylor’s coal train runs; Issac Luke’s momentum out of dummy-half.
Where It Will Be Won: Out wide. Both teams have sensational attackers capable of beating their opposite man, but both are also hampered by shonky defence. Basically, whoever turns up with the right defensive attitude will be in the box seat.
The Rabbitohs’ centres and hard-hitting fringe forwards will fancy their chances against the Raiders’ edge defenders who have been sadly wanting this year. Jarrod Croker and Joel Thompson rank first and fourth for most tackle misses by centres (with 52 and 47 respectively). Compounding that weakness Blake Ferguson has missed 28 tackles, the second most by a winger. No surprises if Nathan Merritt, fresh from a five-try haul against the Eels, and Greg Inglis see plenty of ball.
But the Rabbitohs are by no means ironclad out wide. Chris Sandow (right-side defender) and Issac Luke lead the league for tackle misses (with 107 and 82) while David Taylor (left-side defender) misses four a game.
As a collective the Rabbitohs miss the most tackles in the NRL (38.9) while the Raiders rank third flimsiest, missing 37 each game.
The History: Played 43; Raiders 27, Rabbitohs 16. The Raiders have won five of the past eight games between the sides but the bunnies won last time out 26-24 in Canberra in Round 7 last year. However the Raiders hold a commanding 8-3 advantage at Canberra Stadium.
Conclusion: In the mood they are in Souths will be tough to beat, especially given the injury-forced shake-up to the Raiders’ hooker rotation.
The Raiders have done little at home to suggest playing in front of their fans will lift them this week. Perhaps only the fear of being left holding the wooden spoon might spur them into action. But on exposed form we have to lean towards the Rabbitohs.
Match Officials: Referees – Tony De Las Heras & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Grant Atkins; Video Ref – Rod Lawrence.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.
* Stats: NRL Stats