Rabbitohs v Cowboys preview

Rabbitohs v Cowboys
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Razzle-dazzle Rabbits! Just a few weeks ago we were all talking about the top eight being cut and dried but now, after two massive back-to-back wins, the Bunnies have stormed back into finals contention.

But the job isn’t done yet; they now face a Cowboys’ side fighting to stay in the top four, leaving us with another Friday night blockbuster.

Nathan Merritt has scored eight tries in two weeks – the Rabbitohs have amassed 103 points in the same period and almost squared their points differential, leaving them in ninth spot on the ladder and just two points behind Newcastle.

A win could potentially see them into the top eight but a loss could see them drop to 10th, and depending on other results, bury their finals’ hopes.

The Cowboys fell to the Broncos last week in Lockyer’s milestone game but retained fourth spot thanks to yet another Dragons capitulation.

They know, however, that the only way to guarantee they stay ahead of the Red V is to win here. Should they lose and the Dragons, Warriors and Wests Tigers all win, they could fall as low as seventh!

With plenty on the line and the stakes high we can be assured of a quality contest.

The Rabbitohs have retained the 17 that demolished the Raiders, while the Cowboys welcome back hooker Aaron Payne from injury. This sees James Segeyaro head to the bench.

Rabbitohs’ hooker Issac Luke celebrates his 100th first grade game while the Cowboys are gunning for their 150th win as a club.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: The Cowboys are coming to the left hard and often. Not only are they devastating at scoring tries on the left (with 24 on the fringe and 18 on the wing) but they will have noticed the Rabbitohs have huge problems there, conceding 23 on the left sideline and 19 on the edges. Expect Kalifa Faifai Loa and Willie Tonga to get plenty of ball from Thurston and players like Glenn Hall, and possibly even the Sims brothers or Gavin Cooper slinging over to the left edge on occasions to get a crack at some potential space.

Danger Sign: The Rabbitohs’ wide defenders have to advance against an attacking backline. Too often they stand back and try to retreat and slide and the result has been try after try after try posted on them. At least if they get up and in they can bustle and force the attack into decisions. Watch them early – if they are hanging back, Thurston will tear them to shreds.

Watch Out Cowboys: The Rabbitohs’ attacking game is on fire! Souths’ players lead the competition for tries (Merritt 21), goals (Sandow 72), field-goals (Sandow 7), 40/20s (Sandow 4), points (Sandow 175) and dummy-half runs (Luke 224). They require just 29 more points to reach 500 for a third consecutive season.

They scored 103 points in less than a week with wins over the Eels and Raiders, reaching the triple-figure mark over consecutive games for the first time since July 1910! Putting the 56-6 and 47-18 wins together the Bunnies managed more than 3500 running metres with an astonishing 88 tackle-breaks, 27 offloads, 18 tries and 17 line-breaks. They are now ranked fourth in the league for points scored (22.4 a game), breathing down the neck of the third-placed Cowboys (22.6 a game).

Danger Sign: Right now it has got to be fullback Nathan Merritt! Five tries against the Eels, three against the Raiders… he’s basically wrapped up the top try-scoring title now. Merritt is ‘Blacklockesqe’ – that is, he plays like the legendary Dragons try-scorer Nathan Blacklock. Wherever he is on the park, he’ll find the ball and if there is half a chance he’s sniffed it out before others have even realised where they are up to in the tackle count. For the record, Merritt was the first Rabbitoh to score a hat-trick in Canberra since Graham Lyons in 1989 and was the first player to score eight tries in two weeks since former Raider Brett Mullins did so against the Rabbitohs and Newcastle in 1994. The Cowboys must keep an eye on where he bobs up in support!

Plays To Watch: Matt Bowen and Merritt trying to one-up each other in the support stakes; Dave Taylor trying to run at Thurston; at least one chip-and-chase from someone from both sides.

Where It Will Be Won: With these teams likely to go at it in an attacking war we could easily say defence… but the key may just be who cracks open the line more often. Consequently a great deal rests on the performances of the superstars: it’s time to single out Johnathan Thurston and his Queensland and Australian team-mate Greg Inglis. The player who has the greater influence on the game is likely to be on the winning side.

Thurston returned to duty last week against the Broncos and will be better for the run. Inglis has been warming up all season and finally seems to be at his damaging best. While having only moved to the Bunnies this season Inglis hasn’t tasted defeat at the hands of the Cowboys since prior to 2006. He is eight from eight since then and against them his record reads: nine line-breaks, nine tries, 49 tackle-breaks, three try assists and averages 163 metres!

His numbers this season aren’t quite as devastating. He averages 93 metres but he does now have nine line-breaks, four line-break assists, eight tries, eight try assists, 54 tackle breaks and 11 offloads from his 17 games.

From just 15 games Thurston leads the NRL for try assists (21) and line-break assists (26) plus he’s tallied 10 line-breaks and nine tries as well as 48 tackle-breaks and 17 offloads. He’s achieved plenty in the game but grand final success isn’t on his list… and he’s hungry for it.

‘JT’ will have to overcome somewhat of an ANZ Stadium hoodoo. He is one from eight playing for the Cowboys there, with the win coming in the 2005 grand final qualifier. (He has won five from eight for Queensland though.)

The History: Played 20; Rabbitohs 10, Cowboys 9, drawn 1. The Rabbitohs have had the wood on the Cowboys since 2007, winning five of the past six games between the clubs. But Souths haven’t won four consecutive matches this late in a season since 1980. At ANZ Stadium the Rabbitohs hold a 3-1 advantage over the Cowboys, with the lone victory for the boys from up north coming in 2006. The last two matches have been blowouts: Cowboys 46-12 in 2009; Rabbitohs 32-4 in 2010.

Conclusion: They are certainly on fire but the Rabbitohs will get a much sterner test this week. The confidence level appears strong enough to suggest they can keep the roll going – but how often have we seen the Rabbitohs falter just when they seem to have it together? This is a real test of their fortitude. They haven’t had to defend for two weeks but against Thurston and Bowen they will. As much as we love the move they’re making, the Cowboys might just burst their bubble.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Adam Devcich; Touch Judges – Jeff Younis & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld); delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – Delayed 1am.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.