Broncos v Rabbitohs
Suncorp Stadium
Sunday 3pm

About a month ago, when the Broncos were thoroughly outplayed by the Storm and the Rabbitohs were annihilated by the Warriors, you wouldn’t necessarily have looked ahead to this Sunday afternoon fixture as an absolute ‘must-watch’. But a month is a very long time in the NRL in 2011.

Since those Round 20 disappointments each of these teams has clocked up four straight wins, with a healthy mixture of thrashings and edge-of-your-seat thrillers.

Neither team will be short of motivation headed into this crucial encounter – the Broncos may still have a chance to vie for a second-place finish if the Storm down the Sea Eagles on Friday while the Rabbitohs are ninth on for-and-against and appear to be in a two-horse race with Newcastle for the last spot in the finals. They simply have to keep winning if they are to assure themselves a place in the playoffs.

Souths do look to be in easily their best form of the season over the past four rounds, with gutsy come-from-behind wins against St George Illawarra and North Queensland wrapped around their run of 100 points in seven days as they ran riot against the Eels and Raiders.

Coach John Lang will be relieved to welcome back two members of his star backline for this weekend. Nathan Merritt has overcome a quad strain he picked up in the warm-up prior to the Warriors game, and he returns at fullback in place of James Roberts. Greg Inglis has shaken off a concussion to return at centre pushing Chris McQueen to the wing and Fetuli Talanoa out of the side. Five-eighth John Sutton has been named despite leaving the field with a fractured hand last week, and inspirational Kiwi prop Roy Asotasi has not been named despite rumours he would this weekend return from a broken wrist.

Brisbane coach Anthony Griffin has made two changes, both due to injury and both are significant: they include the loss of Test centre Justin Hodges due to another twinge in his troublesome hamstring; and the return of test prop Ben Hannant on the bench. Ben Te’o moves from the bench to the centres to accommodate both moves.

Watch Out Broncos: Despite their ninth-placed standing the Rabbitohs are the fourth-best attacking team in the comp, with plenty of spark right across the park. It’s probably more than just coincidence that giant back-rower Dave Taylor’s return from a long layoff due to suspension – ironically prompted by an illegal tackle in their Round 16 win over the Broncos – coincided with those massive wins over Parramatta and Canberra.

This match will be Taylor’s first NRL clash at Suncorp playing for the visiting team – his last club game here was for the Broncos in the 2009 finals series. Since then he has really upped the ante, currently averaging career highs in runs (11.9) metres (104.4) and tackles (25.5) per game.

But halfback Chris Sandow has perhaps been most crucial to Souths’ recent good form: following some magical plays to get them the win against the Dragons the little halfback was at it again last week. With his side down by 12 inside the final 10 he put stand- in fullback James Roberts over to score, then with three minutes left he snatched an intercept and ran 80 metres with the Bunnies crossing soon after. Despite surely being exhausted he calmly slotted the sideline conversion to send the game to golden point, then nailed the final penalty to seal the win.

Danger Sign: It is being able to win those big moments that separates the champions and Sandow is quickly making a habit of doing just that. When the clutch moment comes look for Sandow to step up with a 40/20 kick or brilliant sideline conversion: he has the equal-most 40/20 kicks this season with four, and is the league leader for successful sideline conversions with 18 from 26.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: The Broncos were ominously clinical last Monday in Newcastle. Earlier in the season plenty of pundits were warning that as their newest brigade of youngsters matured in the coming seasons the Broncos would be a serious force. Well, never mind the coming years… that time has already arrived.

Jharal Yow Yeh is already a Test and Origin winger, and produced one of the more spectacular plays last Monday with a 90-metre intercept try (clocking in at just 10.5 seconds). Josh McGuire produced one of the best matches of his young career, racking up 127 metres from 18 runs with 36 tackles, and Josh Hoffman has been an absolute revelation in the back half of 2011 – 187 metres from 17 runs last week leaves him averaging 159 metres per game in his 14 appearances, behind only Paul Gallen and Michael Gordon in the NRL.

Combine the firepower of these youngsters with the experience of the evergreen Darren Lockyer and you have a recipe for trouble as far as opposition sides are concerned.

Danger Sign: The form of McGuire has allowed coach Griffin to ease Hannant back from injury on the bench. McGuire was explosive in the opening quarter last week – if he can match that again here Brisbane will start this one well and truly on the front foot.

Plays To Watch: Sam Thaiday welcoming Maroons team-mate Dave Taylor back to Suncorp with some extra attention in defence; Greg Inglis looking to repeat his performance from earlier in the season when he helped Souths beat Brisbane in Perth with some monstrous defence; more skyscraping bombs from Darren Lockyer; Nathan Merritt to continue his hot streak (eight tries in six days before missing last week’s game); And keep an eye out for big impacts if two of the biggest men in the game in Dave Taylor and David Hala come together in the middle.

Where It Will Be Won: How each side muscles up in defence will determine this one. Both the Broncos and the bunnies know how to score points – the Broncos are fifth for points scored and Souths fourth – but while Brisbane have climbed to third place on the ladder on the back of rock solid defence Souths are still outside the eight having conceded the fourth-most points of any side.

A big part of that comes down to their ability to hang on in tackles. Souths have easily the worst effective tackle percentage in the league at just 83.5 per cent. They miss a staggering 39 tackles per game with a further 21 ineffective. Compare that to Brisbane who have the third best effective tackle rate at 87.2 per cent (leaders Melbourne, 88.9 per cent) missing 31 tackles per game with a further 18 ineffective.

While Sandow is often criticised for his defence (he and Merritt both complete around 66 per cent of tackles effectively, the least at the club) you need your forward pack doing the most of the hard work. The culprits here are Dave Taylor (80 per cent) Issac Luke (81.5 per cent) and Dave Tyrrell (82.4 per cent). They are clearly missing the input of the likes of Luke Stuart (94.2 per cent in his five games this year) but those who are there need to step up.

Taylor and co. need to match it with their Broncos’ counterparts if Souths are going to stay competitive here.

The History: Played 24; Broncos 18, Rabbitohs 5, drawn 1. Brisbane have dominated the bunnies over the years and that record is more stark at Suncorp, where the Broncos hold a 7-2 advantage. Brisbane have won five of the past eight but Souths won the previous clash this year 16-12 at Perth.

Conclusion: The hot streak will fizzle out for one of these teams tonight but don’t expect the bunnies to be the easy-beats they were earlier in the season. At home and with most of their stars on deck the Broncos should be too strong for Souths.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Tony Archer; Sideline Officials – Gavin Morris & Steve Carrall; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.