Rabbitohs v Roosters preview

South Sydney Rabbitohs v Sydney Roosters
ANZ Stadium
Monday 7pm (AEDT)

No Chris Sandow… and no Todd Carney – it’s largely uncharted territory for the Rabbitohs and Roosters as they plot victory in this traditional season-opener minus their key playmakers of the past few seasons.

Souths’ rookie coach Michael Maguire is certain to receive a baptism of fire against the well-drilled charges of wily Roosters veteran Brian Smith. While the occasion of chalking up NRL game number one is huge for Maguire, it will be business as usual for Smith who notches his 578th game in the big league.

Both coaches know opening their accounts with a win is crucial to their premiership campaigns: the Rabbitohs play at home only twice in the first five weeks and face tough away games against the Storm and Wests Tigers, while the Roosters play three of their first five at home and have HQ clashes against the Panthers and Raiders over next fortnight. Smith knows a win here will lay a good platform to press for the top four inside a month.

However, history shows these local derbies are tough to predict – especially at ANZ Stadium. This will be the 20th time Souths have faced the Roosters to open a season, with their record currently 8-11. While the Roosters have won 23 of the past 30 clashes, and four of the past six against the bunnies, they have lost seven of their past eight games overall at Homebush.

Souths’ trial form has been okay without setting the world on fire. They lost 34-28 to Warrington Wolves fielding a sub-strength unit, then competed well before going down 22-14 to the Warriors. They rounded out their preparation with a tough 18-12 loss to St George Illawarra in the Charity Shield.

They suffered a huge blow in the Dragons loss, however, with star hooker Issac Luke set to miss the season opener after being suspended for contrary conduct. His absence sees Maguire elevate Indigenous All Stars representative Nathan Peats to the starting hooker role.

In other team selections Dylan Farrell will wear the No.1 with Nathan Merritt remaining on the wing opposite Matt King, with Shaune Corrigan partnering Greg Inglis – who makes his return from an ankle injury sustained in the All Stars clash – in the centres. Adam Reynolds makes his NRL debut in the No.7.

Sam Burgess and Roy Asotasi make a strong front row, with Dave Taylor, Eddy Pettybourne and Michael Crocker rounding out the pack. Coach Maguire needs to cull two players from his extended bench which reads Dave Tyrrell, Chris McQueen, Scott Geddes, Jason Clark, Necron Areaiiti and Fetuli Talanoa.

Meanwhile the Roosters enter Round 1 buoyed by trial wins over the Bulldogs (28-16) and Wests Tigers (28-24). However they’ve been struck a cruel blow with strike centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall sidelined for a few weeks after sustaining a kidney tear in a training mishap. Consequently Mitch Aubusson returns from his injury-marred 2011 in the centres alongside BJ Leilua, with Justin Carney and Sam Perrett on the wings either side of fullback Anthony Minichiello.

Skipper Braith Anasta has held off the challenge of in-form new recruit Daniel Mortimer (named on the bench) to partner Mitchell Pearce in the halves.

Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Lama Tasi prop up hooker Jake Friend, alongside the back-rowers Aidan Guerra and Boyd Cordner and lock Frank-Paul Nuuausala. Smith’s extended bench includes Tinirau Arona, Mose Masoe, Martin Kennedy, Mortimer, Anthony Mitchell and Peni Tagive.

ANZ Stadium is poised for an entertainment milestone on Monday night, with four tries needed to notch 500 scored at the venue.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: Mitchell Pearce is the man they should fear. Playing inside Braith Anasta in Round 1 last year the Blues’ No.7 contributed a whopping three try assists – and followed that up with two try assists when the sides met again in Round 19. In a season when the Roosters struggled he still contributed 19 try assists overall, the third most by any halfback.

Souths need a fast chase on their kicks to restrict the damage the Roosters’ back three can inflict. Winger Sam Perrett in particular will be a threat: in his two appearances against the Rabbitohs in 2011 he made a combined 35 runs for a massive 268 metres with 15 tackle-breaks – including a game-high nine shrug-offs last meeting.

Danger Sign: Souths’ rookie halfback Adam Reynolds and fledgling hooker Nathan Peats have the job ahead of them filling in for departed Chris Sandow and suspended Issac Luke. Last time the sides squared off (for a Rabbitohs win) Luke and Sandow made the most touches on the ground with 87 and 66 respectively. If Reynolds and Peats struggle to cope with their workloads, Rabbitohs errors could mount.

Watch Out Roosters: Nathan Merritt is the tricolours’ bogy man: he’s crossed for nine tries in Round 1 games against the Roosters over the past six years. The equal top NRL try-scorer in 2011 (with 23), Merritt carved out 185 metres the last time the sides met.

Mitchell Aubusson and Justin Carney will have their work cut out for them trying to repel the double threat of Dave Taylor and Greg Inglis down the Rabbitohs’ left edge. Taylor finished with the most line-breaks, line-break assists and try assists by any second rower in 2011 (seven each category). Inglis finished the year with the second-most try assists by a centre (eight) from just 17 games.    

Danger Sign: Rabbitohs fans will breathe a little easier if they see John Sutton running to the line often in the opening 20 minutes. At his best the five-eighth is one of the most creative distributors in the game – while Chris Sandow seized control of Souths’ plays over the past two years, it should not be forgotten that in 2009 Sutton topped the NRL for try assists (27). If Sutton shows assertiveness, especially inside the Roosters’ 20-metre zone with tackles up his sleeve, he can conjure points for the home side.  

Sam Burgess v Jared Waerea-Hargeaves: Two powder-keg front-rowers go head to head, with their personal showdown likely to set the tone for each forward pack’s progress. Burgess showed he’s raring to go in 2012 with two tries in the Charity Shield, while Waerea-Hargreaves bristled with passion in the All Stars clash. This pair won’t be taking any prisoners.   

The History: Played 203; Rabbitohs 106, Roosters 92, drawn 5. Souths have won just three of the past eight clashes against the Roosters, including being thumped 40-29 in Round 1 last year. Worryingly the Rabbitohs have banked the competition points in a season opener just three times this century. Incredibly, just 49 points separate the two teams throughout their dogged 203-game rivalry.

The Last Time They Met: The bunnies got up in thrilling fashion 21-20 at ANZ Stadium in Round 19 last year. The Roosters led 10-6 at halftime and outscored their opponents four tries to three overall but it was a 49-metre Chris Sandow field-goal in the sixth minute of extra time that separated the sides. The Roosters were left to lament a defensive lapse that allowed John Sutton to slip an offload to Greg Inglis to score when clinging to a 20-14 lead with five minutes remaining.  

Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Gavin Reynolds & Dave Munro; Video Referee – Tim Mander.

The Way We See It: We know they were just trial wins but the Roosters have surprised with their performances to date. We like the look of their young pack and we know Anasta and Pearce will get the job done in the halves. Meanwhile, without Issac Luke and with Adam Reynolds feeling his way in the No.7, the Rabbitohs really need to leap out to an early lead and ride a wave of passion if they are to have a chance. That may indeed happen – but whether or not they can hang in and get the job done is another thing. We still regard them as a work in progress – Roosters by six points.     

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats