Wests Tigers v Rabbitohs preview

Wests Tigers v South Sydney Rabbitohs
Allianz Stadium
Sunday 3pm (AEDT)

There’s plenty on the line in this cracking Heritage Round clash as the Tigers and Rabbitohs desperately reach for a band aid to stop the haemorrhaging that threatens to leak the life out of their premiership campaigns just one month into the new season.

The Wests Tigers enter the arena with three consecutive losses following golden-point glory over the Sharks in Round 1. They lost to the Sea Eagles in Gosford in Round 2, were singed by the Dragons in Round 3, and fell in a heap against the Raiders in Campbelltown last Monday night. Worryingly, they’ve surrendered halftime leads in two of their three losses.

Against the Raiders they looked rudderless and the bad news is they’ll take the field here again without their skipper Robbie Farah who has one week remaining on his spear-tackle suspension.

Meanwhile the Rabbitohs, with just a victory over the Panthers in Round 3 to their name, came out all guns blazing against the Broncos. They raced to a 12-nil lead after  20 minutes and still looked the dominant unit heading to the sheds up 12-4 before they unravelled in the second 40, missing 21 tackles as the Broncos piled on 16 unanswered points for a 20-12 win.

Even at this early stage of the year the loser of this clash is in danger of losing touch with the pack in the race for the top eight – and they can virtually kiss goodbye to any chance of making the top four and enjoying the benefits of the revamped Finals Series system.

Tim Sheens has reacted swiftly to try to stop the rot, dropping Jacob Miller and installing Tom Humble at halfback and also moving in-form Joel Reddy to centre at the expense of Blake Ayshord (benched), while Lote Tuqiri returns from injury on the left wing. Matt Bell starts at prop with Matt Groat benched.  

Meanwhile Scott Geddes’ return sees Sam Burgess slot back into the second row with Dave Taylor reverting to the interchange. Chris McQueen and Nathan Peats are the missing faces on the bench, replaced by Ben Lowe and Neccrom Areaiiti.

The Wests Tigers lost the last match-up between the sides (see below) – but they were 30-6 winners in the corresponding Heritage Round clash at this venue in Round 5 last year.

It’s a big week for Chris Heighington who is poised to become the most-capped player in Wests Tigers history, overtaking John Skandalis to register the most ever appearances for the merged entity (186). Heighington is on track to join only a select few to have played 200 games for either Balmain or Western Suburbs (Ben Elias, Keith Holman, Garry Jack, Tom Raudonikis and Paul Sironen). 

Watch Out Wests Tigers: If the players don’t place a premium on defence this week they can forget about the top eight. The Tigers are displaying an unusually soft underbelly, missing 32 tackles game (sixth most). Last week they dropped off a whopping 42, with Blake Ayshford (nine), Jacob Miller (seven), Tim Moltzen (six), Matt Groat and Adam Blair (six apiece) the main offenders.

The Rabbitohs are finding open space frequently, with 5.5 line-breaks a game (second most). That’s a real worry for the Tigers who are conceding the second-most line-breaks each game (five). Fullback Greg Inglis (four line-breaks plus three try assists) presents a huge danger.

The Tigers are staring at a fourth successive defeat unless someone stands up and takes the team forward – incredibly, not one player in this week’s 17 has made triple figures in metres, with Gareth Ellis their territory leader with just 87 metres a game. And their 1105 metres each week is the fewest by any team.

Danger Sign: Rabbitohs’ hooker Issac Luke will look to punch through the centre of the ruck after enjoying huge success against the Tigers last time they met. Luke ran riot with a try assist, two line-breaks and 159 metres. Luke leads all players for dummy-half runs in 2012 (48) and has conjured three try assists. Given the slack Wests Tigers marker defence last week Luke will fancy his chances of making huge inroads again.    
  
Watch Out Rabbitohs: High-profile signing Adam Blair is due a breakout game. There’s every chance he’ll be used more sparingly this week – to date he’s played every minute for the Tigers but last year Craig Bellamy gave him 10-minute breathers each week. Tim Sheens may look to do the same. If he does, expect a fired-up Blair to really rip in against Sam Burgess and Dave Taylor. 

Beau Ryan has four tries on the right wing for the Tigers and he’ll really look to take on his opposites after the Rabbitohs conceded every one of their four tries last week down their left edge.

Benji Marshall is the obvious threat. He’s down on form – but so are all of the Wests Tigers players. Still, he has added the second most try assists by any player (five).

Expect the Tigers to lift – they score more points against the Rabbitohs (31.3 per game) than any other opponent.
Danger Sign: Expect Marshall to take more responsibility with the ball in hand and run more often this week. While he laid on a try for Gareth Ellis with a superb delayed assist against the Raiders, his three runs for just eighth metres of territory was unacceptable. Yes, he may have been suffering the effects of an unfortunate accidental challenge from Raiders winger Jack Wighton but with the cobwebs cleared he’ll be ready to go here. If Benji looks sprightly, shows the ball and displays a goose step in the first 15 minutes you’ll know he’s switched on.

Gareth Ellis v Sam Burgess: Two of the best British imports go head to head for just the second time in their careers. The Tigers need Ellis to lead the way with venomous sting in his defence, while continuing his good support of the ball-carrier. Meanwhile Burgess will be a threat offloading (eight so far) as well as providing his team with plenty of hard metres (145 average).

Where It Will Be Won: Attitude and focus. The Rabbitohs looked like world-beaters in the opening 20 minutes against the Broncos last week before a dramatic fall-away in their completions (64 per cent in the second half) let Brisbane back into the clash. 

Meanwhile the Tigers were sluggish against the Raiders and appear to be struggling to adapt to some personnel changes. Their minds wandered after assuming the lead and if they do that again they’ll suffer more pain here.

The History: Played 18; Wests Tigers 9, Rabbitohs 9. Wow – there isn’t a struck match between them, with the sides sharing the spoils four games apiece over the past eight games. More, they share a 4-4 ledger in games played at Allianz Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: The Rabbitohs thumped the Tigers 29-18 at ANZ Stadium in Round 10 last year. In a lopsided contest, the red-and-green led 27-nil at halftime before the Tigers roared back to win the second section 18-2. 

Rabbitohs No.7 Chris Sandow was in fine form, adding two try assists, booting six goals and a field-goal. Sandow showed a deft hand with a grubber for Nathan Merritt to open the scoring in the right corner before throwing the last pass for Dylan Farrell to cross on the right edge. 

The best on ground were Sandow, Rabbitohs fullback Rhys Wesser (199 metres and seven tackle busts), plus Tigers Matt Utai (122 metres and nine tackle busts) and Andrew Fifita (90 metres and seven tackle busts) – incredibly not one of those players will feature in this week’s return clash!

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Adam Gee; Video Referee – Paul Simpkins. 

The Way We See It: The Rabbitohs’ backline is functioning far better than the Wests Tigers’. Greg Inglis and John Sutton are calling the tunes and the rest of the team is on song. Meanwhile the Tigers appear a one-man band – and that vital man is a little off-key at the moment. Rabbitohs by eight points. 

Televised: Channel 9 – delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 2 – delayed 6pm.

Statistics: NRL Stats