Rabbitohs v Bulldogs preview

South Sydney Rabbitohs v Canterbury Bulldogs
ANZ Stadium
Friday 4pm

Can the ‘Easter bunnies’ get the chocolates this Good Friday? Certainly South Sydney coach Michael Maguire and all Rabbitohs fans will be hoping their boys can stay in the hunt again this week after their stunning comeback victory over the Wests Tigers last Sunday.

But they’ll need to flush the adrenaline from their system and start from scratch against a hungry Bulldogs side that’s proving the equal to Melbourne when it comes to turning opportunities into points.

Snatching the two competition points at the death saw Souths climb off the near-bottom of the premiership table but Maguire knows the side is in for a long, hard haul if they’re to be serious contenders for the semi-finals.

Their 17-16 victory leaves them in 12th place – but such is the congested nature of this year’s competition they are just a win out of the top eight.

But the bad news is they’ve lost Sam Burgess to a knee ligament injury that will see him sidelined for at least four weeks and possibly as long as two months.

Maguire has elevated Dave Taylor to the starting side this week to fill Burgess’ spot, with Chris McQueen and Neccrom Areaiiti the new faces on the bench. Michael Crocker is free to play after taking an early guilty plea for his forearm high-shot on Tim Moltzen last round. But still no sign of the injured Nathan Merritt…

Meanwhile Des Hasler would be satisfied with the two competition points last Sunday after a competitive encounter in hot conditions on the Gold Coast. The Titans showed tremendous spirit to race to a 10-nil lead after 15 minutes before Ben Barba turned the game in a twinkling, setting up a 105-metre counter-attack try that broke the home side’s hearts.

The victory sees them retain second place on the ladder, a mere four differential points ahead of the Broncos. With tough games against the Storm and Sea Eagles over the next fortnight Hasler knows the blue and whites can’t afford to squander their chances here with a substandard effort.

Hasler has named an unchanged line-up, with Kris Keating again at halfback in place of the injured Trent Hodkinson.

It’s a milestone week for Michael Ennis, who suits up for his 150th NRL game, while Ben Lowe chalks up 50 in the red and green.

And in a huge plus for fans, all paid match tickets, Rabbitohs and Bulldogs Club membership passes and NRL Junior Passes include free travel on public transport to and from the game.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: The Bulldogs are really starting to hurt oppositions with clean breaks both through the ruck and on the fringes. They’re currently ranked fifth for line-breaks (averaging 5.2) – and they made 10 against the Rabbitohs the last time they met. They also tallied 10 against the Warriors three weeks ago. The Rabbitohs are conceding the fifth-most line-breaks (5.2).

Significantly the Bulldogs have scored more tries from line-breaks (13) than any other team.

Losing Sam Burgess will be huge. The Englishman was Souths’ standout performer the last time these sides met – when he ironically suffered a serious knee ligament injury but not before carving up the Bulldogs with 151 metres and three offloads.

The Bulldogs could use the chip kick to advantage – Benji Marshall almost pulled off a killer play last week before Greg Inglis managed to juggle his gathering in of the football. Des Hasler will be aware Souths are the most targeted opponent with chip kicks and they have just a 50 per cent success rate defusing them.    

Danger Sign: If the Rabbitohs don’t get to Ben Barba in numbers and allow him more than a few strides with the football he will leave his stamp on this game. Barba leads the NRL for tackle busts (31) while his six line-breaks have been topped by just one player – Billy Slater.

But they can’t afford to put all their Easter eggs in one basket – Josh Morris is in irresistible form and leads the Bulldogs with five tries to date. His support play around Barba is brilliant.

Watch Out Bulldogs: Oppositions have enjoyed good success against the ’Dogs inside their 10-metre zone, scoring seven tries from close range. Nate Myles crossed for an easy try at first receiver last week when he caught the line defenders napping. Dave Taylor and Eddy Pettybourne may look to try their luck.

The Bulldogs will need to be at their spectacular best if they’re to puncture the new-look Rabbitohs. Souths absorbed waves of Wests Tigers attack last week and can thank their defence for keeping them in the contest – they missed just 15 tackles, much better than their (good) season average 26 and a quantum improvement in their 40 misses each week in 2011 that left them with the flimsiest record in the league.

Greg Inglis is thriving in his new role at fullback: he has three line-breaks plus two try assists and a try in just three games in the No.1.

Danger Sign: Inglis will look to chime into the backline down the left edge at every opportunity. The Bulldogs have conceded 12 tries on their right side of the field, compared to just four on their left.   

Dave Taylor v Frank Pritchard: Given Dave Taylor’s roving commission in 2012 there’s a good chance these players may lock horns at some stage – but it’s whoever comes up with more in attack that will count. Taylor was a handful for the Bulldogs last clash, making a try assist and adding three offloads. And it was his grubber that set up Andrew Everingham’s try to send last week’s game to extra time. Taylor’s offloads will need to be contained – he ranks No.1 for back-rowers with eight so far.

Frank Pritchard has been damaging too – his three try assists are the most by a back-rower, plus he’s made five offloads of his own. And he’s hitting open space frequently, with three line busts and 10 tackle-breaks.       

Where It Will Be Won: Limiting the damage of the little men. Ben Barba scored two tries, set up two others and made four line-breaks the last time these sides met. Meanwhile Souths will rely on Issac Luke to ignite their go-forward. The Kiwi representative was instrumental in his side’s stirring win last week, crossing for two tries from dummy-half. He leads the league for ruck runs (60) and has made 10 offloads and 19 tackle busts.     

The History: Played 142; Bulldogs 75, Rabbitohs 63, drawn 4. The Bulldogs have won six of the past eight clashes between the sides, including the past three, and have won 10 of 12 matches at ANZ Stadium.  

The Last Time They Met: Ben Barba bagged two tries as the Bulldogs ran out 36-24 winners at ANZ Stadium in Round 7 last year.

Four tries in the opening 40 minutes saw the ’Dogs take a commanding 20-6 lead to the sheds at halftime before the Rabbitohs scored twice in seven minutes for a 20-18 scoreline with 19 minutes to play. But then Souths lost Sam Burgess to a serious knee injury.

Immediately thereafter the Bulldogs put the contest to bed with three rapid-fire tries – and Barba was instrumental in each. First he made a long break downfield, with prop Aiden Tolman steaming onto a pass from the ensuing play-the-ball to score; next he managed a late offload for Steve Turner to cross untouched; and finally he streaked down the left edge to score his second try of the night.

Nathan Merritt latched onto a Dave Taylor offload to score a consolation try in the dying moments.

Aside from Barba the home side was well served by Tolman (24 hit-ups and 194 metres plus three offloads) and now-retired captain Andrew Ryan (149 metres). Roy Asotasi made 141 metres up the guts for the red and green.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Dave Munro; Video Referee – Steve Clark.

The Way We See It: Probably the most even contest of the weekend. The Bulldogs are playing well but their lapses are cause for concern. If Souths’ defence matches its impressive new standard in 2012 they can come away with the win. Rabbitohs by six points.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 3.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports 2 – delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats