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Warriors v South Sydney Rabbitohs
Mt Smart Stadium
Sunday 2pm (NZ time)

Alarm bells are ringing for last year’s premiership runners-up with ballooning defensive woes threatening to run a line through their 2012 challenge even this early in the season.

Not only that, the side everyone loved to watch for their daring second-phase play have abandoned the offloads and are consequently struggling to make a statement in attack.  

The Warriors have lost three of their past four games to slump to 13th, with just a victory at home over the lowly Titans to brag about. It’s been a particularly tough past fortnight on the road: they were dominated by the Roosters 26-8 and backed that up with a 32-12 defeat to the Raiders when they never really got warm.

The good news though is that flashy fullback Kevin Locke returns after a fortnight sidelined by injury.

Meanwhile the Rabbitohs have enjoyed a tumultuous past three weeks, with two victories offsetting a competitive loss to the Broncos. They’ve climbed to 10th on the ladder but need to display greater consistency if they’re to push high into the top eight: they squandered a 12-4 halftime lead to Brisbane before leaking 16 unanswered second-half points; against the Wests Tigers in Round 5 they trailed by 12 with four minutes remaining before stealing the game in extra time; and last week they overcame a 10-4 deficit to defeat the Bulldogs. That victory came at great cost, with captain Roy Asotasi not expected to play again until the finals after sustaining a pectoral muscle tear.   

In a reshuffle, Souths have called on Dave Tyrrell to start at prop for Asotasi, with former Warriors under-20s premiership winner Neccrom Areaiiti joining their interchange along with Justin Hunt.

For the Warriors, Locke’s return sees Glenn Fisiiahi drop out of the 17, while Ben Matulino and Feleti Mateo start in place of Russell Packer and Lewis Brown. Ukuma Ta’ai, Konrad Hurrell and John Palavi round out their extended interchange.

A victory by Souths would see them join neighbours the Roosters on 1000 premiership victories – but the Warriors can take heart knowing they have a better record against Souths than any other opponent, with 17 wins from 24 matches played (for an average 30 points a game).

Watch Out Warriors: Poor completions, an abundance of errors and unacceptable missed tackles are killing off the Warriors just six rounds into the season. The Kiwis have the second-worst completion rate (67 per cent) behind the Roosters (64.7 per cent). Their 14.2 errors a game are the most in the comp – as are their 39.2 missed tackles a game. James Maloney and Shaun Johnson have missed the most tackles of all players with 35 and 30 respectively. Until they fix these areas of their game they will continue to, well… lose.

It’s a big game for Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds who faces a Warriors side for the first time since his inglorious effort (five errors) in the Rabbitohs’ 42-28 loss in the 2010 Toyota Cup Grand Final. Reynolds was completely dominated by Shaun Johnson that evening and you can bet he’ll be out to turn the tables – and he’ll be quietly confident given he’s playing behind a pack of forwards that’s really flexing its muscles at the moment.

Reynolds has been impressive in his opening six NRL games, taking charge of the ruck when needed but importantly providing a stable link between the pack and the Rabbitohs’ brilliant backline. He’s showing good judgment to run selectively (three line-breaks) and is giving excellent service with the boot, kicking 21 goals at 84 per cent success rate. And he’s providing more in defence than his predecessor Chris Sandow: whereas Sandow ranked No.1 for missed tackles among halfbacks last year (average 5.8 a game), Reynolds is missing just 2.7 a game. The Warriors had better not take their eyes off him or he can hurt them with a dashing contribution of his own.

Danger Sign: If Souths resort to a variety of kicks you’ll know they’re testing the Warriors nerves: to date the Aucklanders have struggled to defuse all manner of kicks, in particular short kicks (none defused), grubbers (just 25 per cent) and bombs (60 per cent). The Warriors have let in five tries to kicks so far, the second highest number in the league.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: Souths will still be shuddering at the image of big units Ben Matulino and Russell Packer running at them after the pair punched huge holes through their middle the last time they met. Matulino added 169 metres and Packer 166 while the props combined for 11 tackle busts.

Kevin Locke’s return will add plenty of spark to the Warriors’ attack. Prior to his injury Locke ranked second to Shaun Johnson for team try assists (three) and was good for 104 metres a game. He has scored two tries in four games. Last outing against Souths he set up a try and ran for 140 metres.

Souths are a favourite opposition for Feleti Mateo; he set up a try with his first touch of the ball last clash with them and ended the match with two line-breaks, nine tackle busts and six damaging offloads.

Danger Sign: Their defensive woes are well documented but this game presents a magnificent opportunity for Maloney and Johnson to build confidence with a breakout game in attack. Last time the sides met the pair combined for a whopping five try assists. Johnson stole an 80-metre intercept try while Maloney had huge success going to the air.

Souths can again expect plenty of cross-field bombs for Chris McQueen and Andrew Everingham given they’re defusing sideline kicks just 40 per cent of the time. Last game the Warriors were successful on three occasions, with Manu Vatuvei plucking the ball in the in-goal twice to score.  

James Maloney v John Sutton: Two strong-running pivots who will figure prominently should their team be victorious. Maloney is a general who directs play conservatively but often gets the required results, whether it’s with an attacking kick or precise pass. He really loves to take on the line, which has resulted in six line busts – the most by any five-eighth – and an average eight runs and 77 metres. Sutton has stepped up his running game in Chris Sandow’s absence (four line-breaks, 10 runs and 81 metres, plus 19 tackle busts) and his telescope-arm offloads (eight to date) will need to be kept under control.  

Where It Will Be Won: Defence. Last year the Rabbitohs and Warriors ranked worst and second worst for missed tackles, with 39 and 38 respectively each 80 minutes. Souths coach Michael Maguire has drilled the malaise out of his squad in 2012, so much so that they now miss the fourth-fewest tackles (just 26). The Warriors haven’t budged from their 39 mark of last year.

The History: Played 24; Warriors 17, Rabbitohs 7. The honours are even four games apiece from their past eight clashes, although the Warriors have won three of the past four. The Warriors hold an 8-4 advantage in matches at Mt Smart Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: The Warriors smashed the Rabbitohs 48-16 at ANZ Stadium in Round 20 last year. The Kiwis raced in three converted tries inside 25 minutes before Dylan Farrell crossed for the bunnies in the dying minutes of the first half for a 24-4 scoreline at the break.

A Chris McQueen try in the 44th minute gave the Rabbitohs some hope but then the Warriors stepped up a gear, with back-to-back four-pointers to Joel Moon scooting them further ahead. Dylan Farrell bagged his second try of the afternoon with three quarters of the game gone before Manu Vatuvei reeled off a try double inside four minutes. Peta Godinet completed the Warriors’ onslaught with a try just before the fulltime siren.

Halfback Shaun Johnson was a standout for the Warriors, scoring a try and making three try assists with two offloads and 135 metres. For the Rabbitohs, Rhys Wesser held his own with 15 runs and 135 metres of territory.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Clayton Sharpe; Video Referee – Steve Clark.

The Way We See It: The home venue gives Warriors fans some cause for optimism but until their side show some thick-edged steel in defence oppositions will continue to bend them like spoons. Perhaps their best chance is to revert to the hot-potato style footy that served them so well in their charge to last year’s finals – incredibly the Warriors now throw the third-fewest offloads (8.7). Which is okay if the goal is to eliminate errors; but the Warriors make the most errors. Go figure! Rabbitohs by eight points.  

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 12 noon.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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