Rabbitohs v Raiders preview

South Sydney Rabbitohs v Canberra Raiders
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Can the rampaging bunnies keep the momentum going? Or will the Jekyll-and-Hyde Raiders, minus bad boys Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson, spoil the party and stay in the hunt in 2012?

Three successive victories have catapulted Souths to sixth place on the NRL ladder – and a win over 12th-placed Canberra would likely to see the red-and-green nudging the all-important top four as we approach the midway point of the 2012 season.

Following successive wins over the Cowboys and Sharks and a week’s break with a bye, Souths dug deep to haul in the Dragons last week, recording just their second victory at Kogarah in 23 years. Coach Michael Maguire is rightly thrilled they were able to conjure points in attack and stay strong in defence despite missing key players Greg Inglis and Dave Taylor to Origin. Maguire would be particularly satisfied with their excellent completions (80 per cent) and low number of missed tackles (25).

Meanwhile the Raiders spent the bye week after their 40-34 defeat of Parramatta getting over minor aches and pains. Excellent completions (88 per cent) were a major factor in their free-flowing triumph, too. The win snapped a three-game losing streak and here they get the chance to notch their first back-to-back victory of the year.

But it will be a huge task given the internal suspensions imposed on Dugan and Ferguson – their two strongest-running backs and pivotal attacking weapons – for breaching the club’s alcohol policy.

Souths have erred on the side of caution with the naming of their side for Friday night, retaining the 13 who started against the Dragons and leaving Maroons representatives Inglis and Taylor on their extended bench. Coach Maguire will wait to see how they pull up before injecting them into the fray.

Furious Raiders coach David Furner has handed Dugan’s No.1 jersey to Reece Robinson this week, with Toyota Cup winger Edrick Lee promoted to make his NRL debut on the wing. Joel Thompson shifts from second row to centre, with Jack Wighton moving to the wing to cover for Ferguson. Bronson Harrison will start in the second row, with Dimitri Pelo and Mark Nicholls added to form an extended bench.

Meanwhile Furner will have his fingers crossed captain David Shillington is fit to back up from Origin.

Just to confuse you before you place your tips this week: Canberra have defeated Souths in three of four games at ANZ Stadium – but Souths are coming off the back of an unbeaten month of May (so far) for the first time since 1994.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: The Raiders’ ability to gain good field position belies their position on the ladder – Canberra rank sixth for overall territory each week (1362 metres) and if the Souths kickers don’t improve their accuracy (just 48 per cent to open space) Reece Robinson, Jack Wighton and rookie Edrick Lee will be playing the ball up near their 40-metre line on the first tackle after a kick return.

The Raiders are bound to attempt some offloads close to the South Sydney tryline given the Rabbitohs have surrendered the second-most tries to offloads (four).

Danger Sign: Jarrod Croker can be a threat if he gets room to move on the left edge. Croker has crossed for seven tries so far and he ranks second for line-breaks with eight to date. He’s also an excellent provider for his outside man, setting up Robinson with a deft flick last game.

Watch Out Raiders: All other coaches have worked it out, so it’s doubtful Michael Maguire won’t have noticed that the Raiders are paper-thin in defence down their left-hand side. To date the Raiders have leaked an unacceptably high 26 tries there – compared to just six on their right side. If David Furner can’t get them communicating better that tally will just grow and grow – with centre Matt King and winger Andrew Everingham (nine tries in eight games) almost certain to benefit here. Everingham has the Midas touch at the moment – he leads the league in least touches required for every try scored (12.4).

Issac Luke will pose a huge threat, especially running out of dummy-half. Luke leads all players for runs from play-the-balls (126) and he has made the second-most line-breaks from dummy-half (four). He was the key to their win over the Dragons last week – 20 of his 23 runs were made out of dummy-half. That was a season-high tally and it earned his side 124 cheap metres. The Raiders will be all too aware of the damage he can wreak after he made 175 metres, with seven tackle-breaks and three offloads, last time they met. Expect Luke to try his luck within a few strides of the Raiders’ tryline – Souths have scored the most tries from dummy-half to date (six).   

Danger Sign: Any time Nathan Merritt gets into space – the speedster crossed for a stunning hat-trick last time they met and gained 190 metres with 10 tackle-breaks. His combination with Greg Inglis, when he is injected, will be a highlight.

Greg Inglis v Reece Robinson: Inglis has only added depth to his devastating running game since shifting from centre to fullback in Round 3. He scored a hat-trick of tries, set up another and made 12 tackle-breaks in his last NRL game, when the Rabbitohs torpedoed the Sharks in Round 9. Inglis leads the competition for line-breaks (11) and ranks second for tackle busts (57). Every time he chimes in off a John Sutton pass on the left edge you can bet the Raiders’ fans will be holding their breath. Inglis also boasts five tries and five try assists. His opposite number Reece Robinson is an honest competitor who is enjoying his best season so far – he’s averaging 127 metres and has scored five tries as well as adding 27 tackle-breaks. The Rabbitohs’ kick chasers need to wrap him up quickly or else. They also need to watch him when he takes the ball at first or second receiver inside their 20 metres.

Where It Will Be Won: Hanging onto the ball. Coaches Michael Maguire and David Furner have stressed the importance of a disciplined approach when in possession and it’s showing on the field: only the Storm make fewer errors than the Raiders (9.7 average) and Rabbitohs (9.9).  

The History: Played 44; Raiders 27, Rabbitohs 17. The Raiders have won five of the past eight clashes but the bunnies have saluted in each of the past two. The Raiders have an excellent record at Homebush, winning three of four played there.

The Last Time They Met: The Rabbitohs thrashed the Raiders 47-18 at Canberra Stadium in Round 23 last year.

In a stunning display of attack the Rabbitohs piled on eight tries – including a hat-trick to fullback Nathan Merritt between the 50th and 72nd minutes, plus a double to centre Greg Inglis.

Souths had the game in the bag when they raced to a 24-nil lead in even time before Raiders winger Blake Ferguson crossed to send the sides to the halftime sheds with a 24-6 scoreline.

Merritt opened the scoring in the second half, crossing for two of his three tries before Josh Dugan and Reece Robinson added to the Canberra tally. Merritt’s final try was followed by a Chris McQueen four-pointer inside the final 10 minutes that rounded out the scoring.

Defence took a back seat on a sunny afternoon in the nations’ capital, with both sides missing 44 tackles. Souths made the most of their time with the ball, completing their sets at a healthy 84 per cent compared to the Raiders’ 72 per cent. Incredibly, Canberra made nine line-breaks to their opponents’ six but couldn’t transform that advantage into points.

Prop Ben Ross had one of his best games of the year for Souths, pounding out 156 metres with a line-break.

Raiders lock Shaun Fensom was tireless in a beaten side, making 16 hit-ups and 51 tackles.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Grant Atkins; Video Referee – Bernard Sutton.

The Way We See It: This is a Rabbitohs side unlike any we have seen in recent memory. Their attack has thrust and variety, and their defence urgency and commitment. Most importantly, coach Maguire has managed to rid the unit of their occasional bouts of inconsistency. The Raiders’ flimsy left-side defence is a major cause for concern – as is the absence of Dugan and Ferguson. Rabbitohs by eight points.  

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

    Statistics: NRL Stats