Canterbury Bulldogs v South Sydney Rabbitohs
The game of the round given the recent good form of both of these sides sees Canterbury looking to make it three in a row and South Sydney on track to stretch their winning run to five.
After a mini-slump that saw them lose five from seven between Rounds 4 and 10, the Bulldogs have returned to form of late with impressive wins over Cronulla and the Roosters helping them move up to fifth on the Telstra Premiership ladder.
Seemingly enjoying life under coach Des Hasler, they are playing an expansive game this season that has been warmly welcomed by the likes of Ben Barba, Josh Morris and five-eighth Josh Reynolds.
Most impressive has been the Bulldogs’ ability to cope with adversity. Twice in the past month – against Parramatta and the Roosters – they’ve found themselves trailing by more than six points early, only to turn things around and record comfortable wins.
And they will be stoked by the contribution of Krisnan Inu last Monday. Unwanted by the Warriors after 18 months of rocks and diamonds, he arrived at Belmore late last week and was thrown straight into the deep end to help alleviate an injury crisis out wide. His response was to score two tries on his club debut, set up another with an outlandish inside pass and kick three goals for a 14-point haul in their 30-12 win.
But while the Bulldogs have been solid, it’s hard to go past South Sydney as the form side of the NRL over the past month.
Sparked by the brilliance of Greg Inglis at fullback, the powerful running of back-rower Dave Taylor on the right edge and the scheming dummy-half work of Issac Luke, the Rabbitohs seem to have finally found the consistency under McGuire that none of their previous six coaches since 2002 could unlock (bar Jason Taylor briefly in 2007).
In fact, even as a neutral observer, it must be said that it is a pleasure to see the long-suffering Rabbitohs finally staking a claim to the title of premiership contenders.
Having scored 109 points in those four consecutive wins to move into the top four, they could even move up as high as outright second should they secure victory over the Bulldogs.
Canterbury have named the same side that downed the Roosters on Monday night although Hasler has named an extended bench with NSW Cup trio Joel Romelo, Marty Taupau and Dale Finucane included.
Souths welcome back Matt King in the centres in place of Justin Hunt, who has been named on an extended 19-man bench alongside Chris McQueen.
Notably, the Rabbitohs are averaging their fewest errors since 2002 (10.1 per game), while prop Scott Geddes is currently the most efficient tackler in the competition at 96.3 per cent (minimum 50 tackles).
On the opposite side of the ledger, Krisnan Inu has won six of his eight games against Souths while playing for Parramatta and the Warriors, scoring in his past three outings against them (with five overall). In fact, Canterbury wingers have had an enjoyable time against the Bunnies with a combined 28 tries in 18 games since the turn of the century.
Watch Out Bulldogs: South Sydney are masters at forcing opposition defensive lines into making decisions, with coach Michael Maguire taking a leaf out of the old Melbourne playbook through the use of decoy runners. Rabbitohs players have run a total of 521 decoys so far in 2012 – second only to North Queensland – which is more than four times as many as the likes of Sydney Roosters (129) and the Warriors (168). The Bulldogs will need to number up well to avoid being caught out in defence.
Danger Sign: The Rabbitohs are nothing if not direct. The masters of the dummy-half attack, they have run an NRL-high 271 times from dummy-half this season, leading directly to eight tries. The chief destroyer is Issac Luke, who has run from dummy-half a whopping 141 times – 50 times more than his nearest rival Cameron Smith. Luke’s dangerous scoots have caused all sorts of problems for South Sydney’s opponents this season.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Bulldogs coach Des Hasler has given his side a licence to thrill this season and they appear to be reveling in the game plan if their willingness to keep the football alive is anything to go by. The once dour Bulldogs have produced an NRL-best 172 offloads in 2012 with Sam Kasiano (22), Ben Barba (20) and Frank Pritchard (18) the most prolific.
Danger Sign: The Bulldogs continue to pose a threat from long range, having scored 17 tries from beyond 20 metres this season and a further nine from beyond halfway – both the most in the competition. No surprises then that Ben Barba is the main man from long range. Barba has scored five tries from 21+ metres in 2012 and two from beyond halfway. Souths can’t afford to go to sleep on him for a single second.
Ben Barba v Greg Inglis: NSW coach Ricky Stuart must tear his hair out at night wondering how Queensland can have such riches that neither Ben Barba nor Greg Inglis qualify as the Maroons’ best fullback. No doubt the Blues would kill to have either, but at least Sydney fans can feast on the attacking brilliance that Ben Barba and Greg Inglis will serve up on Saturday night. Their battle really is worth the price of admission alone.
Where It Will Be Won: Whichever side holds firmer in defence will take the points here because there is no doubt they will throw plenty at one another. Notably, the Bulldogs are the second-best defensive side in the NRL this season behind Melbourne but they can expect to be tested right across the park this weekend.
The History: Played 143; Bulldogs 75, Rabbitohs 64, drawn 4. Canterbury have dominated clashes at ANZ Stadium with 10 wins from 13 meetings. They have also won five of their past seven games. The last time Souths defeated the Bulldogs twice in the same season was in 1992.
The Last Time They Met: The Rabbitohs prevailed 20-10 in Round 6 this season thanks largely to the brilliance of rookie winger Andrew Everingham, who scored two tries and set up the other through a brilliant flick off the ground for Matt King to cross.
In an entertaining Sunday afternoon encounter, it was Canterbury that crossed first as Ben Barba and Jonathan Wright combined to send Steve Turner over in the corner. Souths responded seven minutes later as Everingham produced his freak play for King, but Canterbury stole the lead back soon after when David Stagg crashed over between the posts.
However, Everingham was determined to make a difference and he added two crucial tries on either side of the half-time break. The first saw him dive on the scraps of an Adam Reynolds kick to give Souths a 12-10 half-time lead, then he produced a stunning take from another Reynolds cross-field kick to extend the advantage to eight points. Reynolds’ late penalty goal was the only other score of the game.
Souths completed an impressive 84 per cent of their sets, with Inglis and Taylor starring. Inglis ran for 174 meters with eight tackle-breaks and two line-breaks while Taylor made 172 metres with two offloads and two tackle-breaks.
Josh Morris ran 160 metres and produced nine tackle-breaks for the Bulldogs.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Dan Eastwood; Video Referee – Russell Smith.
The Way We See It: This is a must-watch game pitting the fourth- and fifth-placed sides in a head-to-head battle. We see plenty of points being scored here but while Canterbury have been impressive in recent weeks, the Rabbitohs at their best may just boast too many attacking threats given the form of Inglis, Taylor and Luke. Souths by four points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats