Souths coach Michael Maguire’s stress levels wouldn’t have escalated too much this week despite losing strike weapons Greg Inglis and Dave Taylor to the Queensland camp – his charges go head to head with a Panthers unit that’s been decimated by injury and has lost even more personnel to the Origin decider than the bunnies.
Maguire knows the seventh-placed Rabbitohs can’t afford complacency to creep in on Sunday, with the 15th-placed Panthers certain to be switched on despite their roster problems; they need to win every one of their remaining nine games to figure in semi-finals calculations.
Souths suffered a second loss from their past three games when falling 26-12 to the Broncos last week – although the contest was well in the balance at 12-all before the home side put them to the sword with three tries in the closing 20 minutes.
The defeat leaves them the lowest-ranked of three teams on 20 competition points, with the Wests Tigers nipping at their heels one win back.
Meanwhile Penrith suffered golden-point heartbreak at the hands of the Eels last Saturday, their depression heightened by an injury to playmaker Luke Walsh they can ill afford given they’ll be without Michael Jennings, Tim Grant and Luke Lewis to Blues call-ups this week.
In Souths team changes Nathan Merritt reverts to fullback to replace Inglis, with impressive rookie Andrew Everingham moving from centre to wing and Shaune Corrigan filling Everingham’s spot. Ben Lowe has been promoted to the starting side for Dave Taylor, with the third Burgess boy, George, joining the interchange.
Meanwhile Ivan Cleary has recalled Brad Tighe to the Panthers’ centres for Jennings, with Blake Austin to play five-eighth and Harry Siejka pushing one player in to halfback to fill in for Walsh.
In the pack, Dayne Weston will start up front for Tim Grant, with Ryan Simpkins locking the scrum for Lewis. Matt Robinson, Mitch Achurch, Arana Taumata and Danny Galea are the new faces on their bench.
If Souths win it will be the first time they’ve recorded two wins over the Panthers in one season in 25 years.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: The Rabbitohs cannot afford to have an off day with their clearance kicks. Souths continue to struggle to post big numbers in territory – their 1279 metres are the fourth fewest by any side, mostly due to their third-fewest kick metres to date (just 7816 in total, way behind the benchmark set by premiers Manly with 9991). If Penrith get up in the face of Adam Reynolds and force some errors they can rattle the home side.
While Issac Luke is a recognised force out of dummy-half, Penrith’s Kevin Kingston is an under-rated contributor who has hurt sides when pinning his ears back at the ruck.
Kingston ranks third in the comp for dummy-half line-breaks (three) – but it’s his unpredictability that makes him a threat given 10 hookers run more often than he does.
Souths’ right-side defence needs to be ready given the Panthers favour that side in attack – Penrith have crossed for 25 tries on the left compared to just 11 on the right.
Danger Sign: If the Panthers struggle to bend the Rabbitohs’ line they may find joy heading to the heavens: Souths’ wingers are defusing cross-field bombs at just 48 per cent so far and have conceded more than one try to a kick every game.
Watch Out Panthers: There’s no more dangerous hooker in the Telstra Premiership than Issac Luke who continues to bamboozle opponents with his piercing runs from dummy-half. Luke attracts a swag of defenders but invariably somehow still manages to offload to a trailing support to keep the momentum going. He leads all players for dummy-half runs (170 – 53 more than next best Cameron Smith). He carved up the Panthers last time they met, making 17 runs from dummy-half for 99 metres, with five tackle busts and three offloads.
John Sutton will look forward to testing out inexperienced opposite Blake Austin. No five-eighth runs the ball more in 2012 than Sutton, who is taking on the line 10.3 times a match for an average gain of almost 80 metres. Adding weight to his threat, he has made the third-most offloads by a No.6 (averaging one per game).
Danger Sign: Penrith’s goal-line defence needs to be alert to rushes from dummy-half – Souths have scored more tries in this fashion (nine) than any other team.
Nathan Merritt v Lachlan Coote: Merritt will be charged with emulating the thrust Inglis brings to the side each week. He’ll relish his brief time in the No.1 jersey – he has made two line-breaks in two appearances so far, as well as adding 111 metres each match. Meanwhile Coote may be experiencing some handling problems in 2012 but there’s no denying his gritty efforts returning kicks. Only Josh Hoffman has made more metres fielding kicks, with Coote adding 11 metres with each of his 97 returns. And his 57 tackle busts are among the most by any fullback.
Where It Will Be Won: Enthusiasm levels. The premiership always hits a lull period around the end of the representative season so it’s important the players enter the arena thinking their season depends on the outcome of this clash – which is the case for the Panthers. Meanwhile this is exactly the sort of match-up Michael Maguire won’t want to reflect on at season’s end as the game that got away from them and cost them their spot in the top four.
Also, expect a lot to ride on how well each team kicks to open space – the Rabbitohs and the Panthers are the competition’s worst sides at kicking clear of opposition runners (just 41.1 and 42.1 per cent respectively).
The History: Played 72; Rabbitohs 39, Panthers 32, drawn 1. The Panthers have won five of the past eight clashes between the sides. However, the Rabbitohs hold bragging rights (see below) and boast a 4-0 record at ANZ Stadium. Penrith have won only three of their past 10 games at ANZ Stadium.
The Last Time They Met: South Sydney defeated Penrith 40-24 at Centrebet Stadium in Round 3.
The Rabbitohs jumped out of the blocks to lead 18-nil after 12 minutes – with Andrew Everingham crossing for a try just 90 seconds into his NRL debut. Prop Roy Asotasi crossed for a rare four-pointer three minutes later and when Dave Taylor grubber-kicked from dummy-half into the in-goal and won the chase, Panthers fans were entitled to wonder whether the game was gone even before they’d warmed their seats.
However, back-to-back tries to Kevin Kingston and Travis Burns bridged the gap to six points with nine minutes of the first half remaining, before a succession of penalty goals enabled Souths to take a 22-12 lead to the sheds.
But the writing was on the wall for the home side again straight after the break when Greg Inglis, playing his first game at fullback in the red and green, steamrolled over the top of Lachlan Coote to score just one minute into the second stanza.
That made it 28-12; the sides finished try-for-try over the concluding half hour leaving Souths dominant winners.
Penrith had no answer to the free-flowing Rabbitohs attack, which made eight line-breaks throughout the afternoon. Their stars included Inglis (a try, 193 metres and two line-breaks), Taylor (two tries and a line-break) and Sam Burgess (15 hit-ups and 26 tackles).
Dayne Weston was the Panthers’ best with 16 hit-ups and 135 metres towards his team’s lacklustre 937-metre total gain.
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – Grant Atkins & Jason Walsh; Video Referee – Paul Simpkins.
The Way We See It: There’s simply too much disruption to Penrith’s troops to back them with any confidence. We suggest this is the ‘banker’ game of the round. Rabbitohs by 10 points.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats