Finals-bound South Sydney will be hoping Wayne Bennett hasn’t awakened his sleeping giant Knights given their impressive two-game winning streak, with the bunnies desperate to stay in touch with the top four approaching the business end of the season.
The red and green sit in sixth position after accounting for Penrith 38-12 last Sunday, bagging their second win from their past four outings courtesy of a retribution-inspired onslaught from dumped Maroon Dave Taylor.
Meanwhile a powerful, three-try opening to their second half against the Eels gained Newcastle a well-deserved 20-12 victory at Parramatta last Saturday. The win keeps their slender semi-finals dream alive, with a minimum seven wins from their remaining nine games needed to figure in playoff calculations.
However, Newcastle had better get their skates on in attack this week – over the past 10 rounds Souths have averaged more points than any other team (25.1 per game).
Greg Inglis’ return after Origin sees a reshuffle within the Rabbitohs’ ranks: his inclusion pushes Nathan Merritt back to the wing, with Andrew Everingham bumping Shaune Corrigan from the centres. George Burgess has been added to form an extended bench of six players.
Meanwhile Wayne Bennett has rushed back Maroons representative Darius Boyd who reclaims the fullback role from Kevin Naiqama. Their only forced change sees Zeb Taia start in the front row for Kade Snowden who is facing a month on the sidelines after injuring his knee. Chris Adams and Kyle O’Donnell are the new faces on the interchange.
The coach may want to play some motivational tapes on the team bus during the ride down the F3 – Newcastle haven’t won successive games on the road since the opening rounds of last season.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Akuila Uate had arguably his career-best game the last time these sides met (see below) and the memory of his four tries, 328 metres, three line-breaks and 12 tackle-breaks no doubt still haunts the 11 remaining members of the Rabbitohs 17 that took the field that night.
Uate bounced back from the disappointment of being dropped for the Origin decider in the best possible way against the Eels last week, scoring a try and making 114 metres on the right flank. The flying Fijian has faced Souths five times, scoring every game for a personal haul of nine tries – good luck Justin Hunt!
The Knights string together more passes per play than all other teams. This is reflected by their NRL-low 1206 runs per game (Cronulla make the most with 1417). The Rabbitohs will need to be alert to changes in the angle of attack every play.
The defence needs to harass Knights recruit Dane Gagai whose talent shone like a beacon against the Eels. His leap for a bomb and offload in the lead-up to James McManus’ try was sublime, as was his last-ditch, over-the-top offload on the right edge for Uate to score. Gagai will test out the defence of opposite Andrew Everingham who is missing almost two tackles a game after just four outings in the centres.
Danger Sign: Although Uate will be an obvious weapon don’t be surprised if Jarrod Mullen directs much of the Knights attack down the left side of the field. The Knights have scored the majority of their tries down that corridor (22) and it’s Souths’ weak spot (majority 23 tries conceded).
Watch Out Knights: Bodies in motion are the key to the South Sydney attack. No team deploys more decoy runners each game than the Rabbitohs, who have tallied a whopping 665 decoys so far (that’s almost 45 a match). The Knights’ defenders will need to make good reads all afternoon.
Newcastle need to add another dimension to their attack, especially with their kicking game, or teams will continue to hose down their moves. The Knights are way off the pace in scoring tries from kicks, managing just three all year (Manly lead the way with 18). Jarrod Mullen needs to offer more with the boot.
Big Sam Burgess will be out to stoke his fire after some time off with injury. In his comeback game last week the towering Englishman made 101 metres in 51 minutes and he’ll be out to smash those figures here against the team that concedes the second most metres of all.
Danger Sign: If Souths make easy metres with their early sets of possession and Adam Reynolds is allowed even an average clearance of his kicks the Knights will struggle for field position. Season stats reveal Newcastle have the worst territory differential in the league – they concede 118 metres more than they make every game. They can’t afford to give a rumbling-forward team like Souths that advantage.
Greg Inglis v Darius Boyd: Left-edge team-mates on Wednesday night, the pair will have a huge bearing on their side’s chances. Jarrod Mullen will need to get his clearance kicks spot-on, given Inglis is making the most metres on kick returns (14) by any player (averaging 144 overall) and has 14 line-breaks from just 13 games. While Boyd’s struggles in 2012 are well documented, he did have his best game of the year last time he pulled on a Knights jersey, adding three try assists in their win over the Tigers. With his confidence back his first try of the season is just around the corner.
Where It Will Be Won: For Souths it will be about remaining focused. They have a worrying habit of drifting out of the contest. It happened again last week against the Panthers, leading 12-nil early on before surrendering their two-try advantage shortly after. They need to show they can put their foot to the throat of an opponent.
For Newcastle it’s about keeping two players quiet: hooker Issac Luke, who remains the dominant ruck runner in the league; and five-eighth John Sutton. Luke is in a class of his own in the No.9 as a promoter of attack, making 15 runs per game (five more than next best Cameron Smith), with 31 offloads, 58 tackle-breaks as well as 11 line-break assists.
Meanwhile Sutton is running the ball more than he has in years, leading all No.6s (with nearly 12 runs a game). Last week he ran 24 times for 158 metres. That high input is making it a lot easier for his inside man Adam Reynolds to contribute quality plays when required.
The History: Played 32; Knights 25, Rabbitohs 7. The past seven games have been won alternately by the Knights then Rabbitohs, leaving the bunnies in line for victory should that sequence continue. They’ve met at ANZ Stadium just once, with the Knights claiming the prize.
The Last Time They Met: Newcastle tore the Rabbitohs to shreds at Hunter Stadium in Round 26 last year, with winger Akuila Uate scoring four tries in a 40-24 victory that confirmed their spot in last year’s finals series.
Uate’s man-of-the-match performance earned him a share of the Newcastle club record for most tries in a match, alongside four other players including Andrew Johns.
In front of a delirious full house of 30,000 fans the Knights dominated from the outset, racing in three tries for an 18-nil lead with just 15 minutes gone.
Souths got on the scoreboard in the 19th minute after their first attacking foray inside the Knights’ red zone – but that’s where their first-half challenge ended, with Uate scoring back-to-back four-pointers to gift the home side a 30-6 lead at the break.
Uate crossed for his third try to extend the lead to 34-6 with half an hour remaining before Souths caught fire with a hat-trick of tries – including two to fullback Nathan Merritt – that saw the visitors close the scoreline to 34-24 with seven minutes remaining.
But Uate gave the home fans the best possible ending when he streaked away for a long-range try as the siren loomed.
It was a comprehensive if fits-and-starts win by the Knights, who dominated possession 53% to 47% and carved out a whopping 1713 metres – 348 metres more than their rivals.
Souths had no answer to the Knights’ explosive running, with their defence bent backwards all night as they stumbled to 59 missed tackles.
Kurt Gidley was a wind-up force at the back, making 24 runs for 214 metres, while Dave Taylor was among the Rabbitohs’ best with 16 hit-ups and a game-high four offloads.
Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & Nick Beashel; Video Referee – Bernard Sutton.
The Way We See It: This is a danger game for South Sydney. They’ve worked hard to get where they are on the ladder but if they start looking too far ahead they can get burned by the Knights who have played themselves back into confidence. An upset would not surprise but the head says the Rabbitohs will be too strong… but only just. Souths by two points in a high-scoring thriller.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats