Nerves may have strangled the Rabbitohs in their horror showing against the Storm last weekend, but key South Sydney players insist they’ve learned their lesson and are ‘very confident’ of overcoming the resurgent Raiders in their elimination semi-final on Saturday night.
The Rabbitohs’ first finals match since 2007 delivered arguably their worst performance of the year in a 24-6 thumping at the hands of the Storm. But despite the terrible start to their playoffs campaign, Souths players believe they have the manpower to nullify Canberra’s brutal forwards and elusive backs, vowing to do “whatever it takes” to keep their premiership hopes alive.
“We’re very confident. We know what’s at stake and we’ve just got to go out there and do the best we can and hopefully walk away with a win,” star fullback Greg Inglis said.
“We didn’t play our best down there – obviously Melbourne’s defence was unbelievable – and we’ve just got to take that on board... It’d definitely be a failure [to be eliminated from the finals with two straight losses] – we classify last week as a failure and we just didn’t turn up.”
The red-hot Raiders have won their past six matches, including victories against the Broncos, Bulldogs and Sharks, to surprise every league expert and be one of the last six teams standing in the 2012 Telstra Premiership. Their sizzling run of form has come on the back some dominant performances from their big forward pack, allowing their explosive outside backs to run riot. Last week their big men, especially second-rower Josh Papalii, bashed the Sharks into submission, providing creative space for the dangerous Josh Dugan, Blake Ferguson and Sandor Earl to eventually dominate, with the team scoring a Finals Week One-high seven tries. Understandably, the Rabbitohs are cautious.
“They are unpredictable and it’s a matter of us being on our defensive game to try and hold them out… they throw the ball around, they got some great players in ‘Fergo’ and Dugan and they can score from anywhere,” winger Nathan Merritt, cousin of Canberra speedster Reece Robinson, warned.
“They’ve got a lot of strike-power out wide… It’s going to be hard to contain the backs – they’re unpredictable and they’ve got a lot of class about them.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to help the team to win the game. I’ll be putting my body on the line, that’s for sure.”
The South Sydney leadership group has accepted responsibility to take the challenge to the Raiders after last week’s poor performance against Melbourne. In particular their forwards feel it is their job to ‘return serve’ against a Raiders pack renowned as one of the most physical in the competition.
“Last week we got taught a finals lesson by the Storm… you could say the pressure is on us, but we’re not too concerned,” co-captain Roy Asotasi admitted.
“I think both sides will be looking for the big clash – there are a lot of bigger guys in the Canberra side. I’m probably going to have to stand up a bit more and that’s probably the challenge for our forward pack. We didn’t do well against the Storm and we’ll be out to prove a point.”
Fellow Rabbitohs leader Michael Crocker echoed Asotasi: “We were all disappointed [with the performance against Melbourne], we were disappointed as a team and as individuals. The coach was disappointed. We just didn’t play to our potential and we just gave Melbourne too many opportunities,” Crocker said before revealing the team’s plans to combat Canberra.
“I think defensively you’ve just go to put your body on the line and get your body in front of them to nullify them getting quick play-the-balls and building momentum. That’s where a lot of their football’s been coming from – their halves are making the most of every opportunity they’ve been given from their forwards.”
Meanwhile Raiders captain David Shillington isn’t intimidated by the Rabbitohs’ enthusiasm to get tough, declaring his side is ready for the physical challenge… and that they won’t be taking a backward step.
“It’ll definitely be a fiery clash – they’ve got some great big aggressive forwards and so do we,” Shillington said.
“It’s a clash I’m definitely looking forward to… players like Sam Burgess, Mick Crocker, Asotasi – they’re are in great form and doing a good job for their team. We’ll have to meet them in the middle. It’ll be a great battle.”
Canberra fullback Dugan expects the Rabbitohs to put up a huge fight after the team’s abysmal showing in week one.
“To have a side like that perform poorly in the first week of finals after having so much hype on them… I think they’re going to come out fired up and looking to hit back,” Dugan said.
Both South Sydney and Canberra are weakened by the losses of key centres Matt King (broken arm) and Jarrod Croker (fractured cheekbone). King’s absence forces a reshuffle in the South Sydney backline, shifting boom rookie Andrew Everingham to centre, with Justin Hunt, the son of former Eels player Neil Hunt, named on the wing. Croker’s injury sees Joel Thompson shifted from back row to centre. However, Shillington believes the injuries could cancel each other out.
“They’ve got King out and we got Croker out so it’s kinda one for one there,” he reasoned.
“We’ll miss ‘Crokes’ – he’s a good sharpshooter for us, kicking lots of goals, scoring lots of tries and the NRL’s top point-scorer this year. He’s had a great year and he’ll definitely be missed but we’re really lucky this year that we’ve got a lot of great players to fill in for those injured players, so whoever fills in will do a good job.”
The elimination semi-final has particular importance to Souths players Merritt and Crocker. They are desperate to win the match as it marks a special milestone in their NRL careers.
“I believe it’s me and Crock’s 200th game so looking forward to playing this game… enjoying it with the captain and we want to go out there, get a good performance,” Merritt said.
“We’d be disappointed losing in our 200th game… It’d be a very disappointing way to go out – we’ve had a big year this year and we don’t want to finish this weekend.”