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Bulldogs v Rabbitohs
ANZ Stadium
Friday 4pm

Will he or won’t he? That’s the question that has been on the lips of every rugby league fan since Bulldogs coach Des Hasler first intimated that star fullback Ben Barba could make his return from suspension for Friday night’s mouth-watering clash with South Sydney.

Stood down by the club in February and given time to address a range of off-field issues, Barba returned to training a fortnight ago and since that moment the talk of the NRL has been exactly when we would see him back in the No.1 jersey.

Apparently, that time is now.

Barba’s return – along with that of back-rower Frank Pritchard – couldn’t have come at a better time for the Bulldogs, who have performed admirably in the absence of a number of key players during the opening rounds but head into this week’s clash with just one win from three to start the season.

And with Greg Inglis in fine form for the Rabbitohs, Canterbury could certainly do with their own strike weapon. While they have been far from disgraced in losses to North Queensland and Melbourne, there is no doubt that they are missing the spark that Barba provides.

His presence alone puts the onus on South Sydney’s middle men to stay alert, to cut down second-phase play and to watch for the presence of the diminutive fullback looming up in support of his forwards.

Even so, Canterbury face a daunting task trying to avoid a 1-3 start to the season against a South Sydney unit that has looked a class above their opposition so far in 2013.

Having surged to a top four finish last year, the Rabbitohs look to be reaping the benefits of having spent 12 months together under coach Michael Maguire. And while Inglis looks as fit and lethal as he has ever been, Souths have exhibited threats right across the park in their three wins to date. 

With the Bulldogs still down on numbers up front, they can expect a torrid time from the Burgess brothers while on the flanks both Nathan Merritt and Andrew Everingham have been having a field day thanks to the work of the men inside.
Will Barba’s presence be enough to halt South Sydney’s charge?

The return of the classy fullback sees Drury Low drop out of the squad while Frank Pritchard and Tim Browne are added to form an extended six-man bench.

South Sydney coach Maguire has retained the same squad that downed Penrith last week with Roy Asotasi, Justin Hunt and Jason Clark on their extended bench.

Watch Out Bulldogs: The Bulldogs face a real dilemma this week. If they don’t move up quickly in defence they will give the likes of Greg Inglis room to move, which is never a good idea. But if they leave too much open space behind, Adam Reynolds boasts the attacking kicking game to punish them severely. 

Reynolds’ short kicking has been a highlight of Souths’ three consecutive wins this year. In Round 1 he twice caught the Roosters out with well-placed cross-field bombs. Then against Cronulla he produced two stunning kicks that led to tries. The first was a brilliant cross-field chip to find an unmarked Andrew Everingham on the right wing, the second a two-metre grubber behind the line for Dylan Farrell to score. Bulldogs beware.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: Ben Barba’s return means that the Bulldogs are now a much greater threat from long range. Scoring and creating tries from inside his own half is a Barba specialty. Last year Canterbury scored an NRL-best 19 tries from beyond 50 metres and 28 from between 21-50 metres out from the try line (also the most in the NRL). Barba scored 12 of those long-range tries with his ability to skirt past defenders combined with his superb support play providing plenty of impetus. Souths will need to be aware.

Plays To Watch: Canterbury’s right-side defenders be warned – the ball is coming your way. The Rabbitohs have the ability to shift the ball both ways to great effect, which makes them particularly dangerous, but it is their left side they love the most. 

A favourite is a double second-man play, with Greg Inglis sweeping around the back to take the ball three men in, leaving him with plenty of options. He can either run the ball if the defence moves early, or shift the ball out to Nathan Merritt if the winger has room to move. 

In fact, Inglis has become arguably the most important member of the side’s attack since moving to fullback 12 months ago. Watch for a repeat of the set play that caught Penrith napping last week, with a long pass to the left followed by an inside ball to Inglis on the fly.

Key Match-Up: Josh Reynolds v Adam Reynolds. All the talk has been about Ben Barba v Greg Inglis but let’s not forget the importance of these two namesakes. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise if the pair become State of Origin halves partners in years to come. Bulldogs five-eighth Josh is the ultimate competitor and will take it straight up to South Sydney’s big men while No.7 Adam is the man who ties the Rabbitohs together. His kicking game will be crucial.

Where It Will Be Won: The battle of the forwards will be epic. The return from injury of Frank Pritchard provides a huge boost for the Bulldogs who are still awaiting the return of James Graham and Sam Kasiano. However, Aiden Tolman (17 runs and 128 metres on average so far) and Martin Taupau have been superb in their absence and won’t be fazed by the big South Sydney pack. Still, any side that can leave Roy Asotasi on the bench has plenty going for them. The Rabbitohs are a huge side and will be looking to win the early physical battle.

The History: Played 144; Bulldogs 77, Rabbitohs 64, drawn 4. The Bulldogs boast a tremendous record in clashes at ANZ Stadium with 12 wins from 15 games. They have also won seven times from their past nine meetings overall.

Match Officials: Referees –  Shayne Hayne & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Russell Turner; Video Referees – Henry Perenara & Justin Morgan.

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 4pm.

The Way We See It: The Bulldogs might be 1-2 after three rounds but they have surprised many with just how competitive they have been minus four of their most important players. The return of Ben Barba and Frank Pritchard will add plenty more strings to their bow; however they haven’t been handed the easiest of tasks upon their return. To be honest, we wouldn’t be surprised if Barba is a little quieter than usual given that he hasn’t played for a month and there is so much anticipation surrounding his return. The Rabbitohs have been devastating in attack this season and we think they might just have a bit too much class for the Bulldogs at this time of year. Rabbitohs by eight points. 

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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