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Rabbitohs v Storm
ANZ Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

We’re just five rounds into the 2013 season and already plenty are tipping that this week’s clash could be a preview of the grand final. The only sides yet to be defeated this season, Souths and Melbourne head into Saturday night’s top-of-the-table blockbuster keen to grab the early bragging rights before we really get into the thick of the season.

And while the reigning premiers have simply picked up where they left off last year (to nobody’s surprise), the Rabbitohs have really caught the imagination given that the last time they won their first five games back in 1971, they went on to win the comp!

Souths have had a tough time of it since then, having endured 18 years without a single finals appearance between 1989 and 2007 and being kicked out of the comp for two years in the meantime, but the arrival of Michael Maguire last year has changed all of that.

If there is one thing that Maguire has brought to this club, other than discipline, it is the self-belief that they do indeed have what it takes to match it with the big guns. (His inspirational decision to switch Greg Inglis to fullback last year didn’t hurt, either.)

There is a lot to like about the Bunnies circa 2013. While Dave Taylor endures the ignominy of being dumped from the NRL squad for reasons of attitude, his former club is lauding the efforts of his replacement, Ben Te’o, and the emergence of George Burgess who has literally monstered opponents during the early rounds.

Halves Adam Reynolds and John Sutton are taking complete control of the side, with Reynolds showing no signs of the dreaded second-year syndrome after being named Dally M Rookie of the Year in 2012.

And the form of both Nathan Merritt and Inglis out wide has been simply irresistible. Inglis’ clash with Queensland Origin teammate Billy Slater this week is certainly the absolute highlight of a clash filled with mouth-watering one-on-one contests.

For the Storm, it’s been business as usual this year as they continue to throw far too much at opposition defensive lines for them to handle.

Last week’s 26-12 win over Wests Tigers was a case in point. The Tigers did as well as anyone has this year of stifling the Storm’s much-vaunted attack and even led 12-6 midway through the second half, but once they cracked, the floodgates opened and Melbourne raced in two quick tries to seal the deal.

And that’s the thing about Melbourne. We’ve all heard the superlatives that continue to come on the back of key trio Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk (plus coach Craig Bellamy) but at the end of the day it is the fact that they are relentless in their pursuits that makes them so difficult to beat. It’s all well and good to defend repeat sets against them but you know that they are just going to come again and again... and again.

Still, sometimes it’s best to fight fire with fire and that’s one thing the Rabbitohs offer in spades this season.

Souths have named the same extended 20-man squad that travelled to New Zealand last week, with Michael Crocker, Justin Hunt and Jason Clark filling the three extra spots.
Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy has added Lagi Setu, Brett Finch and Slade Griffin to his extended bench, with no changes expected to last week’s 17. 

Watch Out Rabbitohs: Cooper Cronk continues to stake his Dally M claims in the early rounds with a series of superb individual performances. It’s hard to fathom but Cronk just keeps getting better every year – to the point where it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that he now has the single biggest influence on this side of any player. Including Smith and Slater. So far this season he sits equal first in the NRL for both try assists and line-break assists (five apiece), boasts three tries and two line-breaks and has kicked for an average 306 metres per game.

Watch Out Storm: Melbourne’s line is a tough one to crack, so often the best means of attack is to go to the boot – and there is no better exponent of the attacking kick than Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds. 

It is the 22-year-old’s vision and composure that make him so lethal when the slightest opportunity presents itself. On a number of occasions this year he has received the ball on the run but, spotting an unmarked man out wide, he has suddenly changed tack and placed a pinpoint cross-field chip for a try. 
The best example of Reynolds’ brilliance came in their Round 2 win over Cronulla when both tries came from the boot. The first came just as described above, with Andrew Everingham capitalizing, while the second was from a stunning grubber that caught everyone but teammate Dylan Farrell by surprise.

Plays To Watch: The Cooper Cronk inside ball is becoming quite the trademark yet it is unlikely he will shelve it anytime soon given the extraordinary frequency of its success. The play simply involves Cronk receiving the ball one off the ruck and quickly turning it inside to a man on the fly. More often than not this man is Billy Slater – but not always. Ryan Hinchcliffe scored a brilliant try to open the Storm’s account from this very play in the win over North Queensland in Round 2.

Where It Will Be Won: The spines of these two sides are as good as it gets. Inglis v Slater; Sutton v Widdop; Reynolds v Cronk; and Luke v Smith. This game is full of class so it will come down to which spine hits the mark best on the night. We can see this one being a high-scoring clash.

The History: Played 20; Storm 17, Rabbitohs 3. The Rabbitohs have won just two of their past nine games against the Storm.

Match Officials: Referees –  Shayne Hayne & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Paul Holland; Video Referee – Steve Clark & Justin Morgan. 

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7.30pm.

The Way We See It: What a clash! There is no doubt this looms as Melbourne’s biggest test of the season so far and they will need to pick it up from their showing against the Tigers last week if they are to get the points. But we’ve learnt over the years that it’s always best to stick with the Storm given that they don’t lose too often and have plenty of big game experience. Plus they have an irresistible record against the cardinal and myrtle. We think they will prevail in this one. Storm by six points.

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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