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Rabbitohs v Roosters
Thursday 8.05pm local (7.05pm Qld)
Some 151 days, an Australian World Cup triumph, the inaugural Auckland Nines and North Queensland’s first piece of silverware, plenty of high-profile signings and retirements, a few off-field controversies and a few significant pre-season injuries have passed us by since the Sydney Roosters held aloft the Telstra Premiership trophy on Sunday, October 6, 2013.
But that's all yesterday's news as these two old, old rivals lace on the boots to open up the 107th season of professional rugby league in Australia.
They were the two form teams of 2013; their two fierce contests bookending the regular season, the second of those resulting in a Roosters square-up for their Round 1 loss and with it a minor premiership. History shows the Tricolours surged through to their 13th premiership while the Bunnies were bundled out a week before the decider by Manly.
There are plenty of mouth-watering subplots in this spicy opener: the traditional rivalry, especially with the Roosters having pipped the Bunnies for last year’s minor premiership. Two of the best forwards, nay best players, in world rugby league, are also fierce opponents who shared numerous massive collisions while representing their respective clubs and countries last year. Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams are also each in their last seasons of NRL before venturing to (or back to) the 15-a-side game.
Will the Roosters be able to overcome last year’s euphoria to get switched on for another big season in front of an anticipated 30,000-strong crowd? Their strong win over Wigan in the World Club Challenge is an early sign in the affirmative. And will the Bunnies overcome last year’s disappointing finish to mount an even more determined campaign?
The first plank of each side’s 2014 premiership campaign will be laid on Thursday night. The Roosters look very familiar to the side that walked off the same ground on October 6 last year. Only the retired Luke O’Donnell is missing, replaced in the 17 by young firebrand Dylan Napa.
Souths have had to overcome plenty of injury concerns – with coach Michael Maguire having decided to move skipper John Sutton to lock, he now has first-choice five-eighth Luke Keary missing long term due to a torn pectoral suffered at the Auckland Nines. His replacement Dylan Walker tweaked a hammy at training but has been named at 6, with Adam Reynolds named at halfback despite battling a knee injury.
If either is ruled out before the match, expect Sutton to rejoin the halves with Kyle Turner or Joel Reddy coming into the 17. Tom Burgess hasn’t been named and could be out for two months with a foot injury suffered in the Charity Shield victory over the Dragons.
In milestones, Souths winger Nathan Merritt needs just one try to become the most prolific try-scorer in Rabbitohs history. Merritt (144 tries) currently shares the record for most tries with the legendary Benny Wearing, who set the mark in 1933.
Meanwhile the Rabbitohs will play their 100th NRL match at ANZ Stadium.
Watch Out Roosters: Look out for an all-out Burgess assault at the start of this game. Both Sam and George have been named to start at prop and having both of them coming at you full throttle in the opening minutes of your season will be a scary thought for the Roosters' defenders.
Sam has been a proven, quality performer in the NRL for some time but last year George went from having potential to bringing genuine game-breaking abilities. They averaged close to 300 metres per game between them last year and racked up 15 tries as well.
With Luke Burgess joining the bench and hopefully injury-free after playing just five games last year, things could get wearying for the Tricolours.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: The Roosters' defence in 2013 was tougher to crack than a Harvard entrance exam and it looks like more of the same this year. Trent Robinson was a defensive coach before he was a head coach and that discipline certainly paid off last year as the Tricolours leaked just 13.2 points per game.
They eventually gave up three tries against Wigan a fortnight ago under a mountain of possession, but that win was built on a first half shut-out that showed their sliding defence is still a well-oiled machine.
Led by Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Boyd Cordner (615 and 468 tackles respectively, both at 97.3 per cent effective rate) and Mitch Aubusson (565 tackles, 96.6 per cent effective), expect more of the same this year.
Plays To Watch: Williams running a short-side play down the left, drawing two or three defenders and offloading to a flying Michael Jenning; massive runs from George and Sam Burgess pushing the defensive line back before the rapid spread out to a roaming John Sutton to run himself or put Greg Inglis one on one with a smaller man.
Where It Will Be Won: The foundations of most wins are found in the forward battle but when two monster packs and two ace defensive sides line-up it’s doubly crucial. Will Roosters hard men Waerea-Hargreaves, Sam Moa and Dylan Napa be able to slow down the rampaging runs of George and Sam Burgess? Will strong, rangy and skilful Rabbitohs like Sutton and Inglis find their way through the NRL’s best defensive line if their forwards don’t win the battle of attrition up front? This will be decided in the middle third of the field.
The History: Played 207; Rabbitohs 108, Roosters 94, drawn 5. The last 10 meetings are split five apiece, and of those 10, the Roosters hold a narrow 3-2 advantage in games at ANZ Stadium. Don't expect much in the way of home ground advantage when these two proud Sydney clubs face off on Thursday night.
What Are The Odds: The Roosters were $2.12 outsiders when betting opened, but punters have crunched the premiers into $1.70 with Sportsbet.com.au, with three times the money on them compared to the Rabbitohs ($2.15).
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Luke Phillips; Sideline Officials – Ashley Klein & Luke Patten; Video Referees – Grant Atkins & Russell Turner.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 8pm (AEDT); Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 10pm.
The Way We See It: This should be an absolute bell-ringer to kick off the season. The Rabbitohs have looked very strong right through the pre-season but their injury disruptions and uncertainty over their halves has us leaning towards the far-more-settled reigning premiers. It should still be close, if not a nail-biter – Roosters by 6 points.
*Statistics: Champion Data.