Dragons v Rabbitohs
Sydney Cricket Ground
Round 5 is Men of League Heritage Round in the NRL - and we don't think you could squeeze in much more old-fashioned heritage than what will be on display at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Saturday afternoon.
The Rabbitohs are a foundation club and have won the most premierships of any side, with 20 since the 1908 inception of the competition. The St George Dragons joined in 1921 and notched 15 titles before their 1999 merger with the Illawarra Steelers, adding another title in 2010.
Throw in the venue – the SCG has hosted the Dragons and Rabbitohs for a combined total of 678 games (St George/St George Illawarra 359, South Sydney 319). It hosted its first match (a Test between Australia and New Zealand) in 1911 and has since hosted around 1,100 first grade games and 70-odd Grand Finals.
This Saturday's match will be the first of what will now be an annual Heritage Round fixture between the two clubs and also marks the first formal gate-sharing arrangement between two clubs.
There's plenty to soak up: South Sydney skipper John Sutton will become the most-capped Rabbitoh of all time, surpassing club legend Bob McCarthy, whose mark of 211 games Sutton equalled last week. And for the Dragons, winger Brett Morris is currently level on tries scored with his father, club legend 'Slippery' Steve Morris, who crossed the stripe 102 times in the Red V.
Phew. If all that's not enough there is also the fact that this game contains huge significance for each side at this early stage of the season.
Dragons coach Steve Price was a hot early season favourite to be updating his resume sooner rather than later but his side has made a mockery of those predictions, racing to the top of the table after four rounds, although their winning streak was broken by the Broncos last week.
But with the entire competition breathing down their necks now would be an awful time to lose two in a row and slip back to the middle of the pack – mathematically they can finish Round 4 anywhere between first and seventh on the ladder so it's imperative they focus.
In their quest to do so they will be boosted by the return from injury of fullback Josh Dugan, who plays his first game of the year after injuring a knee in the Charity Shield against the Rabbitohs, displacing Adam Quinlan - who has made a surprise shift to halfback.
Dan Hunt also returns after being a late omission last week pushing Jack Stockwell to an extended bench that also features Bronson Harrison.
And if the Dragons will be desperate to return to the winners' circle this week the Bunnies will be doubly or even triply so. After briefly enjoying competition favouritism after their Round 1 triumph they've not only lost three on the bounce but alarmingly for coach Michael Maguire, appear to have gotten worse with each outing.
A scratchy loss to a gritty Manly in Round 2 was followed by a poor effort against an impressive Wests Tigers, then an avalanche of confusion and dropped ball against an improved Raiders outfit last week.
Maguire has responded with mass positional changes – the experiment of Sutton in the forward pack is over for now with the skipper returning to the five-eighth role for his record-breaking game, pushing Dylan Walker to the centres, Bryson Goodwin to the wing and Lote Tuqiri to NSW Cup. Dave Tyrrell goes from the bench to starting prop, pushing Sam Burgess to lock replacing Sutton. Luke Burgess is back on the bench after a week playing for North Sydney and Jason Clark, who played his first game back from an ankle injury last week in NSW Cup, has been promoted to first grade. Ben Te'o moves from the bench to the starting side while Ben Lowe is the other man dropped. NYC stars Alex Johnston (fullback) and Cameron McInnes (hooker) have been added to an extended bench.
The clubs have announced a special 'Generation Pack' ticket offer admitting one adult and one child starting from $25.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: The Rabbitohs were on the receiving end of a masterclass in fullback play last week courtesy of Anthony Milford and the returning Josh Dugan will be looking to repeat the dose here. Dugan was sensational in 10 games in the Red V last year, with six tries and 120 metres per game. How he combines with potential buy-of-the-season Gareth Widdop (six try assists in four games, equal most in NRL) will be fascinating and could spell a step up in the already-impressive attacking potency of the Dragons.
Watch Out Dragons: The Rabbitohs are too good a side not to come good and they now have the halves combination that was so impressive in their top-two finish last year. Sutton was also destructive at five-eighth in the Bunnies' Charity Shield win over this weekend's opponents a fortnight before the season proper. The pair combined for 36 try assists and 35 offloads last year and Sutton also managed to run around 100 metres per game. The shift also frees up Walker to focus purely on his dangerous running game. Will the reshuffle spark the Bunnies into life?
Plays To Watch: He scored his first try of the season last week in classic fashion so look for big George Burgess to wind up any time the Bunnies are close to the Dragons' line and look to smash his way over for another. For the Dragons, tackle-busting specialist Josh Dugan will no doubt break out his trademark jinking runs in his first game under the NRL's new speed-enhanced rules.
Where It Will Be Won: Kicking could be a key factor in this one. Widdop has been well and truly on target so far in 2014, setting up a number of tries from kicks (that stunning Brett Morris put-down against Cronulla being the highlight) and regularly helping pin opponents in their end with accurate long kicks. Some quick stats – opponents have spilled five bombs launched by the Dragons this year (only Wests Tigers with seven have inflicted more damage), while the Rabbitohs have forced just one spilt bomb. On the flipside the Dragons have dropped just one themselves while the Bunnies have dropped five. The Dragons have also launched the most general play kicks (91) while the Rabbitohs have put boot to ball fewer times than any other side (53), meaning it's no surprise the Dragons have earned the most kick metres (612 metres per game) and the Bunnies the least (404 metres).
What Are The Odds: Punters with Sportsbet.com.au think this is a toss-of-the-coin job with money split 50/50 for both sides. Despite this, the agency has Souths at $1.70, out from $1.57 and the Dragons $2.20, in from $2.30. The pattern continues across margin betting – Bunnies 1-12 ($3.10) and Dragons 1-12 ($3.40) – both attracting identical support.
The History: Played 21; Dragons 15, Rabbitohs 6. The Rabbitohs have struggled against the joint venture club since they returned to the NRL in 2002. But the last 10 meetings are split five apiece although the Bunnies have won three of the past four.
Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Alan Shortall; Touch Judges – Nick Beashel & Adam Reid; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Ben Galea.
Televised: Live - Foxsports, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: A tough one to call. Both sides are coming off upset losses at home, although if either side has more of a point to prove at this stage it's South Sydney. The Dragons have been in better form and are boosted by a couple of returning players but the Bunnies are surely due to find some form, especially with key players returning to their 2013 positions. It could come down to who wins a handful of key moments but we like the Red V in a tight one. Dragons by four points.
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