Crocker: 'Manly toughest of all time'
Former Rabbitohs hard-man Michael Crocker has urged the current batch of young Bunnies to embrace the magnitude of Friday night's assignment against ladder leaders Manly, labelling the Sea Eagles the mentally toughest team of all time.
The clash of 1 v 2 at the famed Sydney Cricket Ground will evoke memories of the brutal 1970 Grand Final between these two teams that is best remembered for South Sydney skipper John Sattler playing on with a broken jaw and will give the 2014 Rabbitohs a chance to rubber-stamp their premiership credentials.
Renowned as a fierce competitor whether turning out for the Roosters, Storm, Rabbitohs, Queensland or Australia, Crocker was credited for changing the momentum of the 2007 Grand Final with a crunching hit on Sea Eagles fullback Brett Stewart that forced the Manly No.1 from the field but insists no other teams in the modern era come close to Manly's mental toughness.
Master coach Wayne Bennett said in the wake of Newcastle's 50-10 loss last Sunday that the Rabbitohs were a predictable football team but Crocker says that the greatest test against Manly comes between the ears.
"They're a proper football team and every one of their players has got a really good football brain. They're the most mentally resilient and mentally tough team in the comp I think, probably of all time," Crocker told NRL.com.
"They've played with each other for a long time, they play for each other and I think that's shown with all the dramas off-field that they still come out and play good football.
"A lot of their group, they want to stay together forever and that just shows how tight they are and that tightness helps them to win footy games.
"Manly are the type of team that can win a game in the first 15 minutes if they're red hot and they can win it in the 80th minute if they need to. They just know how to win and win big games.
"That's something that this [Rabbitohs] team has been learning a lot over the last couple of years especially and it's definitely going to be a good test for them on Friday night."
The Sea Eagles broke the hearts of South Sydney fans chasing an elusive 42-year premiership dream in last year's Preliminary Final when they came from 14-0 down to win 30-20 and are similarly well-placed to stand in their way this year.
In addition to Friday night's blockbuster, South Sydney's run to the finals consists of games against Brisbane, North Queensland, Canterbury and the Roosters but rather than being intimidated by a tough run in, Crocker says they should embrace the opportunity to assert themselves against fellow premiership aspirants.
And with just seven wins from their past 20 encounters against Manly and having exited the finals at the hands of the Sea Eagles twice in the three occasions they have qualified since 1989, it's a mental battle the Rabbitohs would be well served to win.
"I think they've got a really good run in with games against some teams that are in really good form," said Crocker, who played 68 games for Souths in his 204-game career. "I know people might say that it's a tough run in but I think you're better off to have these games because you know when you come into the finals you're also a chance of playing them again.
"If you've already got a victory then that's in the back of your mind when you run into them again come finals time."
Having missed last Sunday's win with a shoulder injury, inspirational forward Sam Burgess is expected to renew hostilities with the Manly forward pack on Friday and his former teammate has noticed a burning desire to go out with a bang.
"He's really focused on making sure he goes out with hopefully a premiership," Crocker said, with Burgess to return to England to play rugby union at the end of the season.
"He's trying to do everything he can in terms of his preparation and his leadership so that he can inspire the boys and going out and playing the best football he can and I'm sure he'd want that to end with a premiership.
"In football groups, you know, especially leading into the semi-finals at the back-end of the season that it's probably the last opportunity you're going to have to play with that whole group. That's just the way it is in the NRL and I think everyone understands that.
"Obviously [losing Sam] is a big loss for us but there are always people coming in to take their spots and we're lucky that we've got a heap of good, young kids and guys that are going to be around next year."