Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles
Sydney Cricket Ground
As we hit the home stretch it looks like the cream is rising to the top. Manly (four-straight wins), South Sydney and Melbourne (each three-straight wins) are all stamping their authority at the business end of proceedings, while the Cowboys (also three wins, including two away) are making their obligatory late run.
But Friday's combatants – the Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles – are arguably the teams to beat at this stage. They sit one and two on the ladder and have been irresistible of late, leading many to predict this SCG classic could be the 2014 Grand Final preview. There is plenty of footy to be played between now and the first Sunday in October but you'd have to be a brave or foolish pundit to discount the chances of either of these two sides being there for the big one.
Manly were probably below their best against the Broncos last week, failing to capitalise on several chances – including twice losing the ball in Brisbane's in-goal to bomb a pair of certain tries – but rarely looked like they wouldn't find a way to get the job done. It's an impressive feat coming off a short turnaround, after travelling to New Zealand, plus coming off such a highly physical win that week in Auckland, and with several players battling flu.
It was a very different story for the Rabbitohs; failing to capitalise on their chances was certainly not a problem for them as they racked up a half century against the Knights in Cairns. That effort included one of the most remarkable tries of the season, scored by young centre Dylan Walker, and a 16-minute hat-trick from sensational young winger Alex Johnston.
After the match Knights coach Wayne Bennett hinted the Rabbitohs' predictability could be their undoing come finals time. With a new halves pairing and some very young and exciting outside backs we'd suggest that while Souths' overall approach is predictable they certainly have a flair for the unexpected when it comes to scoring tries. And besides – as they showed last week – knowing something is coming is one thing. Stopping it is quite another.
The Rabbitohs will be boosted by the return of Queensland back rower Ben Te'o from suspension and have named Sam Burgess at lock after he was a late withdrawal last week with a shoulder injury. Ben Lowe drops back to the bench, and Joe Picker and Luke Burgess to an extended bench that also featured Bryson Goodwin.
Manly have two listed changes, with winger Jorge Taufua named to return from an ankle injury in place of Cheyse Blair, while Justin Horo is back from a three-week suspension on the bench in place of Tyson Andrews.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: There's a reason winger Peta Hiku is just one try behind competition leader Semi Radradra on the season try-scoring tally. Over the past fortnight the 21-year-old Kiwi Test fullback had glided over for his 13th, 14th and 15th tries of the season, and in the process has made the very difficult look frighteningly easy. He produced a pair of remarkably athletic groundings against his former club in Round 20 and had plenty to do last week in finishing off one of the team tries of the year. In this sort of form Hiku just needs a sniff of the line and is all but guaranteed to find his way across. A remarkable try-saving effort on Broncos fullback Josh Hoffman last week, in which he not only saved a certain try but stripped the ball to get possession back for his team, showed Hiku is anything but a one trick pony.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Sticking with the outside backs theme, and a couple of young Bunnies absolutely ran riot last week. As mentioned above, teen sensation Johnston earned a triple in quick time, Kirisome Auva'a had the best game of his young career and earned a double, Walker was again outstanding – as he has been all season – and also got himself on the try scorers' list. The fact that all the talk has been about the outstanding youngsters, rather than one of the best players in the game who happened to be making his NRL captaincy debut in Greg Inglis, itself speaks volumes about what they're bringing to the table. With so much speed, skill and ability in the backs at the moment, the Rabbitohs are able to fully capitalise on the quality field position their vaunted pack is earning them at the moment.
Plays To Watch: Despite all the talk about Souths being predictable, really, aren't Manly the most predictable team in the competition? That left side shift, that starts with Foran, sweeps around with Brett Stewart before going on to Matai and, if needed, Jorge Taufau (or Cheyse Blair) is arguably the most predictable play in the NRL. But just because every team knows it's coming, it hasn't stopped Matai and Taufua crossing for 21 tries in 29 combined games this year. Part of what makes it so effective: Foran is an absolute master at spotting when teams are setting up for that play, which is when he hits a charging Justin Horo or Anthony Watmough on the chest with a short ball at the line.
For Souths, Chris McQueen was back with a bang last week and didn't he make his presence felt? His toed half-volley cross on to Walker's chest for a spectacular try drew plenty of suggestions his skills wouldn't have looked out of place at the recent Soccer (or Football, if you're so inclined) World Cup. We're not tipping you'll see a repeat of that instinctive piece of play but the try he scored himself was a more structured play, not dissimilar to the one outlined above – a hard-running back rower charging onto a flat ball close to the line in a rehearsed sweeping left-side play. Manly's right-edge defence will be waiting for a repeat effort this week.
Where It Will Be Won: As well as the aforementioned wingers and centres are all playing, this one will definitely be won in the forwards, a battle that will be even more crucial here than in your run-of-the-mill rugby league match. It's where Souths were viewed to have a significant advantage heading into the Round 2 clash between these sides, having just trounced the defending premiers in the season opener a week before on the back of forward dominance. Manly had just lost about 900 games worth of first grade experience in the five props who had departed the club after the 2013 Grand Final and were expected to fold under South Sydney’s mountainous pack. But battered veteran Jason King, in his first game for almost a year, rallied his young troops and along with the seasoned Brenton Lawrence and former Rabbitoh Josh Starling, stood up to the battery of Burgesses, repelled them, and dragged Manly over the line. They'll need to roll their sleeves up and get the job done again in the same fashion here to stop the Souths juggernaut.
History: Played 132; Rabbitohs 59; Sea Eagles 73. These two sides haven't met at the famed Sydney Cricket Ground since 1985, with Souths triumphing on that occasion. This venue was also host to the Rabbitohs' 1970 Grand Final triumph over the Sea Eagles. The last 10 meetings here between the two clubs are split five apiece – although that stat stretches back more than four decades and is of debatable relevance in this instance. Perhaps of more current interest is the fact Souths have beaten Manly in just three of the previous 11 meetings between the two clubs.
What Are The Odds: It’s a 50-50 split between the Rabbitohs ($2.20) and Sea Eagles ($1.65), but punters believe this will be a high-scoring affair, with over 80 per cent of the money on more than 36.5 points being scored. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Chris James; Touch Judges – Steve Carrall & Brett Suttor; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Henry Perenara.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm (NSW), Delayed, 9.30pm (Qld).
The Way We See It: What a tough one to pick, but what a tantalising prospect of a game. Both teams have come a long way since Manly's 16-14 triumph at Gosford back in Round 2. Can Manly outmuscle Souths in the middle again? Can the Rabbitohs’ new-look outside backs out-dazzle the Sea Eagles’ hugely experienced centre and fullback combination? We'd almost prefer not to have to take a stab at this, but since we do – noting that tipping against Manly tends to leave us with egg on our faces – we'll tip the ladder leaders to continue their winning ways in a very tight tussle. Manly by two points.