Roosters v Rabbitohs
Here we are, the final round of the regular season, and as plenty of people tipped at the start of the year – the two sides that kicked the season off on Thursday, March 6 are potentially facing off for a minor premiership.
Of course, Manly just need to beat the Cowboys on Saturday to guarantee themselves the minor premiership – and if that happens, these two sides will get to play a rematch in week one of the finals. And wouldn't that be something?
There are plenty of other sub-plots at play here – the old, old rivalry between these two neighbouring foundation clubs; one of the last clashes (or potentially THE last clash) between fiery forwards Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams before each departs to the 15-man code; South Sydney needing to prove to themselves they can win the big games at the back end of the year; and of course a couple of reshuffled teams with some key players missing.
The Roosters were hugely impressive in keeping out a determined Storm outfit in the face of a mountain of pressure last week, in the type of performance that has plenty of pundits tipping them to go back-to-back. That was their fifth straight win since a surprise loss to the Knights back in Round 21.
The Rabbitohs also bounced back after being beaten by a polished Cowboys outfit a fortnight ago with a somewhat scrappy but important win over the Bulldogs. They had won five straight before that, meaning each side has won six of their past seven.
The big loss for the Rabbitohs is halfback Adam Reynolds, who has taken the early plea for a dangerous throw on Moses Mbye and will miss a week. Issac Luke is free to play though after being found not guilty for a dangerous contact charge at the judiciary on Tuesday night.
The loss of Reynolds is offset somewhat by the return of skipper John Sutton from a knee injury at five-eighth, pushing Luke Keary to halfback. Bryson Goodwin and Joe Picker have been added to an extended bench.
The huge loss for the Roosters is hooker Jake Friend, only recently back from a hamstring strain, with a chest injury identified as a haemothorax. Mitch Aubusson has been named to start but reserve hooker Heath L'Estrange has been named to return from a knee injury on the bench.
Frank-Paul Nuuausala has also been ruled out with a mid-foot sprain, replaced on the bench by Rémi Casty.
Luke Burgess, the eldest of the four Burgess brothers running out on Thursday, will play his 50th NRL game.
Watch Out Roosters: The Tricolours can expect an all-out Burgess assault come Thursday night. The bulky quartet made 558 combined metres against the Bulldogs last week, equating to almost 140 metres per Burgess. Over the previous fortnight during George's suspension, his twin Tom stepped into his more established brother's shoes admirably with 200-metre and 168-metre efforts, while their elder brother Sam has somehow managed to go up a gear from his phenomenal 2013 efforts and is in Dally M reckoning. His 194-metre, two-try effort against the Bulldogs last week was arguably the difference between his team winning and losing.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: As befits a genuine premiership contender, the Roosters have threats all over the park, but as much as halfback Mitch Pearce had the ball on a string it was their defence which most impressed last week.
The Roosters were the epitome of miserly in 2013, conceding just 13.2 points per game and collecting an amazing six 80-minute shutouts. It's an area they've slipped off the pace in 2014, conceding almost 16 points per game and slipping back to second-best behind this week's opponents South Sydney.
But that Bondi wall looks to have reformed, conceding just 13.7 points per game from Round 19 onwards. The Roosters had to repel a huge amount of attack from Melbourne last week and it seemed like they were defending their own line for a solid half hour at one stage. It's that defence that wins games and premierships and when you consider they've scored just over 31 points per game in that period they're proving very hard to stop.
Plays To Watch: We may be in the last round of the regular season but the Bunnies will be trialling a brand new halves combination. The absence of Reynolds – not necessarily such a bad thing for the club given the way he was clutching his hamstring a fortnight ago – and return of Sutton means Keary starts at halfback for the first time this year. Given both players are more accustomed to being the five-eighth alongside Reynolds it will be interesting who does most of the controlling and organising, given both are more renowned for their kicking and running games.
The Roosters will also need to juggle their hooking rotation as they manage L'Estrange back from injury without wanting utility Mitch Aubusson to have to spend too much time at dummy half. There are plenty of times this year sides have tried to manage with utility dummy-halves and it's rarely been pretty – just think of the pain the Roosters inflicted on the Eels back in Round 2 in the absence of Nathan Peats and a crew of back-rowers trying to fill in.
Where It Will Be Won: If it's the Roosters, we're thinking the first half, and if it's the Rabbitohs, probably the second. The Tricolours have been far better at getting away to early leads and holding opponents out, while the Rabbitohs tend to stay in the contest then come home with a wet sail.
So far this year, the Roosters have outscored their opponents by 152 points in the opening 50 minutes of games, and by just 72 across the final half hour. Their opening 20 minutes – outscoring opposition by 74 – is second-best of all sides other than the Warriros.
The Rabbitohs, on average, are slightly behind after 20 minutes, have outscored their opponents by 96 points over the next 40 minutes then charged home to outscore opposition by 123 points in the final 20 minutes of games alone.
In fact South Sydney's +76 differential in the final 10 minutes of games is the most lethal 10-minute scoring block of any side in 2014, showing they are well and truly the kings of the fast finish.
History: Played 208; Rabbitohs 109, Roosters 94, drawn 5. This is a history that goes back over a century, and while the Bunnies were out to a long lead the Chooks pegged that back plenty during the late '80s and early '90s. In recent form they are five apiece from the past 10, although the cardinal and myrtle have won three of the past four – including the most recent meeting, a dominant 28-8 win in Round 1 this year.
What Are The Odds: There’s been 50 per cent more money on the Roosters ($1.55) with Sportsbet than on the Rabbitohs ($2.50). The Tricolours opened up as $2.10 outsiders, but have rocketed into favouritism since. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Morris; Touch Judges – Russell Turner & Dave Munro; Video Referees – Ashley Klein & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: This is a tantalising prospect that should tell us a fair bit about each side's premiership credentials. Friend and Reynolds are big outs but there is still plenty of quality about each side, with stacks of firepower in the forwards and some fast and talented young backs on show. Harking back to last week's impressive effort against Melbourne, we'll lean towards the defending premiers to avenge their Round 1 loss in a close battle – Roosters by four.