Sea Eagles v Rabbitohs preview

Qualifying Final 2
Sea Eagles v Rabbitohs
Allianz Stadium
Friday, 7.55 pm

John Paul Young can hit the bricks. We couldn't give a flying 4-iron if love really is in the air. It's officially September, which means there's one thing and one thing only worth sniffing the breeze for: finals football.

And haven't the rugby league gods smiled upon the humble huddled masses, delivering an intriguing battle between two outfits that in our best hopped-up WWE announcer: 'just plain don't like each other'.

The storied 60-odd-year rivalry covers off on everything from John Sattler's busted jaw to the luring of names like O'Neill, Branighan, Carroll and Roberts out of The Burrow and across to the Peninsular; and is made juicer than mother's Sunday roast by their last semi-final clash 11 months prior.

Oh ho yes, don't think for a second either side will have forgotten the Rabbitohs being over-run from 14-0 up after half an hour in last year's grand final qualifier, and eventually lapped 30-20 by a Sea Eagles unit trained in the ruthless art of big-game football. And you can bet your grandmother's last dollar there will be a not-so-subtle reminder from the Manly boys when the first scrum packs down come Friday night.

What makes this one all the more tasty for connoisseurs of rugby league fare is these two superpowers are colliding at least a smidge short of the height of their powers. Six weeks ago when they did the dance at the SCG, when Souths knocked Manly off to pinch their premiership favouritism, it was a different story.
 
But since then the Sea Eagles have somewhat limped into the semis with a 2-2 record, the glare from that magnifying glass on the club's contract dramas intensified, and a forward pack that looks like it has been hit by a bus. 

Down their two most underrated cogs in Jamie Buhrer and Matt Ballin, while a third – Brenton Lawrence – is struggling with a knee injury and a fourth – Anthony Watmough – has been the subject of intense media speculation over his future, the Manly engine room is quite simply under the pump. 

This is of course the cue for the Bunnies' big men, collectively some of the biggest we've seen on Dally Messenger's green earth, to pile right on in, and potentially right over the top of their foes from the Northern Beaches.

Not that it's been a day on the lake for Souths since that Round 22 showdown. The usual questions are coming thick and fast down Redfern way after a scrappy seven-point win over Canterbury was sandwiched between two losses to the Cowboys and the Roosters.

Do the Rabbitohs, and Adam Reynolds in particular, possess the cojones to land a killer blow when it counts? What in the name of Mario Fenech do you do with messrs Sutton, Reynolds and Keary and that tricky scrum base pairing? And is employing a bloke with a black belt in Jiu jitsu really necessary?

Reynolds is back in the No. 7 jumper, pushing big John Sutton in amongst the piggies and answering the second of those queries for the moment, while Manly have also named Lawrence and key man Brett Stewart despite both being under injury clouds.

Manly are running free buses from the Beaches prior to the game to recreate their 'Brookvale fortress' right in the heart of Bunnies territory; the winner will find themselves just 80 minutes away from the NRL's big ball on the first weekend of October and there's more individual match-ups across the park than you can poke a thousand burnt sticks at; all of which adds up to one hell of an opening to the 2014 finals series. In the words of the great Dazza Eastlake: It's gonna be huge!

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Jorge Taufua came in for some special attention from the boot of Robert Lui last weekend and no doubt Reynolds, he of the ability to hoof the Steeden onto a pin, will have taken note. Opposite number Lote Tuqiri stands a full seven centimetres taller than Manly's nuggety flankman, and given the way Kyle Feldt flew over the top of Taufua in Townsville, Reynolds will have the bombs raining down and the air raid siren sounding all night. Inside man Steve Matai will also have his status as one of the game's best defensive centres thoroughly tested by Dylan Walker and that serious set of wheels he gets around on, meaning Taufua should also have a few of those split-second, clutch defensive decisions to make as well.
   
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Manly are in that familiar position they've handled better than any team in the modern era; backed into a corner surrounded by ninjas wielding throwing stars, nun chucks and a bazooka or two. At least that's what we imagine it feels like up Narrabeen way, and the spotlight that's been trained on Manly for the past few months should have the Bunnies' ears well and truly pricked. Back in Round 2, with a tonne of front-row experience having walked out the door, Manly fronted up to the star-studded Rabbitohs pack told they had a popsicle's chance in hell of shifting the brothers Burgess and their muscle-bound mates.
Veteran prop Jason King busts out the fire, then some brimstone, sticks it right to the Souths big men and finds himself right up under their skin to pilot the Sea Eagles to a famed 14-12 win for the maroon and whites. Given the circumstances the Manly pack finds itself in at present, King and trusty offsiders Lawrence and Josh Starling – both gifted with more than the average share of bottle – will be all too happy to oblige with an encore performance on the finals stage.

Plays To Watch: Rabbits winger Alex Johnston to come foraging around the middle a la his 70th-minute try against the Chooks should opportunities dry up out wide; Manly duo Stewart and Kieran Foran to dig deep into their bag of tricks with those rapid-fire inside-outside plays close to the Rabbitohs' line; Sam Burgess to stick to Keary's right shoulder like glue and hit the line hard off a short ball at the other end of the pitch; and Sea Eagles skipper Jamie Lyon to fancy his chances one on one with Souths youngster Kirisome Auva'a in the biggest game of the 22-year-old's 18-game career.

Where It Will Be Won: As boring as it sounds in a game featuring names like Inglis, Cherry-Evans, Stewart, the Burgi and a veritable host of match winners, holding onto that oval shaped rubber thingy wins football games. Doubly so when it comes to football games played during finals. And it's here where Manly have to come to the table. Over the course of scrappy wins over the Panthers and Titans, and those losses to North Queensland and Parramatta, the Sea Eagles have turned in at least one half of football where they completed their sets at less than 70 per cent, with those second-half efforts against the Eels and Titans clocking in at 61 and 59 respectively. Give away that much ball to this South Sydney side, and you're in for a long night compadres.

The History: Played 133; Sea Eagles 73; Rabbitohs 60. Manly hold the upper hand in recent times, a 6-4 advantages from their past 10 meetings with the cardinal and myrtle. Both possess handy records on the Allianz turf, the Bunnies are four from their past five while the Sea Eagles have travelled back over the Spit bridge victorious seven times in their last nine visits to the joint.

What Are The Odds: Sportsbet punters are wagering 50 per cent more money on the Rabbitohs head to head but it’s margin betting where things get really interesting. There is almost four times the money on South Sydney, giving away 6.5 points start. Despite that, 1-12 to the Bunnies is the most popular margin. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gavin Badger; Touch Judges – Russell Turner, Dave Munro & Grant Atkins; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Luke Patten.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.
 
How We See It: Given Manly's love of a scrap and the doubts still surrounding the Rabbitohs when the NRL kitchen starts heating up, this could go either way. Souths hold the advantage up front while the maroon and whites shade them in the halves and out the back, but this one will probably come down to whichever star shines brightest on the night. Here's looking at you GI. Rabbitohs by four points.