Rabbitohs v Bulldogs
Telstra Premiership Grand Final
Sunday, ANZ Stadium, 7.22pm
It was Mike and the Mechanics who belted out "All I Need Is A Miracle" back in the midst of the Bulldogs dynasty of the 1980s and in the early days of Grand Final Week it served as the soundtrack to the preparations for both Canterbury and South Sydney, the worthy combatants in the 2014 Telstra Premiership Grand Final.
With an injury cloud and a Grade 1 misdemeanour hanging over the heads of both club's hookers, teammates, coaching staff and fans sought divine intervention in order to have their key No.9s on the field at ANZ Stadium on Sunday night.
The prayers of the South Sydney faithful went unanswered at the judiciary on Tuesday night when Issac Luke's attempt to have a Grade 1 Dangerous Throw charge tossed away was unsuccessful and a possible one-match suspension quickly turned into two.
The miracle that Bulldogs captain Michael Ennis was seeking also failed to materialise with the departing veteran officially ruled out on Saturday with a broken foot suffered last week against the Panthers.
That the Bulldogs have even made it to the first weekend in October is something of a miracle in itself as they stumbled into the Finals Series in seventh place on the back of just two wins in their last two months of footy and reliant on victories by the Raiders and Panthers to qualify for the top eight at all.
But here they are, Dessie's men, ready to prove once and for all that it's not the size of the 'Dogs in the fight but the size of the fight in the 'Dogs that matters most at this time of year.
For South Sydney, their first grand final appearance in 43 years has gone a long way to erasing the memories of the past two campaigns that came up one week short of the decider and gives them a long-awaited opportunity to win their 21st premiership.
All season Sam Burgess has seemed intent on dragging his teammates towards the game's ultimate prize and Michael Maguire's men have developed a youthful exuberance with the emergence of Dylan Walker, Luke Keary, Kyle Turner and Alex Johnston.
Only Greg Inglis and Lote Tuqiri have Grand Final experience for the Rabbitohs while with Ennis included in the 19-man Bulldogs squad the underdogs boast 12 players who have been to the last dance throughout their careers, 10 of whom return from the Canterbury Grand Final team of 2012.
At the end of 80 minutes we'll know for certain whether the old adage that you have to lose a Grand Final before you can win one holds true or whether the 'Pride of the League' will once again reclaim their throne.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Earlier this year I wrote that Josh Jackson should have been an Origin selection in 2014 if Blues coach Laurie Daley wanted to build a team for the future; four months later and he's a massive chance to play for his country in the Four Nations. Renowned as a back-row workhorse in his first two seasons in the top grade, the Dubbo-born, Gulgong-raised 23-year-old has become a dangerous runner on the Bulldogs' right edge who breaks defences wide open with his outside-in lines. Considered fortunate by some to play in last week's Preliminary Final, the grinding nature of that game suited his style to perfection and he showed wonderful skill to drag in the Josh Reynolds pass for his first-half try that helped his side establish a 12-0 advantage after 29 minutes. The legendary Wally Lewis said this week that "he's got Origin written all over him" and there are few greater compliments than that in rugby league.
Watch Out Bulldogs: Last Friday night against the Roosters was the best Ben Te'o performance in a South Sydney jersey since he joined the club in 2013 and with a flight to Ireland booked to play rugby union for Leinster, expect a similar level of energy on Sunday. At his best there are few more damaging forward runners of the footy and he showed that against the normally resilient Roosters defence, breaking six tackles in just 12 hit-ups after four weeks sidelined with suspension. He made 24 crunching tackles, scored a crucial try in the early minutes of the second half and showed an aggressiveness that proved infectious to his teammates. His time in the NRL could very well have ended sitting in the naughty corner so expect Te'o to show his teammates the greatest of gratitude in the only way he knows how; pure power.
Plays to Watch: When the Rabbitohs made their surge against the Roosters last week – and where they rely on so heavily in most games – it was on the back of unstoppable momentum in the middle of the field. But rather than slicing straight through, what that does is get the opposition defence back-pedalling and gives playmakers such as Reynolds and Keary the time and space to attack the line. The Rabbitohs have some wonderful set plays up their sleeve – such as Ben Teo's try last week – but it is the football smarts on the edges that allows them to expose retreating defences. Where the Bulldogs look most dangerous is when they have James Graham at first receiver playing to space on the right. That allows Josh Reynolds to get on the outside of his man and either draw Josh Jackson under or put Tim Lafai into a hole on the outside. With Hodkinson seemingly hampered by a knee complaint, expect the Dogs to focus much of their attacking energy at South Sydney's left edge defence of Keary, Auva'a and Johnston.
Key Match-Up: Adam Reynolds v Trent Hodkinson
A Telstra Premiership Grand Final is similar to a Melbourne Cup in that once the initial energy goes out of the contest, the team that often prevails is the one that can most quickly settle into their rhythm. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of the two halfbacks with Hodkinson riding the wave of confidence that comes from steering a team to an Origin Series win. Reynolds' breakout season in 2012 ended in the cruellest of fashion when he tore his hamstring against the Bulldogs in the Preliminary Final but over the past month has taken ownership of the team in combination with Luke Keary. His cool-headedness and pin-point kicking have been critical in the Rabbitohs' finals wins over Manly and the Roosters but his rugby league education reaches new heights on Sunday. There are stats that show Reynolds has more try assists, tackle breaks and kicks while Hodkinson edges him in line-break assists but there will be one moment in the Grand Final for which either player will be remembered forever.
Where It Will Be Won: The Bulldogs showed last week against Penrith that you don't have to score too many second-half points if you prevent the opposition from scoring more than you but statistics show they will need a big half-time buffer to hold out South Sydney. In the 26 matches they have played this season South Sydney have only lost the last 20 minutes on six occasions and are similarly effective in the 20 minutes after half-time. Over the course of the season the Rabbitohs are 188 points to the better against their opponents in the second half compared to the Bulldogs' -46 and in the final 10 minutes the Bulldogs are on the wrong side of the ledger to the tune of 60 points. The Bulldogs will undoubtedly try to sprint out of the blocks again and then hope sheer guts and determination can bring them home.
History: Played 149; Rabbitohs 67; Bulldogs 78; Drawn 4. By the time Canterbury entered the competition in 1935 the Rabbitohs already boasted 11 premierships but for the past 80 seasons it has been neck and neck with the Berries/Bulldogs winning eight titles to the Bunnies' nine. Their lone Grand Final meeting came in 1967 where Bob McCarthy's famous intercept try propelled Souths to a 12-10 win in which all of Canterbury's points came from the boots of George Taylforth and Ron Raper. Good Friday clashes between these two clubs have become a feature on the NRL calendar in recent seasons and when they met in the 2012 Preliminary Final more than 70,000 fans packed into ANZ Stadium to see the Dogs triumph 32-8 after Souths led 8-0. And if you fancy something unusual in your match-day betting, a field goal has been kicked in four of the past six matches between these two clubs.
What Are The Odds: Rabbitohs ($1.38) v Bulldogs ($3.15)
Sportsbet have received 50 per cent more money on the Rabbitohs compared to the Bulldogs in head to head betting. In line betting, money is running 5-to-1 in favour of the Bunnies (-8.5) who punters clearly believe are set to take out the premiership. Greg Inglis is the overwhelmingly popular pick to win the Clive Churchill Medal. Inglis has attracted four times the money of equal $4 favourite Sam Burgess. Alex Johnston and Dylan Walker have been best backed in the first try-scorer market.
Match Officials: Referees: Shayne Hayne and Gerard Sutton; Touch Judges: Steve Carrall and Jason Walsh; Video Referees: Bernard Sutton and Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 6.30pm
How We See It: The loss of Luke is a massive blow to the Rabbitohs and we will now wait to see how Michael Maguire juggles his interchange and whether Apisai Koroisau will get a Grand Final call-up. The Dogs have been listed as $3.15 outsiders with Sportsbet but any team that enters a Grand Final with Des Hasler as their coach and with recent experience on the game's biggest stage should be an even-money bet at worst. Grand finals are not won with expansive set plays or carefully constructed sets of six; they are decided by the small moments that grow in legend upon reflection. It is those moments that will decide our champions for 2014 and it looks as though the time has finally come for South Sydney to add further glory to their storied history. Rabbitohs by 12.