South Sydney Rabbitohs v Canterbury Bulldogs
It's very much the business end of the year and a must-win clash for both of these title contenders as South Sydney look to shore up a likely top-four finish and Canterbury try to eke out enough wins to guarantee a finals berth.
Crucially, both sides have lost their No.9s for this one with Michael Lichaa suffering a season-ending ankle fracture and Issac Luke taking the early plea to a dangerous throw charge that will see him miss this one regardless of the outcome of his challenge to a shoulder tackle charge at the judiciary.
Souths are also without five-eighth Luke Keary, who has taken the early plea to a grade one shoulder charge, putting him out for one game. With occasional five-eighth John Sutton battling a glute issue and reserve hooker Cam McInnes still on the injured list the Bunnies playmaking stocks are suddenly looking a little skinny.
They have named Sutton at five-eighth, with Jason Clark moving to start in the second row, and ex-Titan Paul Carter to start at hooker in his second game in the cardinal and myrtle. There are a host of new faces on the bench from last week with Glenn Stewart returning from a one-game suspension, Chris Grevsmuhl earning a recall, with Nathan Brown, Joel Reddy and reserve playmaker Cody Walker rounding out a 20-man squad.
The Bulldogs have turned to NSW Cup hooker Damian Cook – who has trained alongside Lichaa in the position all year – to start in the No.9 jersey, in what is coach Des Hasler's only change from the side that downed the Titans last week.
Watch out Rabbitohs: The Bunnies will back themselves to match the Dogs in the forwards, but you can bet they'll need to. As always with Canterbury their monster pack will be a focus – they lead the competition for hit-up runs and metres and while the likes of busy backs Sam Perrett and Brett Morris contribute to that it does highlight the power game Canterbury like to play through the middle. They currently average 87 hit-ups per game and 792 hit-up run metres per game, both NRL highs. When you factor in the finesse of props Sam Kasiano and James Graham (watch the highlights of Kasiao's inside ball for Brett Morris's try last week and you'll see what we mean) they make for an imposing challenge in the middle.
Watch out Bulldogs: Dogs fans will be hoping the Canterbury backs have been brushing up on their work under the high ball because the Belmore boys are lagging behind every side in the league when it comes to negotiating kicks. Their 59 errors defending kicks is the most of any side this year and even with Luke Keary out and John Sutton in doubt, Adam Reynolds has one of the most accurate boots in the NRL and will be looking to give the Dogs back five a working over every chance he gets.
Key Match-Up: Greg Inglis v Brett Morris. Two contrasting fullbacks here, although both arrived at the position after establishing themselves as rep stars in the three-quarter line. Inglis has been at the back longer than Morris but the latter has made an excellent fist of his shift to the back play this year, despite a six-week interruption for a hamstring strain suffered against the Rabbitohs earlier in the year.
Their stats are pretty similar – Inglis has scored eight tries to Morris's seven (but has played six more games) with a 12-11 advantage in line breaks and a razor-thin 146m-145m advantage in yardage per game. Each chalks up 12 support runs per game too, while 'GI' has a few extra errors in him with 14 this year against Morris's seven.
The History: Played 151; Rabbitohs 69, Bulldogs 78, Drawn 4. Despite a historical advantage to the blue and whites, the Bunnies have won the past three on the bounce and three of the past five, including the spiteful Good Friday clash earlier this year.
What Are The Odds: There has been three times the investment on the Rabbitohs in comparison with the Bulldogs in the head-to-head market. Sportsbet also reports six times the individual number of bets on the Bunnies. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Jared Maxwell & Gavin Morris; touch judges: Brett Suttor & Jeff Younis; Video Referees: Bernard Sutton & Ben Galea.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: The losses of Luke and Keary are huge, especially with Sutton still under an injury cloud, and while Lichaa is also a massive out the Bunnies look the worse hit side roster-wise since last week. While they were powerful against the Cowboys and the Dogs took their time in putting away the far lower-ranked Titans last week they'll certainly be up for this one. Dogs by four in a low-scoring arm wrestle.