South Sydney Rabbitohs v Brisbane Broncos
So much has changed, yet it seems like only yesterday.
On the back of their drought-breaking premiership the Rabbitohs had scooped the Auckland Nines and then gone overseas to beat the best England has to offer.
Then, when Wayne Bennett sent out a Broncos team for the first time in seven seasons more than 36,000 fans turned out at Suncorp Stadium and more than a million tuned in at home to witness a 36-6 thumping by the defending champs.
Bookmakers quickly moved to shorten their odds of going back-to-back and an excitable Brisbane supporter base were forced to face the possibility that the Bennett blueprint was more a slow build rather than a quick fix.
But 24 weeks later and the Broncos have won 16 games compared to the Rabbitohs' 12 and are $4.75 with bookmakers to go all the way while the odds of South Sydney's title defence have drifted to $9.
Which brings us to Round 25 and a match that can see South Sydney secure a critical top four finish with a win or the Broncos secure home ground advantage in Week One of the finals should they defeat the Rabbitohs in Sydney for the first time in more than a decade.
Both teams are coming off losses to top opposition last week with the major casualty a knee injury to Rabbitohs fullback Greg Inglis that has required surgery this week.
Alex Johnston will assume the custodian role for the fifth time this year but a win-loss ratio of 1-3 when he has deputised in Inglis's absence will come as cold comfort to the Rabbitohs' faithful.
Off-setting the loss of Inglis are the returns of both Issac Luke and Luke Keary from suspension with Joel Reddy coming onto the wing to assume the position vacated by Johnston.
Having spent the week in Sydney following their 12-10 loss to the Roosters last Saturday night, Bennett has named the same 17 to take on South Sydney as they look to avoid a fourth loss in the space of five weeks.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: They won't shy away from the need to win the middle of the field but having shown a propensity to shift the ball amongst the forwards, the Rabbitohs will need to be aware of a Broncos team willing to try their luck on the edges. Blair, Parker, Thaiday and Wallace all have an ability to tip-on to runners on their outside so the big Bunnies bodies of the Burgess twins and Tim Grant will need to be conscious of their lateral movement in and around the ruck. The likes of Anthony Milford and Ben Hunt will punish a defensive line that offers up any type of gap on the edges.
Watch Out Broncos: The return of Issac Luke from a week's suspension will allow the Rabbitohs to revert to the game-plan that has served them so well in recent seasons. Just under 89 per cent of the Rabbitohs' hit-ups are taken through the middle third of the field, a retreating defensive line opening up space for Luke to generate even further momentum. Prior to Round 23 Luke had more than 50 extra dummy-half runs than the next No.9 in the competition and runs more than twice as often as his opposite on Thursday night, Andrew McCullough. Luke is the fulcrum from which all South Sydney's attack revolves around and with Inglis out of the picture, the Kiwi international's influence will need to be greater than ever.
Key Match-up: Luke Keary v Anthony Milford. Issac isn't the only Luke being welcomed back into the South Sydney fold this week with Luke Keary also a fresh inclusion following a week's suspension. It was the first game the 23-year-old had missed all season and the Rabbitohs' attack stuttered without his presence at five-eighth that has yielded nine try assists and 11 line-break assists. Although Keary and Milford won't directly face off against each other as both position themselves on the left side of their team's attack, their energy and ball-playing at the line will be key attacking weapons. In his first year at the club Milford leads the Broncos with 14 try assists and his combinations with Darius Boyd and Jack Reed have developed beautifully over the course of the season.
History: Played 31; Rabbitohs 9, Broncos 21, Drawn 1. South Sydney's Round 1 demolition of the Broncos was their second-biggest win over the boys from Brisbane and a fourth win on the trot against a team who won 16 of the first 21 meetings dating back to Round 14, 1988. The last time the Broncos defeated the Rabbitohs in Sydney was way back in Round 2, 2003 where the visitors scored five tries to three to win 22-20 at the Sydney Football Stadium.
Did You Know: Only three players remain from the two teams that fought out a 34-all draw in Round 25, 2004. John Sutton, Corey Parker and Sam Thaiday all took part that night with Parker converting a Neville Costigan try from the sideline in the dying stages to send the game into golden-point extra time. Seeking their first win over the Broncos in 15 years, Rabbitohs hearts sank when a field goal attempt from Joe Williams hit the post but neither side could find the match-winner in the 10 additional minutes. Sutton had made his NRL debut two months earlier against the Broncos, lining up in the centres and scoring a try in his team's 48-28 defeat.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet customers have wagered 50 per cent more money on the Broncos in head-to-head betting, but Brisbane 1-12 is the most favoured winning margin. Jordan Kahu has been the best-backed player to score the opening try. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin; Assistant Referee: Gavin Morris; Touch Judges: Russell Turner and Chris Sutton; Video Referees: Bernard Sutton and Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.
How We See It: Two teams that had their colours lowered last weekend will be desperate to prove it was a bump in the road and not an ill-timed slump. The Rabbitohs were comprehensively outplayed while the Broncos went down to a brave Roosters team in a tight and gripping contest. A short turnaround doesn't help Brisbane's chances but the loss of Inglis is an even greater blow to the Bunnies. Broncos by four points.