Sydney Roosters v South Sydney Rabbitohs
How the tides have turned. When these two teams met in Round 2, the red-hot premiers aced the Tricolours 34-26. That was off the back of blitzing the Broncos in Round 1 and surging through the pre-season undefeated, including World Cup Challenge and Auckland Nines trophies on the back of their amazing 2014 Grand Final win.
Fast forward 24 weeks – six months, give or take, and another 22 NRL matches apiece – and the Roosters are vying for a 12th straight win and the minor premiership while the injury-hit Rabbitohs are clinging to seventh spot on the ladder after four straight losses.
It's not all doom and gloom for the Bunnies – a win here could potentially lift them as high as fourth if the Warriors somehow down the Bulldogs – but those four losses (especially last week's 47-12 defeat against the Broncos) coupled with injuries and suspensions to crucial players has them reeling.
Hooker Issac Luke has potentially played his last game for the club (unless they're alive come week two of the finals) after taking the early plea and two-game ban for a shoulder charge. John Sutton has a broken leg and fullback Greg Inglis still isn't back from minor knee surgery.
Cameron McInnes returns at hooker and Chris McQueen is in the back row as straight swaps for Luke and Sutton, while a backline reshuffle sees Dylan Walker return to his preferred centre role, Alex Johnston move to fullback and Bryson Goodwin shift out to the wing.
The home side aren't without their own injury concerns but they have no fresh ones to add to the losses of Mitch Pearce and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, and are actually strengthened from the side that towelled up Manly at Brookvale last week with Michael Jennings returning from a one-game suspension at centre, pushing Mitch Aubusson to the bench and Matt McIlwrick to 18th man.
Watch out Roosters: Alex Johnston is now the third top try scorer in the NRL this year with 17 four-pointers and the young speedster has been given a licence to roam at the back with Inglis still out. Souths were disjointed in that area last week, swapping between Dylan Walker, Johnston and even Bryson Goodwin but the 20-year-old local junior prefers the space at the back and will continue to improve in the role. Souths need to start stronger in the forwards than they did last week to give him more room to move but if they can achieve that we may start to see what he's capable of in space.
Watch out Rabbitohs: While we're talking fullbacks, it doesn't get any more dangerous in 2015 than Roosters custodian Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. We're pretty much out of superlatives to try and describe his footwork and his running game. And so devastating are they that they almost take the gloss off his ball-playing, which has developed out of sight this year and contributed to his whopping three try assists last week. The raw numbers (513 runs for 5,500 running metres at 240 per game, all easily NRL highs, plus 134 tackle breaks – second in NRL) are simply incredible. And last week he only got better when halfback Jackson Hastings and hooker Jake Friend were subbed off, showing how much he appears to be thriving on having responsibility this season.
Key Match-Up: James Maloney v Luke Keary. Maloney has been monumental since halves partner Mitchell Pearce has been injured, providing guidance to young half Jackson Hastings and guiding the side around expertly. It's hard to think any other side in the competition could counter the loss of an Origin halfback the way the Roosters have been able to through Maloney and Hastings' partnership. Luke Keary by comparison is the junior man in his halves partnership alongside Adam Reynolds but has struggled for the same impact he had last year in a team experiencing more injuries and disruptions than in his breakout 2014 season. Maloney has certainly had the bigger impact in attack, with nine tries and 17 try assists compared to four tries and nine try assists for Keary. Interestingly, even though Maloney has played one more game (23 against 22) Keary has had far more touches this year, with 1,142 against just 732 touches for Maloney.
The History: Played 211; Roosters 95, Rabbitohs 111, Draws 5. There is no shortage of history between these two old rivals, who've been going at it for over a century now. Recent form favours the Rabbitohs, who have won five of the past seven, including the past two straight. Even returning to the scene of last week's disaster should hold few fears – they had won five of their previous six at Allianz Stadium prior to running into the Broncos there last week.
What Are The Odds: There's no love at all for the Rabbitohs from Sportsbet customers – with five times as much money invested on the Roosters in the head-to-head market, and punters are even keen on backing them giving away the start at the line. 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: No Inglis, no Sutton and no Luke makes it very hard for the Bunnies. They really need a win both for their own confidence ahead of the finals and to reduce the odds of an unappetising road trip to Melbourne for a sudden-death elimination final next week. Their lacklustre effort last week makes it hard to see where that will come from against a Roosters side riding a huge wave of form. Roosters by 12.