Schick Hydro Preview: Canterbury Bulldogs v South Sydney Rabbitohs
The Bulldogs have lost two on the trot. The Rabbitohs have won three straight. Yet as we enter the final round of the Telstra Premiership, only the former is guaranteed a spot in this year's finals series.
Everyone knows how destructive the Dogs can be on their day, but the question is, when will that be?
Now – on the eve of the finals – they have the chance to send a message to the rest of the competition, just like the Sharks did last week, that they are a genuine threat heading into September.
And Friday's match has extra meaning, with the Bulldogs still a chance of finishing as high as fourth or as low as seventh depending on other results.
They've struggled to hold the ball in recent weeks against the 2015 grand finalists; how will they respond against the team that beat them in the 2014 decider?
It's been a lean season for the Rabbitohs, but the past month has given their fans plenty of reason to believe heading into next year.
If it weren't for the boot of Cameron Smith, the Bunnies would be on a four-game winning streak including the scalps of the top two teams.
While the Bulldogs have been plagued by dropped balls, Souths have done just the opposite, reversing their mistake-marred mid-season in recent weeks.
South Sydney's spine has been the most pleasing part of their three-game winning streak, with the return to form of Greg Inglis – as well as the dynamism provided by Damien Cook at dummy-half – proving to be the perfect foil for the halves.
Both teams have named unchanged line-ups.
Watch out Bulldogs: It's hard to make any outlandish statements based on one performance, but Sam Kasiano's absence against the Cowboys was noticeable. The Bulldogs become a different team when he comes on to terrorise tiring defences midway through the first half. In fact, their best attacking period is the 20-30 minute mark when they have scored 23 tries already this season. But he won't be there on Friday as he serves the second week of his suspension for dangerous contact. They lacked any punch against the Cowboys either side of half-time. Who will be the man to take his place this weekend?
Watch out Rabbitohs: These teams have produced some classic finishes over the years, but that hasn't been the case of late. By half-time in their Round 24 meeting last year, the Bulldogs had sewn up the game with a 22-0. It got even worse for the Rabbitohs this year when they headed into the sheds on Good Friday down 32-0 at the break. The Bulldogs feed on confidence and will be searching for a quick start to get their season back on track.
Key match-up: Michael Lichaa v Damien Cook. They were teammates last year, but on Friday night the two number nines will square off in a battle of differing styles out of dummy-half. Lichaa was the preferred hooking option at Belmore for most of 2015 but had to be replaced by Cook after suffering a season-ending ankle injury late in the year. Cook took his chance, scoring four tries from five matches, before linking up with the Rabbitohs. After struggling to cement a spot in the 17, Cook has played every minute of their last four matches and his inclusion has signalled a change in their style of play. While the Rabbitohs' rake can be the team's attacking spark, Lichaa's impact is less pronounced, but just as effective. You know what you're going to get from him every week through his defence and control around the ruck.
The history: Played 153; Bulldogs 80, Rabbitohs 69, Drawn 4. The Bulldogs thrashed the Bunnies in their past two meetings, but it's been a fairly even match-up in recent years with the ledger locked at five wins apiece from their past 10 clashes. The blue and whites aren't shying away from the fact that they are still stinging from the 2014 grand final defeat.
What are the odds: There's only slightly more money on the Bulldogs and punters with Sportsbet and the Rabbitohs have been firming day by day. Neither side has been supported to win the game 13+ so we might be in for a tight one. Curtis Rona and Greg Inglis have been the best backed to score first. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Ashley Klein. Assistant referee: Gavin Badger. Sideline officials: Nick Beashel and David Ryan.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 7:30pm. Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7pm.
The way we see it: The Rabbitohs are playing the sort of footy that could trouble a lot of teams in the finals. The problem is, we'll never know what sort of damage they could have done in September. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, need a win to get some momentum leading into the finals. A top four finish beckons if results go their way, and with plenty to play for, we'll give the edge to the blue and whites; but only just. Bulldogs by 4.
Game on. Data off.
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