Schick Hydro Preview: South Sydney Rabbitohs v Wests Tigers
This is one of the most anticipated games of the opening round, and has been since Wests Tigers club legend Robbie Farah announced he was on the move to the Rabbitohs. The NRL delivered fans a wish and put this blockbuster on the rugby league calendar nice and early and so here we are in Round 1, ready to see the next chapter of both clubs unfold.
The bitter departure of Farah from the Tigers only adds to what is usually an entertaining clash between these sides and with neither making the final eight last season, starting well in 2017 will be crucial to building some much-needed momentum for both teams.
Last season Wests Tigers beat Souths in both their meetings for the first time since 2008, including a 30-22 victory only five days after suffering their fourth-worst defeat in history – a 54-point thrashing to the Raiders in Canberra.
A month later the sides met again in June at the same venue, and the result was similar with Farah scoring a long-range try coming off the bench in the 30-14 win as the Rabbitohs continued what would become a nine-game losing streak.
The Bunnies will be without playmaker Adam Reynolds, who is recovering from appendicitis, with former Eel Luke Kelly to start alongside Cody Walker in the halves. George Burgess has been left out of South Sydney's top 17 and named at prop for North Sydney in the Intrust Super Premiership, in a clear sign coach Michael Maguire is not mucking around this season. Zane Musgrove wins the starting spot at prop in the English international's place. Newcastle recruit Robbie Rochow is also set to make his club debut after being named in the original 17.
For the Wests Tigers, Jamal Idris is set to line up for his first appearance in Tigers colours despite a minor knee injury at training on Monday. Utility back Jordan Rankin will play alongside him with promising rookie Moses Suli named on the wing in Intrust Super Premiership.
Journeyman Matt McIlwrick earns the starting role at hooker with Jason Taylor opting for Matt Ballin to make a comeback and gain some much needed match fitness in the Intrust Super Premiership after being named to come off the bench.
Why the Rabbitohs can win: South Sydney were poor in 2016 and a lot of that had to do with their big men, who dropped significantly on statistics in the runs and metres department on previous years to rank third worst in the competition. That may be hard to believe when you've got the Burgess brothers at the helm, but ultimately they struggled to make any inroads in the oppositions defence and create enough opportunities for the outside backs.
With the return of John Sutton from injury and addition of Rochow, who both have the ability to offload and ball-play, suddenly the Bunnies' pack looks monstrous again. Farah and interchange hooker Damien Cook will look to feed off the back of the forwards' momentum and get on top of the Tigers pack.
Why Wests Tigers can win: Their creative style of play can wreak the havoc on the Rabbitohs if they decide to throw the ball around and move their big men around the park. In the 28 clashes between the two sides the Tigers have enjoyed piling on the points against the Rabbitohs, scoring more against them than any other side they play. James Tedesco showed no signs of slowing down in the club's final trial against the Cowboys and can score a try against the men from Redfern, with six from eight games. Look for him to play a crucial role should the Tigers surge to victory.
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Try Assists, Line Break Assists, Tries, Line Breaks.
The history: Played 28; Rabbitohs 15; Wests Tigers 13. Recent history suggests the Wests Tigers have got the wood over the Bunnies, winning the last three games between the teams including both fixtures in 2016 to narrow the overall history between the two sides. In an interesting stat, the team that has led at half-time in this fixture has gone on to win the match on all 13 occasions at the venue since 2006.
What are the odds: The early money was with the Rabbitohs, however as soon as Adam Reynolds was ruled out the Wests Tigers' price began to firm. Seventy-five per cent of money on the line has been with the Tigers, who are receiving a handy start. James Tedesco is the overwhelmingly popular pick as first try-scorer although Robbie Farah is the second best backed at big odds. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Ashley Klein; Assistant Referee: Chris James; Touch judges: Tim Roby and Rohan Best; Review Official: Ben Galea; SO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm. Fox Sports – Live from 7.30pm.
NRL.com predicts: The loss of Reynolds hurts the Bunnies and brings the ledger back to even. With both sides having strong trial form, expect this to be close. Make no mistake, Farah will be doing everything in his power to ensure he gets one over his former coach and club to start the year, and the recent off-field drama at the Tigers might be too much for the joint venture to handle this early on in the season. Rabbitohs by four.