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Bunnies' faith in Taaffe as rookie breaks NRL grand final record

Blake Taaffe will create history next Sunday when he becomes the least experienced player to line up for an NRL grand final.

The young Rabbitohs fullback, who has played strongly in the No.1 jersey despite being a specialised halfback since Latrell Mitchell's season-ending suspension, will be running out for just his eighth match in the Telstra Premiership.

It will be just his sixth start with two of his seven-game career coming from the bench, making him the most inexperienced player in the NRL era to take part in the biggest game of the season.

Moses Mbye, who was drafted into Canterbury's grand final team at hooker in 2014 as a rookie when Michael Ennis was ruled out with a foot injury, holds the record with eight matches.

* Information courtesy of League Information Services

 

Melbourne's Scott Anderson had played nine games before taking part in the 2008 loss to Manly while fellow forwards Alex Chan (Parramatta in 2001) and David Thompson (Canterbury in 1998) each went into their first grand final after 10 matches.

Taaffe is a veteran compared to some of the players who are on the all-time list for fewest games played before a grand final, according to the official data from NRL statistician David Middleton's League Information Services records.

Five players - Harold "Mick" Rankine for Wests in 1932, South Sydney's Ernie Hammerton in 1949, Balmain's Peter Boulton in 1969, St George's Russell Cox in 1971 and Eastern Suburbs centre John Rheinberger in 1975 - entered the grand final fray with just one game under their belt.

Rheinberger famously had only played as a replacement in the preliminary final against Manly in 1975 before taking part in the memorable 38-0 rout of Saints in the decider at the SCG. And he never played first grade again.

* Information courtesy of League Information Services

 

Fewest games before a grand final in history 

Another 10 players had two games on their resume before playing in a grand final with the most recent example Steve Halliwell for Parramatta in 1982.

Grand finals were played sporadically after being introduced in 1930 before they became mandatory in 1954.

Taaffe was dynamic at the back in the 36-16 preliminary final win over Manly on Friday and also stepped up to take over the goal-kicking duties due to captain Adam Reynolds being hampered by a groin injury, landing four of seven attempts.

Fewest games before a grand final in NRL era 

Souths have been grooming Taaffe to take over as halfback next season with the skipper heading to Brisbane.

The former NSW under-20 representative has been hamstrung by a lack of game time over the past two seasons due to the second-tier competitions being placed on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Get Caught Up: Must-see moments from the preliminary finals

 

When asked about how he's kept the team on track for grand final glory despite the loss of their star fullback in Mitchell for the past month, coach Wayne Bennett deflected credit to his players for sticking to the task and rallying around Taaffe. 

"You are always gonna have that moment where you lose that player you don’t want to lose but if that’s the end of your season what are you working for?" he said after the win over the Sea Eagles.

"He was wonderful tonight. The players are great with him, you can't underestimate what Adam and Cody [Walker] bring to him and how they help him on the field, Damien Cook too."

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Souths CEO Blake Solly described the rookie as wise beyond his 22 years.

"He's surrounded by great players and Wayne's said multiple times this year that he wouldn't be there if we didn't have the confidence in him," he said.

"He's got a really good head on his shoulders generally and with coaches like Wayne and Jason [Demetriou] around him, we're really confident he'll handle the challenge really well.

"Blake's just got a wonderful temperament and the fact that he's come through the system with a lot of our younger guys over the years means he's playing with some good mates and that helps a lot.

"The fact he's supported by some of his really close friends in the squad and has some senior players looking after him as well, it's a great combination for him."

Former Kangaroos fullback Billy Slater told Inside the NRL on Monday night the young Rabbitohs custodian had caught his eye.

"Wayne Bennett, he's done it before - he's instilled a whole heap of confidence in this young man and Blake hasn't overplayed his hand.

"He's gone out there and he's pulled the trigger when he's had to but he's played with real control. For a young man, he's been really mature.

"I've been really impressed with this young man, Blake Taaffe," he said.