So this is happening. The game’s two biggest rivals, historical and territorial foes that haven’t faced each other in a finals series since 1938, facing off for a chance to play in the grand final.
This writer is nervous, excited, nauseous, thrilled. He’s sworn off wearing a sweater and eating mum’s spaghetti for the whole week, and he’s probably not the only one. It’s the final both sets of fans both crave and dread at the same time, and it’s believed that the winner of this game will go on to win the premiership. That is, unless they beat the living shite out of each other on Friday and walk into the same stadium a week later with a limp. And they will beat the living shite out of each other, as they always do.
But if we’re nervous, can you imagine how under pressure the Bunnies are, under the weight of 43 years, 30,000 members and a media skeet-fest?
Maybe that’s why they had Ben Cummins — who Roosters fans may remember for, among other things, penalising Braith Anasta for being punched by David Fa’alogo — referee a training session a few weeks ago, just to take some of the pressure off and help simulate a real-game situation.
Oh, and in what can only be described as a lovely twist of fate for the Rabbitohs — and NOTHING SINISTER WHATSOEVER — the same bloke has been appointed to referee the game tomorrow.
For those who don’t know him, it’s this guy pictured that day at Redfern a few weeks back:
The Chooks have been to the big dance plenty of times in the past 14 years, six times in fact and twice in the past four years. They may have only taken the final prize twice, but at least they’re good looking enough to get picked for the dance, right? Further, this from The Oracle gives you an example of how often we get picked when we turn up at the door:
The pressure clearly is on the Bunnies. We are the underdogs, expected to lose. But for all the nerves, this writer and the rest of the supporter base are confident of a win because, unlike Souths, we have proven we know how to get there.
TEAM: 1 Anthony Minichiello (c); 2 Daniel Tupou; 3 Michael Jennings; 4 Shaun Kenny-Dowall; 5 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck; 6 James Maloney; 7 Mitchell Pearce; 8 Jared Waerea-Hargreaves; 9 Jake Friend; 10 Sam Moa; 11 Boyd Cordner; 12 Sonny Bill Williams; 13 Aidan Guerra.
Interchange: (From) 14 Mitchell Aubusson; 15 Frank-Paul Nuuausala; 16 Isaac Liu; 17 Dylan Napa; Rémi Casty.
Dylan Napa returns from his two-game suspension for a shoulder charge performed against the Rabbitohs in the round 26 battle for the minor premiership.
He’s been named on an extended bench but it’s expected he’ll be promoted to start with Sam Moa to come off the bench; the Roosters really struggled last week during the middle period of the game last week against the Cowboys when their entire front row was off. It’s clear they need at least one of Moa or Jared Waerea-Hargreaves on at all times.
The Roosters have been poor for the majority of the past two weeks, yet nearly pulled out a win against the Panthers before escaping with a one-point win against the Cows. They had awful performances from several key players in both games, and those types of games simply won’t cut it against the Rabbitohs who they did beat three weeks ago but who were missing their halfback and their centre for a 10-minute stretch.
How they’ll play
I’d like to think they could channel the best parts of their past three weeks into a full game, but in each one they have almost surrendered a big league. They were up 22-2 against the Bunnies before conceding three late tries; they led 18-12 against the Panthers, missed a field goal and eventually lost by a point, and the less said about last week’s near-historic collapse, the better.
Mitch Pearce beat the Rabbitohs almost by himself last time around and will need to repeat the medicine for the Roosters to have a shot in this one. He made breaks all through the middle by attacking the likes of Gurgess, Luke and Sutton all game, either with the ball in hand or in support. The Roosters need to fire up their attack to enable similar breaks and it all comes down to finding the structure that hasn’t been there the last three weeks.
The Roosters at their best — just three weeks ago, remember — had two runners either side of the ball player, in constant motion and all game. That wasn’t there last week and they dropped it too much the week before to be effective. They shouldn’t be turned off by their performance against the Panthers, instead returning to what made them effective for that month leading into the finals.
Failing that, the Roosters should head towards Tuqiri’s wing and attack, and also aim some bombs up towards Tupou — Tuqiri looks a little rejuvenated following his decimation of an underdone Jorge Taufua, but Tupou is still the far superior athlete, and the 35-year-old missed four tackles against Manly. Alex Johnston, meanwhile, has been on fire in attack ever since replacing Nathan Merritt in grade, and while he’s a better defender he can still be found out. Against the Sea Eagles he came in too far for the game’s final try, and he was put under pressure from a cross-field bomb which led to their second.
Jake Friend will also play a huge role, leading the forwards around and choosing his kicks wisely; he came up with a pearler last week on an early tackle that got the Roosters out of some trouble in the second half.
SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS
TEAM: 1 Greg Inglis; 2 Alex Johnston; 3 Dylan Walker; 4 Kirisome Auva’a; 5 Lote Tuqiri; 6 Luke Keary; 7 Adam Reynolds; 8 George Burgess; 9 Issac Luke; 10 Dave Tyrrell; 11 Kyle Turner; 12 John Sutton (c); 13 Sam Burgess.
Interchange: 14 Jason Clark; 15 Ben Te’o; 16 Chris McQueen; 17 Thomas Burgess; 18 Ben Lowe; 19 Luke Burgess; 20 Bryson Goodwin.
Ben Te’o returns from his chicken wing suspension to take his place on an extended bench, in an otherwise unchanged side from the one which pummelled the Manly Sea Eagles with 40 unanswered points in week one of the finals.
The Rabbitohs start as heavy favourites in this one thanks to the return of Te’o which completes an excellent albeit extended bench. Ben Lowe, Luke Burgess and Bryson Goodwin are expected to drop off prior to the game, and no players are under an injury cloud.
The last time these teams played the Roosters were missing Friend while the Bunnies were missing Adam Reynolds, but both are at full strength. Greg Inglis and Sam Burgess, both nursing what appeared to be niggling injuries, would have benefited from the week’s rest.
How they’ll play
The Rabbitohs were incredible against the Sea Eagles. Inside balls from Inglis, cut out balls from Inglis, pinpoint attacking grubbers from Reynolds and dangerous play from their centres.
Dylan Walker had the license to roam two weeks ago and wreaked havoc wherever he went; he had two line breaks, two try assists and a try in destroying Manly. Alex Johnston, meanwhile, had four line breaks and two tries and combined well with Kirisome Auva’a on the left. SKD and Mini/RTS need to ensure that wing is locked down tight, while it’s impossible to say what to do with Walker.
But the key man is Reynolds, whose pinpoint kicking game destroyed the inept Taufua two weeks ago and which led directly to three tries, including one of his own. The Roosters need to rush him; no easy feat when the forward packs are so well matched. If they don’t get to him or put pressure on him, Reynolds will be able to pin it into the corners as Soward and Thurston have done in the past two weeks, either forcing the Roosters out of a tough spot or, worse, opening it up for Mini or Toops to blunder.
Sam Burgess has been relatively quiet the past two games, and is overdue for a damaging game in what could be his last — although you could say the same thing about fellow rugby-bound backrower Sonny Bill Williams.
Have the Roosters got it all out of their system? For the past two weeks they’ve looked like the erratic squad from rounds 1-21 rather than the one that dominated opponents for the final five weeks of the regular season and all of last year.
So… which is the aberration? Was it that five weeks when they managed to somehow snake the minor premiership? Or was it the past two, in which they found defeat in a sea of victory once and nearly again the week after? I want to hope it’s the latter — but I have given up trying to know which Roosters will stand up this year, one that has surprised, disappointed, exhilarated, exasperated and delighted, and sometimes all in the same game.
Of added concern is the loss-win-loss-win combo these teams are on, and if it continues, it means the Roosters are due for a loss — but weird streaks get thrown out the window when it gets to the finals.
Having said all that, I still think the Roosters will win. Call it homerism, bias, whatever you want, but if this is the last preview I ever make, I would hate for me to be one where I get a Souffs win prediction correct — although I remain truly, unabashedly confident of a win. Thus, I think the Roosters dig deep and delay Mini’s retirement and SBW’s departure for another week.
Roosters 1-12, after being down at half time.
Man of the Match could be Jimmy Maloney — his running game was on last week (2 line breaks) and he could find some space up the middle if everything goes to plan.