The South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Sydney Roosters could be headed for the biggest and most historic NRL grand final the league has seen in a very long time.
At the end of Round 18, the two teams will occupy the top two ladder positions on the NRL ladder, with the defending premiers, the Melbourne Storm, to remain in third place following their 39-0 thrashing at the hands of the Bulldogs on the weekend.
Both the Rabbitohs and the Roosters had the bye over the weekend, as the Storm missed their chance to close the gap on the second-placed Roosters following their shut-out by the Bulldogs.
The Rabbitohs currently lead the way with 14 wins and just two losses and, given their impressive play at the moment, they could be headed for a first minor premiership since 1989.
The team has the perfect ingredients for a long-awaited premiership, which would be their first since 1971 – a hard-nosed coach in Michael Maguire, the Burgess brothers and, more importantly, experience in the representative front, which is anchored by none other than Greg Inglis.
Additionally, a working halves department in John Sutton and Adam Reynolds is also directing the Rabbitohs’ on-field play very well.
Sutton was very close to State of Origin selection this year, but after an accidental Tweet revealed he won the final bench spot ahead of Josh Reynolds (who is no relation to Adam) for the opening Origin match, the Bunnies veteran was overlooked in favour of the Bulldogs playmaker.
Reynolds (Adam, that is) has proven to be a consistent performer for the Bunnies over the last few months, but unfortunately a serious hamstring injury suffered in last year’s preliminary final against the Bulldogs meant that he could only watch as the Bulldogs marched into the grand final at the expense of the red-and-greens.
Greg Inglis’ game has flourished ever since he joined the South Sydney Rabbitohs in 2011, but it wasn’t until 2012 that a move to fullback allowed him to play his game freely.
That has contributed partly to the Rabbitohs’ rise to the top of the NRL.
Inglis’ time at the Melbourne Storm was, of course, not only spent playing with what would eventually be an illegally-paid squad of players, but also spent having to play in the same side as Billy Slater, who was starting to become the premier fullback in the competition.
Inglis still has to play alongside Slater at fullback when they play for Queensland and Australia.
But a move to the Rabbitohs two years ago has now turned out to be a master-stroke in his career, even if it meant he had to sacrifice his chances of premiership redemption after the Storm were stripped of two premierships for salary cap breaches during 2006-10.
Inglis’ move to Redfern was seen as a breakthrough for the battling club, who, save for a finals appearance in 2007, had struggled to get back to the lofty standards which saw them become the most successful side in rugby league history.
In the five years since the club was re-admitted to the NRL in 2002, the club finished last three times and second-last in the year in which they were re-admitted (only the Bulldogs’ salary cap scandal prevented a fourth wooden spoon finish).
Now however, the Rabbitohs boast the best attack (424), and the third-best defence (230) in the competition, only behind the Sydney Roosters and Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles.
Should they get to the grand final, awaiting them on the opposite side of the half-way line would very likely be their closest rivals, the Roosters.
A lot has been spoken about their revival this season under rookie coach Trent Robinson, and the return to the game of Sonny Bill Williams.
Robinson returned to the club after two years coaching the France-based Catalan Dragons in the English Super League, while Williams returned to the NRL following his five-year exile from the game, having walked out on a huge Bulldogs contract in 2008.
Boyd Cordner has also won an Origin call-up for New South Wales, mostly due to the great influence Robinson and Williams have had on the club.
Add the acquisition of James Maloney and Michael Jennings from the Warriors and Panthers respectively, and you’ve got the reasons the Roosters sit second on the ladder with 12 wins and four losses.
They have also served up four shut-outs this season, their victims being the Brisbane Broncos, Parramatta Eels, the Bulldogs and, most recently, the St George Illawarra Dragons.
Defence has been made a huge priority by the Roosters this season, after they finished 2012 with the second-worst defence in the competition, only ahead of wooden spooners Parramatta.
The Roosters currently boast the best defensive record in the competition, with less than 200 points conceded up to Round 18. Additionally, they have the second best attack in the competition (378), only behind the ladder-leading Rabbitohs (424).
Robinson was the club’s defensive coach when the Chooks made the grand final in 2010, and it’s no surprise his game plan is working out very well as the Roosters seek their first premiership since 2002.
The club has lost five of their last six deciders dating back to 1980 – a psychological hurdle the club may have to overcome if they are to taste the ultimate success this year.
Already, the Rabbitohs have beaten them in the first round this year, and their Round 26 showdown could be a preview of the grand final.
Either way, a premiership drought lasting at least 11 years is set to end if these two teams meet in the first Sunday of October – and Sydney fans will undoubtedly be very happy as it would be tough for them to see another premiership escape beyond the borders of New South Wales.