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NRL Friday Night Forecast: Panthers vs Rabbitohs

Until the Rabbitohs cut out the mistakes and play as a unit, they aren't winning too many games in 2017. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)
Roar Guru
23rd June, 2016
4

With State of Origin now in the books for another year (there is Game 3 but who is going to watch that unless Laurie Daley changes his team) we turn back to club footbal. Tonight, we see a match-up between a primed Panther and a reeling Rabbitoh.

Recent form
The Panthers enter the game fighting fresh after enjoying their first bye of the season and coming off of a hard-earned, come-from-behind victory over the Sea Eagles in Round 14.

The win over the Sea Eagles was a much-needed settler after losses to the Storm and Titans. The team will be looking for back-to-back wins for only the second time this season.

Meanwhile, when we first launched the Thursday (and Friday) Night Forecast series at the start of the year we noted that we would be seeing a lot of the Rabbitohs. This is understandable from the broadcaster’s perspective as the Bunnies are a reliable draw even when they are down on form.

With that being said, however, one has to wonder how popular this Rabbitohs team is at the moment given how diabolically out of form they are. They have lost three in a row and seven of their last ten.

With five wins from their first 14 games, the Rabbitohs are now in the precarious position of requiring seven wins from their remaining ten matches to meet the traditional 12-win cutoff to make the eight. Not an impossible task but one that is fast getting out of hand for the Bunnies.

Team sheet

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Panthers Position Rabbitohs
Matt Moylan Fullback Cody Walker
Josh Mansour Left Winger Tautalatasi Tasi
Waqa Blake Left Centre Greg Inglis
Tyrone Peachey Right Centre Aaron Gray
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak Right Winger Alex Johnston
Nathan Cleary Left half Adam Reynolds
Bryce Cartwright Right half Luke Keary
Leilani Latu Prop Tom Burgess
Peter Wallace Hooker Cameron McInnes
Reagan Campbell-Gillard Prop Nathan Brown
Trent Merrin Left Second Row John Sutton
Isaah Yeo Right Second Row Kyle Turner
Suaia Matagi Lock Sam Burgess
Sitaleki Akauola Interchange Jason Clark
Jeremy Latimore Interchange Patrice Siolo
Chris Grevsmuhl Interchange Jack Gosiewski
Moses Leota Interchange David Tyrell

For the Panthers there are no changes to the team that defeated the Sea Eagles a fortnight ago with Anthony Griffin persisting with the inexperienced halves pairing of Nathan Cleary and Bryce Cartwright.

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One point of interest for the Panthers is the construction of the four-forward bench.

With 80-minute players Trent Merrin and Isaah Yeo playing on each edge and starting props Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Leilani Latu both playing 50 minutes against the Eagles, it left very little time for the bench players. Indeed Sitaleki Akauola and Moses Leota played only a combined 25 minutes and it will be interesting to see if Griffin is content to use those players for such short stints again this week.

The big news for the Rabbitohs is yet another backline reshuffle as Michael Maguire desperately tries to find a combination that gets all of his best players on the field together. The Rabbitohs initially selected Cody Walker at fullback and Greg Inglis in the centre while reuniting Adam Reynolds and Luke Keary in the halves. However, Maguire will now be forced to make further changes after Reynolds was injured playing for NSW.

It was unclear at the time of writing what the Rabbitohs would do to accommodate the loss of Reynolds but a logical move would be to shift Walker back to the halves where he played last week. Alex Johnston would also go back to the halves and Roosters recruit Joe Burgess would go on the wing.

Whatever Souths do this constant reshuffling of the line-up cannot be helping the team establish combinations. As we shall see in the ‘What to Watch For’ section the team should probably be worried more about personal responsibility before focusing on combinations.

In the forwards for the Rabbitohs Nathan Brown will start at prop in place of the ineffectual David Tyrell. Paul Carter will miss the game after taking the early plea for dangerous contact on Corey Norman with his spot on the bench taken by Patrice Siolo.

Finally, Damian Cook, who only played 13 minutes against the Eels, has been left out altogether with Maguire adding Jack Gosiewski to complete a four-forward bench.

What to watch for
Starting with the Panthers and this is the first time we have seen the team in the Forecast series since way back in Round 2 and it’s fair to say that things have changed since then.

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Season 2016 began with bright expectations for the Panthers. After stunning the NRL world on their way to a preliminary final appearance in 2014 the team suffered through a veritable injurypocalypse in 2015 and slumped to an 11th place finish. The team then surprisingly moved on from coach Ivan Cleary, bringing in former Broncos coach Griffin.

However as season 2016 began the team had added Trent Merrin to an already strong pack and, with exception of a lingering injury concern for Matt Moylan, seemed poised to recapture the form of 2014.

It is fair to say that things have not exactly gone to plan so far. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that things have not gone as expected because despite a fresh wave of injuries and some surprising personnel decisions the team is currently on the edge of the eight and is well and truly in the finals running.

Two of those personnel decisions in particular tell us a lot about the direction in which the team is going, or intending to go, and give us something to look for when watching the game tonight.

Before the season started the presumption was that James Segeyaro would slot straight back into the dummy half role for Penrith after he had excelled in the position in 2014 before an injury-hit 2015. Even after an injury in Round 1 it was still broadly assumed that the team was expecting Segeyaro to be the number one hooker going forward.

However fast forward three or four months and Segeyaro is soon to be jettng off to sunny Leeds, while his place in the side has been taken by former halfback Peter Wallace.

On closer investigation however the dropping of Segeyaro is not all that surprising given his often careless attitude to ball security and it reflects a transition towards a more disciplined approach.

While Segeyaro accounted for 14 line breaks in 2014 he also made 17 errors, a high number for a hooker. The situation got even worse in 2015 as Segeyaro made 18 errors in only 15 appearances. This was part of widespread team indiscipline as the Panthers had the second worst error rate in the competition.

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Wallace meanwhile has made only eight errors this season, and half of those came in the four games in which he has played halfback.

To make matters worse Segeyaro also missed 3.5 tackles per game in 2015 and continued that trend in 2016 with 11 missed tackles in only four appearances, none of which was more than a 56-minute performance.

Again Wallace has proven the more dependable player in this respect with only 16 missed tackles when playing as a hooker, a figure which translates as less than two per game. Put it another way and Segeyaro has one missed tackle every 18 minutes of game time this season while for Wallace it is one miss per 45 minutes on the field at dummy half.

Wallace therefore is a far steadier hand and in a team bursting with playmaking ability even beyond their halves in players like Bryce Cartwright, Tyrone Peachy and Matt Moylan a steady hand is far more useful than an off-the-wall risk-taker.

When both Wallace and Griffin were at the Broncos it was reported that the two clashed however it seems clear that Wallace’s willingness to buy into the Griffin no-nonsense approach has allowed him to flourish in an unfamiliar role.

The other critical personnel decision that is shaping the Panthers’ season is the recent demotion of Jamie Soward to reserve grade with 18-year-old Nathan Cleary taking his place in the starting line-up after initially playing alongside Soward against the Storm. Cleary’s pedigree is outstanding and he has been a standout at every junior level.

He has also started relatively well in his first two games, showing a willingness to run the ball while also kicking solidly.

However it remains a bold move by Griffin to go away from a proven, if significantly down on form player, at the expense of an 18-year-old in a position in which it is universally agreed that experience is crucial. How well Clearly continues to handle that role will define the rest of 2016 for the Panthers.

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While the Panthers have gone in unexpected directions this season, the Rabbitohs would just like to get their best 17 players to stop dropping the ball and conceding silly penalties.

Regular readers of the Forecast series will know that I have been skeptical of claims that the Rabbitohs’ errors that are hurting the team. It is easy to see a team cough up the ball in key situations and conclude that errors are a serious problem. However as I’ve noted in the past the team actually has one of the best error rates in the competition so to blame the losses on that would be disingenuous.

Instead I have previously blamed the poor performance of the team’s forwards as they routinely lose the middle of the field battle.

But after the sloppy performance against the Eels we are actually reaching the point where we need to talk about those errors (although the forwards were again poor as well).

The team has made 37 errors in just the last three games and has dropped from having the fewest errors per game only a few rounds ago to having the fourth fewest errors per game. This is a discouraging trend and it is only exacerbating the poor performance of Rabbitohs in terms of running the ball.

However the problem goes beyond just errors and encompasses all of those things that I’ve previously described as falling under the heading of personal discipline. This also includes things like giving away penalties and breaking team structure to freelance in either attack or in defence.

In addition to the 37 errors over the last three weeks the Rabbitohs have also conceded 27 penalties, averaging nine a game. Compare this to an average of a little over seven per game in the early part of the season and you begin to see the problem.

While giving away penalties can be used tactically – the Cowboys for instance are generally happy to concede penalties and often lose the penalty count – there is no sense that the Rabbitohs are being tactical.

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On the contrary, many players, including team leaders such as Sam Burgess, have given away what can only be described as petulant penalties such as late tackles and overly aggressive holding down in the tackle. These penalties suggest a team that is not sufficiently focussed as a group or individually.

If the Rabbitohs can’t find a way to get back on track, to hold the ball and to resist giving away penalties then they will continue to find themselves on the wrong side of the score-line. Watch closely tonight and if you start to see errors, penalties and frustration from the Bunnies you can be pretty sure that the team is going to lose.

First try-scorer – Bryce Cartwright
While he may have been overlooked for a late call-up to State of Origin, Bryce Cartwright remains one of the most exciting young players in the game. Listed this week at five-eighth there is little doubt that Cartwright’s best position remains as an edge backrower.

Either way, he is a both a power runner and gifted playmaker. Tonight I’m backing him to do the former and get over the line himself.

Prediction – Panthers
At this point in time it is getting very difficult to imagine a game in which one would tip the Rabbitohs given their recent struggles. As we’ve seen it is not just the losing, but the manner in which they are doing it that is most troubling.

Until such time as the Rabbitohs demonstrate that they have regained the temperament to win, not to mention the necessary go-forward from the team’s big men, then I will be tipping against them against all comers (except the Knights, of course).

Shoe-in of the week
We can all look forward to more of Phil Gould inevitably explaining how NSW were the better side for much of the game on Wednesday night but still managed to lose. Thankfully that didn’t get at all tiresome during the game.

You can read the NRL Forecast here every week or check it out along with more great rugby league analysis on Lachlan’s website Back the Ten. You can also follow Lachlan on Twitter @backtheten

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