Only four teams are left remaining in the premiership race, with an ancient and a modern rivalry to highlight this weekend’s preliminary final matches.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs will put their season on the line for the first time when they take on the St George Illawarra Dragons in the first NRL semi-final at Homebush.
The cardinal and myrtle went to Melbourne for their qualifying final full of hope, and could have came away with the win had the bounce of the ball gone their way a few times.
Travelling to the Victorian capital is one of the toughest road trips in the competition, particularly for a final, but for Bunnies fans, it would be little surprise if it was that same match-up again come grand final day, with the Dragons and Roosters standing in their way.
The Rabbitohs were good enough to win nine on the hop this season, and while it’s tough to back up from a loss in Melbourne, they have had eight days to turn things around and will be confident of their chances.
Taking the Storm all the way is one thing, but as Parramatta proved last year when they went out in straight sets, doing it at the same level next week is another.
The real story coming into this semi-final is on St George Illawarra though.
They came from the clouds last week to turn around two months of misery and give their supporters something to smile about, putting 48 points on the Broncos away from home to break a ten-game losing streak at Suncorp Stadium and keep their season alive.
It was an amazing performance, and while it came at a cost, it’s a timely reminder that this team was top of the ladder for a long period of time, and it was absolutely no fluke.
While they went from hero to zero over the second half of the season, there is a lot between the Dragons’ best and worst, so it’ll be intriguing to see which Red V turns up to Homebush.
There isn’t a huge split in historical records between the sides since the Dragons entered the competition as a joint venture at the end of last century.
They have also split their meetings this year, with the Dragons winning the first at home and the Rabbitohs the second at Homebush.
As a joint venture, the Dragons have never played the Rabbitohs in finals footy either, but as the St George Dragons, the had a long history in finals, playing 16 matches, with South Sydney winning nine and the Dragons 7.
Overall record: Played 30, Dragons 17, Rabbitohs 13
Last meeting: Round 10, Rabbitohs 24 defeat Dragons 10 at ANZ Stadium, Homebush
Last five: Rabbitohs 3, Dragons 2
Record at venue: Played 11, Rabbitohs 6, Dragons 5
Record in finals: Never played
Last meeting in finals: (As St George Dragons) 1984 minor semi-final, Dragons 24 defeat Rabbitohs 6 at SCG
South Sydney Rabbitohs
1 Alex Johnston, 2 Campbell Graham, 3 Greg Inglis, 4 Dane Gagai, 5 Robert Jennings, 6 Cody Walker, 7 Adam Reynolds, 8 Tom Burgess, 9 Damien Cook, 10 George Burgess, 11 John Sutton, 12 Angus Crichton, 13 Sam Burgess (c)
Interchange: 14 Hymel Hunt, 15 Cameron Murray, 16 Jason Clark, 17 Dean Britt, 18 Braidon Burns, 19 Matt Nicholls, 20 Tevita Tatola, 21 Connor Tracey
The Rabbitohs are unchanged from their qualifying final loss to the Storm nine days ago. They have some injury clouds over Greg Inglis, Alex Johnston and Sam Burgess, but from all reports, all three will be fine to play.
St George Illawarra Dragons
1 Matt Dufty, 2 Nene Macdonald, 3 Zac Lomax, 4 Tim Lafai, 5 Jordan Pereira, 6 Kurt Mann, 7 Ben Hunt, 8 James Graham, 9 Cameron McInnes, 10 Leeson Ah Mau, 11 Tyson Frizell, 12 Tariq Sims, 13 Jack de Belin
Interchange: 14 Jeremy Latimore, 15 Hame Sele, 16 Blake Lawrie, 17 Luciano Leilua, 18 Jason Nightingale, 19 Jai Field, 20 Euan Aitken, 21 Jacob Host
The Dragons were not so lucky and had to make one glaring, forced change to their 17. Gareth Widdop’s season is over after dislocating his shoulder again against the Broncos. He had surgery during the week and by all reports, he will be fine to commence training at the start of pre-season after a recovery period.
In his absence, Kurt Mann will line up in the halves, as he did for the final few months of the regular season.
Hame Sele is the new man on the bench, although there is every chance Jai Field will be included instead.
The Dragons also have question marks over James Graham (concussion) and Jack de Belin (ankle), after the duo failed to finish the win over Brisbane.
Surely the Burgess brothers can’t have another shocker?
Okay, maybe shocker is the wrong word. Maybe the Burgess brothers weren’t that bad last week against the Storm, but by the standards they have set themselves this year, they weren’t great.
Some of their efforts reminded you more of 2017 than 2018. It was the dropped ball, the laziness in defence and poor options which made you scratch your head and wonder what had happened to the trio who have set the NRL on fire at times this year.
Sam Burgess is the ringleader and while he is battling injury, he needs to be at his best if the Dragons pack are. His running and offloading has a huge bearing on exactly what the Rabbitohs are able to produce. He creates time and space for Damien Cook, Cody Walker, Alex Reynolds and Alex Johnston, and needs to be doing that against the Dragons.
Noting there is likely to be a fatigue advantage for the Rabbitohs in this game due to the longer turnaround, if Souths can control the opening 20, they could skip away with it.
Tom and George Burgess were also poor last week. They need to get back to basics, run the ball hard and not worry about the fancier things in the game.
Just get out there, rip in and do the job assigned.
How do the Dragons replace Gareth Widdop?
This is the big question for the Dragons.
Kurt Mann is dangerous. He has a strong running game, but simply doesn’t have the creativity and control over the game like Widdop does. His kicking game isn’t quite up to it either and that’s going to put a mountain of pressure on Ben Hunt.
For that reason, even more pressure is on their forwards this week. They need to create time for Hunt, and space for Mann to link with the likes of Cameron McInnes and Matt Dufty to get his running game going.
That will be the first step in replacing – that Mann stands up and plays to his potential.
The second is that Ben Hunt lives up to his price tag. He needs to take control of this match, ensure the Dragons are playing to his style and use his kicking game to defuse the tough moments – and there are sure to be plenty.
He can’t allow one mistake to snowball either. No one is expecting him to be perfect for 80 minutes, but the Dragons half has a bad habit of letting a mistake become multiple. Positivity could be a decisive factor in this one.
The Rabbitohs left edge could mean they do it easily
Earlier, I mentioned the Rabbitohs likely advantage in the fatigue stakes coming into this game, given the extra two days turnaround.
While their game was more physical, so long as they can get back up mentally, they will have an advantage.
Ramming home that avdnatage will be a lot easier with the help of their dangerous and explosive left edge. The biggest factor here for South Sydney will be to get away to a good start and belt the Dragons out of the game early, forcing them to do plenty of defence.
Scoring in the first 20 isn’t the key, but controlling the ball and forcing the Dragons to do a mountain of defence is.
If they can do that, the Dragons defence will start to break down and the left edge, with John Sutton, Johnston, Inglis and Jennings will come out to play.
That would be the recipe to an easy victory.
Will the Dragons play like last week (and the first three months of the season?)
This is probably the question which determines the outcome of the game. Of course, the Bunnies left edge is important, but that merely determines whether they are able to put the afterburners on if they have a good start.
The Dragons playing like they did last week or falling back into habits which have ruined the second half of their season will determine exactly where the result of this one ends up.
When the Dragons are at their best, there are few sides who are able to challenge in them in the competition, as we saw during the first three months of the season and again last week in their demolition job victory over the Broncos away from home.
Which Dragons side turns up is something only they can know, but it comes down to their forwards playing direct and laying the platform.
There is little question South Sydney have had one of the better packs this season, rolling over the top of teams and making life easy for hooker Damien Cook and their lest side attack.
The Dragons need to not only neutralise that with their fast line speed and up and in defence, but put the hammer down in attack, running with purpose up the middle and throwing strcture out the window where needed to create scoring opportunities.
As much as I’d like to be able to tip with any confidence either way (or just tip the Dragons and be done with it), it’s nearly impossible because of what the Dragons dished up last week.
They weren’t supposed to make it this far, but they have. Now they are here and playing with some confidence under the belt, anything is possible.
However, Widdop is out, De Belin is still under an injury cloud and James Graham could be battling to make kick-off as well despite his assurances during the week just gone.
South Sydney are returning from Melbourne and might be facing their own problems, but they won nine straight at one point this season and will remind everyone why they are a force to be reckoned with heading towards grand final day, skipping away with this victory during the final 20 after a very tight first hour.
Rabbitohs by 14.
Kick-off: 7:40pm (AEST)
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Homebush, Sydney
TV: Live, Fox League, Nine Network
Online: Live, Foxtel app, Foxtel now, 9Now, NRL Digital Pass
Betting: Rabbitohs $1.25, Dragons $4
Referees: Gerard Sutton, Ben Cummins
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