Latrell Mitchell has signed a one-year deal with the South Sydney Rabbitohs with an option for a second season, finally bringing to a close the off-season’s biggest saga and speculation about his short-term future.
Having dropped out of the top four after losing their past three matches, facing a resurgent Brisbane Broncos side at Suncorp Stadium this Friday night is the last thing the South Sydney Rabbitohs would want as they attempt to keep their hopes of a double chance in the finals alive .
After winning ten of their first eleven matches under veteran coach Wayne Bennett, the Bunnies’ form has regressed in the past three months, losing seven of their past ten matches to drop to fifth place on the ladder with three rounds to play before the finals.
The retirement of Greg Inglis, injuries to Adam Reynolds and captain Sam Burgess and the always arduous State of Origin period which robs them of key players such as Dane Gagai, Cody Walker and Damien Cook did not help their cause.
Last Saturday, the Bunnies were held tryless as they went down 14-6 to the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium. In the fortnight prior, they’d also been beaten by the Sharks at Shark Park and the ladder-leading Storm on the Central Coast.
But to highlight just how bad the side’s recent form has been, they could so easily have lost their past ten matches in succession had they not found a way past the Sea Eagles, Cowboys and Dragons in rounds 17, 18 and 19 respectively.
In the latter match, it took them a try from Campbell Graham at the absolute death to get them over the line 20-16.
Thus, they should consider themselves lucky to be sitting in fifth place, rather than the eighth place they would be in right now had they not won those three matches last month.
Meanwhile, after struggling in the first half of the season, the Brisbane Broncos have steadily climbed up the ladder in recent months as they adapt to Anthony Seibold’s strict coaching style.
After failing to win a match in June, the Broncos have lost just once since the start of the financial new year, but it was a brutal one – a 40-4 thrashing at the hands of the Melbourne Storm. They also drew 18-18 with the New Zealand Warriors at home in Round 17.
Their resurgence continued last Friday night when they defeated the Penrith Panthers by 24-12 at home, the win highlighted by a long-range try from forward Payne Haas which helped to win the match for the northerners.
But it has come with a cost, with forward Tevita Pangai Jr facing a season-ending five-match suspension for his crusher tackle on James Maloney, while Jake Turpin has accepted his suspension from the tribunal for a swinging arm on Dylan Edwards.
Fullback-turned-five-eighth Darius Boyd also continues to cop criticism for his poor individual form, and there are calls for the 2010 Clive Churchill Medallist to retire sooner rather than later so that the Broncos can continue to invest in their younger players.
Since taking the reins at Red Hill before Christmas last year, coach Anthony Seibold has seen James Roberts and Jaydn Su’A depart, reuniting with their old coach Wayne Bennett at Redfern, further intensifying the recent bitter rivalry between the two clubs.
Both sides will have a score to settle against each other in Friday night’s showdown, for varying reasons.
While it will be Bennett’s second trip to Suncorp Stadium this year (after leading the Rabbitohs to a win over the Cowboys in Magic Round), it will be the first time since late 2014 that he will sit in the opposing coaches’ box at the home of rugby league in Queensland.
On that occasion, in Round 24, 2014, he oversaw the Newcastle Knights’ 48-6 loss to the Brisbane Broncos, where he would return to as coach ahead of the commencement of the 2015 season.
Already, the 69-year-old has gained some revenge on the club that sacked him last December, leading the Bunnies to a thumping 38-6 win at ANZ Stadium in Round 8.
That humiliating defeat proved to be a turning point in the Broncos’ season, with the men from Red Hill winning eight of their last 13 matches to surge up the ladder.
Going into Friday night’s rematch, they’ll be armed by a strong record at home against the Bunnies, having not lost to them on home soil since Round 1, 2015.
That match, which the Rabbitohs won 36-6, happened to be Bennett’s first match back in charge of the Broncos since 2008 after he left the Knights at the end of the 2014 season.
For veteran Rabbitoh John Sutton, it could possibly be the last time he graces Suncorp Stadium, where the 34-year-old made his NRL debut at as a teenager in Round 17, 2004.
On that occasion, the Broncos were coached by Wayne Bennett, while Arthur Kitinas was acting as Rabbitohs caretaker coach after Paul Langmack was given his marching orders earlier in the season.
Who would have thought that, fifteen years later, Sutton, who has been the heart and soul of the Rabbitohs through the good times and bad, would have Bennett as his coach in his final season as a rugby league player?
He is also the only survivor from that match, which saw the Broncos register a 48-28 victory en route to a third-place finish on the ladder.
And so, the stage is set for what promises to be yet another spiteful clash between the Broncos and Rabbitohs, with the former side looking to continue their rise up the ladder and the latter battling to regain a double chance in time for the start of the NRL finals.