The Roar
The Roar


NRL Tactical Preview: Where the Roosters and Rabbitohs match will be won and lost

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31st August, 2023
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The build up to any clash between the Roosters and Rabbitohs is always fraught. It comes with the territory.

When they clash with a spot in the finals on the line, it hypes up further. Whoever wins at Accor Stadium on Friday night, there might be an acceptance that both have underachieved.

Pre-season, the Roosters were second favourites (behind the Panthers) and Souths were in third behind them. 

For one of them to miss the eight would be an abject disaster, while whoever makes it through is going to go the long way round to any sort of success in the post-season.

That they were both so highly favoured speaks to the strength of roster available, but their predicament now shows how flawed they have been at times.

Trent Robinson has wrangled all year with his attack, only recently finding – or being able to pick, due to absences – what you might say is his best team. Even then, Joey Manu is now out with a hamstring injury and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves is suspended.

Jason Demetriou has also struggled to get his best 17 out there, starting with a raft of forwards missing before losing Latrell Mitchell to an injury and big numbers to Origin. Mitchell is, again, absent for this one with another ban.


Now, it all comes down to this, a do-or-die clash. The Roosters are bang in form, having won four straight to set up this showdown, while Souths have been right out of it, stumbling towards the end line. 

It’s those flaws that make this game so interesting and form, as everyone knows, means nothing in derbies. Here’s where the game will be won and lost.

Can Souths finally find their attack – and can the Roosters defend it?

Robinson was insistent that his side were preparing for the best version of Souths – or the best version that doesn’t include their best player, at least – and that he would ignore their shocking form as of late.

“When you analyse a team, you wipe away the good and bad and look at what they actually do,” he said. “What do you need to prepare for?

“People have opinions on how they’ve played last week or the week before, but as a coach you purely look at their systems of play and what you need to nullify, what opportunities are there in the opposition, what individuals need to do and can you attack certain areas of their game as well.”

“You have to wear away that emotion that you’ve watched during a game and be pure in your analysis.”


In Souths’ case, that isn’t an enormously complicated process. They are about as tactically defined as it gets in the NRL, with a highly distinctive and coherent play style. 

12 of the 17 that played in their finals match-up last year will return (against nine from the Roosters) and all of the 17 bar Mark Nicholls and Kodi Nikorima are still at the club, with no outside additions at all.

The Bunnies’ greatest strength is that cohesiveness, and while it hasn’t been working of late, the Roosters’ expectation has to be that it will return.

QUEANBEYAN, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 27: Trent Robinson looks on during the NSW Cup Trial Match between the North Sydney Bears and the Canberra Raiders at Seiffert Oval on February 27, 2021 in Queanbeyan, Australia. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Trent Robinson. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

“They’ve balanced out a bit this year and gone to Campbell Graham and Keoan Koloamatangi, but they have a very clear style of play that they haven’t shifted a lot for quite a few years,” said Robinson.

“We’ve played them enough, we know how they’re going to play, so it comes down to execution of a game plan in defence and then how we want to play that we’ve tried to add in attack. It’s whoever executes best and attacks the game with the right mindset.”

The Chooks, even at their worst this year, have had one of the best goalline defences around. In this match-up, however, that will be less important. 


As good as the Roosters have historically been at absorbing repeat sets on their line, Souths aren’t really bothered about accumulating pressure that way and will revert to their usual use-it-or-lose it approach. 

Their attack from deep is the threat, and that’s where Robinson might be worried. Lesser teams than Souths – notably the Dragons and Bulldogs – have eviscerated their edge defence, and you can expect Isaiah Tass to see a lot of early ball in the hope that it strikes again. 

Sam Walker has been far from the worst half in the NRL in that department – much as he gets pelters for that side of the game – but he will have to be at his best to deal with the shapes that will be thrown at him.

Souths have been poor since May, but even in that run, they have never really dropped off in terms of line breaks, with four their fewest, meaning that even on their worst day, they’re still better in that regard than more than half of the comp.

What has fallen is their conversion rate of line breaks to tries, and of course, their defence.

One of the key factors behind that efficiency drop-off has been a willingness of teams to operate a bend-not-break approach to their left side, with the Broncos in particular opting to let the ball reach Alex Johnston, but then scramble over to cramp his room. The line briefly breaks, but immediately recovers. 

It’s a bit of a high wire act, but it has been shown to work. Watch for the Roosters edge defence.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 08: Rabbitohs head coach Jason Demetriou looks on during a South Sydney Rabbitohs NRL Training Session at Redfern Oval on March 08, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Jason Demetriou. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)


How the Roosters go their mojo back – and why Souths lost theirs

As ever with Souths, the question lies in how they defend their errors. Or, if you prefer, in how the Roosters attack them.

The Chooks have restructured their attack in recent weeks, with superb effect: they’ve averaged seven line breaks per game in the last seven games, after averaging just shy of four for the entire season prior to that. It’s not an exaggeration to say their attack is twice as effective as it was prior to Round 20.

Prior to that, the backline was all over the place. James Tedesco was near ever-present, but Daniel Tupou missed a chunk in the middle of the year through injury, as did Suaalii through suspension, while Luke Keary was constantly chopping and changing between the 6 and 7 jumpers until recently.

That Round 20 game – a loss to Melbourne in which they were a tad unfortunate – coincided with their 1-6 becoming a lot, lot more settled and square pegs being placed into square holes.

Keary stopped playing halfback in Round 16, Billy Smith returned from injury in Round 18, Manu returned to the centre in Round 20 and Suaalii moved back to the wing in Round 21. Since then, it’s been pretty much all systems go offensively speaking.

Robinson also introduce a little more improvisation to the attack, which combined with better personnel and cohesion growing week to week, has seen the Roosters start to hit form.


“I feel like our system we’ve been working on all year, but we’ve also played a bit more off the cuff in the last month,” said the coach. 

“It’s the freest we’ve played all year and you see that in the tries that we’ve scored. In different games it hasn’t been consistent but I guess the style that we’ve played the last month has been consistent in its variation.

“The cohesion is important. They’ve spent a lot of time together over the course of the year but we haven’t been able to play consistently with them.

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

“I said that last week with Sammy coming back last week and the ease with which they combined.

“We need to create opportunities and that comes from speed of play for us. That combination is key to how we are going to perform.”

Once the attack came, the defence was already there. The Roosters have lost four games while conceding 22 or fewer, including close ones to direct finals rivals in Cronulla, Manly, Canberra and the Cowboys. 

Even the games the Chooks won reflected that: their seven victories prior to the start of this run were with scores of 28, 27, 25, 20, 20, 18 and 14. 


It wasn’t scintillating stuff with the ball, but it also meant that only a minimal improvement in attack was required to see a serious upswing in results.

Souths, however, have been the opposite. Their defence has disappeared: for the first eleven rounds, the most they conceded was 20 (in defeat to the Roosters) but since, they have conceded 26 or more nine times since. In the three games they have won, it has been with 6, 14 and 18 against. No prizes, then, for guess where the problem lies.

All teams need to defend their errors, but the Bunnies generally make a lot more than most due to the way they attack. When they can back up their offence with defence, they invariably win.

Part of the defensive issues are individual – tackle efficiency is way down in recent months – but it’s also structural, with poorer form with the ball creating more tackling to be done, which increases fatigue. For sides like South Sydney, this is a huge problem 

Their attack is notably faster than pretty much anyone else, so they can often spend more time defending than attacking even when they have more total sets with the ball, especially in tight games.

That’s not necessarily a problem – having a fast attack, broadly, is very good – but it does mean that only a slight drop in completion rate can cause a big problem.

Completions in general are a pretty useless stat, but there’s always the caveat that they are useless above a floor of around 73%, beneath which it becomes very difficult to win any game.

Souths have won with as little as 63% this year and lost with as high as 89%, but it’s not a surprise that on eight of the ten occasions they have gone sub-73% this year, they have lost. 


It’s glib to say that the reason the Souths got worth without the ball is because they got less of it, and indeed, to say that the secret to the Roosters’ renaissance is that they got all their best players back, but it might be that Occam’s Razor works here. 

For all the technical details, having your best players on the park and having more of the ball than your opponent are two really good ways to win rugby league matches.

The Roosters have some of their best players, but not all of them. The Bunnies have shown that they can dominate the footy and thus defend their errors, but not recently.

That’s why this clash should be so fascinating: both sides are great, but also flawed. It’s why they’re fighting it out for the finals at all, rather than safely in the top four, as their rosters suggest they should be.