It's knockout-football for every team from here on in as the Rabbitohs host the Dragons in the first semi-final from ANZ Stadium on Saturday night, in a battle of two sides with contrasting fortunes over the past week.
It's back to the drawing board for South Sydney after being edged out by the Storm 29-28 in an exciting qualifying final last week against the Storm in Melbourne. Both sides were neck-and-neck during the contest and could only be separated by a Cameron Munster field-goal late in the game. Having defeated the reigning premiers a few weeks ago and coming close here, they'll still have a lot of confidence coming into this match.
Meanwhile, the Dragons are riding a wave of emotions after upending the Broncos 48-18 at Suncorp Stadium last week and sending Brisbane packing from the competition. Not very many would have expected St George-Illawarra to make it out of the first week after they had only won three from their last nine matches coming into the finals' series and looked woefully out of form. But they silenced their doubters with a comprehensive display, one that announced themselves as a team to watch out for in September. It was bittersweet however due to talisman and skipper Gareth Widdop's season-ending shoulder injury; a big blow for a side he marshall's so well on the field.
2018 - Rabbitohs 24 def. Dragons 10 at ANZ Stadium
2018 - Dragons 16 def. Rabbitohs 12 at UOW Jubilee Stadium
2017 - Rabbitohs 26 def. Dragons 24 at Sydney Cricket Ground
2016 - Rabbitohs 34 def. Dragons 24 at ANZ Stadium
2016 - Dragons 8 def. Rabbitohs 6 at Sydney Cricket Ground
The head-to-head (in the NRL era) is in favour of the Dragons 17-13 but South Sydney have gotten the better of the ledger in recent times, having won eight of the last ten contests. Both teams shared a victory apiece at home this season, and it is at ANZ Stadium where the clash will take place, where the Rabbitohs have won the last four matches on the bounce. St George-Illawarra last beat the Rabbitohs there in 2013, prevailing 22-18. The last few matches have seen no real blowouts, so it wouldn't surprise me to see a tough encounter once again.
Anthony Seibold has selected an unchanged 17-man team from their loss to the Storm last week.
Due to Widdop's injury, which will require surgery for a shoulder reconstruction, Kurt Mann will replace him at five-eighth. Hame Sele moves onto the bench while Euan Aitken is a chance of returning or Jason Nightingale may come in, with both named in the reserves.
The Dragons will also wait on the fitness of James Graham (ankle) and Jack De Belin (concussion) who both failed to finish last week against the Broncos.
|South Sydney Rabbitohs||St George-Illawarra Dragons|
|1||Alex Johnston||Matthew Dufty|
|2||Campbell Graham||Nene MacDonald|
|3||Greg Inglis||Zac Lomax|
|4||Dane Gagai||Timoteo Lafai|
|5||Robert Jennings||Jordan Pereira|
|6||Cody Walker||Kurt Mann|
|7||Adam Reynolds||Ben Hunt|
|8||Thomas Burgess||James Graham|
|9||Damien Cook||Cameron McInnes|
|10||George Burgess||Leeson Ah Mau|
|11||John Sutton||Tyson Frizell|
|12||Angus Crichton||Tariq Sims|
|13||Sam Burgess||Jack De Belin|
|14||Hymel Hunt||Jeremy Latimore|
|15||Cameron Murray||Hame Sele|
|16||Jason Clark||Blake Lawrie|
|17||Dean Britt||Luciano Leilua|
|18||Braidon Burns||Jason Nightingale|
|19||Mark Nicholls||Jai Field|
|20||Tevita Tatola||Euan Aitken|
|21||Connor Tracey||Jacob Host|
The facts that matters
Most points (averaging 25 per game) and most tries (103) this season. The Rabbitohs have been an excitement machine. Their set-up plays are also right up there to create those opportunities as they lead the way in line-breaks (129), try assists (78) and line-break assists (91). If the Dragons are even a bit loose on defense, then South Sydney will be ready to pounce and they have a plethora of attacking options to do so with Inglis and Jennings both running for over 130 metres last week. Damien Cook runs an average of 90 metres per game and will need no invitation to run at a Dragons' pack which could be vulnerable without Paul Vaughan and potentially Graham and De Belin.
Cody Walker had two try-assists last week and continued his great form this season which includes 17 try-assists, 18 line breaks and 27 line-break assists himself. Adam Reynolds kicked 583 metres last week, and if he can keep that performance up this week, it will be a tough proposition for a Dragons side missing Widdop to steer the ship. Their combined handling errors of 60, though, will be something they want to limit.
The forwards had to do a loss let work defensively compared to the Storm, but their 27 missed tackles out of 258 will be an area they won't have been too pleased about. That's despite making 140 more metres on attack than Melbourne, and in a game decided by a small margin, these types of swings can count. The Burgess brothers make on average seven missed tackles between them per match, but on the same account make over 100 metres per week. If they can limit the damage on defense and get up the other end as they usually have been, they'll put their side in an excellent position.
They have a lot going for them after downright dominating Brisbane with 61% in territory last week and forcing 46 missed tackles out of the Broncos. It's no surprise then that the Dragons lead the competition in tackle breaks with an average of 37 per game. Chief among them is Ben Hunt (with 66 himself) and although he has been much maligned for his ball management and handling (28 errors) he still has the capabilities to take control of a game, as 14 line break assists, 18 try assists and 9 line breaks to go with 38 offloads will attest to. He kicked 432 metres last week and as the Dragons probably won't enjoy the same amount of territory as they did last week, will have to be better at kicking defensively. He will have Kurt Mann outside him, who has a big job to do to in filling the role of Widdop, but is a capable ball-runner himself in the utility role he has been in, making 51 tackle breaks to go with five line breaks himself. While Cameron McInnes isn't the runner that Damien Cook is, he makes 38 tackles per game and has been just as important this season in feeding Widdop and Hunt with the ball at the right times.
Tariq Sims was in red-hot form last week, breaking the line three times to go over for a hat-trick. Tyson Frizell looked just as dangerous, running for 136 metres while Leeson Ah Mau, on his way to the New Zealand Warriors next season, bolstered his reputation with 137 metres and a strong run to the Broncos' line to complement Sims' efforts. The Dragons' pack tackled at 90% efficiency in that match and it will require something similar on attack and defense if they are to compete with an ominous South Sydney front and back row, who engage the line more than any team.
All indications including form, team lists and recent meetings suggest South Sydney should win this. Both sides haven't played each other since round 10 this year and the Rabbitohs have gone from strength to strength in that time, whilst the Dragons seemed to have peaked mid-season. Last week would have been a minor blip for the Rabbitohs and they have a great moving forward pack, well-performing playmakers and the backs to finish the job. It will be of interest to see what they will do when those questions are asked of the defense, just as the Dragons did to the Broncos last week.
The Dragons had a superb game against Brisbane and have the momentum behind them. Some of the key players that brought them here including Widdop and Vaughan are missing, though, and De Belin and Graham will have to pull through if they are to compete with a strong South Sydney pack. With Ben Hunt and Kurt Mann having to combine and penetrate that defense, it could be a tough night.
I don't pick upsets very often, and I will probably be in the minority here, but this is finals' football and if the Dragons show the aggression they did against Brisbane last week, this could be a very interesting match.
Tip: Dragons by 2.
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