After 26 gruelling rounds of Rugby League action, the NRL finals series begins on Friday night at ANZ Stadium. South Sydney Rabbitohs suffered a double whammy last weekend – losing the Minor Premiership decider to bitter rivals Sydney Roosters, and other results conspiring to ensure they face their biggest nemesis in the NRL in the opening finals game.
Melbourne Storm are aiming to become first team in 20 years to defend a Premiership and have now been installed as outright favourites. They have already beaten Souths twice this season, and the Rabbitohs are looking for a first win over the Storm in Sydney in almost a decade. The Storm have named Gareth Widdop on an extended bench as cover for Brett Finch who is in some doubt for this game. Widdop has made a faster than expected recovery from a dislocated hip, but has only played one game in the Queensland Cup in the past three months.
After taking a lead into last week’s match against the Roosters, Souths were kept scoreless in the second half and ended up losing the game. They will look for more from their attacking players, especially the likes of Nathan Merritt – who in fact has only scored two tries in the past nine games. Coach Michael Maguire has named the same 17 man squad that faced the Roosters.
There are so many key battles all over the park, but two really stand out as potentially match deciding. Billy Slater and Greg Inglis are almost universally recognised as the best fullbacks in the game. Stater appears to back to his very best form, with nine tries in seven matches at the back end of the season. Inglis, on the other hand, is still finding his way back to form after a knee injury suffered during the Origin period. Even when short of full fitness, Inglis has shown enough in the last few rounds to indicate his best is not far away.
In the halves Adam Reynolds will look to wipe away the bad memories of last year’s finals campaign when both his and Souths season was torn apart along with his hamstring. Reynolds is statistically the best kicker the game has seen since the mid 1980’s, and his improved numbers this year make a mockery of the supposed ‘second season syndrome’ used to excuse lesser talents. His opponent Cooper Cronk is far more experienced, but is also in career best form.
At the start of the season it looked as though the Storm were unstoppable, with seven straight wins continuing a long winning streak that began late in 2012. As always, the Origin period proved challenging and a significant dip in form coincided. Since Origin they have looked back to their best – twice scoring more than 60 points in a game – although the final two games of their regular season saw a defeat to Manly and only a Golden Point win over the Titans. It is this glimmer of hope that Souths fans can find inspiration to cheer on their side in their quest to move straight to the preliminary final.
Friday 13th September, ANZ Stadium Homebush 19:45
South Sydney Rabbitohs v Melbourne Storm
Also includes Warriors v Souths Holden Cup Elimination final kick off 5.15.
All pre purchased tickets include public transport to and from the stadium. The Sydney Olympic Park Major Event Buses are also in operation.