Round 18: Bulldogs v Rabbitohs preview
Heartbroken Bulldogs dare to dream of upsetting the competition leaders
In a season that has been worlds apart from when they faced off against South Sydney in the 2014 grand final, the Bulldogs will be out to lick their wounds in the wake of an unfathomable loss to the Raiders last Saturday. Leading by 14 points with less than six minutes on the clock, a concession of three tries saw the Belmore faithful stunned at the 32-28 scoreboard reading against them. Showing greatly improved attacking potency over the past fortnight against Newcastle and Canberra with their two highest scores of the season, the heartbreak of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory was a new low for Canterbury in a season that has them positioned ahead of the last-placed Eels by just one win. Gaining the services of Origin front rower David Klemmer in a switch that sees former New Zealand representative Greg Eastwood omitted from the 21-man squad altogether, Saturday afternoon will make a personal milestone for captain Josh Jackson as he lines up for 150th appearance for Canterbury after making his NRL back in 2012.
Rated as outside chances of qualifying for the finals at the beginning of the season, few could have envisioned the transformation undertaken by the Rabbitohs in Anthony Seibold's first year at the helm. Sitting atop the premiership ladder post-Origin for the first time since 2013, the competition leaders have demonstrated remarkable improvement during an eight match winning run that has seen them score 213 points in a third of the season. Compared with the 464 total points recorded by South Sydney in Michael Maguire's final season in charge, the attacking improvements made in a relatively short period of time stand as testament to the benefits of adapting a style of play conducive to the strengths of the playing roster. Holding an above average record against the Bulldogs with four wins from seven clashes in the years following the 2014 decider, Saturday afternoon will mark Dane Gagai's 150th appearance in the NRL should the Queensland representative back up from Wednesday night's final Origin, while Hymel Hunt and Marc Nicholls will come into the side in place of Greg Inglis (broken thumb) and Jason Clark (suspension).
Who to watch: Etching his name into the annals of history with the largest personal haul by a losing player courtesy of 24 points from a hat trick and six goals last Saturday, rookie second rower Rhyse Martin will be eager to keep the points flowing against the Rabbitohs. Debuting in first grade earlier this year after a starring campaign with the Kumuls at the 2017 World Cup, the 25-year-old has been a diamond in the rough for Dean Pay after biding his time in the lower grades of Queensland and New South Wales rugby league in the years following his Under 20s captaincy with the Roosters. Becoming just the fourth NRL-era forward to score more than 20 points in a match alongside Craig Fitzgibbon, Justin Smith and tied with Corey Parker, Martin will look to consolidate his starting position with a strong performance against the competition leaders.
Having lived in the shadow of his star brother Michael and fellow first grader George, Robert Jennings has proven to be one of the unsung heroes of the Rabbitohs remarkable success in 2018. As a member of the 2015 Penrith Under 20s premiership winning team featuring the likes of James Fisher-Harris and Jarome Luai, the 22-year-old speedster looked set to be an unassuming graduate based off his performances in the NRL prior to this season, but in forming a potent left side attack alongside Greg Inglis, the youngest Jennings' sibling has made opponents take notice of him as more than ‘Michael Jennings' brother'. Averaging just under a try a game and making his representative debut for Tonga to boot, expect the speedy number five to keep the scoreboard attendant busy facing off against the Bulldogs' troublesome right side defence.
My tip: While Canterbury have unquestionably improved over the past fortnight, the step up in class against South Sydney should see plenty of points score - but very few by the hosts. Rabbitohs by 30.