Round 23: Rabbitohs v Bulldogs preview - 2017 Round 23
How did this end up a Thursday night primetime game?
While one can accept the fact it's now seven weeks since the NRL confirmed the schedule for the final six rounds of the competition, one has to seriously wonder how this particular clash was selected to open the round in the Thursday night Free-To-Air timeslot. Both clubs languish at the bottom end of the competition, finals hopes shot to pieces and aside from the Bunnies downing the Dragons at the SCG last week, neither side has looked remotely threatening for the bulk of the 2017 campaign.
Last week in previewing the Canterbury-Parramatta clash, my colleague Rob Crosby waxed lyrical about Des Hasler's future at the Belmore club, suggesting the man with the flowing locks should 'get out of the road' if he wasn't willing to help the Bulldogs change their dated attacking structures. Whether Des is the problem or not, the Canterbury players simply need to throw the playbook out. Give their fans something to cheer for in the final four weeks of competition - throw the ball around, chance the hand, and for god sake hold the ball. With murmurs around more and more players being shopped around, some kind of positive needs to come from this last month of action - and it surely starts with a spirited performance on Thursday.
Don't be fooled by the Bunnies' win over the Dragons last Friday evening either. South Sydney have been on the slide almost consistently since their premiership win in 2014, missing the finals in 2016 and now again this season. They've won just seven games this season and still need to record three more victories to surpass last season's effort of 9 wins, which had them finish in 12th place (13th in terms of wins, given Parramatta's cap punishment).
There isn't much to report from either side's teamsheets - just the return of Aaron Gray for South Sydney in place of Hymel Hunt, with Campbell Graham retaining his place on the wing after a successful debut last week. Canterbury have named the same 17 who took the field a week ago, bizarrely retaining Chase Stanley in the halves and benching Matt Frawley. Calls are growing from the fanbase to promote Josh Cleeland from the Intrust Super Premiership side, who are currently sitting in the top four and playing exciting attacking footy. Time will tell if that happens before the season's out.
Despite a patchy start to the season, Canterbury actually looked like a well-oiled team for parts of their Good Friday win over South Sydney earlier this year. The Rabbits were ahead 9-8 at the break before the Doggies powered home on the back of some surprisingly enterprising attack - and poor Rabbitohs defence.
Overall these clubs have met 168 times since 1935, with the Bulldogs holding a ten-win advantage 86 to 76, with six draws. Souths have only won 9 of 25 clashes between these sides at ANZ Stadium since 1999, albeit one of them being the ultimate victory in the 2014 Grand Final.
Who to watch: Aaron Gray is back for the Rabbitohs, looking to play just his 7th match of 21 this season. Without he or Greg Inglis available for large parts of the year, the Rabbitohs backline has struggled for potency. They'll be hoping his presence will lift the cardinal & myrtle in what's been a lean 2017.
In the other centre pairing, Josh Morris has a bit on his plate. His form in the last few games has been well below par, full of errors and poorly chosen passes, culminating in a disastrous penalty tap last week in which he simply lost the ball as he brought it up to his foot. While the pill was slippery on a night of torrential rain, he'll have higher expectations of himself. His defensive combination with brother Brett has been exploited a little in recent weeks as well - hopefully they've been working on that at training this week.
My tip: The blue and white goggles are urging me to defy logic and tip the 'Dogs, but I just can't do it. The Rabbitohs will claim their eighth win of the season, but it won't be high scoring. Rabbitohs by 8.