Round 17: Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles preview
Battle royale resumes at ANZ.
After a patchy start to 2019, the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles shocked the NRL with a hard-fought one point win over a high-flying Rabbitohs side at Brookvale in Round 4, and it turned the fortunes of returned coach Des Hasler's side around.
It would be the Bunnies' only loss in the first eleven rounds - the entire period before the first Origin match - a form line which has seen the cardinal and myrtle entrenched firmly in the top four all season. Since Origin though? Oh boy.
They have haven't tasted victory at Redfern since Round 11 - losses to the Eels, Knights, Panthers and Wests Tigers have cruelled their form and another loss may well see them struggling to maintain their top four spot. One of the clubs nipping at their heels to yank it from their grasp? The Sea Eagles.
Hasler's side has also felt the ravages of Origin, although have managed to still post positive results since the competition moved into a state of flux at the end of May. Their two most recent performances have been strong wins over the Dragons and Titans, but they'll need to lift again to beat a Rabbitohs side desperate to avoid a fifth straight loss.
The Bunnies had hoped to count on the return of Sam Burgess this week after his recovery from shoulder surgery, but the English forward will miss another week or two after failing a fitness test on Friday. Elsewhere, Adam Doueihi is named at fullback with Alex Johnston still not fit to play, while Tevita Tatola is George Burgess' replacement in the front row. Ethan Lowe, who starred for the Maroons in Wednesday night's Origin loss, was dropped to the bench to enable Sam Burgess to start, but also appears likely to drop out. Jaydn Su'A is shaping as one of two players to come into the seventeen before kickoff. Origin reps in Gagai, Cook and Murray are all named.
Who to watch: Assuming he backs up, plenty of eyes will fall on Rabbitohs winger Dane Gagai. Over recent years, fans and experts alike have been at pains to point out he appears to struggle with club footy, particularly during the Origin period. Gagai's Origin prowess is just about unquestioned - eleven tries in twelve appearances since 2015 and the Wally Lewis Medal for player of the 2017 series speak for themselves. But when he's wearing the red and green (or even the red and blue as recently as 2017), his club form fails to match the hype. With regular halves pairing Walker & Reynolds back for the Bunnies, and hopefully staying uninjured, hopefully Gagai can get on the back of the platform they create for the outside backs and show some Maroon class in the cardinal and myrtle.
2019 has been somewhat of a renaissance for Manly back-rower Curtis Sironen. After moving to the Northern Beaches club after a five-year stint at Wests Tigers, Sironen has endured an injury-littered time at Manly in his first two seasons. The former Tiger played just 20 matches in his first two seasons at the Sea Eagles, having overcome a torn pec in 2017 and then rupturing his ACL last year. He told NRL.com in January he wanted to play every game this season, and so far he's delivered on that promise - and has played the full 80 minutes most weeks to boot. While it took him eight seasons to get there, the son of Balmain legend Paul Sironen reached NRL game 100 a fortnight ago, helping himself to two tries in a comfortable Manly win over the Gold Coast. Another spirited performance like that and the Rabbitohs will find him hard to contain.
The favourite: The Bunnies are better back by a considerable margin, but I don't expect to see that reflected in the result come fulltime on Saturday afternoon.
My tip: While logic suggests a side of South Sydney's class simply won't lose five in a row, Manly's form is far better. While a lot will come down to who backs up from Wednesday night's Origin decider - for both sides - at the moment it's probably a Manly victory. Sea Eagles by 2.