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3 hours ago | Tim Costello
Historic foes face off for a place in the final four
Scoring enough points to win the vast majority of qualifying finals in years gone by, the South Sydney Rabbitohs will be out to atone for last Friday's high-scoring loss to Melbourne in order to set up a preliminary final date with the Sydney Roosters. Seemingly doing enough to record their first win in the Victorian capital after taking the lead with nine minutes to play, Rabbitohs coach Anthony Seibold will be stressing the importance of driving home any advantage during the match to ensure the strides taken throughout the home-and-away season amount to more than back-to-back play-off losses. Holding a dominant record against the Dragons in recent seasons with six wins from the eight matches played since Paul McGregor was installed as Dragons coach midway through 2014, Saturday evening will be the first time the two sides have met in the finals; however prior to the merger between St. George and Illawarra, the revered clubs regularly faced off in end-of-season contest including five grand finals between 1927 and 1971. Maintaining the same playing group that went down in Melbourne last Friday, Hymel Hunt and Dean Britt will be hopeful of making it onto the field having been confined to the bench for the duration of last week's qualifying final loss.
Given little hope of progressing beyond the first week of the finals following a dismal run of form over the final third of the season, the St. George Illawarra Dragons will be looking to reclaim their title contender claims with a dominant performance in front of the largest semi final crowd expected in over a decade. With Parramatta and Canterbury drawing 50,621 supporters to ANZ Stadium in 2007, the prospect of two famous Sydney clubs entrenched in rugby league history should set a new attendance record for a semi final on Saturday evening, barring poor weather or apathy from supporters. Holding a 1-all ledger with the Rabbitohs in NRL fixtures this season, Dragons coach Paul McGregor will be hoping his side can overcome a five year losing run against South Sydney at ANZ Stadium, while claiming their first finals win at the venue since the 2010 grand final victory. Unable to call upon captain Gareth Widdop after the star playmaker aggravated an injured shoulder, utility Kurt Mann has been named to partner Ben Hunt in the halves, while Tyson Frizell and Cameron McInnes - in his 50th game for the club - will co-captain the side. As a result of the reshuffle Hame Sele will come onto the bench for just his fourth appearance of 2018, however it is likely that Euan Aitken, Jason Nightingale or Jai Field will be included in the final 17 due to their backline versatility.
Last meeting: Round 10 2018 - Rabbitohs 24 Dragons 10
Last Finals Meeting: First Finals Meeting
Prior to the St. George and Illawarra merger in 1999, the Rabbitohs and Dragons featured in 16 finals matches, including five grand finals, dating back to 1927. The Steelers never opposed South Sydney in a first grade finals match during their 17 seasons as a stand-alone club.
Who to watch: Having debuted as a teenage centre back in 2004, John Sutton will be eager to secure a new deal with the ‘pride of the league' by leading the red and green to the preliminary finals for the first time in four seasons. Still unsigned beyond this year, the 33-year-old former premiership-winning captain has benefitted greatly from Anthony Seibold's alternative perspective by producing his best season since moving to the forwards as part of the Rabbitohs' potent left edge attack. As the most-capped player in the history of South Sydney dating back more than a century, Sutton's legacy at the club has been well established with over 300 first grade appearances, however in the unlikely event 2018 is his final season at the revered club, look for the in-form second rower to put his best foot forward in pursuit of a grand final send off.
Enduring a bipolar run of form in his first season since heading south from Brisbane, Ben Hunt will need to produce his finest performance in the Red V if the Dragons are to progress through to their first preliminary final since 2010. Unable to draw upon Gareth Widdop following a recurring shoulder dislocation sustained midway through last Sunday, the 28-year-old playmaker will be forced to carry the playmaking burden while being worked over relentlessly by Souths' front row rotation. Regularly subjected to a barrage of excessive criticism, look for Hunt to let his on-field actions do the talking with a starring performance built around his incisive running game and a calculated kicking performance designed to tire out the Rabbitohs big men.
The favourite: After pushing the reigning premiers to the death last Friday, the South Sydney Rabbitohs are expected to prove too strong for the injury-depleted Dragons.
My tip: While the confidence gained from last Sunday's demolition of Brisbane should instil the Dragons with plenty of confidence, the class of the Rabbitohs full-strength team should see the 2014 premiers set up a highly anticipated date with their archrivals for a place in the grand final. Rabbitohs.
Outcome: The winner of the Second Semi Final will face the Sydney Roosters next Saturday evening. Allianz Stadium is expected to be the venue, however the venue may be upgraded to ANZ Stadium in order to accommodate ticket demand.
1. Alex Johnston 2. Campbell Graham 3. Greg Inglis 4. Dane Gagai 5. Robert Jennings 6. Cody Walker 7. Adam Reynolds 8. Thomas Burgess 9. Damien Cook 10. George Burgess 11. John Sutton 12. Angus Crichton 13. Sam Burgess 14. Hymel Hunt 15. Cameron Murray 16. Jason Clark 17. Dean Britt
1. Matthew Dufty 2. Nene Macdonald 3. Zac Lomax 4. Timoteo Lafai 5. Jordan Pereira 6. Kurt Mann 7. Ben Hunt 8. James Graham 9. Cameron McInnes 10. Leeson Ah Mau 11. Tyson Frizell 12. Tariq Sims 13. Jack de Belin 14. Jeremy Latimore 16. Blake Lawrie 17. Luciano Leilua 18. Jason Nightingale 19. Jai Field
Referees: Gerard Sutton, Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials: Chris Butler, Brett Suttor; Video Referees: Jared Maxwell, Luke Patten;