Panthers v Rabbitohs preview

Embed from Getty Images
Penrith Panthers v South Sydney Rabbitohs Saturday 7:50pm at Accor Stadium, Sydney Olympic Park

Rabbitohs eye shot at redemption against defending premiers

That was supposed to be it for the Rabbitohs.

When Adam Reynolds sent his sideline conversion wide, there was an overwhelming sense that South Sydney would not be this close again, at least for a couple of years.

Lachlan Ilias needed time to develop and without the master coach Wayne Bennett at the helm, a fall down the ladder seemed almost inevitable.

And South Sydney did fall, well outside of finals contention midway through the season before recovering, still only finishing seventh.

But with Latrell Mitchell available this time around, the Rabbitohs surged past the Roosters and easily accounted for the Sharks to book a shot at revenge against the Panthers.

Sure, Penrith has taken care of South Sydney twice this season with Mitchell at the back, although it is still fair to say the Rabbitohs are a much better chance of winning last year's decider with their first-choice fullback.

Let's not get bogged down on debating that point though. The frightening prospect for the Panthers is that Mitchell still seems to have so much more left in him, like he has been waiting for this moment.

The Rabbitohs will need him to be that guy against a Penrith side that can seemingly not put a foot wrong when at full-strength.

The Eels were tipped to give the Panthers a real shake in their qualifying final but were made to look second-rate, going down 27-8.

Yes, losing Mitchell Moses to a head knock did not help Parramatta, although Penrith were still on top at the point he went off, leading 13-8.

You still have to give them credit too for the way they shut down the Eels' big men too, with the likes of Isaiah Papali'i, Shaun Lane and Ryan Matterson having no say on the contest.

Junior Paulo and Reagan Campbell-Gillard did their best to try halt Penrith's momentum with strong running up front, although South Sydney will be without one of its most in-form forwards this week in Tom Burgess.

Fortunately for them Tevita Tatola will be available to play despite being charged for a chicken wing tackle last week, escaping with a fine.

Taylan May is not so fortunate, with the Penrith winger suspended for a high shot in the win over the Eels, although he would have likely been ruled out anyway with a hamstring injury.

He is replaced by Charlie Staines, who has been unable to live up to the hype that came with his four-try debut against Cronulla.

Obviously it was completely unfair to expect Staines to be scoring tries at that rate in his career, although he will need to lift his game as a whole to replace May, a crucial metre-eater for Penrith.

May has also proven himself an adept finisher closer to the line, something Staines may also struggle to replicate given his size disadvantage against several other wingers in the league.

Staines though knows the Penrith system and makes strong reads in defence, plus he will also be able to cover any early kicks for South Sydney speedster Alex Johnston.

Penrith is otherwise 1-17 for Saturday's preliminary final.

As for South Sydney, Siliva Havili (calf) is out and replaced on the bench by Jed Cartwright.

Alex Johnston (hip flexor) and Jai Arrow (groin) have been named, with the former said to be a 50-50 chance of playing on Saturday according to reports.

If Johnston is not fit to play, look for Josh Mansour or Richie Kennar to join the side on the wing.

Last meeting: Round 23 2022 - Rabbitohs 22 Panthers 26

Who to watch: Jaxson Paulo had an absolute nightmare the last time these two sides met, targeted in a brutal aerial raid from the Panthers. Sean O'Sullvian was Penrith's halfback that night though and while Paulo may not be in the 17 this time around, Nathan Cleary is for the Panthers. That means South Sydney's outside backs can expect plenty of attention. Cleary cast aside any concerns over his return from suspension when he masterminded Penrith's win over Parramatta in the qualifying finals. The 24-year-old got his running game going, taking the line on and dictating the tempo of Penrith's attack. Like O'Sullivan did the last time these two teams faced off, look for Cleary to kick to corners early and using his boot to take Mitchell out of the game.

If the Rabbitohs are any hope of causing an upset on Saturday, it starts with hooker Damien Cook. The Panthers can be vulnerable in defence through the ruck and of course, lock forward Cameron Murray is the catalyst for South Sydney with quick play-the-balls. But it is on Cook to take advantage of them and use his running game early to put Penrith's defence in two minds. Be it rolling up the field himself out of dummy-half or shifting the ball long and early to test the edges, Cook needs to draw on all his tricks to best the defending premiers. 

The favourite: You just can't write off the Panthers at this point, who are favourites to make yet another grand final.

My tip: Honestly, this is based on more of a gut feeling than anything else. It has seemed inevitable that the Panthers would cruise to this year's decider but you get the sense there may be one final twist on Saturday. The Rabbitohs will not be short of motivation to cause a boilover and if Lachlan Ilias and Cody Walker can get their long-range kicking right, an upset could be on the cards. Although, just quietly, if Johnston is ruled out and Mansour or Kennar comes in, that would be a big blow for South Sydney given how crucial he is to its left edge attack. For now though, it's the Bunnies in a boilover. Rabbitohs by 4.

1. Dylan Edwards 2. Charlie Staines 3. Izack Tago 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To'o 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Moses Leota 14. Mitch Kenny 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Liam Martin 13. Isaah Yeo 9. Apisai Koroisau 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Spencer Leniu 17. Jaeman Salmon 18. Sean O'Sullivan

1. Latrell Mitchell 21. Richard Kennar 3. Isaiah Tass 4. Campbell Graham 5. Taane Milne 6. Cody Walker 7. Lachlan Ilias 8. Tevita Tatola 9. Damien Cook 10. Mark Nicholls 11. Keaon Koloamatangi 12. Jai Arrow 13. Cameron Murray 14. Kodi Nikorima 15. Hame Sele 16. Michael Chee Kam 17. Jed Cartwright 18. Davvy Moale

Referees: Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials: Phil Henderson, Drew Oultram; Video Referees: Gerard Sutton;

Follow all the action LIVE in our Match Centre