SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS V NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS – 4PM (WAST)/7PM (AEDT)/9PM (NZT) SATURDAY, MARCH 10 @ PERTH STADIUM
The Storyline: The Warriors and South Sydney become the first teams from any football code to test out the impressive new Perth Stadium, but for two teams that finished in the bottom five last season, starting 2018 the right way is far more important than any novelty factor.
The revamped Warriors come into the season without the burden of expectation, but there’s plenty of interest around whether new head trainer Alex Corvo has made an impact on a notoriously slow-starting squad and under-pressure coach Stephen Kearney’s vow to release the attacking shackles that held the side back last year. The Rabbitohs are talking a big game with new coach Anthony Siebold taking the coaching reins, Greg Inglis returning from a year-long injury layoff and rep star Dane Gagai lobbing at Redfern.
The Simon Mannering-less Warriors must confront a three-pronged hoodoo of never having won in Perth, a lengthy losing streak against Souths and a horrible record in Round 1 games.
The History: Played 31 – Warriors 18, Rabbitohs 13
-The Warriors are on a six-match losing streak against Souths.
-The Warriors have an 0-9 record in Perth, with three of those losses coming against the Rabbitohs, who are 5-5 overall in the city.
-Souths’ last five wins over the Warriors have come by 16 points or more.
-The Warriors are on a nine-match losing streak and have won just one of their last eight Round 1 games.
-The Rabbitohs have won four of their last five season openers.
-Alex Johnston has scored five tries in just three appearances against the Warriors.
-The Warriors won just one of 13 games away from Mount Smart in 2017.
3 Key Match-ups
Issac Luke v Damien Cook: After two subpar seasons in Auckland, Luke looks trim and raring to go – but the Warriors need the ex-Souths rake to cut down the errors as well as maintaining that trademark dummy-half spark. The NRL’s fastest hooker, Cook has ousted Robbie Farah for the Rabbitohs’ No.9 and will be a constant threat around the ruck, but how will he cope with playing the full 80?
Blake Green v Cody Walker: Different styles, but equally important to their sides’ prospects – in particular taking the heat off the rep halfbacks inside them. Green’s cool head could be the making of the Warriors’ season, while Walker’s electric running game and support play are among Souths’ chief weapons.
Tohu Harris v Angus Crichton: Harris’ importance to the Warriors has amplified in the wake of Mannering’s early-season absence; he’s the jewel in an otherwise nondescript back-row and his new club needs him to be highly involved. The most damaging ball-running forward not named Jason Taumalolo, Crichton is a menace on the edge (10 line-breaks and 117 tackle-breaks in 2017) and will ask questions of the Warriors’ defence all day.
Under the Pump: Mannering’s absence in the middle of the park will only shine a harsher spotlight on maligned recruit Adam Blair if he produces the same run-shy efforts that plagued his 2017 finals and World Cup campaigns. There’s no question front-row partner James Gavet will turn up – but he can’t take on the Burgess trio solo.
Last Time They Met: Souths powered to a 36-18 result at ANZ Stadium in Round 24 to consign the Warriors to their seventh straight loss. A two-try Roger Tuivasa-Sheck played a lone hand for the visitors, while Alex Johnston blazed over for a hat-trick from fullback for the Bunnies and tyros Crichton and Cameron Murray made the Warriors look second-rate.
Why We’ll Win: Coming into a new season with low expectations placed upon them and as Round 1 underdogs are two unfamiliar factors that play into the Warriors’ hands. The Green-Johnson combination showed excellent early signs, while the likes of Tuivasa-Sheck, Fusitu’a, Harris and Gavet were superb during the trials. A more attack-oriented game-plan should see the Warriors get back to doing what they do best. Souths look light on the flanks and up front, while the afternoon Perth heat may suit the more mobile Warriors forwards.
Why We’ll Lose: Major question marks remain over the pack, which has been exacerbated by Mannering’s absence. Replacing the veteran in the No.13 with Ligi Sao is like going back to VHS when you’re used to having Netflix at your fingertips. If Blair, Gavet, Sao and co. can’t lay a sufficient platform against a big Souths engine-room and stop the Rabbitohs’ Sam Burgess-led roll, the Warriors’ blue-chip spine can’t fire. The Rabbitohs are certain to target the Warriors’ left-side duo of Kata and Maumalo – and they’ll most likely find success. Then there’s the Perth/Souths/Round 1 bogeys to overcome…
The Punt: NZ TAB Odds – Head to Head: Rabbitohs (-6.5) $1.45, Warriors (+6.5) $2.60
The Warriors are 3-10 against the line in their last 13 games in Australia. The Rabbitohs have covered 7 of their last 9 in Perth; the Warriors are 2-4 against the line in their last six in the Western Australia capital. The over is 10-5 in the Warriors’ last 15 day games in Australia, while 10 of the Warriors’ last 11 Round 1 fixtures have produced 42 points or more. Seven of these sides’ last eight encounters have produced totals of 43 or more.
The Verdict: It’s not an ideal season-opening match-up for the Warriors – particularly without Mannering. Inglis is fizzing for a big return, the Rabbitohs’ pack will be licking their lips, and there’s just a feeling too much would have to go right for the Warriors to cause the upset here. Finding an immediate balance between the safety-first Warriors of 2017 and the much talked-about attack-focused version of this year won’t be easy. The Warriors should go better this week than most are predicting, but a tight South Sydney win is a more realistic result. Rabbitohs by 6