Judiciary faces litmus test
After Josh Jackson was farcically allowed to play for Canterbury in the preliminary final, the heat is on the NRL judiciary to come up with the correct ruling on Isaac Luke’s dangerous throw on Sonny Bill Williams. Will they ignore all precedents set in 2014 (as they did in the Jackson case) and let him play, or show some bottle and rub Luke out of the biggest match of his career?
The right thing to do is to suspend the South Sydney hooker.
He is a brilliant player – arguably the Rabbitohs’ best against the Roosters – that has largely curbed the grubby play that threatened to derail his career a few years ago, and to miss out on such an enormous occasion would be a massive personal setback.
But there is no room for sentiment if the judiciary wants to maintain its integrity.
The tackle wasn’t particularly nasty, but the archaic argument that ‘he shouldn’t miss a grand final for that’ is redundant – rules and penalties need to be enforced exactly the same as they are during the regular season.
John Lomax, Jim Serdaris, Peter Ryan, Luke Ricketson and Cameron Smith all missed grand finals through short suspensions during the last 20 years, and the same hardline approach should be taken on Tuesday night.
Williams has volunteered to provide evidence in Luke’s defence, but that should be largely ignored – the pair are buddies from New Zealand’s World Cup campaign.
Souths will fight the Grade 1 dangerous throw charge (an early guilty plea would not be enough for Luke, who has carryover points hanging over him) and good luck to them.
But if Luke takes the field next Sunday, it will open a can of worms that will set the judiciary back several seasons in the credibility stakes – not to mention the total breakdown of the crusade to rid the game of lifting tackles in the wake of Alex McKinnon’s tragic injury.
The Rabbitohs have a solid replacement available in livewire rookie Apisai Koroisau, who played 13 games as Luke battled injuries and suspension earlier this year. Shifting Luke Keary from five-eighth is also an option, although the less key-position disruption the better for Souths. Underrated forward Jason Clark also has some form at dummy-half.
Souths would desperately miss Luke’s influence, while the diminutive Kiwi may never have the opportunity to play in a grand final again. But as Lomax and co. learned the hard way, that’s what happens when you sail close to the wind during the finals.
Ennis racing the clock
Canterbury played the majority of its gritty 18-12 defeat of Penrith without hooker Michael Ennis after he suffered a foot injury – and the Bulldogs are likely to have to head into the grand final without their niggly, wholehearted skipper following bleak scan results.
Ennis’ trademark abrasive tactics have come under fire during the finals series, but there is no questioning the veteran has been central to the Bulldogs’ success in 2014 and their charge through September – and he has arguably enjoyed his best season form-wise since his watershed ’09 campaign.
The 30-year-old has minor fractures in his left foot and is at long odds to take the field.
In an ironic twist, when the Bulldogs last won the premiership in 2004, captain Steve Price was ruled out of the grand final with a knee injury.
Like Price a decade ago, Ennis is leaving the club at the conclusion of the season. He has missed just one game since the start of 2012 and his absence could be destabilising.
Unlike Souths, there are no obvious answers to the blue-and-whites’ dummy-half dilemma.
Josh Reynolds filled the role adequately in Ennis’ absence on Saturday, but is more important to Canterbury’s cause as a roving five-eighth. Utility Moses Mbye is the logical option, but may not be up to the defensive workload, while Damien Cook made two appearances at hooker when Ennis switched to the halves during the Origin period.
NRL Grand Final
South Sydney Rabbitohs v Canterbury Bulldogs
Sunday 7:15pm, ANZ Stadium, Sydney
South Sydney’s brutal dismantling of defending champs the Sydney Roosters has ended a 43-year grand final drought, and all but removed a giant albatross from around the club’s neck.
There is still one more hurdle to overcome, however – a rugged, tenacious, blue-and-white speed-bump that has already ended the campaigns of three outstanding premiership candidates this month against the odds.
Two proud clubs will face off in a decider that presents one overwhelming favourite – but the ominous sense that this may not quite go to script lingers in the background.
What the Rabbitohs need to go right
On paper and 2014 form, Souths already have their 21st premiership wrapped up. Replicating Friday’s demolition of the Roosters will be the Rabbitohs’ aim; they didn’t panic despite falling behind 12-0 early on, they were relentless on both sides of the ball, and they excelled in the one-percenters.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the performance was there were no out-and-out dominant individuals – everyone did their job, and that’s the ethos Souths need to take into this career-defining clash. The Rabbitohs boast so many brilliant game-breakers that the points will come if they do the little things right and maintain focus.
What the Bulldogs need to go right
Canterbury has to lure Souths into a slogfest. The Bulldogs are one of the only sides that can match the Rabbitohs’ combination of size, physicality and skill in the engine-room department, but their strike-power out wide is vastly inferior.
If it comes down to a battle of the middle third, however, the Dogs are in with a chance. Taking opportunities is also imperative for Des Hasler’s charges – they have been peerless in that department throughout the finals, and can’t let any scoring chances slip by.
Key individual match-ups
They may not wear the same numbers on their backs, but the showdown between dynamic Englishmen James Graham and Sam Burgess will be explosive – and crucial to the outcome.
The ability of opposing halfbacks Trent Hodkinson and Adam Reynolds to direct traffic and hem the opposing side in with a strong kicking game is key.
Powerhouse centres Tim Lafai and Kirisome Auva’a are in blockbusting form and are set for a ding-dong battle, while makeshift fullback Sam Perrett will have his work cut out matching the influence of incomparable Souths No.1 Greg Inglis.
The combatants’ dummy-half composition is set to dominate the lead-up, and could swing the match one way or the other.
The availability of Isaac Luke and Michael Ennis – along with the relative merits of their potential replacements – is so vital to both teams’ prospects.
Make or break, dust or diamonds performers also abound in both sides: Tony Williams, David Klemmer, Mitch Brown, Lote Tuqiri, Ben Te’o and John Sutton are all capable of changing the complexion of a game with a piece of inspiration or a brain explosion.