The South Sydney Rabbitohs will start as the most pronounced grand final favourites in recent history as the most successful club in the code’s narrative aims to break a 43-year premiership drought, while many of us are still scratching our heads as to how the Canterbury Bulldogs made it after a shambolic end to the regular season.
The Rabbitohs have the superstars, the giant pack and the scoring strike, but the Bulldogs have excelled in making great teams look ordinary during the finals by luring them into a grind. There are plenty of subplots, unknowns, and injury and suspension wild cards, ensuring that what shapes as a potentially one-sided decider harbours the intrigue and excitement befitting rugby league’s greatest occasion.
The weight of history
Even casual fans of rugby league will be able to tell you South Sydney has not played in a grand final since 1971, such is regularity we’ve been bombarded with the statistic in recent weeks. The Rabbitohs broke their preliminary final hoodoo with an emphatic defeat of the Sydney Roosters last Friday, but the pressure only ramps up now they’ve finally returned to the big dance. The current crop of Souths players must avoid letting the millstone of history, which has consistently plagued their predecessors, drag them down.
Seventh-placed Canterbury has its own slice of history to overcome, aiming to become the lowest-seeded team ever to take out the title. But if there’s a club that can do it, it’s the Bulldogs: they hold the current record by winning the grand final from sixth in 1995, while they also reached the decider from a lowly ninth (in a 10-team finals series) in 1998.
Grand final experience
‘You have to lose a grand final to win one’ is a popular idiom that has proved increasingly fallible in modern-day rugby league – nine of the 16 NRL-era premiers managed to hoist the trophy despite not enduring the harsh learning curve of a grand final loss in the previous five years or more.
But having a few players with grand final experience is handy. Canterbury will field nine players from their loss to Melbourne two years ago (10 if Michael Ennis recovers), while Tony Williams and Reni Maitua have previously won grand finals, and 2012 survivors Sam Perrett and Aiden Tolman have also played in deciders with other clubs. Lote Tuqiri, who featured in his only decider with Brisbane in 2000, and Greg Inglis are Souths’ only grand final-experienced players.
Star-studded St George Illawarra (2010) is the only side in the last eight years to win a premiership despite having only two players with grand final experience.
The dummy-half puzzle
Isaac Luke is suspended, Michael Ennis is injured. Both players are central to their respective teams’ success to date, but the capacity of each side to replace their hurting hookers arguably provides Souths with more of an advantage than if they were both playing. Rookie Apisai Koroisau is a livewire Luke-clone and filled in superbly earlier this season. Canterbury is still tossing up between versatile veteran Reni Maitua, rookie utility Moses Mbye, and little-known two-gamer Damien Cook – none of whom are ideal fill-ins.
The Battle of Britain
A one-on-one forward showdown has not been as anticipated as the James Graham-Sam Burgess clash before a grand final since ‘Chief’ Harragon and ‘Spud’ Carroll went hammer-and-tongs in ’97. The cast iron-tough, deftly skilled Graham is arguably Canterbury’s most important player; rugby union-bound Burgess brandishes a slightly different – but equally effective – set of game-breaking skills. Whichever Englishman has the biggest impact on Sunday night will have a huge bearing on the outcome.
Of course, there will be another pair of Brits showing the colonials how it’s done on Sunday – Sam’s brothers, twin behemoths George and Thomas. The blonde-haired duo, along with Ben Te’o, Dave Tyrell, John Sutton and Chris McQueen, must give their star lock the necessary support up front; Burgess has played like a one-man band all season, but that won’t cut it in a grand final. Aiden Tolman, Josh Jackson, Dale Finucane and David Klemmer have been outstanding in the trenches alongside Graham throughout the finals.
Not since ‘Chook’ Herron strode onto the SFS in thigh-pads has a team fielded a less potent attacking back-three than Canterbury. Sam Perrett, Mitch Brown and Corey Thompson are reliable and consistent – but they’re about as threatening as tackling practice with Chris Sandow. Inglis, Tuqiri and rookie try-machine Alex Johnston ooze scoring potential. The Rabbitohs trio has scored 39 tries in 55 combined appearances this year; their counterparts boast just 23 touchdowns in 70 games.
Blockbusting young centre giants Tim Lafai and Kirisome Auva’a are set for a ding-dong battle, with a green-and-gold jumper the possible reward, but on the other side of the field Josh Morris is still clearly hampered by injury and will have his hands full containing Rabbitohs gun Dylan Walker.
Devious Des’ mind games
Wily old Des Hasler has hoodwinked his rivals throughout the finals and lines up for his fifth decider in eight seasons. The Canterbury mentor was up to his old tricks during a television appearance on Wednesday night, putting the blowtorch on the grand final referees and continuing to play coy over Ennis’ replacement. Michael Maguire is a brilliant coach, but the 40-year-old is negotiating his first arduous grand final week in charge.
Better by halves
Both sets of playmakers head into Sunday’s showdown on the back of tremendous form, although Souths duo Luke Keary and Adam Reynolds have maintained theirs for a longer period of time. But the positive experience Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson garnered from NSW’s series success holds them in good stead for the grand final pressure-cooker, while they’ve emphatically emerged from their post-Origin slump.
Grand final history is littered with players – Anthony Mundine, Krisnan Inu, Jonathan Wright, David Williams – cruelling their teams’ title hopes with erratic displays on the game’s biggest stage, and rocks-or-diamonds performers abound on both sides. Josh Reynolds, Tony Williams, Tuqiri, Sutton, Brown, Te’o, Maitua and Klemmer are all capable of swinging a match with a piece of inspiration or a brain explosion.
If the Bulldogs can somehow stymie the Rabbitohs’ myriad game-breakers and head into the latter stages on even terms, they may hold the edge. Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds have slotted four late match-winning field goals between them in 2014, including in a dramatic 15-14 Good Friday eclipse of Souths and in the golden point defeat of Manly a fortnight ago.
The Rabbitohs have not won a match by one point in two and a half years, while – quite remarkably – only two of their 17 wins this season have been by less than 10 points. That demonstrates how dominant they’ve been, but the Bunnies will find themselves in unfamiliar territory if the decider goes down to the wire.
The majority of the modern era’s premiership-winning teams have carried a sense of destiny with them into the grand final. Melbourne in 2012 after the salary cap disaster; the Bulldogs in 2004 following their own salary cap debacle and the Coffs Harbour scandal; the long-suffering Dragons in 2010; the fairytale Panthers of ’03 and Tigers of ’05; the Storm and Manly in 2007 and ’08 respectively after going down in the previous year’s decider – they all had more of a reason to win it, like it was meant to be. Arguably no grand final side has ever embodied this feeling of destiny more than the 2014 Rabbitohs.
THE VERDICT: Rabbitohs by 8