Round 21: Rabbitohs v Storm preview
1 v 2 - a true Grand Final preview?
We arrive at Round 21 with the club many expected to top the ladder doing exactly that - and have a contender right behind them who few picked to be as good as they are in season 2018.
While Melbourne are cruising after a much more lucrative Origin period in 2018 than in previous years, the Rabbitohs are having an absolute pearler of a season in the debut year for Anthony Seibold, rocketing up the table, largely on the back of a nine-match mid-season winning streak which only ended a fortnight ago at the hands of a hungry Wests Tigers side.
So we are lucky enough to have these sides meet at the ground they may very well face off at on September 30. What the clash will tell us is how serious the Rabbitohs are about their premiership hopes as we turn for home in the regular season. The top eight is extraordinarily tight - just two wins separate Melbourne and the seventh-placed Brisbane Broncos, so any loss can trigger a fairly immediate change in fortunes for either side here, particularly with the Roosters and Dragons right behind this pair, ready to pounce if the opportunity presents itself.
The concern for the Bunnies will be recent form - after picking up a avalanche of wins over a nine-round period, they slipped to a disappointing loss against the Wests Tigers in Round 19 and then barely got past last-placed Parramatta last week. Still without captain Greg Inglis, their backline has relied on Dane Gagai for their firepower and while he produced two tries last week, there's a whole new challenge coming from the ladder leaders this week.
In good news for the Rabbitohs, they go into this contest with a settled 17, unchanged from the Saturday win over the Eels. Melbourne have made some minor adjustments, Ryan Hoffman returning from a shoulder injury which ruled him out of last weekend's win over Canberra. He slots into the second row with Finucane shifting to lock and Kenny Bromwich benched.
Melbourne were at their premiership-bound best at the back end of last season and summarily thumped a listless Rabbitohs side. Plenty has changed since, although the Bunnies will be up against the worst modern-day record of any side - they've won just four games against Melbourne from 28 clashes since 1998.
Who to watch: South Sydney's renaissance is very much a product of the consistency and form of hooker Damien Cook. Thoroughly earning his NSW Blues jumper this year, Cook came to the Rabbitohs via Canterbury and St George Illawarra, having lost favour at both clubs behind arguably lesser prospects. Ultimately he's found his place at the Bunnies, working in perfect sync with one of the game's premier packs - Angus Crichton, John Sutton and the Burgii.
Melbourne's number nine needs little introduction. Cameron Smith has been the game's number one hooker for a long time now and has experienced something of a rejuvenation this season - which seems unusual given he achieved it all in 2017. The former Queensland and Australian captain has focused solely on club footy this year and the Storm have benefited massively.
My tip: If the Rabbitohs can play to their potential (albeit minus G.I.), this should be an absolute cracker. Melbourne don't seem to have too many qualms playing on the road and as such their form and quality should see them grab victory here, and potentially seal the minor premiership. Storm by 6.