PREVIEW: Rd 4, 2017
South Sydney Rabbitohs v Sydney Roosters
Round 4 kicks off with two of the best-performed teams of the past fortnight locking horns as the oldest rivalry in rugby league resumes.
These two neighbours from opposite sides of Anzac Parade have been going at it since 1908 and while in more recent years they have kicked off regular NRL seasons with mouth-watering round one clashes, the advantage to this round four meeting is each side has had a chance to feel their way into the season.
The Bunnies have hit back strongly after a dour round one loss to Wests Tigers, putting Manly to the sword at Lottoland then edging past a gritty Knights outfit at McDonald Jones Stadium last week.
Sadly for coach Michael Maguire his team has been hit by suspension with three starters from last week rubbed out. Prop George Burgess misses two weeks for striking Mitch Barnett. Centre Hymel Hunt misses four for a swinging arm to the jaw of Brendan Elliott while Braidon Burns' shoulder charge on Sione Mata'utia has put him out for one game.
In response, Maguire has gone for major surgery; Cody Walker has been named at fullback with Johnston on the wing in place of Burns and Sifa Talakai replacing Hunt in the centres. John Sutton shifts to five-eighth for Walker with Angus Crichton starting in the back row while Tom Burgess replaces his twin at prop.
Anthony Cherrington could be in line for a club debut after being named in jersey 15. The bench is David Tyrrell, Tyrell Fuimaono, Cameron Murray and Sitiveni Moceidreke.
Things are sailing a bit more smoothly at the Roosters with the Bondi club just the second team along with the Storm to be three wins from three games. Trent Robinson's men have been a little hard to get a read on – they rampaged out of the blocks against the Titans in Round 1, producing the most dominate 40 minutes of any team so far this year but went to sleep in the second half. They always looked comfortable in their Round 2 win over Canterbury but never put their opponents away and almost lost. Then last week they needed a missed forward pass call to sneak home against the Panthers.
Still, a win's a win and they've got there in every game so far. This week coach Trent Robinson has named an unchanged 17 but Blake Ferguson is in the reserves and could come in for Joseph Manu if his rib injury is adequately healed. Chris Smith, Paul Carter and Mitch Cornish are the other reserves.
The Rabbitohs biggest strength at the moment looks to be the combination of their playmakers; five-eighth Cody Walker has been his team's best over three rounds with the Grafton livewire causing all sorts of headaches with his pace and vision while his six try assists top the comp after three rounds.
It's also no coincidence our only loss came in the only game halfback Adam Reynolds missed with his calculated kicking game proving the difference over the past fortnight.
Alex Johnston has slipped into Greg Inglis's fullback role beautifully while the job-sharing arrangement between hookers Robbie Farah and Damien Cook is currently looking like a coaching masterstroke.
SPOTLIGHT: Reynolds vs Pearce
The duel between two of the three NSW halfback frontrunners (incumbent James Maloney is the other) is too delicious not to mention. Each man is close to the most important for their team; the Rabbitohs have looked a different side with Reynolds back pulling the reins while the Roosters rise and fall on the form of Pearce, who has been instrumental in their strong start to season 2017. Whoever edges the personal battle will go miles towards securing a victory on Thursday night.
Ryan Carr's men are yet to register a win in their 2017 NYC campaign, but they've looked close on two occasions. Bolting out of the gates against the Knights they were dominant in the opening sets but conceded a 12-point lead to the Knights in the second half.
They're a young team who have plenty of talent, they're just lacking a little experience in closing out a game when they've got the momentum. That could come tomorrow night against the Roosters - although it'll be a tough match against last year's NYC Premiership winners.
The Roosters lost their first match of 2017 last weekend against the 2016 NYC Grand Finalists, the Penrith Panthers, and are a strong squad. If Carr's team can get their head in the game for 80 minutes it'll be an entertaining contest that could go either way.