Charity ShieldSt George Illawarra Dragons v South Sydney Rabbitohs Saturday, February 24, 7:30pm (AEDT), Glen Willow Regional Sports Stadium, Mudgee
St George Illawarra v South Sydney Rabbitohs (Sat 7:30pm)
South Sydney +6 ($1.90)
The Charity Shield has long been regarded as the unofficial start to the NRL season, especially since the Auckland Nines was canned this season. The match will take place in Mudgee this year and will be the final hit-out for both sides before the official start of the NRL season on March 8.
Selection NotesThe Dragons have named a 23-man squad ahead of the Charity Shield against the Rabbitohs featuring new recruits James Graham and Ben Hunt. The combination between Hunt and Gareth Widdop will be monitored closely by coach Paul McGregor, while young fullback Matt Dufty can press his claims for the No.1 jersey in the NRL season opener against the Broncos, with another strong performance after starring in the win over Hull FC. Meanwhile, the Rabbitohs have put Adam Reynolds, Greg Inglis and Angus Crichton on ice as they recover from their respective injuries. Hooker Damien Cook has been given first crack at the No,.9 jersey again, while Robbie Farah has been listed on an extended bench. Farah could also spend some time at halfback in tandem with Lebanese teammate Adam Doueihi.
HistoryThe Dragons hold a 16-13-5 all-time edge over the Rabbitohs in Charity Shield matches but the Bunnies have had the best of it in recent years with six wins and two draws over the last 10 years. The Rabbitohs won last year’s Charity Shield clash by 32-14, with winger Braidon Burns crossing for a double. The Dragons’ last win in the Charity Shield was in 2012 and they’ll be hoping that taking the game to Mudgee brings a change in fortune.
Form The Dragons ran out late winners by 24-18 over Hull FC in the first match of the double-header at ANZ Stadium last weekend. As already pointed out, Matt Dufty was given first shot at the Dragons No.1 jersey and didn’t disappoint with a standout performance. Kurt Mann scored late in the match to hand the Red V a six-point win. The Rabbitohs took on Wigan in the second match of the international double-header, and it was a second NRL club getting the better of an English side on the night, with Souths running out 18-8 winners. It was big effort from the Bunnies when you consider that they were missing five of their best players in Cody Walker, Adam Reynolds, Dane Gagai, Sam Burgess and Angus Crichton. Damien Cook was a constant threat at hooker and will be hoping to cement the spot with another strong performance against the Dragons in the Charity Shield.
Key MatchupThe Wolf is keen to see the battle of the five-eighths – Gareth Widdop and Cody Walker. Widdop should have a license to run this season, with the addition of Ben Hunt to the Dragons’ side. Hunt will take over most of the kicking game and organisational work, allowing Widdop to focus on his strong running game and test the Rabbitohs’ defensive line. Widdop has been the maestro for the Red V in past seasons and it will be interesting to see how he gels with Hunt. Walker missed last week’s win over Wigan and should take his spot here if he gets final clearance from the Rabbitohs’ medical staff. Like Widdop, Walker is a fantastic ball runner, but will look to take on more responsibility in directing the team around the park while halfback Adam Reynolds remains on the sidelines through injury. Both are very exciting players to watch and any lazy defenders will get caught out if they decide to take the line on.
Final Thoughts The Rabbitohs shouldn’t be underestimated here. They beat a very good Wigan side last week when they were missing the likes of Gagai, Walker, Reynolds, Crichton and Sam Burgess. Gagai, Walker and Sam Burgess have been listed to make their return in the Charity Shield. Recent history also favours the Rabbitohs, with six wins and two draws over the last 10 years of the Charity Shield. There’s no questioning that the Dragons look very strong on paper, but The Wolf is expecting a few teething problems while Gareth Widdop and Ben Hunt work out their new roles in the team. The Wolf is also expecting Damien Cook to terrorise the tired Dragons forwards around the ruck and make sure the Rabbitohs pack gets a good roll-on through the middle. There shouldn’t be much separating these teams at the end of 80 minutes, making the Rabbitohs +6 the best play here and they’re worth a bet in the head to head market at the generous price on offer.