South Sydney’s NRL premiership defence faces an acid test on Thursday as they begin a run of clashes with the competition’s best sides.
The formula is simple for the Rabbitohs going into their blockbuster showdown with second-placed North Queensland in Townsville – win and stay in the top four, lose and be bumped out.
Should they slide to fifth, they face a daunting task to work their way back in with further games against two top four sides in the remaining three weeks of the regular season.
After a match will top eight aspirants the Bulldogs they round out the competition with clashes against ladder leaders Brisbane and premiership favourites the Sydney Roosters.
To fall out of the top four would be a massive blow to the Rabbitohs’ chances of going to back-to-back and they would need to buck 20 years of history to do it.
The two bites of the cherry that come with a top four finish is a big boost and not since the Canterbury side of 1995, which finished fifth, has a team finished lower than fourth and gone on to win the grand final.
Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire said the Cowboys would give his side a true test of where they were at.
“They have probably been the form team of the competition and they compete at everything and we have to ensure we do the same,” Maguire said.
Kirisome Auva’a will play his first NRL game of the season as he returns from a domestic violence-related ban.
Kyle Turner will play just his second first grade fixture of the year after undergoing neck surgery in February and suffering concussion in his NRL comeback two weeks ago.
Utility Paul Carter has also be named on an extended bench and is in line to play his first NRL game in nearly a year after being sacked by the Gold Coast for disciplinary reasons.
North Queensland coach Paul Green admitted his side was “hurting” after blowing a chance to go top of the competition in their loss to Cronulla last Sunday.
“They were hurting after last week. They realise the opportunity they had and probably just the fact that more so we didn’t play as well as what we know we can play,” Green said.
“When you play in a game that you probably don’t play as well as you know you can, next week can’t come quick enough.
“It is a short turnaround so physically it makes it tougher from a recovery point of view but the fact that we can get out there and get rid of a bit of frustration from what we felt from last week is a good thing.”
STATS THAT MATTER
* The Cowboys have won their last four games against the Rabbitohs.
* The Cowboys have been especially strong in closing out games, having scored 176 points in the final 20 minutes of their matches this season.
* The Rabbitohs have struggled away from home this season with just four wins from 10 games, including just one from their past four away matches.