SOUTH Sydney’s left side defence is bracing itself for a Cooper Cronk air raid in Friday night’s qualifying final, with Melbourne winger Justin O’Neill on the way to becoming rugby league’s most dangerous bomb chaser since Israel Folau.
Halfback Cronk kicking for O’Neill, with fullback Billy Slater racing through to capitalise, was a repeated tactic on Saturday night against Gold Coast and the Rabbitohs have taken note.
Facing up to the acrobatic, 186 cm O’Neill is 181 cm Nathan Merritt, who says: “Probably Israel would be (the best) – such soft hands and a great athletic jump He was awesome under the high ball and could snatch the ball out of the air.
“Cronk’s one of the best kickers in the competition.
“He’s got an accurate kick on him. He puts it in a perfect position for his outside men to catch so we’ve really got to work on our game, making sure we attack the football and get some numbers around the football.”
Joining Merritt in surface-to-air defence on the left will be centre Bryson Goodwin and back rower Chris McQueen.
“We’ve just got to be good in our kick defence – do your best, I guess,” said Goodwin. “They’re well known for their good catching ability down there and Cooper Cronk, his kick’s always on the spot.
“We’ll have a look at it on the video and see what we can do. You’ve got to be switched on all the time.”
Storm back rower Ryan Hinchcliffe says O’Neill, Cronk and Slater spend plenty of time rehearsing their triple-act.
“It’s something we work on each week,” he said. “I guess it comes down to how each team defends, whether their defender’s up in the line or whether he’s back. Cooper sees that. If the winger’s up, he kicks it over his head, if he’s back, they’ll just run it.
“He’s a great athlete, Juzzy, and when he’s got his game on, he’s very effective for us and it’s great to see he’s doing that well this time of year. It’s a big play in big games, especially the way teams defend up and in these days.”
There’s still been no decision on whether Gareth Widdop or Brett Finch will be fit to play on Friday, while Souths report no changes but some tactical alterations from coach Michael Maguire would not surprise.
Maguire told reporters on Wednesday he had spoken to firebrand forward Sam Burgess about tempering his tempestuous ways.
‘Everything that goes on in the game, you are always talking to your players about those incidences,’’ Maguire said at Redfern Oval on Wednesday.
‘‘He’s obviously disappointed, but the easiest way to fix that is make sure he goes out and plays the way he can and I’m sure he will this Friday.’
‘‘There’s many different ways he can focus his energies into what he does on the park and you see that every week.
“A lot of our conversations is about what he needs to do about playing for the team, as in the structures and the things we need to get ‘on’.
‘‘Our attack at times, particularly last weekend, wasn’t there to what we can do. Sam is a big part of that so a lot of that conversation is about him doing his part for the team.”
Filed for: THE AGE