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How Latrell’s put Rabbitohs on track for late surge as finals race heats up

It’s usually around about now each year that a team starts to hit its stride after an up-and-down season and comes home with a wet sail heading into the finals.

In 2022, one of those teams looks like being South Sydney.

With Latrell Mitchell fit and firing, the Rabbitohs have looked like a different side the past few weeks. His influence and confidence is showing in their points scored – they’ve notched 30 or more the past three weeks since he’s been back.

His layoff for a couple of months which ultimately meant he wasn’t available for Origin could prove a blessing in disguise.

With seven rounds remaining, the Rabbitohs have a tough draw but they look like the team that can surge up the ladder.

(Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

I’m not saying they’re going to go all the way to the Grand Final like last year but I’ve liked what I’ve seen from them recently, particularly with Latrell combining with Cody Walker and Alex Johnston down that left edge.

Even when the scores were tied late in the game against the Bulldogs on the weekend, they didn’t panic and Latrell showed them how to get it done.

A couple of weeks ago in the Knights game they had a fair few guys out with Origin and injuries but what impressed me was how they were still able to construct a victory off the back of their go-forward.

Their pack was very strong last year even though they don’t have a lot of big names apart from Damien Cook and Cameron Murray and not much has changed in that regard. Guys like Keaon Koloamatangi, Jai Arrow, Mark Nicholls, Tevita Tatola and Tom Burgess get the job done with a minimum of fuss.

Lachlan Ilias has bounced back after getting the hook early in the game against the Dragons in Wollongong a month or so ago but the whole team was off that night and he copped it. Jason Demetriou could have hooked most of the side.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

They’ve got depth with veterans like Kodi Nikorima and Siliva Havili able to slot in when the main men are out.

Demetriou has done well following in Wayne Bennett’s footsteps and there’s no reason why they couldn’t sneak into the top four and get a second chance in the finals.

Their first major test is this weekend against Melbourne who are looking vulnerable for the first time in a long time. It’s a testament to the strength of their club that they have been up around the top of the ladder for so many years.

Losing Ryan Papenhuyzen for the rest of the year on the weekend is a tremendous blow to their chances. They are also without Brandon Smith for another two weeks, Reimis Smith and Christian Welch for the season but may get Xavier Coates back in their team soon.

The way they play and prepare for games is so physically and mentally demanding, it’s understandable that they might start to drop away.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 08: Ryan Papenhuyzen of the Storm is checked for a possible injury during the round nine NRL match between the Melbourne Storm and the St George Illawarra Dragons at AAMI Park, on May 08, 2022, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Ryan Papenhuyzen. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

With a few players like the Bromwich boys, Felise Kaufusi and Brandon Smith moving on next year, they seem to be tapering off a touch although it wouldn’t surprise me to see Craig Bellamy spark his side back up again and they finish the year strongly. They do have some outstanding players including Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes and Harry Grant running their football team.

Penrith are runaway leaders and deserve to win the minor premiership and I can’t see them not making the Grand Final so, in a way, everyone else is playing for the right to face them for the trophy.

It’s refreshing to see the Sharks, Cowboys and Broncos back in the finals picture this year but I think those three teams need a big scalp in the run home to show they are true contenders.

Cronulla have a chance to do that this Saturday night at Penrith but the Panthers have rested their seven NSW stars so they will be refreshed after the Origin period.

Dealing with the effects of the rep season is nothing new for them but it is for North Queensland and Brisbane compared to the past few years.

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

We’ve seen the Cowboys lose a couple of players to injury during the Origin campaign in Reuben Cotter and Jordan McLean and the team’s form has been down a touch in recent weeks.

The Broncos are dealing with a similar issue but they have a great chance this weekend against Parramatta to edge in front of one of their closest rivals on the ladder.

It was great to hear Kevin Walters speak after their win over Gold Coast on the weekend that they were happy to be back in the playoff race but their ultimate aim was to win the premiership, not necessarily this year.

You’ve got to have lofty goals. It’s great to make the eight and being in the top four is fantastic but sometimes you’ve just got to say “no, no, we want to make it to the Grand Final and win this thing”.

Penrith are favourites but there’s a lot to go between now and Grand Final night – seven rounds plus the playoffs so the teams still in the hunt should be saying to themselves it’s an 11-week campaign from now on in to go all the way.

Parra are the only team that has beaten Penrith this year but they they must show more consistency in the run home starting with a big performance over the Broncos at home this week and winning the remaining games they are expected to win. They have got a tremendous pair of halves in Mitchell Moses and Dylan Brown (who is now a Kiwi international), a strong forward pack and some big match players.

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

The race for the last spot in the eight looks like going to Manly but there are three teams who can knock them off.

St George Illawarra are on the slide and will need to bounce back quickly against the Sea Eagles this weekend to keep their slim chances alive. And the Roosters, although they’re wounded, have the ability in the key positions and the Raiders should by no means be written off.

I’ve liked what Jamal Fogarty has brought to Canberra’s team at halfback the past six weeks since he’s been back from injury. If he and Jack Wighton can get a few games in a row together in the halves then Canberra have a fairly good draw to finish.

As always, the final stretch will come down to the team’s with the best halves, the best defence, the best level of motivation and the healthiest roster.

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