The South Sydney Rabbitohs have finished the regular season inside the top three for the third time in four years, preparing for a qualifying final against the Penrith Panthers on Saturday night.
Having not made a grand final since winning the trophy in 2014 – their first appearance in 43 years -, the Rabbitohs enter their fourth finals series in a row with a great sense of optimism.
With expectations of this weekend’s matchup against Penrith high, South Sydney centre Dane Gagai says the team is working towards achieving a week off with a win.
“It always feels good being here at this time of the season, especially [to] finish third on the ladder, [it] gives ourselves a good opportunity to have a crack at going straight to the prelims,” Gagai told media on Wednesday.
“That’s been at the forefront of our training sessions and of our minds is making sure that we don’t have a fallback and that we treat this game as if it’s a knockout.”
Reflecting on the past few seasons and the Rabbitohs’ post-season form, the 30-year-old says the significance of a first-week win would further prove their credentials to go deep into the final series.
“It’s super important to get the win this week, obviously we’ve been a bit unfortunate the last couple of times and you put so much effort into this first game and it takes so much out of you,” he said.
“Then you’ve go to back [it] up again [if you lose] to try to make it to the prelim and then you put in another big effort and by the time you get to the prelim, you’ve already played two massive games, so it’s super important to get the win.
“It’s just about the process and knowing your role and doing your job and making sure that you don’t let none of the boys down around you and trusting that their going to be doing theirs.
“Like I said, it’s important that we get the win on the first round of finals cause having that week off is definitely gonna be a big advantage.”
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Wayne Bennett’s men haven’t identified the need to change much heading into the final according to Gagai, more so just an awareness of key areas to target and work around a side who were runners-up last year.
“Big games are based on moments and those moments don’t come too often,” he mentioned.
“If you go back to when we played Penrith last time I thought the way we started the game and for the first 30 minutes, I thought we were playing the exact type of footy that we wanted to play but then just a few little errors crept into our game.
“Turning the ball over, [a] penalty, a few dropped balls out the back can just swing the momentum of the game so quick so you’ve just got to stay in those moments so when the opportunity comes, be able to take them.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play under players like [Johnathan] Thurston and those players at Origin level and they speak about moments and opportunities and they don’t come too often but when they do, you’ve got to be ready to execute and take them so it’s just being ready for those moments and the way you do that is just by training to win.”
Identifying a number of opposition players from the Panthers that could prove difficult to contain on gameday, Gagai says the Rabbitohs can counter any offensive or defensive threats.
“When you look at it, Nathan Clearly and [Penrith] have got the best kicking games in the comp and you’ve got to try [to] nullify that cause they do base a lot of stuff off the back of his kicks,” Gagai highlighted.
“We all know what [Brian To’o] can do, he’s such a dangerous ball-runner, he’s strong, he’s got good footwork, he sets you up and can get you to plant and he’s a very powerful guy but they’ve got a lot of those players across the board.
“At the end of the day we can’t really control what he does but we can focus on the things that we can do and that’s moving up as a line and staying together.”
South Sydney was the second-best scoring side and third-best score differential side of the NRL regular season, the statistics confirming to Gagai that their attacking phases show the effort involved by everyone in the squad across the year.
“It takes a team effort, everyone knowing their roles, what lines they’ve got to run and practicing that week-in, week-out at training,” he said.
“Looking at the way Cody [Walker]’s performed this year, he’s been unbelievable. He’s taken his game to another level and he’s just, he’s one of the best natural ball players I’ve ever seen.
“I’ve played alongside some good players like Thurston and Darren Lockyer and those guys but Cody Walker’s ability… I don’t think he gets enough credit for his line-running too, he’s pretty brave. He’s just a natural, gifted defender and a lot of that [scoring] just comes off the back of him.”
Noting the 2021 season will be his final year in cardinal and myrtle after agreeing to terms to re-join his former club the Newcastle Knights – where he spent six seasons from 2012 to 2017 – on a two-year deal, Gagai says a premiership will be a nice send-off to a four-year stint at South Sydney.
“Obviously, it does cross your mind. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that,” he fondly says.
“But at the end of the day I still try and focus on the things I’ve got to do to help the team out and that’s just making sure I get my preparation right and just try and help out some of the younger fellas.
“At the end of the day you’ve just got to do your job and know that the boys around you are gonna do theirs. But I am taking in every moment and enjoying my time with the boys and I just want to make sure that it counts on the weekend.”
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