Greg Inglis ... seasoned finals campaigner. Photo: Quentin Jones
THEY might have won only their first finals match in 25 years on Saturday night, but when it comes to experience in the big games, Souths still hold an advantage over the Bulldogs.
While the Bulldogs are minor premiers and favourites to win the second grand final qualifier, quite remarkably, they don't match the Rabbitohs for finals experience. Souths boast double the grand finals of their rivals through their squad, handing the underdogs a mental edge.
Souths' finals experience is dominated by co-captain Michael Crocker, who has played in 21 finals during a career which has included successful stints at Sydney Roosters and Melbourne. Fullback Greg Inglis (15) and prop Roy Asotasi (8) have also played plenty of spring football at their previous clubs, Melbourne and the Bulldogs respectively.
The Bulldogs' most experienced finals campaigner is former Brisbane lock David Stagg, who has played in 10. Centre Krisnan Inu, who joined the club only midway through the season from the Warriors, is next best with nine. Another midseason signing, former Roosters winger Sam Perrett, has played in seven finals, as has skipper Michael Ennis.
The Rabbitohs will also be hoping to make their advantage in grand final experience count. Crocker has played in five grand finals - as many as the entire Bulldogs line-up.
Had it not been for the additions of Inu (two) and Perrett (one), the Bulldogs would be light on for NRL grand final experience, too.
All of which will give the Rabbitohs confidence that, even though the club had only made the finals once since 1989 before this season, their players are anything but finals greenhorns.
The Bulldogs have had far more success in recent decades, winning grand finals six times since the Rabbitohs were last in one. But the club has had a relatively lean time recently.
Still, now retired second-rower Andrew Ryan, who in Steve Price's absence skippered the Bulldogs in the 2004 grand final victory over Sydney Roosters, maintained the form of the side against Manly 10 days ago showed they were unlikely to suffer from stage fright.
''I think big-game experience certainly helps,'' Ryan said. ''But if you look at the attitude the Bulldogs boys took into that first final - even Josh Reynolds said, they weren't that experienced and not a lot had played in the semis, but they didn't look rattled.
''They've had some big games through the year, Manly at Brookvale to start with, and some big challenges. I think it puts them in good stead. It's good to have some finals experience, but there's not a massive gap between the two.''
Of course, the Bulldogs also have one of the best-performing coaches in recent years. Des Hasler helped Manly to two premierships out of three grand-final appearances. His counterpart, Michael Maguire, is an NRL rookie, although he has had success at Wigan in Super League.