The traditional, through unofficial, start
to the NRL season is the annual Charity Shield clash between traditional rivals
the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Souths Rabbitohs.

Even the most enthusiastic rugby league
fans, especially Rabbitohs fans, would be forgiven for not knowing the match is
to be played tomorrow night at Telstra Stadium. Sadly, the media focus this week – as it
was last week and the week before – has been on the struggle for control of the
Rabbitohs. And what a bitter and divisive struggle it has become.

The Rabbitohs players – many of them young
players naturally concerned about what this brawl might mean for their long-term
careers – are expected to put all this behind them and match a near full
strength Dragons in a match that has in recent years been noted for willing,
and, at times brutal confrontations.

As Rabbitohs coach Shane Richardson
said this week, it might be a trial match but “it’s always something
special”. And it will be no place for the faint-hearted. There is no
love lost between these teams.

The saga over the control of the Rabbitohs,
with Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes a Court trying to buy the club, and
stalwarts like George Piggins and Henry Morris doing everything possible to
block them, must be a serious distraction for the players. Yet the sorry mess won’t be “resolved”
until late March, after the premiership rounds begin.

Not only will tomorrow night’s game be a
test for the Rabbitohs’ new line up, it will be a sign of how successful the
club’s move to Telstra Stadium is going to be. Good luck on that one – you’re
going to need it.

The Rabbitohs have a good record in the
pre-season dust-up against the Dragons, but tomorrow the Dragons will field a
side including six NSW Blues players. The Dragons should win comfortably, but
don’t put the house on it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey