NRL Finals Series Preview – Week 1

September is a month that makes rugby league fans salivate. It’s the business end of the season. It’s a month when the on field action is the centre of attention, rather than those players bringing the game into disrepute. It’s a month when off-field indiscretions are momentarily ignored and names like ASADA, Ferguson and Earl will disappear into rugby league wilderness. The focus is on the footy, pure and simple. As Gus Gould would say…yeah, baby!

Here are my thoughts on Week 1 of the finals series.

South Sydney v Melbourne Storm @ ANZ Stadium, Friday night

Historically, Melbourne has had the wood on the Bunnies. In the corresponding game last season, Melbourne put the Bunnies to the sword. Melbourne’s start was electrifying and the Bunnies could not go with them. The game was over in the first 30 minutes.

The Bunnies this year are a different proposition. They are arguably the competition’s most talented side personnel wise and they play a scintillating, yet structured, brand of footy. Combined with their physical presence, they have been a daunting proposition for most opposing sides. To beat the Bunnies, you need to match them in the arm wrestle and limit the involvement of Greg Inglis.

Inglis is the absolute key to South Sydney. If he’s not fully fit, the Bunnies cannot win the premiership in my opinion. He is their most important player by a country mile. Their whole game plan hinges off him returning the ball strongly and giving them “front foot” possession. This immediately gives their intimidating forward pack momentum which enables the likes of Reynolds and Sutton to attack against a retreating defensive line.

Unfortunately for the Bunnies, Inglis does not appear to be fully fit. He has more tape around his knee than an Egyptian mummy at present.

This presents the Storm with a great chance to knock off the Bunnies this weekend. Craig Bellamy will be drilling in to his players the significance of victory this Friday night…a week off and a home preliminary final. Such a prize almost guarantees the Storm will be right up for this game. Victory, however, will depend on the accuracy of Cooper Cronk’s kicking game. Expect Cronk to pepper the wingers or be willing to put the ball over the sideline or even dead in goal to limit Inglis’ involvement. If Cronk has his kicking boots on and executes accordingly, I expect the Storm’s 9 year winning run against the Bunnies in Sydney to continue, just!

Cronulla v North Queensland @ Allianz Stadium, Saturday afternoon

Only the most optimistic, one-eyed Cowboys fan would have had their team featuring in this year’s finals series 7 weeks ago. Neil Henry was made the scapegoat for a side which had horribly underachieved until then.

Henry gets the axe and suddenly the Cowboys rediscover their mojo. They are now playing with confidence and a kind of carefree attitude which makes them unpredictable, yet extremely dangerous. Their two most important players, JT and the man they affectionately call “Mango”, are firing on all cylinders. The Cowboys are the team with the most momentum in the bottom half of the Top 8. Having won 4 of 6 in Sydney this year, I think it’s fair to say that their “Sydney hoodoo” no longer exists.

The Sharks have performed admirably this season in the midst of adversity. They have done remarkably well to make the finals series, despite the on going distraction of the ASADA investigation. Central to the Sharks’ chances, are the effervescent, Todd Carney. League’s former bad boy has turned a new leaf at the Sharks and for once his footy, rather than off field antics, is doing the talking.

Focusing on tomorrow’s battle, Cronulla has a more dominant forward pack, whereas the Cowboys have more firepower out wide. There are injury concerns over a number of key players going into this contest. Carney has a hamstring niggle, Fifita has a calf strain and Matt Scott is returning from a broken finger.

If it rains, as is forecast, I’m leaning towards the Sharks as the forward battle will be even more important. If it stays dry, it enhances the Cowboys chances greatly and perhaps JT will be the difference. It will be an intriguing battle. Hold off on your bets until the final line-ups are announced.

Sydney Roosters v Manly Sea Eagles @ Allianz Stadium, Saturday night

This will be a brutal affair with very little separating the two sides. It is the most even contest of the weekend in my opinion. Both sides have powerful, yet skillful, forward packs with electrifying backlines. Defensively, they are both extremely sound and the most effective at executing the up and in style “umbrella” defence and forcing attacking units into error.

Daly Cherry-Evans, Jamie Lyon and David Williams are the best right attacking edge in the competition. On the other hand, the Roosters possess the most potent left sided attack in James Maloney, Michael Jennings and Daniel Tupou.

Jared Waerea-Hargreaves is a big loss upfront for the Roosters but I don’t think this tips the scales in favour of Manly. League’s most ill disciplined player, Luke O’Donnell is a capable replacement and an experienced finals campaigner who surely will be ready to make amends for his brain fade against the Tigers a few weeks ago.

What will separate the sides come Saturday night…a simple answer, SBW.

SBW is the best forward in the competition. His ability to offload the ball in the tackle and create second phase play is second to none. He can go to the line and put a player into a gap or steamroll his way through a brick wall. He is the complete footballer and a moment of SBW brilliance could well be the difference on Saturday night.

I also expect home ground advantage to play a factor in this game. Roosters’ fans are notorious for jumping on the bandwagon in good times and Manly supporters don’t like crossing the Spit, let alone Harbour Bridge.

Expect a bumper tri-colours crowd for the main course of the double header. They, together will SBW, will get the Roosters over the line in an absolute cliffhanger.

Canterbury Bulldogs v Newcastle Knights @ ANZ Stadium, Sunday afternoon

I just can’t get a read on the Bulldogs this year. At the start of the season, they were undermanned with the likes of Sam Kasiano, James Graham and Ben Barba on the sideline. With a near full strength line up, I expected them to gather momentum in the latter half of the season and charge into the finals as a serious premiership contender.

To the contrary, they have limped in to the finals with a series of mixed performances. Opponents this season have been able to effectively counter their short passing, lateral game plan. For the Bulldogs to win this weekend, Sam Kasiano and Ben Barba both need to have blinders. Kasiano may, but I can’t see Barba doing so. Injury combined with multiple off field distractions have dominated his season. He is nowhere near the player he was 12 months ago. I can’t see him turning the tide and rediscovering his 2012 touch this week.

On the other hand, the Knights come into Sunday’s encounter with some nice momentum. They are almost the forgotten side of the Top 8 with very few pundits expecting them to seriously challenge for the premiership.

They may be affectionately called Dad’s Army, but I really like the make-up of their side – a good balance of experience and youth, often a successful recipe at this time of the season. Jeremy Smith and Beau Scott provide some real steel to their forward pack. Tyrone Roberts is a much underrated halfback and I expect him to neatly steer the Knights around the paddock, showing experience beyond his years. Having the most successful finals coach of the modern day era plotting the Dogs downfall is also an invaluable asset for the Knights.

I expect Mad Monday festivities to be in full swing in Belmore next week with the Knights living to fight another day.

Good luck if your team is still alive in 2013 and happy punting!

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