NRL Preliminary Finals Preview

Boy we were treated to two fantastic games of semi-finals football last weekend. Manly did just enough to overcome a determined Cronulla outfit and limp into the First Preliminary Final, battered and bruised, against a refreshed South Sydney side. Newcastle pulled off one of the bigger finals upsets in recent times in downing the Storm and will ride into Sydney on Saturday night with September’s most valuable asset on their side, momentum.

We’re down to the real business end of the season. 6 has become 4. 4 will soon become 2. It is preliminary finals time and two mouth-watering battles await us this weekend.

Here are my thoughts on both matches.

South Sydney Rabbitohs v Manly Sea Eagles @ ANZ Stadium, Friday night

Both sides enter this contest in vastly different physical shape. South Sydney will be refreshed after a week off. The break has been invaluable for them and, in particular, their prized possession, Greg Inglis. On the other hand, Manly limp into this game following two extremely physical encounters and a number of their key players will line up on Friday night with some question mark over their fitness.

South Sydney has been a more consistent side than Manly this season and has defeated them on the road in both their encounters this season.

Everything points to a relatively comfortable South Sydney victory but will this play out in reality? The bookmakers certainly think this will be the case. I am not so sure, or confident, for that matter.

South Sydney enter this game as warm favourites. With favouritism comes pressure and expectation. Fans from Mascot to Matraville to Maroubra can smell a grand final appearance and many have already purchased their tickets in anticipation of seeing their side on the biggest stage on the first Sunday in October.

If I have one criticism of South Sydney, it is the fact that their attack is fairly predictable, or for a better word, one dimensional. South Sydney love playing a game of smash and bash. It is a simple, direct game plan which is highly taxing on player fitness, but which can be extremely effective against the lesser physical sides. It is premised on picking a physically intimidating side, with smaller or more mobile players often being the sacrificial lambs.

Such a plan was highly successful against Melbourne two weeks ago. They outmuscled Melbourne in the first 30 minutes of that match and set up their victory. However, they tired noticeably in the second half of that encounter.

Will such tactics be a recipe for success against Manly? I, for one, don’t think so. For one, Manly has a far stronger pack than Melbourne.

Manly has also shown this finals series that they are up the physical challenge. The only query for mine is whether the past two weeks has taken too much gas out of their tank.

If the smash and bash fails, I struggle to see where the Bunnies points will come from outside a moment(s) of magic from Inglis. Coach Toovey will be hammering home to his players the importance of limiting Inglis’ involvement, something Melbourne did well a couple of weeks ago.

I certainly don’t think $1.42 South Sydney v $2.95 Manly is a true reflection of the contest. The nucleus of this Manly side has been here and done it before on the biggest stage. Outside of Inglis, it is probably the biggest game each of the South Sydney players have played in their careers. I overheard a former South Sydney great say earlier in the week that this is an even money contest. I tend to agree.

Sydney Roosters v Newcastle Knights @ Allianz Stadium, Saturday night

Like South Sydney, the Roosters enter this game as clear favourite and are expected to progress to next week’s finale. However, I expect the Roosters to handle the favouritism tag far better than their cross town rivals.

The boys from Bondi are littered with talent from 1 through to 13. They are the best defensive outfit and possess the competition’s most destructive attacking weapon in Sonny Bill Williams. They have had the benefit of a week’s break and will enter this fray cherry ripe.

Newcastle are the Cinderella story of this season’s finals series. Most pundits expected them to bow out in Week 1 of the finals but they have continued to defy the odds and ride into the SFS this weekend on a real wave of momentum. As we all know, momentum cannot be underestimated at this time of the year. Take Parramatta and the Wests Tigers as examples of this in the last decade.

Like almost all big matches, it will largely come down to defence. Newcastle has been superb defensively against Canterbury and Melbourne in the past two weeks. However, they face an opposition this weekend that contains far more attacking aces than both of those sides.

The Roosters are not a one dimensional attacking outfit. They can play laterally or direct up the middle. They are dangerous on the left and right edge and have “finishes” who make finding the try line a habit. Jennings and Tuivasa-Sheck are two such names.

Without taking away too much from their achievements so far, Newcastle have arguably defeated two opponents not in the best of form. Canterbury scraped their way into the finals and Melbourne were quite “un-Melbourne like” this finals campaign.

One thing that is assured this Saturday night is that the Knights will turn up. They will stick to their successful strategy of low risk football based around good field position, high completion and defence. Halfback Tyrone Roberts had a blinder last weekend and a repeat performance is needed. However, I don’t think they have the artillery to outscore the Roosters and repelling the Roosters’ attack will be a far greater challenge for them.

I would love Newcastle to win and keep the Buderus fairy tale alive but I just don’t see it happening. They will be extremely brave but I expect the Roosters to get the chocolates and proceed to next weekend’s decider. The Merewether hotel will be jeering at the result but cheering their Sunday and Monday night profits.

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