NRL Semi Finals Preview – Week 2

Well week 1 of the finals series certainly didn’t disappoint. We saw the Bunnies stand up and break their Melbourne hoodoo, the Roosters and Sea Eagles belt each other into submission, the Sharks prevail in fortuitous fashion over the Cowboys and the Knights outmuscle and out enthuse a more fancied Bulldogs outfit.

Unfortunately, the on-field action was overshadowed by a numerical howler on the part of the officials in the Sharks v Cowboys match. Let’s hope that the footy, rather than the officiating, dominates the headlines this weekend. The last thing we want to be hearing about are conspiracy theories.

Here are my thoughts on Week 2 of the finals series.

Manly Sea Eagles v Cronulla Sharks @ Allianz Stadium, Friday night

The battle of the beaches kicks off Week 2 of finals action. Both teams enter this contest with injury clouds surrounding key players. Todd Carney has been ruled out and Brett Stewart is in extreme doubt.

Manly to my mind were far more impressive than Cronulla in their respective matches last weekend. Cronulla struggled to get the ascendency up front against the Cowboys despite having a clear advantage in the forwards whereas Manly really muscled up against the Roosters.

Success in September is built on winning the physical battle and defence. Manly proved last Saturday night that they are physically and defensively very strong, limiting the Roosters to a solitary try from a grubber kick. Although their attack was continuously repelled by the Roosters, they do possess many attacking weapons and have the ability to put on many points on the scoreboard.

The loss of Todd Carney is a big blow to Cronulla. Despite being below his best last week, Carney is an X factor type player and a match winner in his own right. In his absence, I struggle to see where Cronulla’s points will come from. Coach Flanagan will be forced to adopt a direct “up the middle” game plan which relies on the likes of Paul Gallen, Andrew Fifita and Co continually getting over the advantage line and creating second phase opportunities for Michael Gordon. If Manly defend like they did last week, they should be able to counter this. I don’t expect Cronulla to play too laterally.

The only concern I have about Manly is if they can rebound physically from their brutal contest 6 days ago. If they can, and I expect they will, they will have too much firepower for a Cronulla side which has already ridden its luck this finals series. Expect Cronulla’s defensive left edge of Jonathan Wright and Sosaia Feki to be worked over and face an attacking avalanche. Feki will likely be peppered by an aerial bombardment from Daly Cherry-Evans so it could be a long night for the rookie.

Manly to win this one comfortably for mine and set up a mouthwatering battle next weekend with sentimental favourite, South Sydney. Northies should expect to turn a good profit in the Shire this weekend.

Melbourne Storm v Newcastle Knights @ AAMI Park, Saturday night

I expect this game to be far closer than Friday night’s encounter. The Knights were particularly impressive in wearing down and eventually overpowering the Bulldogs. They played what you call smart finals football – executing a conservative game plan based around high completion and an accurate kicking game in a nutshell. It was a typical Bennett orchestrated finals performance.

Melbourne put in a mixed performance against a fired up Bunnies outfit focused on exacting revenge. They were caught off the pace early and before they knew it they were chasing the game. To their credit, they slowly worked their way back into the game and were the better side in the second half. At 14-6 down, they were on the receiving end of a horrible video referring decision, a decision which halted their momentum and revitalised a tiring Bunnies outfit. It was a huge decision in the context of the match. If the decision had gone in Melbourne’s favour, I believe the eventual outcome of the game would have been different. But that’s footy for you.

As impressive as the Knights were last weekend, they played an opposition far inferior to that which Melbourne encountered. I have found it particularly hard to establish a form line around the Bulldogs, who have been very inconsistent this season. Melbourne will not hand over the cheap possession that the Bulldogs did last weekend and they are a far more disciplined outfit than the boys from Belmore.

Nevertheless, the game will be an arm wrestle. It will resemble trench warfare and I expect it to be a close, low scoring affair. The likes of Willie Mason, Beau Scott and Jeremy Smith will fancy their chances of dominating their less experienced forward opponents. If Melbourne can match the Knights physicality, a moment of magic from one of the “Big 3” may prove to be the difference.

Melbourne has won their past 7 encounters against the Knights and I expect history to repeat itself, just. A parochial Melbourne crowd will get the Storm over the line and into their 8th preliminary final in the last 9 seasons.

* * *

For the sports multi, take Manly and Newcastle, both at the line.

Something’s got a hold on me and it’s Week 2 finals action – bring it on!

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