Eight teams remain in the race for the NRL Premiership, with two teams to be eliminated and another two to advance to the Preliminary Finals. How will each of the four opening week finals games be decided? Rugby league writer Daniel Boss provides a preview and prediction for all of the games this weekend in this week’s predictions article.
Round 26 Review
Most of the games in the final round of the NRL regular season went to script. The only games that didn’t were Friday night’s game, with the Rabbitohs causing an upset over the Dogs (last week’s Upset of the Week) and the Eels beating the Warriors in New Zealand. The Cowboys were able to claim fourth place (last week’s Lock of the Week) and Melbourne claimed the minor premiership in an impressive victory over Cronulla. Sadly for yours truly, with a place in the top 8 on the line, the Tigers were dominated by Canberra, at a packed Leichhardt Oval.
In relation to the teams that missed the top 8, there is quite a lot of promise around the hopes of the Rabbitohs, Roosters and Eels for 2017. These three teams finished 2016 strongly, which typically results in a strong start to the following season. There are question marks on the Warriors and Dragons in relation to their coach for 2017. While no changes have been made to date, there is speculation about a change for both clubs, especially with Ivan Cleary not affiliated with a club at this stage. The Tigers and Manly both possess some great players, but both finished the season on a negative and don’t possess the depth that the stronger sides have. As for the Knights, a third consecutive wooden spoon is a good possibility in 2017, provided that there will unlikely be any key signings for next season.
Final 2016 Season Results
Daniel Boss: 137/192 – Lock of the Week: 12/14 | Upset of the Week: 12/14
Roman Barbera: 134/192 – Lock of the Week: 9/11 | Upset of the Week: 6/10
NRL Predictions – Finals Week 1
Brisbane Broncos vs Gold Coast Titans
Tip: Brisbane 26 Titans 16
- Last 5 meetings: Brisbane 4 wins, Titans 1 win
- 2016 meeting: Round 5 – Brisbane 24 Titans 16 at CBUS Super Stadium
- Last meeting at Suncorp Stadium: Round 20, 2015 – Brisbane 34 Titans 0
- Previous Finals meeting: Week 1 Finals, 2009 – Brisbane 40 Titans 32 at CBUS Super Stadium
- Brisbane Team Changes – In: Joe Ofahengaue, Jonus Pearson (both extended bench)
- Titans Team Changes – In: Anthony Don, Lachlan Burr, Will Zillman (all extended bench)
The first final pits the two South-East Queensland sides against one another. With the signing of Jarryd Hayne to the Titans, this rivalry had potential to become a key fixture in the NRL season. This potential has been realised as these sides clash in an elimination final. Over the past month, Brisbane has rebounded from a mid-season slump and are close to playing with their strongest 17. he Titans have been good all season and have played only a couple of games where their performance would be considered to be poor. Brisbane will need to play well to win this game, as the Titans won’t hand it to them.
It has been well documented that the Broncos pack is not overly big, but they are quite mobile as they showed in the big win over Melbourne a fortnight ago. Compared to other forward packs in the finals series, the Titans back aren’t as big. They also have some mobility but as they aren’t as huge as the packs from Canberra, Canterbury or Melbourne, the Broncos should be able to play more directly, which is their usual pattern of play. Both backlines have great players and both have potential to have a significant impact on this game. With the likes of Anthony Milford, Darius Boyd and Corey Oates in Brisbane’s backline, they have the potential to swing the momentum of a game suddenly, as they did last week. For the Titans, Konrad Hurrell has been a great addition, Ash Taylor is the likely rookie of the year and possesses great control and Jarryd Hayne is a big game player.
In recent weeks, both defences have been strong, although the Titans did concede a lot of points to the Warriors and Cowboys in recent important games. The Titans forward pack shouldn’t dominate the Bronco pack and Brisbane have much more finals and big game experience. I think they will be too strong for their South-East Queensland rivals to face the loser of the elimination final to be played in Melbourne the next night.
Canberra Raiders vs Cronulla Sharks
Tip: Cronulla 22 Canberra 20
- Last 5 meetings: Canberra 3 wins, Cronulla 2 wins
- 2016 meetings: Round 7 – Cronulla 40 Canberra 16 at GIO Stadium | Round 22 – Canberra 30 Cronulla 14 at Southern Cross Group Stadium
- Previous Finals meeting: Week 1 Finals, 2012 – Canberra 34 Cronulla 16 at GIO Stadium
- Canberra Team Changes – In: Junior Paulo (prop)
- Cronulla Team Changes – In: Ricky Leutele (centres), Kurt Capewell (extended bench) | Out: Joseph Paulo
In terms of recent form, this is a tale of two sides. The Raiders come into this game with 10 consecutive wins, while the Sharks have only won 1 of their past 6 games. Whenever these two sides have played in recent years, there has always been a bit of animosity in these games. Part of this is a rivalry between Josh Papalii and Paul Gallen, as both have been enforcers for their respective states in Origin series in recent years. I expect this game to be no different. On a side note, it is no surprise to see Jack Wighton escape suspension, after the NRL match review panel used a criteria to not charge Michael Ennis, which also applied to Wighton’s tackle. I’m glad that common sense prevailed, but the rationale for charging players needs to be addressed in the off-season.
In the forwards, Canberra have a massive edge in terms of size. In their last meeting, only Andrew Fifita was able to provide an impact against the big Raiders pack. Cronulla need to utilise their mobility and second-phase play to wear out Canberra’s forwards. Both backlines are capable of scoring a large number of points, even though this has not been evident for the Sharks in the run in to the finals. Canberra have threats all across the field, but the absence of Blake Austin is a blow, it lessens the running threat posed by the halves. Sam Williams is the best replacement half in the NRL, but he is quite similar to Sezer in that they are both organisers. Cronulla’s halves have been a big reason for the strong season and both need to step up in this game. They need to provide quality ball to Ben Barba, if they are to stretch the Raiders’ somewhat shaky defence on both flanks.
While the Raiders come into this game with far better form, they have not played strong opposition in recent weeks. They have started somewhat slowly in the past three games and I get the feeling that there might be a Cronulla ambush on Saturday. The Sharks have played the Roosters and Storm in recent weeks and shown improvement in those two games. This should be a tough game of football, but I think the Sharks come away with an upset in an entertaining game.
Melbourne Storm vs North Queensland Cowboys
Tip: Melbourne 24 Cowboys 20
- Last 5 meetings: Melbourne 3 wins, Cowboys 2 wins
- 2016 meetings: Round 10 – Melbourne 15 Cowboys 14 at Suncorp Stadium | Round 21 – Melbourne 16 Cowboys 8 at 1300 Smiles Stadium
- Previous Finals meeting: Preliminary Final, 2015 – Cowboys 32 Melbourne 12 at AAMI Park
- Melbourne Team Changes – nil
- Cowboys Team Changes – In: Matt Scott (prop) | Out: Patrick Kaufusi
This is the pick of the four finals games this weekend and could well be a dress rehearsal for the Grand Final. Last week, Melbourne claimed the minor premiership in impressive fashion, especially in defence. After the loss to Brisbane a fortnight ago, they needed a bounce back, particularly in defence, and they were able to achieve that. The Cowboys are timing their run very well into the finals and head into this game with three straight wins.
Both packs contain a lot of size and big match experience, which is particularly the case for the Cowboys if Matt Scott does indeed play. The match-up that is being talked up this week is between Kiwi forwards Jesse Bromwich and Jason Taumalolo, with both staking a claim for the best forward in rugby league. Both are great players and I’m expecting big games from both Bromwich and Taumalolo. Both backlines possess star power, especially at halfback, with Cooper Cronk facing Johnathan Thurston. The halfback that has the better game will likely lead their team to victory. In the outside backs, the Cowboys have a slight edge in the centres, while the Storm have better wingers. Essentially, both sides are quite equally matched across the park. I expect very little to split these sides in this game.
The first game played between these sides in front of a big Suncorp Stadium crowd was one of the games of the season and I expect something similar on Saturday night. I do expect a few more points to be scored, as the speed and intensity of finals games are much greater than regular season games. This would suggest that the Cowboys win, as they have the stronger attack, but I think Melbourne come away with a win. The reason being that the Cowboys aren’t quite at their best yet and both Scott and Thurston aren’t quite 100 per cent. I think both sides will still be premiership contenders regardless of the outcome of this game, barring any injuries to key players.
Penrith Panthers vs Canterbury Bulldogs
Tip: Penrith 20 Canterbury 14
- Last 5 meetings: Canterbury 3 wins, Penrith 2 wins
- 2016 meeting: Round 2 – Canterbury 18 Penrith 16 at Pepper Stadium
- Last meeting at Allianz Stadium: Preliminary Final, 2004 – Canterbury 30 Penrith 14
- Previous Finals meeting: Preliminary Final, 2014 – Canterbury 18 Penrith 12 at ANZ Stadium
- Penrith Team Changes – In: Moses Leota (extended bench)
- Canterbury Team Changes – In: Tyrone Phillips (wing), Sam Kasino (bench) | Out: Will Hopoate
After being a chance of finishing in the top four, the Bulldogs have lost their last three games and have fallen to seventh. In particular, their attack has been quite poor, as they have only scored 20 or more points on two occasions in the final seven rounds. Penrith come into the finals on the back of five consecutive wins, with the most impressive of these being a tight win over the Titans on the Gold Coast. Their attack has been very good recently, as they have scored over 30 points in five of their last seven games.
This game pits the two forward packs with the most attacking ability against one another. The Dogs like to utilise the ball-playing ability of their props before the defensive line, while Penrith are a great exponent of the offload, particularly via Trent Merrin. This can also be a detriment to either side, as Canterbury can be too reliant on their props in attack, while Penrith have a few errors in them, as a result of promoting movement of the football as much as they do. In regards to the backlines, Penrith are stronger, even without their starting centre combination of Whare and Hiku. In the halves, Josh Reynolds is the most experienced and has the most big game experience of any half, by a significant margin. He will need to have a big game if the Bulldogs are to win.
Recent form suggests that Penrith will win by a big margin, however I think this will be a lot closer than that. I like the move of Brett Morris to fullback (even though it was a forced change), as I think he offers more in attack than Hopoate and Kasiano’s inclusion is big. This year, the Panthers have had lapses in games and Canterbury will get opportunities to win this game. I just don’t think that they have the attack to be able to take advantage.