In the NRL, 8 teams have bowed out and 8 remain. Two more sides will leave after this weekend. Rugby league writer Daniel Boss previews each big week 1 finals match.
For those who read my article on the analysis of finals systems, I should acknowledge that there was a typo by yours truly. In analysing the Top 7 finals system used by the ARL in 1997, for week 3, game H should have been between Loser D v Winner E and not Loser A v Winner E. I was informed of an argument against this system, which was that Game D between team 1 and the winner of the first week match between team 2 v team 3 would be meaningless as there was no advantage to be gained from winning that game.
Last week, it was reported that AFL players on Mad Monday had set alight the clothes of a dwarf and were alleged of abusing and assaulting a man in a wheelchair. The first thought that came to my mind was if NRL players did these acts, then rugby league players would be branded as low-life scum and there would be outcry from the politically correct about stopping children from playing the game. It just angers me that players from one sport are protected by their media while players from another sport are crucified. Sure, rugby league players aren’t angels but who in society is? This also dismisses the argument that AFL players are much better citizens than their rugby league counterparts.
I know that the Origin matches may be watched by more people but my favourite rugby league games are finals games. There is so much on the line and the best teams are playing. As a result, the best standard of football is played as the sides have had a year to build combinations and be more confident in their attacking plays. I know that Friday night can’t come soon enough. BRING IT ON!!
Round 26 tipping results
Despite tipping all of the favourites last week, I only successfully picked 4 of the 8 games correctly. One of these was the lock of the week, while the upset of the week was also successful as my selection of the Roosters won, even though I didn’t tip them. My final results for lock and upset of the week for the 2013 NRL season are:
Lock of the week: 23/26
Upset of the week: 7/22*
*: in rounds 2, 6, 12 and 18 there were no upsets
South Sydney Rabbitohs (2) v Melbourne Storm (3)
I think it’s safe to say that neither side is in their very best form going into this game. Souths were well below their best in their last game against the Roosters. Stars Greg Inglis and John Sutton still don’t look like they are fully fit and will need to go up a gear if the Rabbits are to win this game. As for Melbourne, they played a lot of sides that were either under strength or just not that good in the month leading to the heavy defeat to Manly in Round 25. Last round, they barely got past the Gold Coast. The Storm will need to be much better if they are to overcome the Rabbits. Both sides have named unchanged sides from last week from 1 to 17. However, the Storm has named Gareth Widdop as the 18th man. It will be a gamble if they do play him but his running game compliments Cronk and Smith so well that it will be a huge addition to the side if he is good to play.
These sides have played twice this season, with Melbourne winning both clashes. The first was in Round 6 in Sydney, with the Storm getting up 17-10. The second was in Round 22, with Melbourne winning 26-8 against a depleted Souths side.
Over the course of the 2013 NRL season, Melbourne scored 589 points and South Sydney scored 588. There wasn’t much to spit the defensive statistics of these two sides either, as Melbourne conceded 373 points and South Sydney conceded 384 points. This suggests that it should be a tight game and I am expecting nothing less. At home, Souths have one of the best records of any team this season, winning 9 of 12 games. Melbourne hasn’t been strong away from home this season as they have only won 6 games from 12. This suggests that Souths do have an advantage here. However, Melbourne has won the last 6 matches between these two sides, including a 24-6 victory in Week 1 of last year’s finals.
Greg Inglis v Billy Slater. The clash of the fullbacks is an obvious important matchup. Both are heavily required in their attacking plays and both have excelled in high pressure games in the past. There is a strong chance that the winner of this individual matchup will help decide the outcome of the game, such is their importance to their teams.
Adam Reynolds v Cooper Cronk. Field position will be very important and both possess strong kicking games. Cronk has done this for many years, while Reynolds is still only a relative newcomer to finals football. It will be a tough ask for Reynolds to outplay the Australian halfback, but he is capable of this. A much improved performance from last week is need though.
Tom Burgess v Jesse Bromwich. These are two of the best young props in the game and both will be asked by their respective coaches to get their teams on the front foot in the early stages. This matchup is a contrast in styles as Burgess has the brute force (much like his brothers), while Bromwich has more agility and ability to offload.
I tipped South Sydney to win the premiership at the start of the year and I’m not jumping off that bandwagon yet (even though I stated why I couldn’t really support them last week). I get the feeling that they need to make a statement against the defending premiers and I think that the loss last week will fuel more motivation.
Cronulla Sharks (5) v North Queensland Cowboys (8)
It’s the mini-Boss Bowl! My older brother supports the Sharks while my younger brother supports the Cowboys, so there could be quite a bit of banter in the family on Saturday. The Cowboys made it into the finals the hard way but are arguably the side in the best form out of all of the finals sides. They have won 6 games in a row, with one of these wins being against Cronulla a fortnight ago. I just wonder how much the past 6 weeks has taken out of the team. As for Cronulla, they were able to clinch 5th by beating Canberra with an under strength side. The Sharks will be fresh heading into this elimination game. As mentioned above, Cronulla have many changes from last week’s match, with Todd Carney replacing Townsend at five eight, Wade Graham starting in the back row for Sopoaga and Paul Gallen starting at lock, which moves Heighington to the 6-man bench. Jayson Bukuya and Anthony Tupou return and are named to start on the bench, while Peachey has been omitted. The only addition for the Cowboys is the return of Matt Scott to start at prop, which forces Bolton back to the extended bench.
These sides have clashed twice this season, with the Cowboys getting the victory on both occasions. The first match was in Round 16 in Townsville with the Cowboys winning 24-4 and the second match was in Round 25 in Cronulla as the Cowboys won that one 31-18. However, in the second game the Sharks were without Todd Carney, who is the Sharks’ key playmaker.
Over the season, the Sharks scored 468 points (by far the lowest of any side in the top 8) while the Cowboys scored 507 points. The Cowboys also have the edge in defence as they conceded 431 points this season compared to Cronulla’s 460. Cronulla have been very strong at home this season, having won 8 of 12 games, while the Cowboys have not been strong away from home, having won only 5 from 12. However, the Cowboys last away loss was in Round 17. Another interesting stat is that the Cowboys haven’t won a finals match away from Townsville since the 2005 preliminary final against Parramatta.
Todd Carney v Johnathan Thurston. Yeah, the obvious one. Both are the key playmaker and goal kicker for their respective teams and both are past winners of the Dally M. Most finals games are close so it could come down to one important attacking play or a kick at goal. If this is the case, then these two are the most likely to determine the outcome of the game.
Andrew Fifita v Matt Scott. One is under an injury cloud while the other is returning from injury. I am expecting both to play and this should be a good clash between what should be the two starting Australian front rowers. This is another clash with a contrast in styles as Scott is a tough, hard-working prop and Fifita is much more dynamic and more likely to break the defensive line.
Michael Gordon v Matt Bowen. These two are the partners-in-crime to the key playmakers listed above. Both are exciting players that can light up the field at any given moment and a piece of individual brilliance from either could swing the momentum for their team. Gordon is the more traditional fullback in that he is a strong support player, while Bowen is more creative with the ball.
All logic suggests that I should tip the Cowboys; given that they have won both matches between the sides this year and that the Cowboys are in good form. Yet, I like Cronulla in this game. Over the past month, their main focus has been to be as fresh and injury-free for the finals as they can be. The Cowboys are riding a wave of momentum but I’m unsure as to how long this wave will last.
Sydney Roosters (1) v Manly Sea Eagles (4)
The two matches that these two sides played in the regular season left us begging for more. All rugby league fans are looking forward to another tough clash between these two sides, with even more on the line in this game. Barring last week’s loss to Penrith (partly due to the resting of key players), Manly has been in great form over the past month and a half. Their demolition of Melbourne was very impressive and suggests that they will be tough to beat. The Roosters played their best game of the season last round, with their much-maligned kicking game being pivotal to the victory over Souths. The Roosters welcome back Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who is named to start on one wing. This means that Kenny-Dowall moves into the centres and Guerra moves back to the extended bench. Mitchell Aubusson also returns to start in the second row at the expense of Napa who is back on the bench. Luke O’Donnell is added to the 6-man bench, while Arona is omitted. Manly have plenty of changes with Brett Stewart and Jorge Taufua returning to start for Hiku and Gutherson at fullback and wing respectively. Brenton Lawrence and Anthony Watmough are also back and are named to start at prop and second row respectively, while Gower and Rose are named on the 5-man bench. Trbojevic has been left off the bench.
As mentioned above, the two clashes between these two sides were highly physical with the Roosters coming out on top in both. The first was in Round 9 at Brookvale Oval, where the Roosters got up 16-4 and the second was an 18-12 victory for the Roosters in Round 16.
The Roosters topped the NRL in points scored and points conceded during the 2013 season, with 640 points scored and 325 points conceded. However, Manly weren’t far behind as they scored 588 points and conceded 366 during the season. At home, the Roosters won 8 games from 12, while Manly won 7 and drew 1 game away from home out of a possible 12. This is the first finals match between these two sides in 16 years. The last time these two sides played in a finals match, it was the 1997 preliminary final where Manly won 17-16. I am expecting this game to be as close as that thriller.
Sonny Bill Williams v Anthony Watmough. I would love to see these two look to smash each other in defence. Watmough is the heart and soul of the Manly forward pack and still has good footwork, even though it isn’t as good as it once was. Williams is one of the best players in the competition and just has it all; I can’t put it any better. If Manly can limit Williams’ impact on this game then that will be a big step towards victory for the Sea Eagles.
James Maloney v Kieran Foran. This is a clash of probably the two toughest five eights in the NRL. Foran is a much underrated ball player and is the rock of the Manly side as he is so dependable, while Maloney’s running game and support play are constant threats for opposition defences. While not responsible for organising the side around the field, both are important as they take pressure off their halves partners.
Michael Jennings v Jamie Lyon. Two of the best centres in the competition go head to head in an important clash. Jennings has the advantage when it comes to the stronger running game, while Lyon is craftier and is always so cool under pressure. Lyon’s defence on Jennings will be important for Manly as he is their main strike weapon. Jennings will have to make good decisions in defence as the Stewart brothers, Cherry-Evans and Lyon all attack down the right.
Even though I think Manly has a huge chance of winning the premiership, I think the Roosters will win this game. I think the Roosters will be able to match the physicality of the Sea Eagles and the attacking ability of Williams, Maloney and Jennings will ensure that they will score enough points to get up.
Canterbury Bulldogs (6) v Newcastle Knights (7)
I’m not really sold on either team in this game. I think the winner of this game will be cannon fodder for the loser of the Souths-Melbourne game next week. However, it’s still an elimination game and I’m expecting the best from both sides. The Bulldogs just look very unsettled at the moment. Last week’s loss to Brisbane was very disappointing. They have named Barba on the bench again, which I don’t agree with. Newcastle has been hot and cold all season. At times they look like threatening the top sides while at others they look like they shouldn’t belong in the top 8. I’m not sure if the Knights will take much out of the last round flogging of Parramatta but it should give them some confidence in attack. The Bulldogs have named an unchanged line-up from last week’s game, yet it is surprising to see Frank Pritchard not named after his suspension ended last week. I would expect him (and possibly Greg Eastwood) to play in this game. The Knights have also named an unchanged line-up from last week’s game.
These two sides have clashed twice in 2013, with Newcastle recording victories in both clashes. The first was in Round 10 in Newcastle, where the Knights comfortably won 44-8. The second was a much tighter affair, with the Knights just getting up 18-12 in Mackay.
Statistically, the Knights have the better defence this season as they conceded 422 points compared to 463 conceded by the Bulldogs. The Dogs have the slightest of edges in terms of attack as they have scored 529 points to Newcastle’s 528. At home Canterbury has only won 6 games from 12, which isn’t an overly impressive statistics. Newcastle’s away record is not impressive either as they only won 5 from 12 games away from Newcastle. However, the Knights have won 4 of their last 5 away games. Another interesting stat is that Newcastle has only won one finals match since claiming the 2001 premiership, in Week 1 of the 2006 finals against Manly.
Josh Reynolds v Jarrod Mullen. This is probably the most important positional battle as both are the most likely to come up with a play that will turn the momentum of the game. Mullen is one of the best 40-20 kickers in the game and has a strong passing game which will put the dynamic Newcastle backline into space. Reynolds is an absolute terrier, who is more likely to come up with a big defensive play or strong run, even though he has an underrated kicking game.
Michael Ennis v Danny Buderus. This clash of experienced hookers will be an important battle in this match. Ennis will look to sledge his way to victory, while Buderus still has a few tricks even though he is well past his prime. The sentimental pick is Buderus who most rugby league fans would like to see get one more finals win before he retires at the end of the season.
Aiden Tolman v Willie Mason. Forget about the more fancied Kasiano and Graham, the cornerstone of the Dogs pack is Tolman. He gets through a mountain of work and gets none of the wraps and that’s the way he likes it. Mason is undeniably the leader of the Knights back who will be looking to send his former club packing. Mason has an advantage in terms of impact but does not have the same work rate as Tolman.
I really like Newcastle in this game. I just think that they match up well against the Dogs, as evidenced by their two victories in the two games played between the sides this year. I also don’t like the vibe and form of the Bulldogs at the moment.