The sad reality of the NRL is that the bottom eight teams are conducting end of season post-mortems while the top eight are gearing up for the best time of the year – which has always been September!
Some clubs are looking for a new coach (including Manly), some are preparing to blame the coach for their team’s short comings and some coaches are blaming the “old chestnut” of injuries to key players for their club’s poor results.
What is still apparent is the gap between the top eight and the rest – with six competition point separating the Warriors 8th and the Tigers 9th.
Despite the NRL trying to convince the rugby league community recently that the all teams are playing on an even field with respect to the salary cap and high-performance investment – this does not seem to be the case.
The criteria for the successful teams have some consistent themes when its comes to being involved in the big, end of season games:
- Seven of the eight teams (excluding the Sharks) have at least two Origin or International standard players in the key positions of hooker, half back and five-eighth which is critical to a team being Premiers.
- A leading point scorer and accomplished goal kicker- Broncos Jamayne Isaako (233), Roosters Latrell Mitchell (228), Dragons Gareth Widdop (191), Rabbits Adam Reynolds (186) and the Storm Cameron Smith (181).
- An experienced forward pack with at least three, current representative players – the Roosters, the Storm, the Rabbitohs, the Broncos, the Warriors and the Dragons – all tick this box.
- An exceptional back five – the Roosters, the Storm, the Rabbits and the Broncos all meet these criteria.
- A proven, experienced coach in finals football – Craig Bellamy, Trent Robinson, Wayne Bennett and Shane Flanagan – have all won an NRL competition.
- You can’t have more than two of your starting team unavailable due to injury or suspension.
- Form in the last five weeks of the competition (win/loss record) and points (for and against) must be in order for your team to be successful.
So taking some of this into account – let’s preview the first week of the finals campaign and see if we can find some winners.
The other key factor is finishing higher up the ladder gives those teams a huge advantage when it comes to playing at home.
Storm v Rabbitohs
The Storm are coming off a last start loss against the Panthers but they will welcome back into their team Billy Slater, Cameron Munster and Suliasi Vinivaulu.
They are missing Will Chambers and Neslon Asofa-Solomona and are relying a “rookie” halfback Jerome Hughes – who will be supported by leader Cameron Smith.
The Rabbits have the best attack in the competition and are back to full strength.
They have the forward pack to match the Storm and will still fancy their chances to advance in the competition – even if they are unsuccessful in this game.
My tip: Storm by 4
Panthers v Warriors
The Panthers have found some much needed form in their last two games with wins against Newcastle and the Storm along with the return of James Maloney and Regan Campbell Gillard to full fitness.
However, they are taking on one of the form teams of the last five weeks the Warriors (4-1) at ANZ Stadium – which does not hold as much advantage as Penrith Stadium
The Warriors are at full strength and provided they can control the football – should have too many points against the Panthers who have been conceding over 23 points per game in the last month.
My tip: Warriors by 8
Roosters v Sharks
The Roosters v the Sharks is one of the games of the weekend as the favourites to win the comp come up against another form team in the last month (4-1).
Both teams are nearly at full strength – both have exceptional fullbacks in James Tedesco and Valentine Holmes and very experienced forward packs who will do battle up front.
Cooper Cronk – who was brought to the Roosters to win a competition – is one of the most successful players in finals matches in recent times.
They also tick all of the boxes that were mentioned above.
My tip: Roosters by 6
Broncos v Dragons
The Broncos (along with the Warriors) look like the most likely team that can make the Grand Final from outside the top 4.
They have won three of their last five matches and have the best attack of any team in the last month.
They have some emotional energy with the impending retirement of their forward leader Sam Thaiday and a team that has been galvanised by the drama surrounding their coach Wayne Bennett.
My tip: Broncos by 10