Wednesday, October 6, 2010

NRL Grand Final Review

Well what a fizzer.

The search for 9 from 9 and the perfect Finals tipping against the spread came crashing to a halt against the brutal efficiency of the Dragons, with a little help from stage fright (Roosters) injury (Phil Graham) and the referee's.

Let me start with the referee's not because I believe they were the determining factor in the result, but because this has not been mentioned elsewhere and even though the final score was 32-8 the refereeing was not a non-factor. Allow me to explain, then I will give the Dragon's the plaudits that there is no doubt they both earned and deserve.

The reason the refereeing blunders matter is not because of their frequency as much as it was their timing. The Roosters knew there only hope of upsetting the minor-premiers (Team the finished on top of the ladder for my non-Australian readers) lay in getting an early lead, it was imperative they did not allow the Dragons to score first and they had to be leading by a minimum of 10 points at the half-time break. Well on the Dragons first real attacking raid, Brett Morris was tackled my Sam Perrett and had both feet planted firmly out of bounds before passing the ball inside to a player who was tackled, then one play later the Try was scored. This was not even close, it wasn't like Morris grazed the Touchline, in fact he was so far over the sideline as he passed the ball it appeared he was about to buy a pie from the Concession stands, it was just a deplorable miss by the Touch Judge, who was right over the top of the incident as it happened. I mean if a Touch Judge is not going to spot that, then really there is little point in him even being there, but the Touch Judges were not done screwing up yet. So the Dragons took an early 6-0 lead but the Roosters hit back with 2 great Try's, though crucially the usually reliable Carney missed both conversion attempts so a potential 12-6 lead was instead a razor thin 8-6 advantage. To prove that every member of the officiating crew was determined to screw up soon after taking the lead the Roosters crossed for another Try by Joseph Leilui in the corner that was ruled back for a forward pass. Replays showed that this too was an incorrect call, of the 5 angles shown by Channel 9 only 1 even indicated the ball MAY have been forward, all the others showed it going backwards and this Try should have stood. If converted this would have been a crucial 8 point advantage and as the stats show, the Dragons have only been able to come back from greater than a converted Try deficit to win twice this season. Finally as the Dragons began to strangle the game and drive home their advantage in the 2nd Half a clear knock on by Dean Young was ruled not have occurred by the always awful Bill Harrigan in the Video Refs Booth and the Dragons gained an insurmountable lead, just as the rain began to tumble down. As I say these things need to be mentioned, but they were not the reason the Roosters lost.

The Dragons were just too good, it was tempting to end that sentence 'on the day', but when looking at the record between these 2 teams over the last 4 years, including the annual marquee Anzac Day encounter it is clear the Dragons just have the Roosters measure at the moment. From the beginning of the game the Dragons just dominated the advantage line, getting quick play the balls in attack and driving the Roosters forwards back in defense. Even with the ridiculous missed call on the 1st Try the Dragons were the dominant team at this point and probably deserved their lead on merit. This was followed by the only 15 minutes of the game where the Roosters really got into the contest. Jarrod Warea-Hargreaves came off the bench and immediately gave the Roosters some punch in the forward contest and won some of the collisions, and this along with some clever dummy-half running by Sam Perrett finally gave Pearce and Carney some room to work in. Two well constructed Try's were the result.

Another part of the Roosters game plan that worked at this stage was their focus on Ben Creagh. Creagh is a damaging and talented ball-runner with the capacity to terrorise teams on the edges. The Roosters came up and in early every time the ball went near Creagh and just bashed him, leading to 3 dropped balls. This was a tactical master stroke by Brian Smith, the only question, Why did the Roosters move away from this tactic in the 2nd half? I can only imagine that Smith was concerned Bennett would instruct the Dragons to use Creagh as a decoy runner only in the 2nd half, but in one of the many fascinating tactical twists in this game, it appears Bennett anticipated that is what Smith would think and instead used Creagh even more in the second half, the Roosters did not re-adjust to go back to the first half strategy and Creagh ended up with the most metres gained of any forward in the game, as I say fascinating strategic machinations were a major part of this game, though with over 1200 First Grade games between the 2 head coaches this is probably not surprising.

So at the half is was 8-6 to the Roosters and as the rain began to tumble down in the 2nd half, so did Dragons points. The middle of the ground turned into a bog after the earlier lower grade finals and the Dragons looked much more willing to get down in the mud and grind than did the Roosters. The rain made it a true war of attrition and this was exactly what this St George team have thrived on for 2 years now. The Roosters then made mistake after mistake after mistake, Anasta who has been a rock all season for the Tri-Colors was awful in the 2nd half with 2 dropped balls early in the tackle count at his own end of the field leading to Dragons Try's in the next set of six. The Dean Young Try that was the back-breaker has it put the Dragons out by 2 converted Try's came soon after an Anasta knock on. The loss of Phil Graham to a pectoral injury was also devastating for the Bondi club. With young Leilui on the left wing in his place, the Dragons fired a lot of plays down that side and the 18 year old made 2 terrible decisions in defense that led directly to Dragons 4 pointers (converted to 6 by Soward on each occasion) I don't want to be too hard on Leilui because the kid is full of potential and will be a great player for many years to come, but he just doesn't have either the experience or the understanding with the equally inexperienced Kane Linnett in the Centers that Graham had. Also Graham would cover for the inexperience of Linnett during the season, but now Linnett had to cover for Leilui and he was not good enough or experienced enough to do it. However, both these players have bright futures, in fact like the rest of this Roosters team, this Grand Final probably came 1 year too early in their development for them to be able to handle the pressure of the occasion.

So congratulations St George, many people are saying this Premiership was the culmination of 2 years work and it was, though you could argue this was the culmination of a decades work, St George should have won a GF in 2005 and probably in one of the years between 2002-04 also but they always came up short in the big games, the Bennett Factor got them home this time and this is a team that as long as it keeps up its motivation will be a powerful contender next year as well along with the Melbourne Storm who will be in full blown eff-you mode after the Salary Cap scandal destroyed this season and the Roosters who will be better for the run and, this being the NRL, there will no doubt be a bolter that we are not even thinking about at the moment who will be part of the conversation come September 2011.

Finally, some discussion of the Pre-Match entertainment put on by the NRL. A colleague of mine made the very good point that the AFL, in yet another example of its million light years lead in professionalism over the NRL administration managed to get Lionel Ritchie on one weeks notice for the replay of the drawn Grand Final after having INXS for the Grand Final that was drawn the week before. The NRL in contrast had You Am I, a good band who had their best years 10 years ago and were nothing more than an indie niche Australian Band even then and the excruciating spectacle that was Jessica Mauboy and Justice Crew. Now this just proves the NRL has no idea what its fan base is, at the Grand Final their marquee event, for Pre-Match entertainment they bring out a girl to sing an awful pop-song about her High Heels, yep that's exactly what the blokey western Sydney audience that comprises the NRL's heartland was after for their Grand Final entertainment, songs about High Heels with the full faux paparazzi entrance, while a bunch of pre-pubescent kids break danced around her and fake polished her high heels. I refuse to believe that any more than 5% of the crowd was enjoying this display. In fact you could feel the energy level in the Stadium lift when You Am I started singing Rolling Stones covers after Mauboy finished. Again, the AFL had INXS, the NRL had a bunch of has-beens singing Rolling Stones covers. Andrew Demetriou, the AFL CEO is an oaf, but NRL CEO David Gallop is so pitiful he allows Demetriou to stride the Australian Sporting scence like an administrative colossus.

Again it is imperative, when and if the independent commission is put in place to run Rugby League ALL POSITIONS MUST BE DECLARED OPEN and applications accepted. Gallop is welcome to apply but he should not be handed the keys to the future of the game like some drunken wealthy legacy kid taking over the family business.

On this note, some final thoughts on the season just gone will follow before the test series starts, lets just say my end of season awards will not look kindly on the individuals running the game.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Thursday NFL Links

A new feature for the Blog, that will be updated, hopefully daily, but at least a couple of times a week. I will be posting links to some of the better NFL articles I read during the week.

MMQB by Peter King is a must read for any NFL fan, the beauty of it is, for my non-US followers he discusses the game and the issues surrounding it in a educational manner, so you don't need a deep understanding of the game to appreciate it, on the contrary MMQB actually increases your understanding of the issues in the game.

Don Banks weekly Power Rankings. There are a number of sites that offer Power Rankings, but unlike the completely unreadable tripe offered up by Gregg Doyell at CBS.Sportsline, Don Banks analysis actually offers some information that can actually help you gain a deeper understanding of the game. Sorry to do 2 links in a row, but both of these are must read articles for me every week.

The always entertaining and occasionally controversial Jason Whitlock on Donovan McNabbs return to Phili this week to face Michael Vick in the game of the Week for Rd 4 in the NFL. Being a 'Skins fan I hope he's wrong, but I fear he is right, tough year coming for the Washington Redskins.

For Fantasy Football enthusiasts, Matthew Berry offers quality advice (not that my current record in both my leagues shows it) in an entertaining style.

This next column is an absolute must-read on a weekly basis for anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of Game/Clock management and the impact of NFL coach’s in-game decisions on the outcome. Michael Lomabrdi is just brilliant, terrific insight and his calming influence always makes NFL Total Access are more enjoyable show when he is on screen. So many of those panel type shows can turn into debate for debates sake type shows, Lombardi brings a cool analytical presence to the show and you can see those same traits in his writing. Just a brilliant Football mind, and he survived working for Al Davis with his sanity!!!

Bookmark this guy and also follow him on Twitter @michaelombardi for constant access to his amazing insight

Good Video on clock management from Lombardi also

Finally my good friends over at have a great community for Redskins fans where the comments section and Fan Posts always include lively debate that is well moderated by Ken and Kevin. Ken and Kevin are also great writers in their own right and that site is worth checking out for any Skins fan on a consistent basis.

Here they have a great discussion of the 3-4 Defence with ex-Redskin Matt Bowen

The above will get you started. I will be hoping to post more of these sorts of quick posts, with links and the like in future.

Or you can follow me @ozsportsdude on twitter where I will begin doing the same things

Monday, September 27, 2010


The Search for 9 for 9

All of you are now well aware of my other wordly gambling performance in the NRL Finals. After the Preliminary Final weekend I am now 8 for 8 and with a big start being given to the Dragons (-6.5) at this time, I get to take my team the Roosters this week, even though I doubt they will win. The Dragons are just not a team built to blow teams off the park. So although there is a Manly 08 risk here, of mind numbingly boring team all of a sudden blows a team off the park on Grand Final day, I feel confident that taking the Roosters will give me 9 from 9.

The Preliminary Final again saw games that were awesome advertisements for the sport of Rugby League. By a complete miracle, Saturday Night even saw a great advertisement for the NRL, a packed stadium in Sydney for a game that was not a Grand Final. Though I would give Channel 9 and both Sydney papers more of the credit for that crowd than David Gallop and the NRL marketing department. Truly was a great sales job by the media this week.

Friday was without doubt the best Roosters performance I have seen for 3 years, possibly longer. The final score was a blowout, but this game was not in the bag until there were 15 minutes left and those first 65 minutes were a true examination of the mental toughness, skill, stamina and desire of both teams. It would be harsh to say that Gold Coast cracked, but the Roosters certainly stayed committed to their game-plan for longer and were the more disciplined team and in the end deserved their victory. In the end this was not a game won by Carney or Pearce as so many tight games have been for the Roosters this year, instead this time it was Anasta who broke the shackles for the Tri-Colours, with an assist by an absolutely awful video ref intervention.

The Key Moment came around the 50-55 minute mark, Anasta took an inside ball from Carney who was then hit by a Titans player just after he passed the ball, Braith saw Carney get hit late and when he was tackled stayed down, definitely feigning injury, even gesturing back towards Carney to give the Video Ref time to review the play. The Video Ref, as is always the case, enforced the letter but not the spirit of the law and the Roosters got a penalty. So tackle 4 on the halfway line, became tackle 1 on the 20 and 2 plays later Anasta himself burst over for a try that put an end to the Titans resistance. Just a smart, veteran play by a player who has grown into a true leader, personally I don't like that sort of gamesmanship, and if Scott Prince had done it I would have whinged about it for approximately 2000 words in this space, but the rules are what they are and as long as this great game continues to be run by Administrators and the referees department while ex-players are ignored you have to exploit any loophole you can before your opponent does.

Speaking of Scott Prince, I went into this game, from a Roosters perspective, terrified of his short kicking game, but the Roosters defence was so overwhelming between the 20 metre lines that he rarely got to put it into effect and was strangely ineffective when he did. From my memory he only forced 2 line drop outs for the game (and yes I am lazy and should go and check the stats, click on my the ads on this site and I will quit my job and have the time to do such things). This truly was an outstanding defensive performance by the Roosters, the question is can they back it up next week, is it possible for a team to put in its best defensive performance in years 2 weeks in a row? that is the key question for NRL fans and the gambling public as we look towards the game this week. Luckily this Dragons team will not ask as many questions of the defence as the Titans were capable of last week. On the other hand they will also be a much sterner obstacle for the Roosters attack to overcome.

What a game that was on Saturday night, the Tigers threw absolutely everything they had at them, but the Dragons just, in the accurate words of Phil Gould "Strangled the life out of the game". Like so many Dragons games this year they just relied on strong defence a solid kick/chase and ball control, its not flashy, they don't really entertain, if you had a choice of watching a cup of room temperature water evaporate or Manly v Dragons, I would be asking what sized cup of water? However, when they play exciting teams like the Tigers, the Raiders or the Roosters then the contrast in styles makes for riveting viewing.

As mentioned in this space last week, Benji was capable of anything in this game, with 'anything' including the good and the bad. There is little doubt the Tigers would have been out of this game well before the 70th minute without Benji on Saturday night, but that does not negate the fact that Benji was responsible for the 2 killer plays in the last 10 minutes. First his kick out on the full was the reason the Dragons had the field position necessary for their winning Field Goal, this was a particularly galling mistake as it was clear at this point of the game that the Dragons were not trying to win the game, but were waiting for just this type of mistake and for the Tigers to lose it and Benji complied. The most frustrating thing about Marshalls mistakes was that just 3 minutes earlier he had launched a 60 metre bomb on Tackle 2 that gave the Tigers great field position themselves and seemed to indicate that Benji understood the importance of playing the game at the other end of the field at the end of the game, to follow this smart play 4 minutes later with the overly ambitious effort that sailed out on the full was as perfect an example of the yin and yang of Benji that you could ever hope to see. After Soward's clinical field goal, Benji then spilled the ball on Tackle 3 on half way and it was basically game over. The Tigers fought to the end and can be proud of their season, they will deserve to be among the favorites next year, but for now its Roosters v Dragons for the Grand Final on Sunday evening.

Phil Gould cops a lot of stick from Rugby League fans, but for all his faults his insight into the game is unmatched, that is why I find it so odd that I disagree with his assessment of what the Roosters should do this week. Gould's theory is that the Roosters should follow the template of the Wests Tigers last week, play for a 12-12 scoreline and hope Pearce and Carney provide the magic at the back end of the game and win that way. Personally I believe this will be playing right into the Dragons hands. You cannot out-grind the ultimate grinding football team.

My view is that the Roosters should chance their hands early in the game, throw the ball wide on Tackle 5, kick for early 40/20's and generally be prepared to take some calculated risks early to try and jump to an early 2 score lead. The Dragons do not chase well, they are 4 from 10 when trailing by a Try this season, the stats for coming back from 2 Try's down are even worse. The Roosters best chance to win this game is get in front and rather than watching the Dragons choke the life out of the game, instead watch the Dragons just choke, as all the doubts built up from 28 years of failure manifest themselves in the opponents psyche. There is merit to the Gould plan, but I strongly believe there is more benefit in taking some risks and going for the jugular early, if the risks fail and they fall a Try behind due to a (Kenny-Dowall??) mistake, then they can switch strategy and go to a grind it out style. The Roosters will be playing this game on a knifes edge, they just cannot, I repeat, absolutely can not afford to fall behind by 2 Try's, because if St George are given a chance to tackle their way to victory for 70 minutes after taking an early 2 Try lead, then they will happily take the offer, go with one out running, complete all their sets and defend their way to the Premiership.

Anyway your 8 from 8 gambling maestro will now give you some Pre-Grand Final gambling tips for the key gambling options.

Clive Churchill Medal Winner

Braith Anasta - Roosters

I could have taken the easy option here and gone for Carney or Pearce, but Clive Churchill medals are often won by back rowers (props rarely play enough minutes to please the voters) and Anasta will give you a Back Row tackle count with a halves style impact on the passing and kicking game.

Ben Hornby - Dragons

Hornby is a massively under-rated member of the Dragons outfit, if the Dragons win by a small margin then I can see Ben being involved in the key plays that give them victory.

First Try Scorer

Kane Linnett - Roosters

You will get good odds for this pick, probably in the $14 range, Carney and Pearce both do their best work on the edges, and with the desperation that the Dragons defence shows at all times I can just see Carney bursting through a hole, being dragged down and offloading to a Centre of Back Rower, I'm going with Linnett only because he fits that option but also he has genuine pace, so if this scenario doesn't play out he is the most likely Rooster to go the length of the field.

Dean Young - Dragons

The Roosters marker defence can be sloppy at times and I can just picture Young burrowing over from Dummy Half late in the first half.

Finally my drive for an unprecedented 9 for 9 Finals Series against the spread.

You know I'm going Roosters regardless if you read last weeks column where I excoriated any fan who dares tip against their own team, but I am very happy that they are being given a 6.5 start by the bookies. So again, like last week I just don't see the Dragons being a team that can blow a team off the park, so the 6.5 start makes no sense to me and I will gladly take the points.

Lets hope for a cracking Grand Final, this finals series deserves it, but most of all lets hope for a Roosters win!!! (I make no apologies for my bias at this point, any true fan knows the joy of your team being in a Grand Final, well that is any true fan who is not a fan of Cronulla)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

NRL Finals Week 3 Preview/Week 2 Review

There have been many great performances so far in this NRL Finals series, Todd Carney lighting up the Panthers on Saturday Night, Scott Prince’s kicking game in Week One and Benji playing with injury to spark the Tigers on Friday night, but none of these compare to your Ozsportsdude going 6 for 6 against the spread in the Finals Series to this point. So what happened in Week 2 and what does this tell us about who we can expect to meet in the Grand Final.
Many issues plague the leadership and administration of the National Rugby League, and this site will continue to rail against the incompetence that prevails at the summit of the sport, but that does not stop us enjoying this great sport when it is as exciting as the Finals Series has been so far.
The Tigers v Raiders contest on Friday night was great entertainment from start to finish. The beauty of this game is that it showcased 2 teams that went out to win rather than not to lose. This mindset has been the Hallmark of the Tigers all season and is the reason that their games are consistent ratings winners for Channel Nine. This is a team that attacks from all over the field, will throw passes inside their own 20 and constantly ask questions of the opposition. The Raiders rose to this challenge and with 27 000 fans packing Canberra Stadium they played their role in a sensational contest.

The influence of fans is so often underrated in sports, this Canberra crowd appeared to understand when their team needed them and rose to the occasion magnificently, willing their team on at crucial moments throughout the game. In the first half the Raiders had conceded some soft Try’s early and appeared to be shell-shocked by the Tigers potent attack and were suffering some big game nerves among many of the younger, non finals tested players. They were in real danger of letting the game get out of hand in the first half hour when the Tigers rolled down the field and forced a line drop out. The crowd raised their game at this point and inspired the Raiders to hold out, eventually forcing a spilled ball and prevented the game from turning ugly, the Raiders then scored 2 possessions later and it was game on. Even though they were down by 14 points at half time, that defensive stand had changed the game, now the Raiders believed in themselves and the 2nd half was a completely different contest and the proverbial 18th man, the crowd had played a huge role.
However it was the players who were going to have to win and Canberra’s leaders on the football field, unlike the Politicians down the road actually rose to the challenge. Campese was in everything in the 2nd half, playing a role in all of the Raider’s 2nd half 4 pointers. If he had not gone down with injury on the play that got the Raiders within 2, you can’t help but feel the Raiders would have found a way to score the points to put them through to a game with the Dragons this weekend, or would it have been the Roosters, this confusion is yet another ridiculous part of the McIntyre system. Here’s a thought Sports Administrators, if your play-off system confuses your fans, had no one actively defending it and has many people openly criticising it, then maybe it is not the best system, just a thought.
So at the end of the game the Raiders as we all now know had a Penalty from 35 metre out on a slight angle which was pushed wide. A crushing blow for the player and his teammates, the good thing was after the game all his teammates made the obligatory quotes about it not being his fault etc. I have seen a lot of these types of interviews in my years of watching sports and I have developed a pretty good antenna for when the players are repeating what they have to say and when they are meaning it. This Canberra team meant it, after the missed kick, his teammates were right with him straight away. There is great spirit in this Canberra team, unlike the flash in the pan Eels who got hot last year, this team had been built with youth and is probably a bit ahead of schedule making the Finals this year. They remind me a lot of the 2007 Hawks in the AFL, a team that has grown up together who have got to the Finals a year ahead of schedule. The spirit these teams develop, when they grow together is real and the foundation is solid with this Raider Squad, I don’t envisage a Parramatta type drop off for them next year. The Eels are full of talented but lazy players, in many ways what happened to them last year was the worst thing that could possibly have happened to a team with their attitude. That Eels team already believed they were better than what they were, the 2009 late season surge just reinforced their arrogance and led to the 2010 let down. This Raiders team is different, they seem to instinctively understand that they have to work for their results, they don’t see themselves as underachievers who showed what they were really made of like the ’09 Eels, the 2010 Raiders seem to see themselves more as overachievers and will work hard to improve next year.

In the end though their nervous start came back to haunt them and an impressive Tigers team that is amazingly well coached punished them for it. This ended up being enough to book the Tigers a date with the Dragons on Saturday Night.

The Roosters v Panthers game in contrast was a bit of a fizzer. I said last week that their was irony in the Roosters meeting the Panthers, as this Penrith team was so much like the 2008 Roosters, relying too much on the kicking game for Try’s. Well they ended up with the same fate as that Roosters team, bowing out in straight sets. I was at the game and before the game watched Luke Walsh go through his pre game kicking routine and it was very impressive. Have you ever noticed how many deep kicks seem to roll just one to many times and come to a complete stop just one rotation over the dead ball line? Well in his pre-game warm up I only saw Walsh kick 2 balls over the Dead Ball line, all the others pulled up within inches of the corner of the in-goal, these kicks were all from between 30 and 50 metres out, very impressive.

The problem he had was that in the game the Penrith Forward pack never gave him good Field Position and on the odd occasion they got in the Red Zone (attacking 20 metre zone) the Rooster put pressure on the kicker or instead of playing it smart and looking for repeat sets with grubber kicks, they went to the high cross-field kick which was defused with ease by a very composed and disciplined Rooster team. They will not find the Titans to be quite so accommodating on Friday night.

To the Preliminary Finals and the search for 8 from 8.

Roosters (+2.5) over Titans

This will possibly be the pick that costs me the perfect finals series, but I’m such a homer when it comes to my teams I just can’t bring myself to tip against them. I am not one of these idiots who tip against their own team and justify it by saying “Oh this way I win either way, if my team wins I’m happy and if they lose at least I picked it right”, well NO, that is a bullshit way to think and a cop out, if you have any friends who feed you this rubbish, be sure to call them out on it.

This Titans team really scare me. Living in Sydney, we don’t hear much about the interstate teams in the newspapers, because heaven forbid journalists would give us the best story’s and rely on, you know, journalism and story telling rather than trying to sell an extra few thousand papers by putting a picture of a player from a Sydney team on the Back Page with a story that runs for 3 paragraphs about 2 cookie cutter quotes from the previous days cookie cutter press conference. The Titans are a truly great story this year as well as being a great team. Its only 4 years ago this team was an idea in Michael Searle’s briefcase. Now in their 3rd year in the League, with a great stadium, passionate fans and a Front Office that sets the standard for innovation in the NRL they are one game from a Grand Final. Unlike the AFL they have not done this with massive concessions from the other clubs but by going out and building a team with a solid base at the key positions. A full column about just how amazing a club this really is will be coming in this space soon.

For this week though it is more pertinent to look at what they have on the field. Scott Prince is in the conversation for best Half-Back in the game. Thurston has done amazing things at the Rep Level but has also been the leader on a club team that consistently underachieves. Prince on the other hand takes every team that he starts for into the Finals. He is one of those Half Backs, like Cooper Cronk who does all the little things well. He knows when to play for the repeat set, rather than the Try, he has a great long kicking game, throws quality cut out balls and organises the team brilliantly. Picture Scott Prince and you don’t think ‘Flick Passes’ and ‘Banana Kicks’ if anything you think of him waiting for the ball from his Hooker, crouched forward, one hand on his knee, the other pointing at a forward to get in position and planning what is going to happen 3 tackles later. Yes you could say Prince scares the crap out of me this week. He has the key weapons that a Half-Back like Prince thrives off as well. Hard Running smart back rowers who always hit the line at speed and at clever angles, quick wingers who ensure his classic grubber kicks result in line drop outs, by always being alert enough to pressure the Defenders into clearing the ball or tackling them in-goal. The Titans also have Preston Campbell there to provide the magic that is so often required in tight games to get crucial points against the run of play.

So after all that you may wonder why I believe the Roosters can win. Well there are a few reasons other than by blatant homerism. The long kicking game is a key part of Finals Football and the Roosters have 2 of the best in the NRL at this aspect of the game, in Pearce and Anasta. When your Forwards have a poor set and you find yourself on Tackle 5 on your own 30, a good clearing kick can turn a bad set into a good outcome and help you win the Field Position battle. With both Anasta and Pearce capable of finding grass 60 metres downfield it also buys them both the time to make these kicks as the opponent cannot key in on one guy at the end of the set, particularly when Carney is lurking ready to chance his hand and go with the Running Game in that situation. Still on the Long Kicking/Field Position game I can see Todd Carney getting one 40/20 at a crucial time in this game.

This leads to the 2nd and probably main reason why the Roosters will win. Carney is just playing other-worldly football right now. At the game on Saturday I focused on him for large chunks and I just saw a guy who is seeing the game in slow motion at the moment. Opponents freeze when he gets the ball, which only serves to buy him more time, and not only does he try the unconventional, such as throwing it wide on tackle 5 in his own half, but he is good enough to pull it off. Importantly his team believes in him, there was one Try in the 2nd half that was very telling on Saturday Night.
Many of you probably remember the Daily Telegraphs pathetic attempt to create a story out of nothing last week and sow discord in the Roosters camp buy asking Mitchell Pearce if he felt like a ‘Side-Kick’ to Todd Carney. This was a classic example of the depths of journalism in this city. They didn’t have any quotes from Carney, Pearce or their teammates that would have led them to believe Pearce saw himself that way, or that Carney saw Pearce that way, but by asking the question they get to write the story they want to write, even if it was emphatically denied by Pearce.
Well on the 2nd Half Try that I found insightful, Pearce had laid the final pass after attacking the line for, I think it was Kenny-Dowell, to score in the corner right in front of where I was sitting. However, Pearce did not go to SKD, instead he turned went straight to Carney, pointing and gesturing to say “That was all you, that was your Try’ as it was Carney who had thrown the cut-out ball to Pearce in the move. It was a genuine moment between two teammates who clearly like each other. I just suppose that the real story of how the 2 Key Rooster playmakers have developed great chemistry does not make as good a headline as ‘Sidekick’ or ‘Discord’ even if those latter 2 ‘story’s’ were practically fabrications by the Newspaper and had no basis in the reality of what was going on at the Roosters.

One major advantage for the Roosters, handed to them by the incompetent NRL and the one that I believe will get them over the line is the location of the game. The new Titans stadium is a great facility, but more importantly is big enough to create a rocking atmosphere yet small enough that the crowd is right on top of the field. It is not a fun place for visiting teams as is shown by the Titans home record since they entered the comp. However the NRL in their wisdom have forced them to travel 2 hours up the road to Brisbane. Suncorp will not sell out and many of the seats will be filled by Roosters fans who always get a solid following in Brisbane, rather than Titans Stadium which would be standing room only and full of only Titans Supporters, Michael Searle must be livid, he works with the Qld government to get a beautiful facility built that holds 30 000 people but the NRL moves the game 2 hours away from the fans who have supported the team all year.
So to Re-Cap after finishing 6th the Roosters got to play at the SFS when the Tigers agreed to play the first final there rather than Leichardt. This was a noble move by the Tigers designed to maximise the number of fans who could attend the game, a noble move by the Tigers that just happened to take away the major advantage that Leichardt would have given them and give the Roosters a Final at their home ground. Then thanks to the ridiculous McIntyre System, the 6th placed Roosters hosted a final against the 2nd placed Panthers at the SFS again and now they get to avoid the cauldron like atmosphere that would have been generated at Titans Stadium and instead get to play at Suncorp where if history of Roosters v Broncos games is any guide the crowd will be about a 60/40 split in the Titans favour. Not bad for a team that finished 6th.

Tigers (+6.5) over Dragons.

As soon as the Dragons turned chicken and kicked Penalty Goals against the depleted Manly in Week One to go from 6-0 to 8-0 to 10-0 to 12-0 to 14-0, I lost faith that this was a team with the belief to come through in big moments of a tight game. More importantly from a gambling perspective I completely lost faith in the notion of them blowing a team out of the water, that is why as soon as saw the points were offered in favour of St George this week I was always going to take the points, especially 6.5 of them, I was incredulous when I saw that line, I really though it would be 2.5. The Dragons could possibly win this game, but I see it being tight and I see them choking and I definitely do not see them covering the spread.

We so often hear this Tigers team is ‘Capable of Anything’, it’s important to remember that ‘Anything’ includes the bad stuff, yes they can come out and Benji can throw behind the back passes, but he can also throw them into touch. Still there is a lot to like with the 2010 edition of the Tigers. Farah continues to be the most creative Dummy Half in the game and so much of this teams success is based on him making smart decisions about when to release Benji to try things and when to send the ball to the other side of the ruck and rely on his Forwards and Robert Lui to do the sensible things. Lui himself is much under-rated. When he takes on the line he causes problems and his long passing game has improved dramatically over the course of this season. Beau Ryan may not know anything about comedy but he does know a lot about maximising opportunities out wide. Gareth Ellis has been great again for this Team, he may not get the hype of Sam Burgess, who is a star at Sth Sydney and deserves the praise he receives, but Ellis is massively important to this Tigers outfit. He along with Keith Galloway does the gritty stuff, the tough stuff that allows the Marshalls and the Farah’s the space to operate in. In fact this West’s team has a massively underrated forward pack and their Battle with the big units in the Big Red V will be a key factor in this Saturday Night Match-Up. I just see the Tigers having a little bit too much class when it matters, I see them getting the points they don’t really deserve thanks to a moment of individual brilliance, whereas I think the Dragons will have to strive for every point they score.

This Dragons team does so many things well that should mean success in September, Weyman is a powerhouse up front, they have 2 strike weapons at the key position of Centre, a position along with Back Row that I believe is more and more crucial in the modern game, Gasnier has the potential to provide the spark to get them over the line, but then again we have been saying that all his career and he has never actually won anything. Matt Cooper will be crucial in taking away one half of the field from Benji Marshall as he is still the best defensive centre in the game and will read many of Marshalls trick plays down his side of the field and defuse many dangerous situations. Soward though still a liability in Defence will march the team down the field well, employ a top-level kicking game and help his team win the battle for field position, he will get his Forwards involved and release Morris and Boyd as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Just writing this paragraph I find I am talking myself into the Dragons, then I remember those 4 Penalty goals and all I can think is Buck Buck Braaaaawk.

Chickens don’t win Premierships in 2010, unless, as I sincerely hope happens, they are Roosters!!!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

NRL Finals Week 1 Review & Week 2 Preview

Well what a great start to the NRL finals series, yes the games were great and we will get to them in a moment, but the true highlight was clearly ozsportsdude going 4 for 4 against the Spread in Week 1. Anyone who read this column in Week 1 and took my advice would have done very well for themselves. Not only did ozsportsdude correctly pick the 2 upsets, but in all 4 games I picked the teams to cover the spread, quite a proud day for this young website.

Now to the games, for all the failings of the current NRL management and overall leadership of the game, the sports still has the capacity to put on a great spectacle and Finals Week One was a prime example. Friday night, for those few who watched it (seriously just how many things got broken in the Channel Nine offices when the McIntyre system forced New Zealand v Gold Coast to be the marquee TV ratings game on Friday night) was a game that re-emphasised the primacy of the Half-Back position in the modern game. These two teams were evenly matched in every position across the field, with the Warriors probably stronger on the wings, but with Scott Prince at Half-Back the Titans were in control all night. His ability to force repeat sets with the kicking game was a major reason for their win. The replacement Full Back Zillman was probably man of the match, but it was Prince who won the game. It still frustrates me how often other Half-Backs think try on every 5th tackle option inside the 20 when repeat sets are so crucial in today's NRL. Prince is not one of those Half-Backs, he is without doubt the best exponent of the little grubber into the in goal that force line drop outs in the game today and his full repertoire of kicks was on full display Friday night. The result, Titans win and thanks to other results they now have a "home" final in 2 weeks time. (The reason home is in parentheses is because the NRL are forcing them to play it at Suncorp, which is madness, yeah they will get an extra 5000 or so by moving it, but rather than have a jam packed Gold Coast stadium, with stories about it being the hottest ticket in town filling the papers, instead the AFL will get to laugh, yet again, as the NRL only half fills a stadium for a Preliminary Final at Suncorp) 'NRL leadership, where shooting ourselves in the foot is an art-form'.

The Saturday games were the highlight of the weekend however.

Roosters-Titans, what can anyone who saw that game say except WOW!!!!.

That was Rugby League at its best.

The Tigers paid a massive penalty for not converting their early dominance into points. Gareth Ellis went over the Try Line 3 times but was denied each time. The 2nd one has me completely perplexed. Benji Marshall in a stunning display of selfishness threw a punch after playing the ball meaning that video review overturned the Ellis try. What was stunning about this was that in a game that went to Golden Point Benji seems to have gotten off Scott-free in the media for this. Now if this happened in the last minute I am sure there would have been more made of it, however the time does not matter, 6 points were taken off the board due to this petulant act, yet the Rugby League media has not said a word about it, I'm tipping that if it had been Willie Mason and not the media darling Marshall who had thrown the punch he would have spent the week being raked over the coals in the Sydney Press for it. This type of favoritism from the media is just hypocritical in the extreme.

Speaking of our culture, one thing that frustrated me on the weekend was the reaction to the call by Ray 'Rabbits' Warren. I am sure you have heard about it by now but I'll give you a quick re-cap. After Ellis had the 3rd Try taken off him, Rabbits exclaimed

"Gareth is going to want to go to the Gap after this, don't do it Gareth, don't go to Watson's Bay"

Now for those who don't know, The Gap is a place in Sydney that is well known as a suicide hot-spot. As soon as Rabbits said this, I thought of the switchboard at Channel 9 lighting up with indignant do-gooders over this. Well it obviously did, as Rabbits was forced to apologise during the call of the Sunday game. This type of thing drives me insane. Are we so vanilla as a society now that we can't even allow our commentators make flippant remarks like this without it turning into a chance for a bunch of people with no lives to kick up a stink about this stuff and get their stupid mugs on the TV. The letters written to both papers in Sydney showed their is a whole bunch of these people living in Sydney with too much time on their hands, here's a thought for these people, rather than taking time to express your indignation over harmless remarks by Rugby League commentators use that same energy to volunteer at a charity somewhere. These are the same people who will sue the council if their kids break their arms at the local park and cause them to be closed. We cannot let ourselves be shackled by these people and Rabbits should not have apologised. Anyway back to the game.

So the Roosters had nothing going in attack and the Tigers had a 13 point lead half way through the 2nd Half. Then it all changed and as has happened so often it was Todd Carney's individual brilliance that sparked the side. First he played a brilliant chip kick to himself before sending Anasta over in the corner, before crucially converting from the sideline. From then on the Roosters dominated and the last 10 minutes of the game was played entirely in the Tigers half of the field. When Pearce crossed to cut the lead to one it looked like Farah's first half field goal might prove crucial as the Roosters were nearly out time. Then the excitement started, after forcing a line drop out the Roosters lost the ball on Tackle 2 with 30 seconds left.

The other untold story of the week in the 'traditional media' is that it should clearly have been a penalty in front of the posts seeing as it was a Shoulder Charge that connected with the chin that caused the dropped ball by the Roosters. There was time for the video ref to intervene, but he lost the courage to act. Now whether video refs should be allowed to get involved in this situation is another debate, the point here is that if this had happened in the 13th minute of the game, there is no doubt the Roosters get a penalty in that situation, but with the situation of the game meaning a penalty would almost certainly give the Roosters the win, it was not awarded.

Then the Roosters won the ball from the scrum, which was again a criminal mental mistake by the Tigers and after some helter-skelter passing Anasta snapped the Field Goal to tie the game. In Golden Point there were many close misses before Kenny-Dowall got a great intercept and went the length of the field to keep the Roosters alive and send them into an enticing match up with Penrith this Saturday night.

Penrith lost their game on Saturday night for the very same reasons predicted here in the week one preview column. The cross field kick is nowhere near as effective in the Finals when teams are more switched on than it is during the regular season. This caught the Roosters out 2 years ago and it kind of ironic that the new look Roosters play a team that may fail for the same reasons that they themselves did back then. The Penrith vs Canberra game was just a good solid game of Rugby League, not overly exciting but sprinkled with enough good moments to keep you entertained. Campese looks like he is back to his best form and his ability to take on the line tormented the Panthers all night and with Monaghan defusing any cross field kicks on his side of the field Penrith slowly seemed to become more and more bereft of ideas as the game wore on. Canberra deserved their win and will provide a stern test for the West Tigers this week. The similarities between the 2010 Raiders and the 2009 Eels is striking, getting up in 9 out of 10 must win games entering the finals, playing an enterprising attacking brand of football, a superstar at the top of his game (Campese) a great bunch of Forwards paving the platform for the skill players to work off the back of as well as a confidence level that is building on a weekly basis. So what is the difference, well really there is only one, the media has decided that they are not as exciting as the Eels so you have to turn quite a few pages of the paper to find a story about them. I understand they are not a Sydney team and the Canberra Times probably gives them a good run, but seriously this team is the 2010 version of the Hayne led Eels, yet the Daily Telegraph spent most of the last 2 months of the season trying to tell us them same Eels were a chance to repeat their heroics from the previous season. Are they really that blinded by the story they want to write that they can't see the real story that's occurring right in front of them, sighs.

Manly v St George was as I predicted a boredom inducing snooze fest played in the middle third of the field. Also if St George wants to shake off a chokers tag I don't know if taking the 2 points through Penalty kicks rather than going for the Try to go from a 6-0 lead to 8 to 10 to 12 was really the sort of thing that screams to the rest of the competition "We Believe in Ourselves" Particularly as they were playing a Manly team decimated by injury. Now the number of try's they put on late when Manly knew time was against them and had clocked off made the scoreboard look good, but I can't imagine the 5 other teams left alive quaking in their boots after that performance.

So onto the Week 2 Picks.

Roosters (-5.5) over Panthers

Again the idiocy of the McIntyre system and the scheduling process is in full effect. Penrith has to go to Roosters home field, meaning the Roosters who finished 6th have played at their home stadium 2 weeks in a row in the Finals against the teams that finished 3rd and now 6th. The line itself seems strange to me, yes Penrith lost last week, but the score was close all the way and they did finish 4 places above the Roosters at the end of the season. Still I think the Tab has set a good line. If the line was more like 2.5 or 3.5 I would be much more confident picking the Roosters. Still I think they should cover, though it will be close. The major concern for the Bondi club is that they are quite short out wide, particularly with little Sam Perrit and the cross field kicks will trouble him. Still Brian Smith is a master tactician and I am sure he has some plans to deal with this issue, whether by moving Anasta one spot wider in situations where the cross-field kick to that side is an option or some other move that will provide support in the air for Sam.

Penrith actually match up quite well with the Roosters in most positions, Luke Lewis gives them the same flexibility by foot and with skillful ball playing that Anasta gives the Roosters. They have a big Front Row to take on Ryles and co and they have speed out wide. However, like Titans v Warriors last week, the Roosters have an advantage in the halves and that will prove crucial on Saturday night. Carney is in rare form right now and even with some media trouble makers trying to stir up a power war between Pearce and Carney during the week, asking Pearce if he sees himself as a 'sidekick' to Todd it is clear that Pearce and Carney are good mates and that rubbish will have no effect. Roosters to cover but the margin will be less than 13 points.

Tigers (+6.5) over Raiders

Now this line is insane. I think that Canberra might very well win this game, but to set the line higher than a converted Try is just madness. Just to recap, the Tigers were one Benji Marshall brain snap, or the successful execution of a Scrum feed away from being in a preliminary final. Now Benji is hurt, but there is no doubt he will play. Also has everyone forgotten that for 70 minutes last Saturday night the Tigers looked like the Premiers in waiting. This Tigers team is not like the team of the last 5 years, with Ellis setting the standard this forward pack is quite capable of getting involved in a knock down drag them out war of attrition. Then if it is a close game, Farah and Marshall are there to provide the piece of magic that leads to points. Again I am not necessarily tipping a Tigers win here, Canberra are a good side and with the McIntyre system awarding the 7th placed team a home final over the 3rd placed team they will have a fired up crowd cheering them home late on if it is tight.

Let me rant about the McIntyre atrocity, I mean system, one more time. The Tigers after finishing 3rd at the end of the regular season, if they were to lose this week would exit the finals without playing a home final, now i know last week was officially a home game for the Tigers but the facts are they played it at the Roosters home field and now they go to Canberra. Can't we at least agree that in Week 2 it is the team that finished the regular season higher on the ladder that hosts the final, not the week one winners. Seriously Canberra who scraped into the finals, then winning one game should not get to host the 3rd placed team just because the Tigers lost in week one. Why they won't just change to the AFL system is beyond me, for those who don't know how the AFL system works please do yourselves a favour and go and check it out, then please come back and explain to me just one way that the McIntyre system is better.

So the push for the perfect Finals tipping performance against the spread continues. I have to say these lines make it tough this week in the Roosters game but make it easy in the Tigers game, I was leaning towards tipping the Tigers anyway, but as soon as I saw they had a 6.5 start it became the easiest bet of the year. Come back next week to see eat those words.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Webber Monza Preview

One down One to go for Webber and Red Bull.

Spa and Monza were never going to be Red Bull friendly tracks, the Red Bull Renault engine has many good quality's particularly its great pick up and drive out of the corners. Red Bull are the first to admit however it lacks outright grunt and top speed. This was best shown in Qualifying at Spa where Webber was burned by the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton through the long straights of Sector One, where even the legendary Eau Rouge is taken flat by all cars now, making it for the purposes of arguments about power, a straight. But in the twisty sector 2, where downforce and aero efficiency are the key, both Webber and Vettel were supreme, amazing Webber ended up on Pole after Saturday, which though it had elements of luck with the changeable conditions messing up qualifying for the top teams, was achieved on a dry track and slicks.

During the race, Webber got off to what is sadly becoming his customary terrible start and settled into 6th place at the hair-pin turn one, then outfought Sutil coming out Eau Rouge, with what is also becoming a Webber tradition, the incredible overtaking move that is completely ignored by the commentators. So he settled into 5th as the changeable conditions intervened. This led to the other great fear for Webber fans, Christian Horner having a say in the outcome of the race with strategy calls. I have many concerns about Horner as a manager of the egos within the Red Bull team and his obvious favoritism of Vettel is frustrating not just due to the fact it exists but with the complete lack of skill with which he has handled the whole situation. However, these concerns pale into insignificance compared to my finger nail biting angst that occurs whenever a race becomes a strategy battle and it becomes possible that Horner's decisions will directly affect the outcome of the race.

So in conclusion, Webber faced a triple threat at Spa, Firstly a track that does not suit the car, Secondly the terrible start, Thirdly, the stomach churning prospect of Horner vs Whitmarsh strategy battle. In the end as we know Webber came out of this with a stunning 2nd place finish. Better yet, Vettel showed his impetuousness yet again this season, took Button out and ruined his own race, meaning that he fell 28 points behind his teammate in the World Championship and took Button out as well. This means that the 5 way World Championship battle entering Spa, became in all reality thanks to Alonso's failure a 2 way race between Hamilton and Webber. Neither McLaren or Red Bull have acknowledged this as yet, and a reverse result at Monza opens it up again, but as long as Webber finishes within a place of his teammate for the next 2 races Red Bull will have little choice but to put their eggs in the Webber basket.

So now we head to Monza, again another Engine Power/Top Speed track, unfortunately their is not twisty bit at Monza, just long straights, chicanes and a couple of hairpins. This is particularly troubling as not only does this put the Renault powered Red Bulls behind McLaren but at the same time creates a situation where the Ferrari's and even the Force India's could leapfrog the Red Bull's as well helping Hamilton increase is championship lead by more than just the 7-12 points that a McLaren/Red Bull top 4 would cause. There is a real chance Webber could be scrapping for 6 or 7 points this weekend.

Mind you, I felt the same way heading to Spa and it ended up being the best weekend for the Webber World Championship charge so far this season, thanks to the youthful stupidity of his teammate. Now lets just hope that Horner and the Red Bull ownership think of the best chance to get a World Title and not try to somehow jeopardise his chances to get the young German back in the game and keep the Austrian parent company happy. And yes, this is a real fear.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

NRL Finals Preview

Let the hype begin, the NRL finals are here.

Sit back and wait for the advertising campaign from the NRL extolling the even nature of the competition and the fact any of the 8 teams can win on the first weekend in October. Obviously the NRL will not talk about the driving force behind the leveling of talent, namely that everyone has been dragged down to a sub-optimal level under the restrictions of the hideously low salary cap. If you are an NRL fan who happened to catch some of the Challenge Cup games from the UK Super League you could not help but feel frustrated. Just in the 2 or 3 games I have seen late on Sundays recently I saw Danny Buderus, Thomas Leului, Chris Flannery, Matt King and Pat Richards. If you think they are washed up veterans who wouldn't have made a difference to the teams in the finals, then you truly are under the Gallop spell.

The Finals Match Ups

St George-Illawarra Dragons vs Manly Sea Eagles

What a waste of a Sunday Afternoon game, when the lack of dew and the dry ball usually see us treated to a full expression of the players skills we instead get a game between the most boring team in the competition, Manly, playing the grind it out experts in St George. Seriously is there one thing that excites you about this Manly team, Tony Williams has his moments, but that's where it ends, even their Jerseys are boring. Even though on paper it appears that this is the perfect match up for the Dragons as Manly's middle third only style plays into the St George defensive grinding style there remain potential problems for the Dragons. All this week the talk about choking will start for St George, whilst Manly is a team that contains players who have not only won finals games, they have won the big one. Still if Manly can't win a potential must win game vs the bottom feeding Bulldogs I can't see them beating St George.

Prediction St George

Penrith Panthers vs Canberra Raiders

This game is a game that could either be a dominant Penrith win or yet another 7 v 2 upset. It all boils down to the kick, if it comes off for the Panthers then they should get home easily but if you live by the kicking game then more often than not in big games you die by it. In an average regular season game the kicking game can succeed because it often relies on a bit of laziness in positioning or lack of desperation from the defending team, this laziness can happen in Rd 15 when the players are more worried about where they are getting their Stilnox for the post game Kings Cross atrocity but in the finals when players have just spent the whole week being told that every play matters the kicking game seems to lack impact. For proof of this see the Sydney Roosters in 2008, who like this Penrith team entered the finals scoring most of their tries from kicks and went out in straight sets. The lesson is that in finals you need to be able to create try's through ball movement and precision line running. This does not augur well for the Panthers, particularly as the Raiders are a team with Campese at Five-Eighth that can create try's through good football.

Prediction Raiders

Wests Tigers vs Sydney Roosters

This is shaping up as not only the game of the first week of the finals but maybe the highlight of the whole Finals series. What a shame it will happen on Saturday night, this is a game made for Sunday Afternoon. Benji's flick passes and Carney bullet like 30 metre passes are made for dry weather football. Instead the pressure of finals and the dewy conditions will take some of the potential flair out of the contest. Still this should be a cracking game. The Tigers have toughened up in defense this year and Gareth Ellis continues to provide the type of go forward that Benji and Farah feed off. As for the Roosters Carney and Pearce will be the obvious storyline this week, but if are to win this week it will depend on the Centres and Back Rowers. Shaun Kenny-Dowall has a bad habit of crabbing sideways across the field, particularly if the Ref's are not enforcing a full 10 metres. The Roosters need SKD to run North-South not East-West. Also for all the talk about Carney's ball running skills he needs the threat of the pass to open up the running lanes for himself, often this threat is provided by the great running of Aubusson, who is the most reliable Rooster when it comes to hitting the line at pace and at good angles. This should be an entertaining game, no not necessarily a high-scoring one when you factor in the desperation of Finals. It truly is a coin-toss game, but the threat of upsets should make the Roosters just a tad more desperate and just see them get over the line. (6th placed losers drop out of the finals more often than not due to 7th or 8th placed teams causing an upset)

Prediction - Roosters

Gold Coast vs Warriors

How upset are Channel Nine that the vagaries of the McIntyre system ensured this was the Friday night game. On a scale of One to Ten I would put it at about a Seventy Three. Not only are there no Sydney teams involved, but they get the Gold Coast media market not the much larger Brisbane for the QLD TV ratings. Still this should be a great game. The Titans are a very professional football team, coached well by John Cartwright and have a true star at the most important position on the field in Scott Prince. The Warriors on the other hand rely much more on flair, but unlike in other years this Warriors team is prepared to be patient in the times of the game when they are not on top. In past years the Warriors when they were struggling would get off-load happy and try to force things to happen rather than putting their heads down and grinding it out for 10 minutes. Now they no longer do this and display a lot more professionalism and grit. Still Half-Back remains the most important position on the field and the Titans have the edge at that position so advantage Titans.

Prediction Titans

So all in all this should be an entertaining and closely matched weekend of finals, but don't confuse an even competition with a high quality one. The reason it so even is because every team has been dragged down to the level of the others not forced to raise their standards up to a high level. When you watch the Roosters think about how Chris Flannery could be helping them, when you watch Manly think of the benefit of an Orford, with the Tigers remember we lost Tuqiri's prime to the ARU. There are literally over a hundred other examples (183 players in either Rugby or the Super League at last count), remember this, get angry and dream of an Independent Commission and the end of the Gallop Era.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Webber screwed by Christian Horner

Does Webber regret signing again with Red Bull??

This question, should by any measure be ridiculous. He is sitting second in the Championship 20 points clear of his teammate, with tracks that suit his car making up 5 of the remaining 6 races. After spending his peak years as a driver, struggling in sub-standard equipment Red Bull should be Nirvana for a driver in his Thirties, but many issues, not just Wing-Gate must give Mark pause for thought.

To understand why Webber would be frustrated it is important to look at his history. Like any driver from Australia, just getting into Formula 1 was a miracle, you could argue that if it wasn't for fellow Aussie Paul Stoddart buying Minardi at just the right time, Webber may never have gotten his initial break. With less talented pay drivers clogging up the back half of the grid, the struggling Minardi would never have taken Webber, regardless of his obvious talent, if it wasn't for Stoddart wanting to give a chance to a fellow Aussie, in fact, even being a fellow Aussie may not have been enough, the fact the Melbourne Grand Prix opened the season may also have been a factor, allowing Stoddart to own the media to start the season. Whatever motivated the Webber hiring, the fact is he got his chance and took it with both hands, then he had more luck when massive attrition at the Melbourne Grand Prix meant that he managed to score a lucky 5th in his vastly inferior machine, leading to the famous incident where race winner, Michael Schumacher, made his way down to the slum end of Pit Lane to congratulate the rookie for his remarkable drive, in a car that we later found out did not even have Power Steering (this seems ridiculous, I mean my first car a 1981 Ford Laser even had Power Steering, but it is true). Webber then went on to dominate his pay to play teammate and this led to an end of year move to the newly formed Jaguar Racing team. At this time it appeared that lady luck was smiling at the young Aussie, however, it was not long until she averted her gaze.

At Jaguar, Webber endured the troubles that existed for midfield teams in the crazy spending, no testing restriction F1 era and crushed teammate after teammate, until his talents were eventually noticed by F1 powerhouse Williams F1.

Williams had just come off a 4 year period where Montoya had driven brilliantly and been the only driver to consistently take the fight to the Ferrari powerhouse led by Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher. At the time Webber had the choice to go to Renault and be Alonso's teammate but was advised by his Manager, coincidentally Renault Team Principal Flavio Briatore, to go to Williams where he would be the clear Number One and have the team built around him rather than be a clear Number 2 driver at Renault. At the time it seemed a great fit, the stoic down to earth Aussie seemed to fit the mold of Williams driver to a tee, but if he had looked closely, clouds were on the horizon.

The technical wizard of the glory years for Williams, Patrick Head had been promoted to a general engineering role at the start of 04, overseeing the whole factory. Day to day technical management had been passed to another Aussie, Sam Michael** meaning Webber would drive the first Sam Michael designed car in 05.

So Webber jumped in what appeared to be a dream seat as Williams became a nightmare of petty squabbling and political infighting. The first Sam Michael designed car was a lemon, the political infighting led to BMW leaving to form their own team after Webbers first year with the team. Williams were then forced to change Cosworth powerplants in year 2. The combination of Cosworth power and Sam Michaels conservative design style meant that Williams with all their finances and tradition, slipped into midfield mediocrity and saw Webber suffer the ultimate frustration of being in the rear view mirror of his old Jaguar. Even the best result of his Williams years could not be enjoyed, when at Monaco he got his first podium, but a strategy call that clearly favoured his teammate who was running behind him at the time saw their positions reversed after the stop, Heidfeld got 2nd as Webber finished 3rd, you could see Webber seething on the podium in what should have been a moment of joy.

When Red Bull took over the Jaguar F1 team, Webber returned to his old team and had a solid first season, but with the most innovative Technical Mind in F1, Adrian Newey, along for the first year, and designing his first car for year 2 you could see that better days were ahead.

When the Newey designed Red Bull lit up the timing screens in pre-season testing for 2009 all Webber fans could dare to dream. There was only one possible cloud on this horizon.

Red Bull is an Austrian team and they had just promoted young German Hot Shot Sebastian Vettel to sit alongside Webber in the sister car. For the first time Webber fans had actual concerns that maybe for once Webber might not wipe the floor with his teammate. As Button dominated the early races with the dodgy diffuser, Webber and Vettel were having an amazing even battle, Vettel qualifying better, but Webber outracing his young teammate in many races, but Vettel got the first victory for the team at China.

Silverstone seemed like it would be the occasion where Webber would get his maiden Grand Prix win. The Aussie dominated all the practice sessions and it looked like he would be a popular winner come Sunday if he carried his form into qualifying. Unfortunately the bad luck that had come to define Webber at this stage of his career struck at the worst possible time as Raikonnen blocked Webber on his final flying Qualifying lap, relegating him to second spot on the grid behind his teammate and that is how the race ended also.

The first win would have to wait until the German GP, ironic considering this was his teammates home race, even this could not be done easy for Webber, where he was given a drive through penalty after his team released him into the path of Barrichello in the Pit Lane. Webber drove brilliantly however and managed ot serve his drive through and still come out at the front of the field and drive to a stunning victory. He would have to wait until Brazil in the final race of the season for his second victory and with his teammate winning 4 races it appeared Webber was truly being challenged for the first time.

The unfortunate part is that the challenge is not a fair one.

It is clear now that Red Bull favors Vettel over Webber. 2010 has seen many examples of this. The most obvious of these has not been Winggate, the most obvious example has been the qualifying tactics of the Red Bull team. Any dedicated F1 fan knows that every extra lap done on the circuit in qualifying helps make the track a little quicker as more rubber is laid down on the racing line. It is rare indeed that Webber is given the privilege of being the 2nd Red Bull out for the last qualifying run. This favors Vettel and has been a source of frustration for Webber fans all year, but Wing-Gate bought it all to the surface.

With only 2 of the new wings available for the Silverstone Grand Prix, Vettel broke one his in practice, through no fault of his own admittedly it just fell off, but what followed was astounding. The two Red Bulls were over a second clear of the rest of the field and it was clear that qualifying would be a straight up fight between the two teammates. Amazingly Christian Horner then took the new wing off Marks car and handed it to his teammate before qualifying, giving him a clear advantage. That this happend just a few weeks after Horner had defended Sebastian and blamed Mark for an incident where all observers saw Vettel was to blame in an incident where Vettel tried a risky Overtaking move that took both Red Bulls off the track in Turkey, costing Mark a win and handing a 1-2 finish to McLaren only made the move seem all the more sinister.

In the incident in Turkey, Mark was leading the Grand Prix with Vettel behind him at the half way mark of the GP. The team told Mark that he would have to turn the power down on his engine to ensure he could reach the end of the race with enough fuel. Amazingly they did not give Vettel this same advice, even though the cars were identical, this allowed Vettel to run quicker than Mark up the straight, where he tried a crazy move down the inside into a gap that was not there and smash into his teammate, careening them both of the circuit, karma had its say as it put Vettel out the race, but it still relagated Mark to 3rd. The commentators at the time and everyone at home could see this was poor driving by Vettel, but when we woke the next day we saw headlines where Horner blamed Mark for not giving his teammate enough room. So you had dodgy communications designed to favour the German, then even the Red Bull PR team took one teammates side over the other.

Marks frustration must have been boiling at this time, for in this environment for the team to clearly take Sebastian's side in what was really a 2 car race at Silverstone was just stunning. Thankfully Webber used the frustration to his advantage lauching a great move off the start, passing his teammate at the first corner (cleanly) and running away to a satisfying victory.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Hawthorn Confusion

Are the 2008 Hawks back?

This is the question that has moved from the back of the brain to the tip of the lips of the Football public over the last few weeks. There are many good reasons for optimism, however if you look closely big concerns remain evident.

The major concern is an inability to close the deal, yes its an obvious flaw after 2 close losses to Geelong and now the agonizing 'interchange infringement' draw with the Saints. What is concerning though is that too many people are happy to make excuses for the Hawks and praise them for their guts, and extol their virtues for getting so close, but all this conveniently forgets that this team won the Premiership just 40 games ago.

Nor should we forget that this was no end of an era premiership, Hawthorn had the youngest list in the competition on that magical September afternoon. Croad and Crawford are the only losses from the Premiership 22, and with Rioli, Franklin, Roughhead, Mitchell, Hodge, Sewell and Lewis all with their best football in front of them it so much looked like the eighties were coming back for Hawthorn fans you nearly expected the team to run out with permed mullets.

Now just 18 months later the media, plus more worryingly the coach are seeing the 'positives' in close losses, giving them credit for gutsy efforts the same way I talk about my nephews under 12's football team. So what happened?

Firstly, although I may have brushed over it before, the loss of Croad was bigger than any of us could reasonably have foreseen, the big weakness in that Hawthorn team was lack of depth in the tall defenders, and not just depth but quality. Losing Croad robbed us of both, with no-one there to take his place and the other injuries we sustained in 2009 last years letdown was understandable, though not acceptable. Now though the concerns in defense have been somewhat solved with the fantastic late round pick Stratton giving us a quality defender who uses the ball well while neutralizing an opposition key forward. With the ever dependable Gilham alongside him the Hawks now have 2 tall defenders who might not be dominant in the Lake/Scarlett mold but are genuine AFL standard players in a key position for any premiership contender. To go alongside these two, we have the underrated Clinton Young and his amazing foot skills and the ever dependable Guerra filling the rebounding role admirably.

Secondly, the midfield is back to its 2008 best, in many ways even better. In 2008 Rioli was a rookie who gave us moments of inspiration but could not run 4 quarters through the midfield, now he is a genuine blue chip talent with the ability to dominate games in full, rather than have moments of impact. Hodge is a true superstar, in many observers opinion, including my own, he is the best player in the competition. Ablett and Judd are great at stoppages and providing burst on the edges, but Hodge not only matches them on the edges with his precise and penetrating disposal by foot providing the same impact as the bursting runs of Judd/Ablett, it may not look as spectacular but is just as effective. Where Hodge surpasses them both however is with his work inside. Mitchell continues to be the Greg Williams of his era and the recent reminder to Sewell that he is a hard working blue collar midfielder seems to have got him back to his roots and is producing his best football again. Hodge and Rioli remain the key, my friend Matty recently said how happy he is that for the first time since Darren Jarman his favourite player to watch is a Hawk, and many people agree with the sentiment. Hodge and Rioli give the Hawks a potentially dominating tandem in the midfield, both players who can dominate stoppages or open play. All this without mentioning the silk of Burgoyne, the toughness of Lewis or the pleasant surprise that is the ruckwork of Wade Skipper to finally have someone to help Renouf. Tell me again why people praise close losses for this team, that should be a midfield that backs itself to not just compete but potentially dominate any midfield in the competition, then when they get it into the forward 50 we have what should be the Hawks trump card.

The one-two punch of Roughhead/Franklin.

Buddy is a player of freakish ability who is playing well if not back to his dominant 2008 form. However Buddy has won games for the Hawks this year and terrifies opposition match committees like no other current day footballer. Also, he has the trouble of having to beat his opponent and the umpires every week, the most frustrating thing for him and the fans is the way he is crucified by the Umpires, is it racism that he gets so hard done by, whilst the blond haired blue eyed Riewoldt gets decisions Buddy can only dream of. Roughie is the issue, every time he gets the ball 30 metres out, you basically chalk down the behind before he even staggers in nervously to poke the ball wide. Yes he gives a contest and he is probably a better overhead mark than Franklin, but it appears that he is just missing, I dunno, something. That's the frustration with Roughhead, its so hard to put into words what the issue is, but is clear to anyone that he is not playing to anywhere near his potential. Saying that though, the fact remains he is an asset and alongside Franklin provides the Hawks the two pronged attack that is the envy of the competition.

Which is what makes the last 4 weeks so frustrating. I will admit going into this stretch of games I would have been content with a 2 and 2 record, so I should be happy with 2-1-1 but after beating the Bulldogs, and getting so close against Geelong, 4-0 feels like it should be recorded history, come finals time, close enough is never good enough, add to that the frustration that other results went our way and that closing the deal in those games means we had a realistic shot at a top 4 berth then the acceptance of the losses frustrates fans even more.

Many of this team were around for the infamous 'line in the sand game', a game which we lost. Now it is time for another line in the sand to be drawn, yet this line needs to be drawn not in a center square brawl, but instead on the scoreboard, the process is important, but from now on, for these Hawks, the result is all that matters.