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.
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.
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.