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.

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