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!!!