The Broncos face a tough assignment getting past the Wests Tigers, who already boast a victory over them in 2013 with a 38-16 decision in Round 14.
Warriors v Rabbitohs (Elimination Final)
Friday, 5.15pm, ANZ Stadium
Last Week: Both the Warriors and Rabbitohs ended successful home-and-away seasons with disappointing losses.
New Zealand in fact strung together what were perhaps their worst 80 minutes of 2013 – going down 48-4 to the lowly Dragons. It was the Kiwis’ second consecutive loss and helped in no small part by a completion rate of 68 per cent and a missed tackle count of 37.
The Rabbitohs fared much better but never looked like winning their match against rivals the Sydney Roosters.
Eventually going down 28-20, a try to Bunnies winger Siosaia Tanginoa in the final seconds made the score read a little more respectably.
Last Time They Met: The Rabbitohs snuck away with a breathtaking 40-38 win back oin Round 17 when they held off a fast-finishing Warriors outfit at Redfern Oval.
Key Match-Ups: Halfbacks Christian Hazard (South Sydney) and Mason Lino (Warriors) are two of the best playmakers in the Holden Cup. Whoever controls Friday night’s match the better will likely taste success.
Also watch for a salivating clash up front between big men Daniel Smith (South Sydney) and James Taylor (New Zealand). It’s been a year for forwards and these two men are close to the top of the tree.
The Verdict: Neither team can claim a perfect build-up to this sudden-death blockbuster. The Rabbitohs haven’t beaten a top-four side since Round 16 and managed only three wins from their final five games.
The Warriors are in an even messier situation. They earned just three competition points over the final five weeks of competition and last beat a top-four side in Round 10.
Add that to the fact that this “home” final will be played at ANZ Stadium as a curtain raiser to the Bunnies’ NRL final against the Storm and it becomes difficult to imagine an outcome that won’t see South Sydney marching on through to next weekend.
Tip: Rabbitohs by 10 points.
Panthers v Roosters (Qualifying Final)
Saturday, 1.30pm, Allianz Stadium
Last Week: The Panthers earned their fourth consecutive win, the Roosters their third.
Stellar form and momentum have delivered these two powerhouses to Allianz Stadium for what should be a thriller of Hollywood proportions.
Penrith’s final regular season win came in the form of a 30-18 belting of the Sea Eagles. Centre Waqa Blake starred with two tries, while lock Brendan Attwood contributed 38 tackles.
The Roosters also did it easily against South Sydney, running away with a disciplined 28-20 win that saw the Tricolours amass only nine errors to the Rabbitohs’ 17.
Last Time They Met: The Roosters clinched a 36-30 nail-biter in Round 21 when utility forward Brandon Tago dived over in the 77th minute to break the deadlock at Centrebet Stadium.
Key Match-Ups: Penrith boast, without doubt, the most dynamic and dangerous backline in the Holden Cup. Players like fullback Kieren Moss and wingers George Jennings and Dallin Watene Zelezniak make the Panthers one of the hardest teams to defend against. It is vital Roosters centres Brendan Elliot and Rhyse Martin live up to their full dazzling potential on Saturday afternoon because if the opposition gets its way, this game will be played fast and on the flanks.
The Verdict: It’s impossible to go past the Panthers at this end of the season. They are the only team in the competition to have rivalled Canberra for premiership favouritism and even thumped the Green Machine 40-16 in Round 1.
On paper there is little to split the two sides, they’ve both won and lost the same number of games and displayed frightening form in the lead-up to the playoffs.
But where the Roosters have been brilliant this year, the Panthers have been phenomenal. They deserve a shortcut to the grand final and will likely earn it on Saturday.
Tip: Panthers by eight points.
Wests Tigers v Broncos (Elimination Final)
Sunday, 11.15am, ANZ Stadium
Last Week: The Wests Tigers snatched a sizeable and much-needed win at the weekend, while the Broncos limp into this sudden-death final on the back of a thrashing at the hands of Canterbury-Bankstown.
Things were starting to look grim for the Wests Tigers, who hadn’t managed a triumph since Round 23, but roared back into form with a 48-14 annihilation of the North Queensland Cowboys.
Fullback Kurtis Rowe bagged a hat-trick in the victory, while centre Manaia Rudolph amassed 20 solo points.
Brisbane, meanwhile, struggled to contain the Bulldogs at Suncorp Stadium, eventually going down 48-32 after missing 35 tackles. The loss did mark a return to form for five-eighth Kodi Nikorima who contributed a try assist, 20 tackles and three tackle-breaks.
Last Time They Met: Wests Tigers halfback Luke Brooks spoiled the Suncorp Stadium party, scoring a hat-trick in his side’s 38-16 thumping of the Brisbane Broncos in Round 14.
Key Match-Ups: The Broncos are one of many sides in the Holden Cup who rely heavily – in more ways than one – on their forward pack.
Props Francis Molo and Stephen Coombe are two of the biggest and best in the competition and their clash with the Wests Tigers’ Andy Fiagatusa and Nathan Brown will be fascinating.
The two five-eighths Matt Mulcahy (Wests Tigers) and Kodi Nikorima (Broncos) are also vital to these sides and regularly perform the work of two men.
The Verdict: In one corner are the defending premiers the Wests Tigers. They have pulled off some of the most exciting wins this year, boast one of the most potent attacks in the competition, and are playing in their native Sydney.
In the other corner are the Brisbane Broncos – a team that has lost as many games as it has won, a team that has the third worst defence in the competition and a team that finds itself 1000km from home. There is no doubting the fact that the Wests Tigers will be playing again next week.
Tip: Wests Tigers by 16 points.
Raiders v Bulldogs (Qualifying Final)
Sunday, 1.30pm, ANZ Stadium
Last week: The Raiders’ 19th win of the season was also one of their least convincing, sneaking away 36-34 victors against the 13th-placed Cronulla Sharks.
The Raiders missed 38 tackles and committed 12 errors on their way to a win that left them five points clear at the top of the Holden Cup ladder.
Winger Jonathon Reuben scored two tries while a lethally accurate halfback Mitchell Cornish contributed an invaluable six goals and 19 tackles.
The Bulldogs had a much better time of it against the Brisbane Broncos, running in eight tries in a 48-32 thrashing.
Fullback Patrick Templeman scored a try, set another one up and slotted eight from eight conversion attempts.
Winger Lindon McGrady bagged a hat-trick and back-rower Shaun Lane simply sizzled with a try assist, 179 metres, 23 tackles and five tackle-breaks.
Last Time They Met: The Bulldogs shocked everybody back in Round 23 when they demolished the mighty Raiders 62-12 at Canberra Stadium. Fullback Patrick Templeman scored an incredible 30 solo points.
Key Match-Ups: The Bulldogs and Raiders are both remarkably powerful across the park. Watch for Canterbury-Bankstown fullback Templeman as he attempts to outdo a Raiders backline that includes brilliant winger Jonathon Reuben and the dynamic centres pairing of Brenko Lee and Andrew Heffernen.
Bulldogs centre Moses Mbye is also one of the most talented players in the competition.
Up front, the Raiders’ Patrick Mago will be one of their greatest assets. For the Bulldogs, prop Lloyd Perrett shapes as vital.
The Verdict: All things being equal, the Raiders would clearly be favourites in this Sunday afternoon belter.
They have consistently been the best side all year and though they make plenty of mistakes, they know how to win football matches.
But who could forget the dismembering they suffered last month against the Bulldogs? The Raiders were made to look like a bunch of school kids rather than minor premiers. Also niggling at the Raiders’ minds will be the fact that the Bulldogs are the only side to have scored more points than them this year (846-765).
If any team deserves a rest next weekend it’s Canberra. But don’t be surprised if they are instead playing for their lives in a sudden death semi-final.
Tip: Bulldogs by six points.