Bulldogs v Warriors
Friday 5.15pm, ANZ Stadium
Their journeys through the finals series thus far couldn’t be more different. The Bulldogs won a tense golden-point thriller against minor premiers Canberra in Week One to earn last week off. The Warriors, meanwhile, narrowly disposed of the Rabbitohs a fortnight ago before annihilating top-four side the Sydney Roosters last week in a magnificent display of shock and awe.
With a spot in the grand final up for grabs, there is no doubting that both sides have earned the right. Friday night, under lights, they will clash in an almighty encounter. This is precisely what rugby league is all about.
Watch Out Bulldogs: Any doubts about the Warriors’ credentials this side of the Tasman were locked in a coffin and tossed out at sea somewhere between here and Auckland at the weekend.
New Zealand piled on 10 tries to one in the 58-6 win over the Roosters, their biggest of the year, to prove they are peaking at exactly the right time.
Five-eighth Tuimoala Lolohea was the standout, scoring four tries, running for 238 metres, setting up a further try and busting seven tackles.
But it is in defence that the Warriors have built their 2013 season. Their 25 leaked points per game is the fourth leanest in the Holden Cup and more than a point per game better than their Friday opponents.
The Bulldogs’ most daunting task will be trying to find a way through the Warriors’ line.
Watch Out Warriors: There’s little wonder why the Bulldogs have lost just seven games all year.
They have scored more points than any other team in the competition (846) and have eclipsed the 40-mark in six of their past eight outings.
Players like Patrick Templeman, Moses Mbye and John Sila make the Bulldogs a veritable point-scoring machine – all three will be lining up this Friday.
If the Warriors can’t contain the Bulldogs’ astonishing ability to get quality ball to their outside men, the Holden Cup will likely be remaining in Australia for at least another year.
Head-To-Head in 2013: The Warriors triumphed 34-24 in Round 9 at Westpac Stadium.
The Verdict: The Bulldogs and Warriors both have razzle-dazzle potential and both are responsible for some of the most impressive performances of the year. This blockbuster is a hard one to pick, but New Zealand’s win last week was simply irresistible.
Tip: Warriors by 10 points.
Panthers v Raiders
Saturday 5.15pm, Allianz Stadium
The grand final most punters were expecting has come a week early.
After an early stumble in Week One, the Raiders bounced back with a massive win against defending premiers the Wests Tigers last week.
The Panthers, meanwhile, have had their feet up for a fortnight after they smashed the Roosters in a qualifying final at Allianz Stadium.
Both sides are in stellar form and the rivalry that has defined the 2013 Holden Cup is set to be settled once and for all. Hold on to your seats.
Watch Out Panthers: Over the course of the past 28 weeks, the Canberra Raiders have been close to untouchable. They have lost only five times since March. Their greatest strength is undeniably their knack of turning games on their heads in a matter of mere minutes. They often don’t win big; in fact in the final round of the regular season they were nearly overrun by minnows Cronulla and snatched victory by two. But the Raiders, almost invariably, do win.
Errors? Plenty. Missed tackles? Bucket-loads. But Penrith need to watch out for the Raiders stringing together a number of mind-blowing sets in a row. They can score 20 points in 15 minutes – and often do.
Halfback Mitchell Cornish is the key to their brilliance, winger Jonathon Reuben the best finisher in the competition. Penrith must neutralise them or they’ll go down.
Watch Out Raiders: Way back in Round 1, on March 10, the Raiders were made to look like amateurs by the Panthers.
In a disastrous start to a marvellous season, the Raiders were towelled up 40-16 in a match that saw them cough up 12 errors and complete just 55 per cent of their sets.
Panthers centre George Jennings ran for 138 metres, set up a try, scored one himself and busted two tackle attempts that day. He will be trying to replicate that performance this weekend.
Backline partner Dallin Watene Zelezniak scored a try and busted six tackles back in Round 1. He too will be there on Saturday.
Memories of being desiccated by the best outside backs in the competition will not have evaporated for the Raiders and they will be focussing all their efforts on denying the Panthers’ rear men any room to wiggle.
Head-To-Head in 2013: Panthers 40-16 in Round 1 at Centrebet Stadium; Raiders 32-18 in Round 14 at Canberra Stadium.
The Verdict: This is a playoff for a spot in the decider between the two best teams in the competition. Penrith’s defence (460 points leaked per game) is second-to-none, while Canberra’s winning attitude and potential to explode handed them the minor premiership with a five-point buffer. The pain of finishing runners-up last year will mean a lot. For that reason they get the nod.
Tip: Raiders by four points.