Matt Parish, NRL.com
It’s hard to believe the Finals series is just two weeks away and there is still so much left in the regular season storyline.
While the top-four teams are settled and Cronulla and Canterbury have secured their chance to handle the Steeden in September, the bottom end of the top eight is where the action is. Quite simply six teams do not go into two spots.
The Knights, Cowboys, Titans, Panthers, Warriors and Raiders will fight it out for seventh and eighth positions but regardless of who makes it through you get the feeling that they will play their respective ‘grand finals’ in Week One of the business end of the season. The format of our finals series makes it so difficult to make a run outside of the top four, let alone outside of the top six where you must play three games away from home just to make it to October 6.
On the other side of the ledger we have the top four who receive two bites at the cherry and a top two who are guaranteed two home finals.
So the big question is: Can a team outside of the top four win the 2013 Premiership? Looking at history the short answer is, no.
In 2012, the Bulldogs, Storm, Sea Eagles and Rabbitohs made up the top four and played each other in Week One of the Finals series. The losers (Manly and South Sydney) played and won in Week Two, then swapped Week One opponents in their respective Preliminary Finals. However, they both lost, with Canterbury and Melbourne advancing to the season decider.
The AFL, who have been using this system for years now, have never crowned a premiership team that finished outside of the top four since establishing the same finals format.
While the Sharks’ faithful may still be singing ‘Up, Up, Cronulla,’ after their decisive win over the Roosters, I believe that the mountain may still be too tough to conquer for the men from the Shire. The reason simply being that the competition is just too tough for teams ranked 5-8 for them to take home the Provan-Summons Trophy.
So where will the finals battle be won between the top four sides? With just hairs splitting each of these teams I think it is appropriate to look at the men who will decide the game when it comes down to the wire – the halves combinations.
While each of these teams boast game-breakers across the park – like Greg Inglis, Sonny Bill Williams, Billy Slater and Brett Stewart to name a few – it is the men with number 6 and 7 who will decide the results when the game is on the line.
The Sydney Roosters’ pairing of James Maloney and Mitchell Pearce have been in scintillating form since representing NSW in the Origin series. Combined this season they are responsible for 10 tries, 37 try assists; 18 line-breaks and 33 line-break assists. If the Roosters are to win this season’s competition, which I think they can, this pairing really need to stand up and be counted when the blowtorch is applied in the coming weeks.
The Rabbitohs have the experience of John Sutton, who is in career-best form, to guide them around the park, while young dynamo Adam Reynolds’ kicking game is absolutely pinpoint. So far this season they have scored nine tries, 31 try assists, but only made 12 line-breaks and registered 20 line-break assists. What we did see last year was how much of a difference Reynolds makes, his injury in the GF qualifier all but derailing their 2012 finals campaign. If this pair can stay healthy, the Bunnies are in good shape.
The season-hardened Storm duo of Cooper Cronk and Brett Finch are sure to keep opposition teams guessing. Their ability to grind teams out through Craig Bellamy’s game plans, but also play what is in front of them, is invaluable at this time of year. The Cronk and Gareth Widdop/Finch combination boasts seven tries, had a hand in 37 others, and assisted in 36 line-breaks. The worrying sign is that neither of these men are proven ball runners – with just eight line-breaks between the three of them this season. The ace in this pack though is the crafty Cameron Smith, who takes much of the pressure off his halves pairing.
Then you have the chemistry of what could easily be rated the most proven halves pairing in the competition in Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans. They may be the youngest combination in the top four, but together they have never missed a final series. Their numbers are deceptive with nine tries, 33 try assists but only six line-breaks and 18 line-break assists. More often than not it’s the second-last ball of a big play, which often gives the Stewart boys room to work their magic, that is slickly delivered by the Manly number 6 or 7.
If we are going by the numbers, the Roosters halves will be the dominant force of the final series. But while stats don’t lie, it is the ability to handle pressure that will deliver victory on the first weekend of October.