Toyota Cup Preview - Round 25
Can you read tea leaves? Are you any good with a crystal ball? Know anyone who channels Nostradamus? You might need all three to predict the Toyota Cup top eight!
Omar Slaimankhel became the first Warriors player to score four tries in a Toyota Cup game when his team smashed Manly on Saturday - and that is just the start of the story! Slaimankhel's family walked for a week to escape war-torn Afghanistan for Pakistan; they arrived in New Zealand when Omar was three.
With a family background in weightlifting and athletics, Omar pursued rugby union before "stumbling" into league when he saw a Warriors junior development squad training and made some inquiries. It's a long way from Afghanistan to Brookvale, but the youngster made the world seem a small place as he raced away for try after try against the Eagles.
Drum roll please
The NRL will announce its Toyota Cup Team of the Year on Tuesday, which will include just one name from the 2009 team. A Coach of the Year will be also named for the first time.
Several men have strong claims - David Kidwell has led Souths to the top of the table in his first year; Kristian Woolfe and Scott Murray have achieved great improvement from North Queensland Cowboys and Sydney Roosters respectively; John Ackland has cured the Warriors of their travel bug; and Andy Patmore has inspired a remarkable revival from Canterbury-Bankstown.
Before we name the best 17 from 2010, it is worthwhile looking at what the 2009 Team of the Year has gone on to achieve.
The most successful in terms of NRL games played is Kieran Foran, named on the bench in last year's Toyota Cup Team of the Year, who has played 20 games with the Manly first-grade team in 2010.
Below is the list of last year's Team of the Year members who have gone on to play NRL this season.
Junior Vaivai (South Sydney - one game), Drury Low (Canberra - two), Rob Lui (Wests Tigers - 12), Trent Merrin (St George Illawarra - 19), Travis Waddell (Canberra - 15), Jesse Bromwich (Melbourne Storm - 6), Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (Roosters -13), Jamie Buhrer (Manly - 2=two), Keiran Foran (Manly - 20), Joel Romelo (Penrith to Canterbury - three), Gareth Widdop (Melbourne - two).
The closest Toyota Cup competition yet is set for a thrilling conclusion to the minor premiership over the next fortnight. Only one point separates the top four teams; only three points separates the top six teams.
Here's my attempt at a ladder predictor:
1. Souths. 34pts - (Eels, Dragons). 38pts.
2. Warriors. 33pts - (Broncos, Eels). 35pts.
3. Cowboys. 33pts - (Raiders, Roosters). 35pts.
4. Roosters. 33pts - (Sea Eagles, Cowboys). 35pts.
5. Bulldogs. 32pts - (Panthers, Sea Eagles). 36pts.
6. Raiders. 31pts - (Cowboys, Broncos). 33pts.
7. Tigers. 28pts - (Storm, Titans). 32pts.
8. Sea Eagles. 28 pts - (Roosters, Bulldogs). 28pts.
9. Broncos. 25pts - (Warriors, Raiders). 27pts.
10. Titans. 25pts - (Sharks, Tigers). 27pts."
The only think you can take for certain is that the final round will be a promoter's dream.
What's the cut line?
While the make-up of the top eight might come down to the final game of the regular season, it may also be decided this weekend.
Wins by the Tigers and the Sea Eagles will make the cut line 30pts and end the hopes of Brisbane and Gold Coast. The Tigers should beat the Storm at Leichhardt on Sunday, especially if Curtis Sironen repeats his 18-point haul against Parramatta last week. The son of Tigers second-rower Paul Sironen is making a name for himself at five-eighth.
Manly has to find some defensive form against the Roosters on Sunday. The Sea Eagles are on the slide, having lost three of their last four after giving up 160 points in their last four games.
Of course it might be irrelevant if Brisbane and Gold Coast lose on Friday and Saturday. The good news is you can see two of those games on Fox Sports. I'm joined at Toyota Park on Saturday by Ben Hannant and at Leichhardt on Sunday by Simon Woolford. All of it is on Fox Sports 2HD and Fox Sports 2.
The punters' pick
Canterbury-Bankstown are into $3.50 favourites to win the Toyota Cup and at this point it looks like stealing money.
The Dogs have only lost one of their last 15 games ... and that was with a forward sent off in the first half. Over the past fortnight they have put 60 points on Canberra and 50 on North Queensland - both opponents are top-eight teams.
They tick every box: big, offloading frontrowers; hard-working, hard-running back rowers; skillful halves; speedy backs; and a good bench. It's been a dramatic comeback after starting the year with seven winless weeks.
For the record you'll get $5 about South Sydney's premiership chances and $6 for North Queensland and the Warriors. The Roosters are the only other team in single figures at $7. (All with Tab Sportsbet).
Two of the last three Sunday games - televised by Fox Sports - have finished like the federal election - well hung. The Knights and Dogs finished at 26-all before the Raiders and Dragons couldn't be separated at 28-all. There have been eight draws in Toyota Cup this year - North Queensland involved in three of them. The NRL has only involved five golden-point games.
We all know South Sydney's NRL team went 40 minutes without scoring a point on Friday night - the Bunnies trailed 40-0 at half-time. But the club actually went 80 minutes without a point. The Rabbitohs Toyota Cup team lead 26-10 at half-time before holding on for a 26-24 victory