Water Cooler: Captains give their final verdict

Warriors captain Simon Mannering summed it up best this morning when he told NRL.com: “Everyone that has made it this far will give themselves a chance of winning the competition.”<br><br>It’s not often that a finals series comes around with so many sides offering genuine reasons as to why they can go all the way, but with only Manly limping into the finals on the back of good fortune rather than good measure, that’s exactly how it stands heading into Week One.<br><br>At least seven of the eight NRL semi-finalists in 2010 come into the business end of the year in good form, with Mannering’s Warriors among the many dark-horses looking to topple nominal favourites St George Illawarra for the title.<br><br>“We’ve given ourselves a chance to be there at the end,” he said today. “It’s a very close competition this year. <br><br>“A lot of teams have beaten a lot of these other games so you’ve definitely got to be on top of your game if you want to progress.<br><br>“It doesn’t get any easier for anyone from this point.”<br><br>The Warriors travel to the Gold Coast in the first of the blockbusters this weekend to face a Titans side that has beaten them twice in 2010 and also seems to have rediscovered their mojo in recent weeks after a mid-season form slump.<br><br>The Titans have won six of their past seven games – their only slip-up coming, ironically, against lowly Cronulla in Round 25 – and their run has included impressive wins over fellow finalists Wests Tigers, the Warriors, Sydney Roosters and minor premiers St George Illawarra.<br><br>Other than Canberra, they are the form team of the competition and will be expecting to perform far better than last season when they crashed out of the finals in ‘straight sets’.<br><br>The Tigers head into their first finals series since their 2005 premiership success boasting arguably the most fearsome attacking arsenal of any side in the finals race – led by mercurial five-eighth Benji Marshall and inspirational captain Robbie Farah.<br><br>Despite going down narrowly to the Gold Coast last Friday night, they warmed up with a brilliant display against Melbourne the week before and are coming off an incredible 43-18 thumping of second-placed Penrith only three weeks ago.<br><br>Yet they face a Roosters outfit this week that can be just as brilliant on their day and have their own magician in the halves in Todd Carney.<br><br>Wooden spooners 12 months ago, the Roosters have turned it all around on the back of their brilliant backline, with Carney’s individual clash with Marshall on Saturday night arguably the highlight of the entire weekend.<br><br>“There will be some pressure on Todd but he has been fantastic this year and I know he’ll be looking forward to matching up against Benji,” captain Braith Anasta said.<br><br>“He has worked hard like we all have and it’s a good position for us to be in now. <br><br>“We’re pretty proud of what we’ve done this year and we’ve come a long way – but we still think we can do a bit of damage in the semis.”<br><br>Penrith looked dead and buried a month ago after losing five games from six to seemingly undo all their good work over the first half of the season, but even with some injury concerns and the loss of captain Petero Civoniceva through suspension, they have once again hit top gear over the past three weeks.<br><br>Just a week after their demoralising Round 23 thrashing at the hands of Wests Tigers, they put South Sydney to the sword 54-18, produced a miracle comeback against Canterbury and belted Cronulla into submission with another 50-point scoreline last Saturday night – prompting Civoniceva to claim today that: “We are getting back to the form that we showed in the middle of the season.”<br><br>But Penrith have drawn the short straw:&nbsp; If there is one outfit that every other side in the NRL wants to avoid, it is the Canberra Raiders who have come from nowhere to win eight of their past nine games and their past five straight to storm into the finals.<br><br>Second v seventh isn’t supposed to be such a worrying contest for the higher-placed side but the unstoppable go-forward of Canberra’s monstrous forward pack, the silky skills of Terry Campese and the brilliance of fullback Josh Dugan have catapulted them into premiership contention.<br><br>They came from behind to beat the Panthers only four weeks ago, smashed the Dragons two weeks later and ended Brisbane’s run of 18 consecutive finals appearances last Friday night.<br><br>The one side that does look to be walking the plank is Manly.<br><br>Battered and bruised by injury, and with suspension scares hanging over their heads, they slumped to a demoralising loss to Canterbury on Sunday and face a daunting challenge against the minor premiers next weekend – although captain Jamie Lyon remains defiant.<br><br>“I suppose we’ve got a few out and it’s going to be a huge challenge for us,” he said. <br><br>“But we’re confident in the players we’ve still got available so we’ll be going out there and giving it our best shot."<br><br>However, all eyes will be on the Dragons as the finals kick off this weekend. Can they finally go all the way and break their premiership duck?<br><br>Twelve months ago the minor premiers crashed at the hands of Parramatta and were eliminated by Brisbane a week later, but they appear to have rediscovered their drive once more in recent weeks and will go a long way towards a grand final appearance should they take care of Manly as expected this Sunday.<br><br>Captain Ben Hornby told NRL.com that despite the talk of an open competition, the Dragons are a far superior side in 2010 and are determined to make amends for their shortcomings of the past.<br><br>“We think we’re a better side,” Hornby said. “But time will tell what the finals hold. <br><br>“At the end of the day it comes down to how we perform this week and we’ll be judged on that.”<br>