St George Illawarra back-rower Ben Creagh has insisted competition front-runners Melbourne and Manly still deserve premiership favouritism heading into the finals despite history showing that only three sides since 1998 have gone on to win the grand final after losing their final regular season game.
But former premiership-winning halfback Greg Alexander has questioned the preparations of both sides in the wake of the now infamous Brookvale brawl two weeks ago, with the mental scars of that battle threatening to derail their respective campaigns.
Melbourne have now lost two in a row heading into the finals following Sunday night’s shock 40-8 thumping at the hands of the Sydney Roosters, while a depleted Manly side fought valiantly before going down to Brisbane 18-10 at Suncorp Stadium.
Although the Storm head into this weekend’s clash against eighth-placed Newcastle as huge favourites to progress to the grand final qualifier in a fortnight’s time, Alexander said recent events had inevitably changed the equation.
“After Melbourne won 12 in a row (between Rounds 12-24) you’d like to think that they’ll be okay – but what impact has the events at Brookvale that night had on them? The fall-out from that with a 40-point hiding from a team that has battled all year – to wind up your preparations like that, what does that do for your confidence? That’s the unknown,” he said.
“Momentum means confidence and confidence is everything. It builds that belief in each other and it’s a remarkable thing what that does.
“I don’t know what that loss to the Roosters means to Melbourne. While they will field a completely different front row and have some players coming back in… it shouldn’t impact too much but there are still blokes that were on the receiving end that will be out there on Sunday. It’s not the ideal preparation.
“And even though Manly put in a valiant effort against Brisbane, they’ve got the Glenn Stewart suspension hanging over their head and that might impact on them – especially in Week Three. That’s when it might really come back to bite them.”
Alexander said that results last weekend and the off-field dramas that followed the Brookvale brawl had changed the equation, with the stocks of St George Illawarra – who have returned to form with consecutive wins – and Wests Tigers in particular rising.
More telling though is that history shows only three sides have gone on to lift the trophy after losing their final regular season game since 1998, with the 2003 Panthers’ outfit the only one to go all the way after losing their last two.
Melbourne in 1999 and Wests Tigers in 2005 overcame late hiccups to win the Telstra Premiership.
“The Dragons seem to be over their injury problems, with a couple of blokes carrying injuries over the past six months. They’ve got a pretty fit squad at the moment,” Alexander said. “That’s a big thing. And the Tigers are looking pretty good though with eight in a row and getting some blokes back from injury as well. They’ll be full of confidence.”
But Creagh, who was a member of St George Illawarra’s premiership-winning side 12 months ago, said it was up to the chasing pack to lift their games over the coming weeks, with the Storm and Sea Eagles still the teams to beat.
“I don’t think anything has changed,” Creagh said. “The regular season is over now. I don’t think you can look too much into the past few weeks and the performances of any side.
“We all start from scratch now – and that’s what those teams will be very focused on.
“I think that the important thing is to have your structures in place. Even if you’ve had some poor performances heading in, you can change that in a week.
“The finals tends to bring the best out of players and those top teams.”
Asked about the Dragons’ chances of going back to back, Creagh said: “We’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us.
“There are still a number of sides that have been better than us form-wise and how they’ve played the back half of the season. That shows on the ladder.
“It’s a bit different for us this year but we still want to go out there and perform well. But it was nice to score some points last week and we played the full 80 minutes for the first time in a while. We’ve still got a lot of improvement in us but we know what we’re capable of when we play well.”
While Melbourne’s wheels may have wobbled in recent weeks, Alexander said the advantage of playing Newcastle at AAMI Park this weekend was significant, with Manly the side in most danger of an upset against the Johnathan Thurston-led Cowboys.
“That’s not the game they would have been hoping for,” he said.
“On the other hand Melbourne are playing the rank outsides of the finals series. They might have been knocked around a bit but with a strong win against Newcastle they can forget about the last couple of weeks and focus on the new competition.”