Sterling Gold: Eight skippers ready for battle
I'm not quite sure that I agree with what seems to be the general consensus that the up-coming finals series is the start of a new competition.
I understand the sentiment, but what doesn't change is each of the eight clubs looking for their best-ever performance exhibiting the kind of qualities which has gotten them this far in the first place.
To now stay alive it will be about talent, skill, attitude, desire and yes, a favourable dose of luck.
What will also prove to be invaluable in this last month will be the degree of leadership that is demonstrated within each group.
I vividly remember during the 1981 Grand Final against Newtown questioning a decision made by our Parramatta captain Steve Edge at a crucial stage of the decider.
We had received a penalty and Edgey called for the ball to be put out and then for Mick Cronin to put a place kick across the try-line for our chasers to contest. It was an unusual ploy that we had used with some success during the season.
I approached the skipper and suggested that a better option may be to work the ball for a set of tackles and if we hadn't scored to put up a bomb.
In no uncertain terms, he put me in my place and reiterated what was to be done.
Sure enough, the cross-kick was delivered and our winger Graeme Atkins went within a finger-tip of scoring. In fact to this day I'm still not convinced that he didn't, and from that moment on I never, ever questioned the captain again.
It was actually reinforcement of an NFL film which Jack Gibson had shown us when he first took over, which featured star Dallas Cowboy Roger Staubach.
He had been the dominant quarterback during the 1970s and steered the Cowboys to their first Superbowl victory before becoming a Hall of Famer.
In the film he had said that when he assembled his players into a huddle to call the next play he never said "we'll try this". It was always "we'll do this".
It was only a little thing but something I never forgot in terms of what players are looking for when it comes to positive leadership under pressure.
Watching the remaining captains at this week's annual photo shoot it struck me as to how well each club is served when it comes to quality leaders of men.
Each has played Test football and only three have not already enjoyed the thrill of walking a victory lap on Grand Final day.
Obviously the Broncos' Darren Lockyer is the most experienced and successful, with the 34-year-old having four premiership titles under his belt and a great chance of finishing his career in a blaze of glory.
In such a young Brisbane squad he is something of a security blanket to the inexperienced around him and it is patently obvious that his very presence is a source of confidence.
The advantage that Darren provides is knowing what plays are needed at any particular time and especially in closing out tight matches.
If Brisbane are in front, his decision-making gives them the greatest chance of maintaining the lead. If they are behind he is then the best at coming up with the "clutch" plays to get them out of trouble.
Statistically the Broncos have the most successful right-side attack but with both Justin Hodges and Sam Thaiday now missing, Lockyer's guidance will be even more vital.
Leading the opposition on Saturday night for the Warriors is the equally unassuming Simon Mannering.
He is the youngest of the captains but has built up a highly impressive resume in a relatively short period of time.
His appointment was something of a surprise but an inspired one by coach Ivan Cleary, with Simon's quiet air of calm assuredness having the desired effect on a team that could once lose its way.
His versatility has seen him play big slices of both centre and back-row but I'm sure he is best suited in tight where his superior speed can be utilised.
That is also the domain of the man I regard as the most influential in today's game, the Storm's Cameron Smith.
No one controls the tempo of a game better, and he is somehow able to do this whether his side has the ball or not.
Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater are both huge threats but much of their potency is a result of the vision and timing out of dummy-half.
One thing that tends to be overlooked is the physical strength of Smith in getting through his mountainous work-rate. He is no giant but plays well above his weight when putting down opposition ball-carriers and controlling the speed of their play-the-balls.
The Knights' leader Kurt Gidley has the unique ability to play equally well from dummy-half, first receiver or chiming in from fullback. He is the everywhere man of the competition and capable of doing it all for the Novocastrians.
Not only is the sheer energy of Kurt's performance an inspiration to Newcastle but so too the fact that he is a local boy who has made his way through from the juniors. That carries enormous credibility in both the playing ranks and the community.
The same applies for the Tigers' Robbie Farah, who is the ideal dummy-half for an outfit that is arguably the most skilful in the league.
The talented rake has quite a bag of tricks but has been much more selective as to when they should be called upon. In fact with Benji Marshall in such a rich vein of form, Robbie has been prepared to play second fiddle and let his five-eighth run the show.
He did however show great awareness over the weekend in their important win over the Sharks. With Marshall a bit off his game Robbie realised he needed to take more control to put his stamp on both the game and the scoreboard.
This Friday he will toss the coin against the Dragons' Ben Hornby who somehow seems to be still underrated, but not by his peers.
During the team's poor second half of the year, the reigning premiers' skipper was in the media spotlight but never once wavered in his belief that they were still on track.
He plays the same way and whilst not carrying the same profile as some of his teammates is an absolute professional in getting the job done.
Ben is the key in straightening their much vaunted left side attack and provides the same stability in left defence as Beau Scott does on the right.
Finally the Sea Eagles under Jamie Lyon will take on the Cowboys with Johnathan Thurston in charge.
It has been a tough couple of weeks for Manly and the loss of Glenn Stewart puts even more responsibility on the shoulders of Lyon.
I like the fact that Des Hasler has preferred Jamie as a centre where he is able to exert an influence on both his young halves and wider in their right attack.
He is still the best defensive centre in the game and has become a real target with the ball in the air.
It has also been a difficult period for North Queensland, losing four of their last five, but with Thurston pulling the strings no one is writing them off.
The co-captaincy has worked well, with Matt Scott dealing with off-field matters and JT being the on-field general.
Like Lockyer, Johnathan invariably makes the right decisions and his vision in throwing the money balls for tries is uncanny.
We have eight very different captains leading the way this weekend, but eight men who definitely know what it takes to win