Finals preview: Wests Tigers v Warriors

Wests Tigers v Warriors
Sydney Football Stadium
Friday, 7.45pm

An absorbing clash between two of the Telstra Premiership’s most exhilarating attacking outfits, few games this season have promised as much excitement as Friday’s sudden-death semi-final between the Tigers and Warriors. The names say it all. For the Wests Tigers, the star quartet of Benji Marshall, Robbie Farah, Tim Moltzen and Robert Lui have been the driving force behind their run of nine consecutive wins, with a freakish ability to put together the big plays when they matter most. Add centre Chris Lawrence – who returns from injury this week – and centre Lote Tuqiri and the home side boasts strike power right across the field. 

The Warriors are no slouches either. Young halves James Maloney and Shaun Johnson have been dynamic over the past three months; Kevin Locke has made the fullback spot his own with his raw speed and dynamic kick returns; Aaron Heremaia has split defensive lines with his energetic dummy-half runs; and offload king Feleti Mateo has arguably been the buy of the year in the back row. 

Lawrence’s return on the left edge is a huge boost for the Tigers after Matt Utai was terrorised by Mark Gasnier last week but the Warriors have been forced into their own change in the centres after Joel Moon broke his leg in their 40-10 loss to Brisbane. Lewis Brown is the man most likely to fill that role. 

The Warriors have a huge task ahead of them following last week’s embarrassing performance at Suncorp but the respective records of both of these sides at the Sydney Football Stadium are intriguing. The Warriors have played just six games at the venue over the past six seasons (for three wins and three losses) while the Tigers have actually lost three of their past five night games there. 

A worrying sign for the visitors is that the Tigers have scored 96 points in their past three games against them and over the past two months have recorded the most line-breaks of any side (5.4 per game) while conceding the fewest (2.8). That said, the Warriors have scored more tries than any other team over the past 10 weeks with 45. Five-eighth James Maloney (182) needs just seven points to record the second-most points by a Warrior in a single season – behind coach Ivan Cleary, who notched 242 in 2002. 

Watch Out Warriors: With five members of last year’s New Zealand Four Nations squad in the Warriors outfit, the Kiwi club is well aware of the danger posed by Wests Tigers five-eighth Benji Marshall. But knowing what he is capable of and doing something about it are two different things. Marshall is a master of improvisation – rush out of the defensive line and he will burn you with a burst of speed or find a means of putting a team-mate through a gap. Sometimes he’ll make oppositions pay even if they don’t do anything wrong. He boasts 22 try assists, 26 line-break assists, 15 line-breaks and 12 tries in 2011.

Danger Sign: The Tigers are lethal out of dummy-half. With Robbie Farah leading the way, they have made 12 line-breaks from dummy-half this season – more than any other side in the competition – and scored nine tries (second only to North Queensland). Not surprisingly, Farah tops the count in both categories with five line-breaks and three tries from dummy-half in 2011. The Warriors do have some reason to be confident in their defence however – they have conceded a mere three line-breaks from dummy-half this season (behind only Melbourne) and just a single try (best in the NRL). It promises to be an intriguing mini-battle.

Tigers Plays To Watch: Wests Tigers love playing to their right side. While much of the focus this week has been on the return of left centre Chris Lawrence from injury, it is in fact the opposite side of the field where the Tigers have the most joy with ball in hand, having scored a whopping 46 tries there in 2011 (compared to just 28 on the left). Only Brisbane boasts as many. The Tigers are particularly lethal one man in – the region patrolled by Chris Heighington and Blake Ayshford where they have scored 31 tries this season and where Heighington crossed against St George Illawarra last week. Ironically, it is here that the Warriors have been forced to make a change this weekend after left centre Joel Moon broke his leg during last Saturday’s loss to Brisbane.

Watch Out Tigers: Warriors five-eighth James Maloney has really come of age this season as the Warriors’ chief playmaker, but more than just taking his game to a new level he has also demonstrated an ability to produce the big play. He boasts 15 try assists in 2011 – but the strings in his bow are many and he is just as lethal running the football, with 10 line-breaks to his name. Watch for him to pass to one of his big forwards and then wrap around looking for the offload where his speed off the mark and quality step make him particularly dangerous.

Danger Sign: Tigers wingers Beau Ryan and Lote Tuqiri need to be on high alert on Friday night because the Warriors are certain to test them with some cross-field bombs. In fact, with 65 cross-field kicks in 2011 they rank second in the Telstra Premiership for kicking to their flanks. The main threat here is obvious – giant winger Manu Vatuvei is renowned for his leap and ability to catch the high ball. Vatuvei has scored 11 tries in 16 games this season. Notably, the Warriors also rank second for tries from within their own half with 17 so the Tigers must be ever-vigilant.

Warriors Plays To Watch: There is no doubt that the Warriors trigger much of their attack from offloading and second-phase play. Their 328 offloads in the regular season was second only to Penrith (331) while back-rower Feleti Mateo is the most prolific offloader in the Telstra Premiership with 78 in 25 games – 17 more than his nearest rival. Simon Mannering and Manu Vatuvei are also dangerous if not wrapped up. The men to watch should the Warriors continue to create second-phase play are fullback Kevin Locke, halfback Shaun Johnson and utility Lance Hohaia who all have the ability to break the line if given room to move. Johnson scored a spectacular long-range try on the back of a Mannering offload against Brisbane in Round 22 that highlighted the threat they pose.

Tim Moltzen v Kevin Locke: Two excitement machines in superb form go head to head in what will prove a decisive battle. Moltzen has averaged 133 metres over the past five weeks and is a huge danger through the middle where he constantly looms up in support of playmakers Farah, Marshall and Lui. He set up a spectacular try for Beau Ryan in this way last week when Farah and Lui combined to put him through a gap. Locke’s threat comes in his running of the football. In 2011 he ranks fifth in the NRL for average kick-return metres with 64.8 and has contributed nine line-breaks, nine line-break assists and nine try assists.

The History: Played 19; Tigers 10, Warriors 9. The Tigers will head into this clash as warm favourites but the fact remains that little has separated these two clubs over the years – and 2011 has been no different with their two meetings yielding narrow 20-12 and 26-22 wins to the Tigers. Another win here would be just the third time the Tigers have defeated a side three times in a single season after North Queensland in 2005 and Canberra last year. This will be the first time these two teams have met in the finals, although notably the Warriors have won three out of the four Week 2 finals games they’ve played in over the years.

Last Time They Met: The Wests Tigers produced one of the comebacks of the year to beat a stunned Warriors outfit 26-22 at Mt Smart Stadium in Round 14. Trailing 22-4 after Manu Vatuvei scored in the 59th minute, the Tigers looked gone until Benji Marshall inspired a remarkable surge. Tries to Marshall on 63 minutes, Wade McKinnon on 66, Marshall again in the 71st and Beau Ryan in the 74th turned the game on its head as they stormed home to steal the two points. The Tigers were aided by four full sets of possession more than their opponents in the second half, during which time they also steeled themselves to miss just 15 tackles. The Warriors certainly paid the price for kicking just one goal from five attempts earlier on.

Conclusion: Despite their somewhat significant hiccup against the Broncos last weekend, it is impossible to imagine the Warriors performing quite so poorly again this time around. In fact, history says that winger Manu Vatuvei – who made five errors last week – tends to hit back strongly after a bad night out. Fact is the Warriors have speed to burn and the ability to score points from anywhere; however, if confidence is king then they have a huge mountain to climb. The Tigers are the form team of the Telstra Premiership with a club record nine wins in a row and it will take a supreme performance to topple them. 

This game promises to be a thriller but given the form of the Tigers’ key playmakers and a forward pack that is relentless across the park, they should be expected to progress to the grand final qualifier.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Jared Maxwell; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Referees – Sean Hampstead & Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live from 7.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.

Statistics: NRL Stats