Wests Tigers’ loss to North Queensland last Monday night and the horrendous injury toll that accompanied it has opened the finals race right up, with a number of sides currently outside the top eight now in with a great chance of staking their claim over the final six rounds of the season.
As it stands, there are currently five teams – the Warriors, Newcastle, Canberra, St George Illawarra and the Gold Coast – locked on 20 competition points and now just two points behind the ailing, eighth-placed Tigers. But can any of them do it and, if so, who?
Notably, no side that sat outside the top eight after 20 rounds last season managed to push their way in, so there are no guarantees.
But we’ve also seen plenty of examples of sides storming home and carrying that momentum right through to the grand final: Wests Tigers in 2005, Parramatta in 2009 and the Warriors last year all spring to mind.
So with the action heating up, we run the rule over the five finals hopefuls as they seek to salvage something from their topsy-turvy seasons.
Yesterday we looked at the Warriors and the Knights; today it’s the Titans, Raiders and Dragons.
Rd 21 v Roosters (a)
Rd 22 v Rabbitohs (h)
Rd 23 v Storm (a)
Rd 24 v Eels (h)
Rd 25 v Panthers (a)
Rd 26 v Sea Eagles (h)
Last year’s wooden spooners endured a tough start to 2012 and looked to be headed down a similar path, but they’ve gradually improved as the season has progressed and with consecutive wins over Canberra and Brisbane they could well be poised to make a late charge. Certainly the stars seem to be aligning. Their impressive 38-26 away win over Canberra two weeks ago coincided with the return of key forwards Luke Bailey (rib injury) and Nate Myles (Origin duty), they welcomed back Ashley Harrison and David Mead last week and Greg Bird is the latest to make his comeback from a pec muscle tear against the Roosters on Friday night.
Momentum is a huge factor at this time of year and in that regard they are probably one of the sides best-placed to steal a finals spot with a healthy squad and the likes of Scott Prince and Jamal Idris starting to hit top form. No doubt they will have the higher-placed sides looking over their collective shoulders.
Where They’ve Excelled: The Titans’ monster forward pack is vital to their success and it is little surprise that their best form has coincided with having their big men on the park. The Gold Coast rank second in the NRL for most hit-ups this season behind only the Warriors, with four of their forwards – Luke Bailey (100.4), Greg Bird (132.1), Luke Douglas (102.7) and Ashley Harrison (100.3) – averaging more than 100 metres per game.
Where They Must Improve: The Titans have been crippled by errors at times this season, having made more than any other side in the competition (209). They have made 10 or more errors on 10 separate occasions in 2012, including a staggering 20 in their Round 4 loss to the Warriors and 17 against the Roosters in Round 6. Notably, their two best performances in that regard have come in the past two weeks, with just six errors in each of their wins over Canberra and Brisbane – completing at 81 per cent and 82 per cent respectively.
Player To Watch: Fullback William Zillman has been in scintillating form in recent weeks. Against the Raiders he ran for 240 metres, made five line-breaks, a staggering 17 tackle-breaks, then backed that up last weekend with another 212 metres, three line-breaks and 12 tackle-breaks. If it continues he could well propel his side into the finals.
Injury Update: The Titans are close to full strength with centre Beau Champion (ankle) and forward Bodene Thompson the only casualties. Thompson is out for the season after suffering a serious shoulder injury in May.
Mat Rogers says: “I think we’re a good chance. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing. We’ve got players coming back, which lifts the energy again. I know from my playing days that when you’re winning games and then you get a few players back, it’s another boost for you. I’ve spoken to a few of the boys and they’re in a really good place mentally at the moment so they’ve just got to keep doing what they’re doing. Scott Prince has been playing the house down and Aidan Sezer has taken a heap of pressure off him. I also think Matt Srama has made a big difference this year. He has started to take control around the ruck whereas last year he as just passing the ball to Princey. He is playing footy now which is good. The positive is that it’s quite a young side so most of them have a lot of footy in front of them.”
Rd 21 v Knights (h)
Rd 22 v Broncos (h)
Rd 23 v Panthers (a)
Rd 24 v Roosters (h)
Rd 25 v Bulldogs (h)
Rd 26 v Warriors (a)
Another frustrating year for Raiders fans with some scintillating team performances mixed in with some disastrous outings. Nothing new here then! Still, they enjoyed a brilliant run into the finals two years ago when they won nine out of their final 10 games and their form over the past month suggests they’re capable of doing it all again. Most telling has been the manner in which they have torn both Melbourne and Cronulla apart away from home, scoring 76 points in the process while conceding a miserly 16. The return from injury of Josh Dugan last week provides the Raiders with a huge boost with six rounds remaining while centres Blake Ferguson and Jarrod Croker have both shown a great ability to punch holes in the defensive line. The concern for Canberra is that they still have some shockers in them, as evidenced by a disappointing home loss to the Gold Coast a fortnight ago. They certainly have the strike power to make the finals, but lack of consistency remains a worry. They do, however, have the advantage of four home games in their final six matches.
Where They’ve Excelled: The biggest threat the Raiders pose when playing close to their best is an ability to score from anywhere on the field. While Bulldogs fullback Ben Barba has helped his side build a reputation as the NRL’s long-range specialists, Canberra have scored just as many from inside their own half this season with 12 for the year. They are blessed with pace, have countless options out wide and appear to be finding a healthy balance in attack.
Where They Must Improve: Consistency. Coach David Furner has endured endless rumours about his job security this season but even he must tear his hair out in frustration when he sees his side destroy Melbourne 40-12 or shut down high-flying Cronulla to the tune of 36-4. They can’t afford any more days off over the coming six rounds.
Player To Watch: Josh Dugan made his return from injury against Cronulla and was heavily involved from the outset, running for 256 metres and scoring a long-range intercept try to seal victory. It will be interesting to see how Furner uses Dugan and Reece Robinson. The pair shared fullback duties last week and the correct use of their unique skills could provide the Raiders with a valuable double-whammy.
Injury Update: The loss of captain Terry Campese for the season rattled the Raiders early on and it has taken some time for them to recover. They will also be without prop Brett White for the rest of 2012; however Dane Tilse (ribs) and Bronson Harrison (back) are hopeful of returning in the coming weeks.
Alan Tongue says: “I think they’ve shown with knocking off a couple of the teams they have that they’ve got a style of play – when it comes off they’ve got plenty of points in them. They’ve got some tough games but I think after last weekend there is a huge boost in confidence there. Getting Josh Dugan back is big for them, too. There is light at the end of the tunnel. The thing about the Raiders is that they’re a team that really needs possession to be in their favour. If they can control possession and have the majority of the ball they’re really hard to stop. People talk about the big forward pack but they just turn over too much ball and fall into some bad habits. Defence is a big thing for them. They’ve done a lot of work on their edge defence, and bringing Blake Ferguson into the centres has really stiffened the defence up. I think everyone would agree that consistency has been the issue but if they can gain a bit of momentum it will make things interesting.”
Rd 21 v Storm (h)
Rd 22 v Roosters (a)
Rd 23 v Tigers (a)
Rd 24 v Cowboys (h)
Rd 25 v Warriors (h)
Rd 26 v Eels (a)
The best team of the past three seasons has lost its mojo somewhat following the departure of Wayne Bennett and the loss of key players Darius Boyd and Mark Gasnier. Boyd in particular has been a tough man to replace, with coach Steve Price having already tried Kyle Stanley, Brett Morris and now Jason Nightingale in the No.1 jersey this year with varying degrees of success. The Dragons haven’t swayed too far from the grinding, no-frills style that propelled them to the 2010 premiership; however with less strike power on board these days they have struggled to score points and they will need to find a solution quickly with tough games against Melbourne, Wests Tigers, North Queensland and the Warriors still to come.
Where They’ve Excelled: The Dragons are still a tough unit to break down. Their 57 tries conceded in 2012 ranks among the top sides in the competition and they boast the best effective tackle percentage of all clubs at 88.5 per cent. Notably, they have conceded more tries from kicks (18) this season than from line-breaks (13) so there is no doubt that their defensive line continues to stand firm.
Where They Must Improve: Steve Price’s men often look clueless with the ball in hand and have struggled to introduce ad-lib football into their game after years of playing to such a defined structure. Their 47 tries scored is three fewer than cellar-dwellers Parramatta and well behind the most potent sides in the NRL. Halves Ben Hornby and Jamie Soward have produced just 16 try assists between them all season – 10 fewer than Benji Marshall has produced for the Wests Tigers alone! Only Parramatta’s most-common halves pairing of Chris Sandow and Ben Roberts have produced fewer. If the Dragons can’t find a way to cross the stripe with greater regularity they will struggle to reach the finals.
Player to Watch: Brett Morris is one man who can turn a half-chance into points. Having impressed at fullback for much of the year and performed brilliantly for NSW in the State of Origin decider, he has returned to his favoured left wing in recent weeks with promising results: he scored a brilliant poacher’s try against Cronulla in Round 19 and a double against Souths last week and looks to be back in try-scoring form.
Injury Update: The Dragons will be without veteran centre Matt Cooper for at least three weeks after he suffered a hamstring strain in last week’s loss to South Sydney. Two players – Kyle Stanley and Michael Weyman – will miss the rest of the season with ACL injuries while Dean Young will be assessed ahead of this week’s clash with Melbourne following the heavy concussion he suffered in that infamous clash with Greg Inglis.
Mark Coyne says: “They’ve been defensively strong as always but there is no doubt their attack has drifted away with the loss of Darius Boyd and Mark Gasnier this year. It’s something they’ve been working hard to address but although I think they made some great progress against Cronulla a few weeks ago they probably took a step backwards again last week (against Souths). I think they might struggle to find what they need in time. Moving Jason Nightingale to fullback and Brett Morris back to the wing has been a positive move – they’ve probably been our two best players all year – but I’d like to see a bit more creativity from the back row and also from our centres. I’d like to see a bit more offloading too, although the Dragons have typically been a bit more conservative – the coach prefers the forwards to trundle it up and go from there. But I think we need to create a bit more second-phase play if we are to trouble the top sides.”