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From 16, to eight – and now just six teams are left with a chance to take out the Telstra Premiership after a fascinating opening week to the finals.

Statistically speaking, the games went pretty much according to plan: the Storm, Cowboys and Raiders all dominated the stats sheets in their matches and got the job done. But the Bulldogs bucked the trend, with the Sea Eagles gaining the majority of numbers in their favour only to fail to get over the line. Let’s call this the Ben Barba effect – sometimes brilliance just takes control and tears it away from the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the game like territory and impact. It is why we love our superstars: they can bust a game wide open at any moment. Guys like Greg Inglis, Barba, Josh Morris, Matt Bowen, Johnathan Thurston etc can turn games on their ear even if they are being bent over statistically. 

In an effort to give you an idea of what to look for statistically this weekend as the Sea Eagles take on the Cowboys and the Rabbitohs look to rebound against the Raiders and also further into the final series, let’s dissect the main stats that were common to the winning teams last week. 

Completion rates
All four winners from week one of the finals had a better completion rate than their opponent. It’s not rocket science: get through your sets and you are likely to be building more pressure and, obviously, you are likely to have more ball than the opponent and therefore more chances to score. It can be even more important in finals matches than during the regular season (unless a team is able to score on the majority of their possessions).

- The Bulldogs completed 25/36 for a 69 per cent success rate, compared to the Sea Eagles’ 22/37, at just 59 per cent. 

- The Storm completed 36/41 – an ultra-impressive 88 per cent success rate – compared to the Rabbitohs’ 31/39, at 79 per cent. 

- The Cowboys completed an incredible 36/40, a 90 per cent success rate, compared to the Broncos’ 21/30 at just 70 per cent. 

- The Raiders completed 25/32, a 78 per cent success rate, compared to the Sharks who struggled to 18/29, at 62 per cent.        

A related stat to completions is obviously errors. Limit your errors and you’ll have more of the ball – and more importantly, you won’t be giving your opponents as many chances to put you under the gun. Ask Broncos winger Gerard Beale: he slips, knocks on a simple kick in the first few minutes… the Cowboys go on the attack early in the game – and Bowen scores. It set the tone for the entire match in Townsville. One innocuous error and the game can slip away from you before you even know it. It was 18-0 at halftime and the Broncos’ season was effectively over. 

The Bulldogs made 11 errors to the Sea Eagles’ 17. 

- The Storm made 5 errors to the Rabbitohs’ 8. 

 - The Cowboys made just 5 errors to the Broncos’ 16.

 - The Raiders made 8 errors to the Sharks’ 11. 

Metres gained from hit-ups
Get over the opposition in the forwards and you are likely heading to a victory. The Cowboys, Storm and Raiders all won the overall battle for metres gained and although the Bulldogs were bested by the Sea Eagles in this category, they weren’t in the hit-ups stakes. 

Forwards are often underestimated; we’re all watching the miracle plays of the halves and outside backs but it is the battle of the engine room that really decides finals matches. Friday night’s game was torrid, with Aiden Tolman and James Graham constantly denting the Sea Eagles’ defence. And Josh Papalli took it upon himself to get all over Paul Gallen. Win the forwards battle and you give your backs the chance to shine. 

- The Bulldogs made 601 metres purely from hit-ups compared to the Sea Eagles’ 542 metres.

- The Storm made 721 metres from hit-ups compared to the Rabbitohs’ 592 metres.

- The Cowboys made 480 metres from hit-ups compared to the Broncos’ 338 metres.

- The Raiders made 546 metres from hit-ups compared to the Sharks’ 410 metres. 

Kick metres
A good kicking game can never be underestimated, particularly in a tight finals match. If you can keep your opponent on the back foot, continually turn their forwards around and make them come out from their own end, you are well on your way to success. The best teams generally always have one or two, or sometimes three, great kicking options. They also have someone dominating with the boot. Think Jamie Soward in 2010 – his kicking game took the Dragons to a premiership and handed him an Origin jersey also. Look at the Storm… Cooper Cronk is great with the boot and Cameron Smith always picks the absolute best moment to jump out from dummy-half and reef one down-field. 

- The Bulldogs kicked for 593 metres compared to the Sea Eagles’ 442 metres.

- The Storm kicked for 844 metres compared to the Rabbitohs’ 531 metres. 

- The Cowboys kicked for 671 metres compared to the Broncos’ 538 metres.

- The Raiders kicked for 505 metres’ compared to the Sharks who struggled with just 273 metres.

Finals Week Two
Now let’s focus on this weekend, where I have looked at a key stat for each game that might be important given what’s happened so far this season, and even last week. Obviously there is plenty more to delve into in these games – and you should check out the game previews on here to get everything you need to know… but here is my two cents’ worth – when things happen on Friday and Saturday, remember you read it here first. (By the way Souths and Manly fans… 11 top-four teams in the past 13 seasons have been bundled out of the finals with two successive losses. Pretty good odds it could happen again…)

Rabbitohs v Raiders
The loss of left centre Matt King has dented the Rabbitohs hopes but it shouldn’t be the problem some are suggesting this week. The Raiders’ loss of left centre Jarrod Croker is potentially the real killer (or saviour?) depending on how replacement Joel Thompson handles it. 

You see, the Rabbitohs shouldn’t have been planning to go to King’s left side too often anyway. While the Rabbitohs have had success scoring on both sides of the field this season (34 tries on the left, 35 on the right), the Raiders’ left-side defence has had all sorts of issues. Oppositions have scored 49 tries on the right side of the field (the Raiders’ left-side defence). It is just about the worst left-side defence in the NRL this season (the Warriors were marginally worse). So now, with even more upheaval in their defensive line, perhaps Dylan Farrell should be primed to get plenty of ball and help the Rabbitohs to their first finals win since 1987!

On the other side of the coin, Croker could’ve been the guy to dismantle the bunnies. The Rabbitohs have had 39 tries put past them by teams heading left (against bunnies right-side defence) compared to 27 on the other side of the field. Croker could’ve been the man to rip them open. Perhaps Joel Thompson can get the job done against the bunnies’ new defence. 

Stats Insider insight says: Rabbitohs

Sea Eagles v Cowboys
The reigning premiers really gave it their all against the Bulldogs and will be battered and bruised, no doubt. They have plenty to contemplate this Friday night against the Cowboys but in particular they must focus on defending attacking kicks. The Sea Eagles have conceded more tries from kicks than any side in the competition this year – and Thurston and Bowen are masters of the attacking kick. Manly have conceded 29 tries from kicks this season (remember Kris Keating last week?) and the Cowboys have scored a respectable 23 from kicks, which ranks them sixth in the NRL. I think this game is going to be a tight one and it could be a try from a kick that decides it all. 

Stats Insider insight says: Cowboys in an upset. (Like I said, a top-four team is likely to lose and I just don’t see Canberra winning again, so a sore Manly will be the unlucky losers).

PS: Bad luck to all Broncos and Sharks fans who saw the dream fade for another year! 

*Don’t forget me on twitter @NRLStatsInsider
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