There is no tomorrow for the four semi-finalists this week; lose and their season is over. But who will advance to the Preliminary Finals?
MANLY v NORTH QUEENSLAND
This is a repeat of the 2011 semi-final match up. Last year Manly finished second whilst the Cowboys finished seventh. At half time there was a smell of an upset as the Cowboys had dominated proceedings and were leading 8-0. Manly were off their game. From the opening whistle of the second half, Manly looked like they had undergone a transformation and completely obliterated the Cowboys, scoring 42 unanswered points to eliminate the Cowboys from the 2011 Premiership race.
2012 is different. This is an elimination game. The loser is out. Manly appear to be on a slide even though they had six-straight wins heading into a tough loss against the Canterbury Bulldogs last Friday night. The Cowboys had their own win streak going and were the heaviest favourites against the Brisbane Broncos. The Cowboys have already sent the Broncos to off-season purgatory and are looking at another scalp against the Sea Eagles.
Manly Sea Eagles: Will Jamie Lyon play? If Jamie does not play then I fear for Manly. As the Captain and an influential player, it will knock the confidence of the players given the ‘he’s-in, he’s-out’ routine. Manly can win if they defend stoutly with aggressive line speed, which is a trait of this team. The difference from last week is that they need to find some quick play-the-balls for their brilliant halves, Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans. No player can operate without space. Manly’s middle must land on elbows and knees so the creative players can do their thing. Jamie Buhrer coming off the bench and playing in the forwards, not as a backup centre, will help this.
North Queensland Cowboys: Keep that momentum going. Momentum is the key for the Cowboys. Matt Scott and James Tamou had 38 carries for over 380m last week (30% more than any other front row combination) and this will be the platform for which Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen launch attractive attacking football. The Cowboys will attack wide on the front foot to expose any flaws in the Manly backline given the absence of Steve Matai and possibly Jamie Lyon.
SOUTH SYDNEY V CANBERRA
It’s been a long time since these two teams met in the semi-finals. Canberra defeated Souths in the 1989 grand final qualifier 32-16 for the Rabbitohs to backdoor out of the finals on the back of two losses, and Michael Maguire will be hoping history does not repeat itself this Saturday night.
South Sydney Rabbitohs: Rabbitohs fans awoke from what they thought was a nightmare, when in fact it was a semi-final performance against the Storm. The players would have been burning with disappointment and the ability to redeem your pride in seven days is a powerful motivator. Souths need to move up in defence and not give away cheap penalties. Pressure is built by keeping the ball in play and not allowing your opposition to get out of their own half without effort. Adam Reynolds needs to kick better than last week and Greg Inglis will deliver because he has to. Dave Taylor has copped a pasting and this is not good for the Raiders.
Canberra Raiders: They are hot. The Raiders are a pointscoring machine at the moment. They had the ‘wobbles’ in the middle of the second half last week against the Sharks but they don’t need much of an opportunity to post points. David Furner needs to provoke Josh Papalii again, as his game last week was gold. Jarrod Croker is a huge loss given his penchant for contesting the high ball and his goal kicking. Josh Dugan had a quiet game last week so with more responsibility I expect him to rise to the occasion. The Raiders must anticipate that the Rabbitohs will come out with an angry and resilient mindset given their weak performance against Melbourne.