What a cracking weekend to kick off the finals series! You couldn’t have picked four better games if you tried and I can’t wait to see how each team performs now that the business end of the season has come. Let’s have a look at the match-ups:
South Sydney v Melbourne
The Rabbitohs would be smarting from last week’s defeat to the Roosters. There has been so much talk about Souths potentially winning this year’s competition but they certainly took a bit of a hit in that loss. Now they’ve got a week to pick up the leftovers from that game, they have to regroup – and they have to regroup very fast because they are taking on last year’s premiers.
Melbourne were pushed all the way by the Titans last week but we know that when they click they are very difficult to beat. It’s going to be a massive game and there will be some big battles up front, in the halves and out wide where we’ll see whether the Rabbitohs’ attack can penetrate this pretty outstanding Melbourne defensive unit.
I would usually predict that the two losses they’ve suffered at the hands of the Storm this year would have an impact on Souths but I’m pretty sure Michael Maguire would have his team recognising that this is the start of a new competition and the past has to be put behind them. They can’t focus on what’s gone before them; they have to start this game at 100 miles an hour. But I think they can do it.
In front of a huge home crowd, I can see Souths getting the win.
Cronulla v North Queensland
Here we have teams that have faced plenty of challenges throughout the season yet to their credit find themselves in the top eight. Cronulla have endured a lot of off-field dramas with the ASADA investigation while the Cowboys were tipped to be premiership contenders but through the middle part of the season looked long odds to get anywhere near the finals when they were around the bottom of the NRL ladder.
Again, this will be a battle of the packs and I think whoever can dominate that middle third will win the game. We also have a huge match-up in the halves with Johnathan Thurston v Todd Carney. The Cowboys will go into this game with some confidence knowing they beat this very same team at this very same venue just a fortnight ago.
That’s always handy going into a big match like this. As I said, it comes down to which pack dominates and who has the better kicking game out of Carney and Thurston.
Personally, I can’t go past the Cowboys. Things were looking pretty dire in the middle of the year and you’ve got to feel for Neil Henry who must be wondering why it took so long for his side to get going, but they are playing some great footy now and have the momentum you need heading into the finals.
Sydney Roosters v Manly
Another epic clash. It was very surprising to see Manly lose the way they did against the Panthers last week. I’m not sure if mentally they were thinking about the finals a week too early. Maybe that will work in their favour – it would have hurt losing the way they did at home and they’ll want to turn it around – but they face a huge challenge against this Roosters team which is moving along with a lot of power. Confidence is a big thing and the way they beat the Rabbitohs last week and the speed and intensity they played with will make it tough for Manly to match or better.
I just can’t go past the Roosters. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves is missing and when you take him out of their pack it has to make a difference but you look at the team as a whole and the forwards at their disposal and you just know they will be up for a big performance.
Canterbury v Newcastle
Newcastle looked very slick last week, albeit against a Parramatta side that didn’t have a lot to play for. To run in 50 points the week before the finals is always good for the confidence. The Knights have a lot of attacking ability out wide. Jarrod Mullen at his best can dominate any game and he will be primed for a big performance. Danny Buderus is a big part of that as well.
The Bulldogs have, to a certain extent, underachieved in 2013 after what they did last year and certainly don’t look as fluent. It will be interesting to see if they can match that type of finals football they played last year. It’s pretty much the same roster so for coach Des Hasler it’s about finding the form that took them all the way to the 2012 grand final.
But I don’t see that happening. Newcastle appear to be playing the better football at the moment and with Wayne Bennett’s finals experience he will have the Knights well prepared to knock over the Bulldogs.
* I’m looking forward to attending the National Youth Touch Football Championships on Friday. The NRL’s association with touch football is great for our game and a fitting one in my opinion knowing that for a lot of players, touch football played a huge role in our youth. We all grew up with both touch footy and rugby league from a very early age. It plays a big role in learning, having fun and growing into the game of rugby league.