VB NSW Cup finals ready to rock
Unlike the NRL, the finals have come around a week early in the VB NSW Cup with four important clashes set to rock Leichhardt Oval over the weekend.
With eight teams vying for premiership glory, this year's NSW Cup has been one of the closest on record with the make-up of the top eight only set in stone after the very last game of the regular season.
Former representative prop Tom Learoyd-Lahrs is hoping to take his place in the fifth-placed Mounties side despite a knee injury being burdening him, but is nonetheless excited by the prospects of the competition.
"It is a great stepping stone for the guys trying to make their way into first-grade... and the quality of the competition is there," the Melbourne-bound Learoyd-Lahrs tells NRL.com.
"No disrespect to the -20s competition but I think some front-rowers take longer to mature, so for that reason it is important the NSW Cup stays strong and that level of competition stays where it is because it is a healthy platform for future stars.
"There's nothing better than seeing guys I've played with at the Mounties go on to make their NRL debuts. I found that personally rewarding to see guys like Jeremy Hawkins and Mitch Cornish get a start."
In 2014, the stepping stone NSW Cup allows has afforded future superstars Alex Johnston, Lloyd Perrett, Chanel Mata'utia and Issah Yeo NRL berths while Kevin Naiqama (Fiji), Siliva Havili, Isaac John (both New Zealand) and Dominique Peyroux (Samoa) have played for their countries thanks to their form in the competition.
Three men – Wyong captain Mitch Williams, Newcastle fullback Nathan Ross and Panthers flyer Eto Nabuli – are primed to take their place in this year's finals.
Williams, a proud Wyong junior set to captain the Roos in their first-ever finals campaign despite having no NRL-affiliate behind them, believes it is a "whole new ballgame" now with his seventh-placed team sneaking in to the finals.
"Now that we're in September I think everyone is a chance of winning it," Williams said.
"Our goal at the start of the season was to make the finals and while we have made it hard for ourselves throughout the year... we have won five straight to make it so we have a lot of momentum and we're playing well."
The highly-competitive nature of the competition almost derailed the Newcastle Knights, who fell to ninth off the back of six consecutive losses before finishing off their season with 10 wins from their final 11 games to finish second.
Newcastle fullback Nathan Ross, who went to the Hunter to pursue a career in mining before falling back into "football scene", believes confidence will be high throughout the finals series.
"I guess everyone in the top eight is extremely confident in beating each other but I'm confident in the team we have and the style of football we perform," Ross tells NRL.com.
"We had a massive slump there but it doesn't help with the injuries we had in first-grade because a lot of our players moved up to cover them.
"We had a sit down and just talk about how we are going to improve and once we were on the same page we worked a lot better."
Minor premiers Penrith are clearly the team to beat having only lost two games since Round 2. Proud winger Nabuli, who played at the Auckland Nines and for his native Fiji earlier in the year, says his side is determined to go all the way.
"We are trying our best to win the grand final and all the boys are feeling very happy. We lost the first two games of the year and have only lost two games since," Nabuli tells NRL.com.
The NSWRL Grand Final takes place on on Sunday, September 28 at Allianz Stadium in an afternoon which will also feature the Ron Massey Cup and Sydney Shield deciders. Tickets for the afternoon are just $10 for adults and $5 for kids and are on sale now.
NSW Cup Finals Week One Fixtures
Saturday 6th September, 12:40pm at Leichhardt Oval (Live on Fox Sports)
Newcastle Knights (2nd) vs. Wentworthville Magpies (3rd)
Sunday 7th September, 12pm onwards at Leichhardt Oval (Streamed on NSWRL.com)
Penrith Panthers (1st) vs. Illawarra Cutters (4th)
Mounties (5th) vs. New Zealand Warriors (8th)
Wests Tigers (6th) vs. Wyong Roos (7th)