That's as good an opening weekend of finals as I can remember. We had a few surprises and a few clues as to how things might play out this weekend.
Did Melbourne show the Dragons how to handle the Rabbitohs?
Saturday's match between Souths and the Dragons is now shaping up as a classic. Last weekend the Storm showed a blueprint on how you can handle the Rabbitohs while the Dragons rekindled their attack.
Unfortunately the injury to Gareth Widdop will change things for the Dragons but they can still get some ideas from how the Storm won.
The problem trying to mark the Rabbitohs is you know the big forwards are going to come rumbling through the middle and you have to shut them down. But if you've compressed and they go wide you're vulnerable out there.
What I've noticed through the year is when the Rabbitohs get their shift on, most teams sit on their heels because no one wants to come out of the line and be the broken link in the chain. Invariably those guys like Cody Walker and Alex Johnston will dance across field and find a hard straight runner like John Sutton or Greg Inglis who's always going to have an advantage over someone that's flat-footed. Even if they don't go straight through, they get a quick play-the-ball, roll on and the Rabbitohs get the momentum.
Match Highlights: Storm v Rabbitohs - Finals Week 1, 2018
The Storm were brutal the way they defended South Sydney's pack and put a big target on Sam Burgess's head because he's South Sydney's inspiration in the middle. He still played well with lots of run metres and tackles but they certainly went after him and forced a few errors.
They also put a lot of pressure on Adam Reynolds as he kicked and we saw a lot of Rabbitohs players get up with a limp or carrying a knock which we didn't see as much with the Storm.
Not only did they bash the forwards, when the Rabbitohs did go to their shift plays to try and get out of trouble, the Storm didn't stand on their heels - they swarmed whoever had the ball. They kept coming forward which really hampered the South Sydney momentum and it was really effective.
From what we saw from the Dragons against Brisbane, their forwards have it in them to replicate that.
The bigger question for St George Illawarra is how they're going to score points. I know they racked up 48 against Brisbane but it will be a very different game taking on Souths with no Widdop. The Rabbitohs' defensive performance was actually pretty solid even though the Storm ended up scoring five tries.
The Dragons can take a lot from Tariq Sims scoring three tries through that left-edge channel.
If there's a side of the field that's more vulnerable defensively for the Rabbitohs it's that one. Adam Reynolds is a good defender and he puts his body on the line but sometimes the communication on that side is lacking - I've seen them get caught out a few times. Melbourne highlighted how you can attack the half channel on that side.
When Souths played the Broncos in round 23, and admittedly they had a different winger then in Richie Kennar, they were really vulnerable down that side and the Broncos kept going there. I'm sure Sims will be attacking that side. I don't see them rolling through the middle of the Rabbitohs. They're really going to have to try and get some value from the edges.
Did scoring two early tries bring the Warriors unstuck?
I've been involved in big games where we've gone up a couple of tries early and it definitely presents a challenge in terms of staying focused – and I don't think the Warriors handled it well in their loss to Penrith on Saturday.
I thought the Panthers were probably on top from the start, they just dropped it a few times and the Warriors got a bit lucky with Shaun Johnson getting the loose ball. They got those two early tries and although one was a spectacular try they got a bit lucky as well.
When you have a couple of early tries like the Warriors had, whether or not they earned those tries, I can't help but feel that maybe some of their less experienced guys were thinking "OK here we go again, same as two weeks ago, we're going to pile on the points".
Your mindset starts to go away from your defence and starts to think about your attack. I always got very nervous after scoring two early tries in a big game because I knew the opposition hadn't had their say yet and they were going to come back twice as hard. That's where experience really comes into it.
If you have a 10- or 12-point lead then the other team comes back and they get ahead by 10 or 12 points themselves, you feel like they're ahead by a lot more because you've given up a lead and they've gone ahead and you start chasing points a lot harder than if they just got that lead from the start.
Match Highlights: Panthers v Warriors – Finals Week 1, 2018
You feel like things are worse than they are or the opposition is dominating you more than they actually are. That leads to you going away from the game plan, to guys pushing that pass. When you go away from the game plan, guys start getting individual and thinking they have to solve the problems on their own and in finals footy there's no room for that.
I've played in big games where we've gone up a couple of tries early then fallen behind and you start chasing points. I think the Warriors were a victim of that.
There will be a big lesson in that game for a few of the Warriors players whereas Penrith had a guy like James Maloney, who is so used to winning those big games that nothing fazes him. He was able to help his less experienced teammates through what could have been a very nervy period.
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