Eels' fortress may prove too much for Broncos

Do-or-die finals football. It can send players and fans to delirious heights, but can also prove devastating with the pressure it brings.

And the 34 Eels and Broncos players will experience it tomorrow afternoon.

Has this young Broncos pack got the steely nerve to get them over the hurdle of a first finals test?

They are against one of the better performing teams of the year in the Eels, particularly at Bankwest Stadium. They have won eight of 10 games at that venue this season and blew the Broncos off the park there in round 14.

It will come down to leadership – the key individuals in both sides and how they work through the week to tell their stories; use their experience around what it’s like to play in a finals series; what the responsibilities are and the accountability of each player at this time of year.

It's crucial for the team as a whole, if only 14 players play their role, and three miss the mark then that will be the difference between winning and losing. Seventeen players are needed now.

It might work for a regular season game, but this is knock-out football. There are no more tomorrows. So playing with that psychological pressure of knowing it could be your last game, coupled with the external pressures and expectations from the club and fans, it can play some tricks with your mind.  

The Broncos have those big game-hardened players in Darius Boyd, Matt Gillett, Alex Glenn, Andrew McCullough, Corey Oates and Anthony Milford. That experience is a very important factor tomorrow.

The Eels were wooden spooners last year, but in 2017 they played two finals games and have players like Michael Jennings, Mitch Moses, Manu Ma’u, Nathan Brown and Brad Takairangi from that side.

And remember Jennings, Ma’u and Takairangi are former Kangaroos and Kiwis players, while Moses played for Lebanon in the World Cup. Waqa Blake also played for Fiji in the 2017 Pacific Test series.

Then you can add in Blake Ferguson on the Eels right wing, who won a premiership last year with the Roosters.

Having said all that, I know from experience that the conversations had, and stories told between players throughout the week will play a big part. The coaches will be preparing and instructing each individual on what they need to do to perform at their best and to their full potential on the day.

But the trick is for the players to realise they don’t have to do anything different; you don’t have to come up with anything special. The reason you are in the finals is because you've been one of the best teams in the competition.

So that balance needs to be found between  'Yes it is do-or-die; it is knock-out time' but you don’t go away from what’s made you successful all year.

It needs mental strength to keep that balance psychologically because the emotions of playing in finals have to be kept in check at the right levels.

Certainly, it's great to draw on the emotion of being in a NRL finals series – they may help you start the game with a bang – but then as the match goes on you've got to keep doing all the little things right. That's where it takes a lot of mental strength and fortitude to do that.

For me, it's the team collective that gets you to grand finals. Your best players certainly help you win, but you need all 17 to be at their best no matter what position they play.

I keep going back to the stories that senior, more experienced players tell during the week that brings the team together and prepares players mentally.

That comes from what demands and standards the key players put to the whole team to have them aspire to. It keeps the team in check by helping them prepare and train to an intensity and quality that leads to a quality performance.

The back fives of both the Eels and Broncos are dynamic. The Eels have a combined 50 tries from their wingers, centre and fullback, compared with 36 to the Broncos five.

But it will be how an inexperienced NRL player like Maika Sivo handles the pressure of a finals game, even though he's scored 20 tries so far.

And how will the Broncos handle the chants 'Sivo! Sivo!' if they come again as loud and forcefully as they did when Manly faced the Bankwest Stadium crowd last week?

Sivo is up against Jamayne Isaako and he’s played for both New Zealand and Samoa over the past two years. So he’s played on the big stage.

Blake Ferguson is up against Corey Oates – two big bodies; two players well-equipped to handle big crowds from their Origin days. What a beaut match-up that one is!

There's no doubt that both sides rely on their back-five for kick-returns, start of their sets, and that kind of momentum-building work. They give the props and other forwards some help and that's crucial because your big men up front are really important. Like I said before, it’s the collective push that wins finals.

I’m leaning towards the Eels to win this one – they are at home and on the back of their form at Bankwest Stadium, they’re building a fortress there.

I also believe the lessons learned from last year to this season have been firmly planted, and I am concerned about the inexperience of the Broncos side.