SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – Another year, another NRL Finals Series, and what a year! New South Wales still searching for that elusive first State of Origin in 8 years, drugs allegations overshadowing the entire league (not to mention Australian sport as a whole), possibly the greatest magician the sport has ever known is leaving to a rival code (don’t go Benji!) and the Parramatta Eels still get routinely kicked by all and sundry.
But at least at the sharp end of the league, the game flourishes. And it comes as no surprise that the last few berths for finals positions went down to the last day of the season. Here, just for you, is the RWU Review of who is taking home the Provans-Summons Trophy this season.
The Outside Chances
North Queensland Cowboys: Despite making the finals this has not been a strong year for the Cowboys, inconsistency and a non-firing (but superstar powered) forward pack have been their main obstacles. Nevertheless there is no doubting the class of Jonathan Thurston and the retiring Matt Bowen, if their forwards lay a platform then North Queensland could be the very very (very!) dark horses for the finals.
Newcastle Knights: A strong finishing Knights side have shown glimpses of class but are simply out-gunned when it comes to the Top Eight. Their halves are strong and as consistent as the sun rising. But they lack real game breaking quality, controlling a game is not a problem (even without talismanic leader Kurt Gidley) but outscoring teams will be a massive hindrance when they run up against the big boys.
Cronulla Sharks: Despite the threat of serious reprisals for drug infringements (we still don’t know who is going to be charged!) Cronulla have been a solid team this year, they have a mobile, power punching pack with Andrew Fifita and Paul Gallen providing a lovely balance between strength and hard work. Their backs led ably by Todd Carney are equally as big and strong relying on quick plays of the ball to get them over the gain line and allowing Carney to kick them into all the right positions.
The Semi Finalists
Canterbury Bulldogs: Even without a fully firing Ben Barba, the Bulldogs have had a good year. They are almost the forgotten men of this season having been so dominant last year. Their monstrous, off-load-happy forward pack is still intact, and their speed-demon backline is almost all accounted for. There is however, a worry that they cannot grind out a game the way they used to last year, Ben Barba is policed better by opposition teams and opposition sides know that if you are quickly into their faces and do not stand off them in defence you can shut down their electric attack. The maths does not add up with five possible teams who could make the play-offs, but suffice it to say the Bulldogs will be very dangerous for whoever meets them.
Melbourne Storm: A shellacking at the hands of Manly two weeks ago has many Storm fans fearing they are not the force they once were. This may be true, but there is no doubting that they raise their game come finals time, the returning Gareth Widdop will give them perhaps a little more attacking flair than Brett Finch, and Will Chambers has been their central fulcrum for tries this season. One suspects that they may not be able to run and gun as they used to, but nobody will be writing them off!
Manly Sea Eagles: Ominous signs are coming out of Brookvale, the Sea Eagles are barreling towards the semi finals, without any hint of slowing down. A demolition of Melbourne showed they have an almost perfect balance between brain and brawn, it seems to have been forgotten that their halves are international quality and they have a Wolfman on the wing. Jamie Lyon is in career-best form, and the returning Jorge Taufua will have some teams worrying, if not all out panicking! Do not say it too loudly but there are a lot of people who think that Manly could comfortably go toe-to-toe with the heavyweight contenders of South Sydney and Bondi.
Sydney Roosters: Winners of the minor Premiership, topplers of the mighty South Sydney giants, a defence as watertight as a nut and with a back line you would not believe. The favourites for the title seem to have it all, but there is no doubt that their penalty count is something to worry about, and people will argue their bench is not as impressive as others. Nevertheless, if they can survive week one without enforcer Jared Warea-Hargreaves, the Roosters will go deep into this finals series – it will be a surprise if they are not in the Grand Final (yeah, that deep!).
South Sydney Rabbitohs: Boasting four of the biggest brothers you have ever seen, the Bunnies have built their season on big fast forwards getting quick plays of the ball allowing their halves, John Sutton and Adam Reynolds to conduct opposition teams like symphony orchestras. With the mighty Greg Inglis at the back, South Sydney sees this year as their year! But doubts remain over their ability to close out games, their attack was disorganized in their minor premiership loss to the Roosters last weekend. Critics will argue that psychologically they are weak when games go down to the wire. Fans will tell you, their flaws will have been corrected come Finals time. A Roosters/Bunnies Grand Final would not be a surprise.
So that is it… Expect a NRL Best of the Year when the season ends, feel free to comment below, look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter @: RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, DJ Eberle, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Cody Kuxmann and Declan Yeats, respectively.