Finally it’s finals
It is being labelled one of the most competitive finals series in history.
Every fan has a different tip. The ones betting with their heads will say Melbourne is too clinical or the Cowboys can make it back-to-back. The ones thinking with their hearts give Cronulla and Canberra a chance. The ones who think a team outside the top four are a genuine shot will claim Broncos and Penrith have some value. The ones who are dreaming believe the Bulldogs and Titans will make it past week one.
And this journalist truly has no idea. 2016 has the least amount of Sydney teams featuring in September of all time with only three sides (Cronulla, Penrith, Bulldogs) making the cut. It’s a testament to Queensland’s dominance over the past decade. Last year saw the first all-Queensland final and there is a good chance of two teams from across the border facing up again. Can NSW prevail with a grand final in their backyard?
Their best shot no doubt is the Green Machine. I was writing them off only a few weeks ago when their bearded bandit Blake Austin picked up a hand injury and immediately underwent surgery. Yet the Raiders proved me wrong and scored an average of 48 points over the past two weeks in Austin’s absence, making a statement that their lethal attacking prowess hasn’t lost its touch. The injury has been hidden well from the media and rumour has it that the Canberra five-eight will return in week two of the finals. That is of course if they lose to the long-ago premiership favourites Cronulla.
On the subject of writing off, the common feel around the rugby league conversation is Cronulla are done and dusted. Only an idiot would think that, and rugby league is full of them. The Sharkies may have only conjured up one win over the past month, but you can’t look at that line-up and tell me they’re not a premiership threat. James Maloney, Ben Barba, Michael Ennis and Chad Townsend combine as one of the most exciting spines in the eight and with the perfect mix of youth and experience their core will test the top and come close, if not succeed, in Cronulla’s bid for their maiden premiership.
Testing the top means facing off against Melbourne for round two. Craig Bellamy’s soldiers produced a near-perfect performance against Cronulla to claim the minor premiership and gained a valuable mental advantage rolling into the finals. Storm’s rise to superiority was overshadowed by the Sharks 15-game winning streak; however, they saved their best for last and deservedly claimed the utmost status. Cameron Smith and Einstein are quite similar, both have a shocking head but are absolute geniuses. Pool Smith together with Craig Bellamy and Cooper Cronk and you have yourself a championship team.
Every team needs a genius and the Cowboys have theirs. Rory Kostjasyn. Yes, that is a typo…his name is actually the one you were thinking of; Johnathan Thurston. The bloke is a freak and North Queensland’s premiership hopes rest on his shoulders whether you believe they’re a one man team or not. I was down at Belmore the other week and with the top four on the line JT singe-handily annihilated the Bulldogs who couldn’t handle set after set of bombardment from the superstar. The Dogs were reminded of what things could have been like if they kept JT instead of an aging Steve Price…
While their dreaming of JT, Bulldogs fans are also dreaming of a 2016 premiership trophy. To win a premiership you need a solid halfback, five-eight and number nine. Individually the Bulldogs have these positions catered for although there is no gel and fluency in their football. Let me describe their style of football this season: defend your line solidly for 20 sets, run the ball on the last, scrounge up a scrappy try at the other end and hope for the best. The Bulldogs have become predictable and Des Hasler’s coaching methods are quickly becoming outdated in a modern game that encourages less crash and more flash.
The Panthers have developed a style of football that is flashier than Josh Mansour’s boots. Experience is vital in finals, but with an average age of 23 the Panthers will tell you confidence is the winning ingredient. From Bryce Cartwright’s glamorous flick to Leilani Latu’s rampant runs, the Panthers boast confidence around the park with young athletes prepared to make the risky play. It might not be their season this year but expect a premiership at the foot of the mountains within the next five years.
The Broncos were bagging on a premiership last season only to be pipped at the death. How good was that? Brisbane are hoping to send off Corey Parker with a fitting farewell just as they envisaged to do the same for Justin Hodges. Expect a repeat. Don’t get me wrong, the Broncos are a formidable side that deserves respect, but I can name four other teams that display more of a threat than last year’s grand finalists.
Melbourne, Canberra, Sharks, Cowboys. Like always, the grand final will be won by a top four competitor. The home advantage, especially in Melbourne and Townsville, is too big a hurdle to overcome and best wishes to the travelling sides. September specialists Melbourne sit in the box seat and will feel no pressure being competition favourites. As any stupid punter does, I’m going with my heart and will give Cronulla a second chance. Paul Gallen and Michael Ennis will bring the fire to ignite a premiership berth and if Fifita can roll and Barba can fly, Cronulla will shape up nicely. The Sharks are well overdue and it’s time for a trophy down south. Up Up Cronulla!