It’s showtime for the NRL. The gruelling 26 week NRL regular season is now behind us and rugby league fans’ thoughts now turn to the business end of the season – the playoffs. In this blog, I’ll have a look at the opening round of playoffs.
The 2012 season sees the introduction of a new playoff system, copied directly from the AFL. This year’s system is widely regarded as being fairer to the teams that finish in the top four because it gives them all at least two weeks of finals footy. The teams finishing fifth to eighth are playing elimination games from week 1.
Personally, I still prefer the old top five system because you need a good season to make the top five. As Melbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy has highlighted in the past, I don’t think a team that loses as many games as it wins over the course of a season should have a chance of winning the Premiership. There are one or two teams who have been ordinary over the last six or eight weeks but they have still made the eight. The main argument against the top five system is that it would render too many end of season games meaningless in a sixteen team league. With the NRL expected to expand to 18 teams in the next few years, the top eight playoffs are here to stay.
A quick word on the sides that didn’t make it. The race to make the playoffs this year ended a little disappointingly. There were no cliffhanger endings, no golden point or field goal dramas. A meek defeat for the Wests Tigers on Saturday night handed the final two spots to the Canberra Raiders and the Brisbane Broncos. Perhaps the clearest indictment on the teams in the bottom half is that the Dragons, the worst attacking team in the NRL, managed to finish ninth. If you can’t finish above the team with the worst attack, you really don’t belong in the finals.
Let’s have a look at the matchups for the weekend – the new system has thrown up a couple of corkers.
Canterbury Bulldogs v Manly Sea Eagles – Friday 7 September 7.45pm (9.45pm NZ)
It seems a rather dubious reward that the minor premier Bulldogs have to play one of the form teams of the competition in Manly. There is no inconvenient trip to Queensland or Victoria for Manly – just a short ride across Sydney to the somewhat soulless ANZ Stadium where there will be little in the way of an intimidating atmosphere.
The media will no doubt focus on the clash between the two coaches. Canterbury’s Des Hasler will not want to waste the good work done in finishing top by losing out to his apprentice, Geoff Toovey, who has certainly been learning tricks from his old boss by giving the referees a good old fashioned “spray” after the Sea Eagles’ last two matches. Toovey conveniently overlooked the decisions that went in Manly’s favour over the weekend, one of which led to a try at a crucial point in the game just before half-time. I don’t think the coaches will be too concerned about anything that is said in the press about them – the two sides have already met twice in the regular season (they are nicely poised at one win each) and have moved on. It won’t stop the media trying to make a story where there isn’t one though.
Much more interesting is the clash on the field. The two teams have more in common than you might think. They both have attacking full-backs who can light up the scoreboard (speedsters Ben Barba and Brett Stewart), centres who can produce breaks for their wingers (the skilful Josh Morris and Jamie Lyon), forwards who will prod, poke and slate right up to the boundaries of fair play (everyone’s favourite villains Michael Ennis and Anthony Watmough) and old school barrel shaped characters (Greg Eastwood and George Rose – please George, tie up those shorts this week, we’ve seen enough of the luminous briefs for one year).
Where I think this game will be won and lost is between the big men up front. Canterbury’s props have been outstanding this year with the starters Aiden Tolman and Sam Kasiano boosted twenty minutes into the game by the big pom, James Graham, who has made a roaring start to his NRL career. (All that is missing for Graham is to lose the pasty white look which he will surely do over a summer in Sydney.) Much has been made of how the Bulldogs’ big men can catch and pass effectively to draw in defenders and create room for the quick men outside. Sounds such a simple skill but it’s no coincidence that many teams are trying to copy the Bulldogs’ style of play. Manly’s front men are tough but injury prone. Jason King, Brent Kite and Joe Galuvao might match the Bulldogs up front for 30 or even 40 minutes but I think the Bulldogs will be too strong for the Manly over the full 80.
Should be a cracker though between two teams who have every chance of making it all the way to the Grand Final at the end of the month.
The Couch’s view – Bulldogs by 8
Melbourne Storm v South Sydney Rabbitohs – Saturday 8 September 5.45pm (7.45pm NZ)
There is no doubt that the Storm finished in the top two largely because of their form in the first nine weeks of the season when they were unbeaten. In and around the Origin period, they were distinctly average and they arrive at the finals with a bit of a limp rather than their usual confident stride.
The Rabbitohs, on the other hand, will be buzzing at reaching the finals for only the second time since 1989. A quick look at their teamsheet whets the appetite for what could lie ahead for Souths. Greg Inglis, Nathan Merritt, Sam Burgess and David Taylor are all match winners. Adam Reynolds and Andrew Everingham are two of the NRL’s stand out rookies this year. There’s also the enigmatic Issac Luke and, should he suffer a brain explosion and breach club discipline again, Nathan Peats has performed admirably in Luke’s absence.
It’s never going to be easy to overturn a side like Melbourne, especially on their own patch. The Storm will be preparing for the playoffs under the watchful eye of Craig Bellamy but away from the media scrutiny that the Sydney sides contend with. Can the Rabbitohs cope with the expectation that has been building in recent weeks? There is a lot of history at Souths and there will be pressure on them to bring back the glory days. An away playoff in Melbourne would have been as tough as it gets in recent seasons. Perhaps the biggest encouragement for the Rabbitohs is that the Storm have looked vulnerable several times this year. If Souths get on top early, the Storm will need the very best that the big three of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith have to offer – and, this year, I don’t think it will be enough.
The Couch’s view – Rabbitohs by 6
North Queensland Cowboys v Brisbane Broncos – Saturday 8 September 7.45pm (9.45pm NZ)
Bug swatters and mosquito cream at the ready – it’s a Saturday night Queensland derby up in Townsville. Under the new playoff system, it’s sudden death for the Cowboys and Broncos.
Looking at the form of the two sides over the season, this game should be a comfortable win for the home side. The Cowboys have had a fine season with Johnathan Thurston and Matty Bowen marshalling the team on the back of the good work done up front by the likes of Matt Scott, James Tamou and one of the most underrated players in this year’s NRL, Gavin Cooper. The Cowboys are usually strong at home but they have been beaten at Dairy Farmers Stadium four times this season although three of those were in the opening six rounds. On paper, it should be comfortable for the Cowboys but the beauty of playoff footy is that it is not played on paper. When you add into the mix that this game is a derby, it should spice proceedings up and make matters a little closer. The Cowboys have to remember that they have beaten the Broncos twice already this season. Three times would be a charm.
The Broncos are one of the teams that can probably count themselves lucky that there weren’t too many strong challengers from the bottom half of the NRL ladder as the regular season ended. After a promising start to the season, the Broncos rested players during the Origin period and many observers thought they would benefit from that at the business end of the season. The problem was that the Broncos’ form took a huge nosedive mid-season and they stuttered into the playoffs with an unconvincing win over lowly Penrith. In past seasons, the odd dip in form was not such a worry for the Broncos because match winners like Darren Lockyer would come to the fore in the playoffs. Now Lockyer has retired to combine with Wally Lewis on Channel Nine’s commentary team (will they be able to remain impartial for this one?), the pressure is on the Broncos’ youngsters in two key positions – Corey Norman at five-eighth and Josh Hoffman at full-back. Sadly for the Broncos, I think these good young players are not quite ready to lead a charge to the Premiership. Experience counts for a lot in the playoffs. Maybe the baby Broncos will be ready for a Premiership charge in a couple of seasons but they are not quite there yet.
The Couch’s view – Cowboys by 10
Canberra Raiders v Cronulla Sharks – Sunday 9 September 4.00pm (6.00pm NZ)
A few weeks ago, not many were predicting this as a playoff game, particularly not to take place in Canberra. The Sharks were challenging for a place in the top four and some columnists were questioning David Furner’s position as the Raiders’ coach. Fortunes can change quickly in the NRL and these two sides know this more than any other.
The outcome of this game could depend upon which Raiders turn up. If the one that ended the Bulldogs’ twelve match winning run in round 25 shows up, the Raiders will be cracking on to next week. If the Raiders who lost by 30 points at Newcastle in round 21 show their faces, their post-season will not last long. A lot will depend on the man with crackerbread limbs, Josh Dugan. He has struggled with injuries throughout his NRL career and will need to put in four appearances in four weeks if the Raiders are to win the Premiership. The Raiders have other gamebreakers but the likes of Josh McCrone and Reece Robinson are likely to need Dugan’s help.
The Sharks have built their success this season on a tough pack of forwards who are prepared to put their bodies on the line and get dirty when the need arises. They surprised many with their early season form and briefly threatened a really special season when they were the first team to put the Storm in the gutter in round 10 and briefly headed the competition a couple of weeks later. The promising start faded at the end of the season and the Sharks have suffered without key man Paul Gallen, winning only two of their last nine. Gallen seems to have put so much effort into his New South Wales Origin campaign that he has not had enough left in the tank to lead the Sharks effectively at the business end of the season. If I was a Sharks fan, I would be cursing Origin as it has definitely hindered their NRL campaign this year. Add in the propensity of Todd Carney to disappear in the big games, it will take a big turnaround in recent fortunes for the Sharks to prosper in Canberra.
A tough one to predict but I am going with home advantage to prove crucial for the Raiders.
The Couch’s view – Raiders by 4
Wherever you’re watching, enjoy your NRL this week.