And then there were FOUR.
Like cream, the teams that occupied the top four spots after 25 weeks of belting each other senseless, have risen to the top and this weekend they playoff for a prized spot in the October 6 Grand Final in Sydney.
It’s been an interesting journey for all four clubs.
Melbourne Storm easily won the minor premiership dropping only four of their regular-season games before stumbling in the first round of the finals when nudged 12-10 by Canberra. The Raiders are now just one win away from the club’s first grand final appearance in 25 years and with their English connection has everyone worried.
The Sydney Roosters (2nd) and South Sydney (4th) make up the final four and both have a good shot at the Grand Final given an even share of luck.
Bookmakers are tipping a Raiders-Roosters grand final showdown with both clubs strong favourites to win this weekend.
Canberra is $1.38 to dispose of South Sydney which to me seems a little skinny given South Sydney is coached by the finals guru Wayne Bennett shooting to be the first coach in history to take four different clubs to a grand final.
Bennett has taken three clubs, Canberra, Brisbane and St George Illawarra to grand finals.
His finals record is unsurpassed and includes seven premierships, six with the Brisbane Broncos and his most recent with St George in 2010, and that record alone suggests South Sydney will be the best prepared of the four finalists.
It certainly doesn’t guarantee them a win.
But Bennett’s unique ability to instill belief into players on big occasions is legendary and many of his players already have big game experience under their belt to cope with the pressure of a grand final qualifier.
The Roosters also look a touch under the odds at $1.55 against minor premiers, Melbourne but bookies are obviously going on their crushing win over South Sydney in week one of the finals and the fact the Storm were upset by Canberra at home in the same round.
But Melbourne surely answered any fears they had peaked too early when they rebounded with an almost faultless 32-0 week two finals demolition of Parramatta who a week earlier had inflicted a record 58-0 finals win over Brisbane.
It all argues for two magnificent games of rugby league between four outstanding teams.
Luck will play its part, and if the past few months are any guide, so will the on-field officiating and the Bunker.
We’ve had a few howlers in recent weeks and the sin bin is coming into play more and more so discipline will be a huge factor despite the intense heat of a finals furnace for some combatants who like to play on the edge and walk a fine line.
Good luck to all four teams.
Friday, September 27, 2019
Canberra Raiders vs South Sydney Rabbitohs
Venue: GIO Stadium | Start: 7:50 pm AEST
So much has been made about the record number of English players (possibly 7) who will play in this clash and fittingly the temperature at GIO Stadium on Friday evening is tipped to get down to a chilly three degrees making them all feel all the more at home.
IT is hard not to get excited about this absorbing battle but Canberra have things in their corner playing at home in front of a massive Viking-clapping sell-out crowd willing them onto the club’s first grand final appearance in 25 years.
All the Raiders greats will be there from past premiership-winning sides, Mal Meninga, Bradley Clyde, Glenn Lazarus and current Raiders coach Ricky Stuart, so the emotion will be flowing freely.
It’s a wave of support the Green Machine can ride into the GF especially after they showed great courage and tenacity to beat Melbourne Storm in round one of the finals.
Stuart has found the key to his players who have been building confidence on the run to the finals, convincing many doubters they are definite contenders.
Surprisingly they are only 6-6 at home this season and 9-3 on the road but the atmosphere on Friday night will be electric and worth a few points for sure.
A lot of interest centres around the fitness of Rabbits strike centre James Roberts who had thumb surgery last week for a compound dislocation and has hardly trained with the side.
If “The Jet” is grounded Bennett has young Corey Allen on standby.
Centre Dane Gagai is also battling a hamstring injury but has been named opposite the massive Joseph Leilua in a huge defensive assignment.
There has been a bit of talk that Bennett will play Sam Burgess in the middle third to help deal with Canberra’s human destroyer Josh Papali who has been named to start the clash.
Burgess has been playing on the edge but there is a feeling his aggression and intimidation can be more effective in the middle of the park.
Canberra’s English trio of hooker Josh Hodgson and forwards John Bateman and Elliott Whitehead have been the point of difference all season for Canberra and their high work-rate and one-percenters create opportunities for their teammates.
Canberra’s halves Aiden Sezer and Jack Wighton have also been outstanding while young fullback Charnze Nikoll-Klokstad has been a revelation this season.
Then there is the battle of the hookers, Hodgson and Cook, two entirely different styles of players but both with the ability to influence the game at any time.
Throw in the under-rated Jarrod Croker along with powerhouse wingers Jordan Rapana, Nic Cotric and big Joey Leilua and Canberra have an almighty side capable of scoring from anywhere on the paddock.
Having said that, if South Sydney find their mojo they too can light it up. The problem for South Sydney though is can they defend a talent, hungry side like Canberra for 80 minutes?
You would have to question it after they leaked 64 points in the first two rounds of the finals.
Still, this is finals football and with Sam Burgess, veteran John Sutton, Damien Cook, Codey Walker, Adam Reynolds and Cameron Murray you cannot write them off.
Head to Head: Canberra Raiders | $1.40 – Beteasy
Win Margin: Canberra Raiders 1-12 | $2.90 – Beteasy
Line: South Sydney Rabbitohs +7.5 | $1.90 – Sportsbet
Total Points: Over 35.5 | $1.88 – Sportsbet
Saturday, September 28, 2019
Sydney Roosters vs Melbourne Storm
Venue: SCG | Start: 7:50 pm AEST
Many people expected these two teams to be playing off in the grand final until Melbourne lost to Canberra in round one of the finals tossing them into the Roosters side of the draw.
It meant the Roosters were able to sit back last weekend with their feet up while their rivals play Parramatta. Fortunately, Parramatta failed to turn up and the Storm had a training run before winning 32-0.
These two power clubs split the honours in the minor premiership, the Roosters sneaking home 21-20 on the back of an 80th minute field goal in round 6 and Storm returning the favour 14-12 courtesy of 64th minute Cameron Smith penalty in round 15.
Based on those two results would be entitled to think bookmakers have got it wrong quoting the Roosters at $1.45 and Melbourne $2.45
Confusion still surrounds the role hooker Jake Friend who could play for the Roosters if he is cleared to return from a broken arm that became infected.
Friend has been named on an extended bench but hasn’t played for eight weeks.
Young hooker Sam Verrills has excelled in the No.9 jumper in Friend’s absence and coach Trent Robinson may be reluctant to change his starting side given some strong performances from the kid.
Still, Friend is a big game player with a big game attitude and if he is fit he will play a role for the Roosters.
Remember the Roosters carried Copper Cronk for 80 minutes in last year’s grand final with a busted shoulder and the gamble paid off, so Robinson is no stranger to rolling the dice.
It appears Curtis Scott has held out the challenge of Will Chambers in the centres after a solid game last week against the Eels when Storm coach Craig Bellamy bit the bullet and benched his State of Origin star.
The Rooster lose some early fire and go forward was Jared Waerea-Hargreaves serving out yet another suspension handing Siosiua Taukeiaho a start in the front-row and Lindsay Collins a spot on the bench.
To me, the Roosters are the most potent side in the competition ahead of Canberra with a super set of halves Luke Cleary and Cameron Munster but it doesn’t stop there. Classy fullback James Tedesco, dynamic young centre Latrell Mitchell, powerhouse Joseph Manu and accomplished finishers Daniel Tupou and Brett Morris give them so much strike.
Munster was a hot favourite for Mal Meninga’s No.6 Kangaroo jumper but in recent months Keary has thrown down the gauntlet with some eye-catching performances along with his brilliant kicking game.
Melbourne have been the best defensive team all year conceding 12.5 points a game and in two finals game have cut that average to just six points, including a 32-0 shutout of Parramatta.
They also have a special ace up their sleeve in Cameron Smith, the most experienced player in the game. Smith is a clutch player who, despite last week’s unusual brain snap, rarely loses the plot in big games which is a huge bonus if the battle goes down to the wire..
It is hard to believe Smith and in fact any of the Storm players have not played on the hallowed Sydney Cricket Ground before but that is unlikely to be a concern to Craig Bellamy.
Head to Head: Sydney Roosters | $1.55 – Beteasy
Win Margin: Sydney Roosters 1-12 | $2.85 – Beteasy
Line: Sydney Roosters -4.5 | $1.90 – Sportsbet
Total Points: Under 34.5 | $1.88 – Sportsbet