It’s finals time and that means stepping things up a notch or two which is the challenge facing the last 8 teams left. With a few rounds to go the Roosters looked the team to beat along with minor premiers the Panthers and the ultra-consistent Melbourne Storm. But the Roosters came crashing down at the hands of a ruthless Rabbits who flogged them in the final round putting 60 points on them with 10 tries. Melbourne also lost their last game by they rested the bulk of their starting side so the result does not come into the equation other than they proved they have good depth in the club. Raider’s coach Ricky Stuart rested a majority of his starters as well but they still managed to easily account for Cronulla in a performance which also was full of merit given their very inexperienced side. So what does that tell us heading into the finals? It tells us South Sydney are the “sleepers” and on their day or night can beat any team. Their performance against the Roosters was near faultless at times and there is no better coach when the big dance comes around than Wayne Bennett. September-October is usually “Wayne World” he has 7 premierships to prove it and coached more finals than anyone in the game’s history. What Bennett does better than any other coach is bring the best out in players, and often in big games. The Roosters need to hit back quickly against Penrith otherwise they may lose that confidence they had. Melbourne is rock solid as you would expect under the coach Craig Bellamy and skipper Cameron Smith who are experts at shutting out all the distractions about their pending futures and all the other attempts to put them off their focus. As it stands now, following last week’s upsets, Melbourne, South Sydney and Canberra look strong. We will wait and see how the Roosters pick themselves up this weekend before writing them off.
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NRL Tipping – Friday, October 2
Penrith Panthers v Sydney Roosters
Panthers Stadium, Penrith | 7:50 pm (AEST)
Penrith Panthers – Finished worthy minor premiers and broke a host of club records along the way in winning 15 games in a row and losing just once in 2020, a remarkable effort. Some critics claim the Panthers had a dream draw and escaped injuries to key players which is true. But the manner in which they beat their opposition with defence and aggression and some sparkling free-flowing rugby league is a tribute to coach Ivan Cleary and his band of players who clearly enjoyed their football in a tough, demanding season. Cleary wisely rested fullback Dylan Edwards, centre Stephen Crichton, and his money man Villame Kikau last weekend and they will come back a little fresher against the Roosters following a very though season without any breaks. The big thing the Panthers have in their favour is they have basically kept the same team and combinations together for most of the season and it allows them to play consistently and confidently. They back themselves, their defence is very good and they have many strike weapons. Nathan Cleary takes the controls and chooses where Penrith’s attack comes from, up the middle or on the edges through Crichton and Kikau or wingers Mansour and To’o. If you think there are weaknesses because they maybe have had a softer draw that the other top sides, think again. They have been very dominating and head into the finals with their confidence and form sky-high.
Sydney Roosters – Up until last week when they were handed a master class in how to play rugby league by South Sydney who put 60 points on them, the Roosters looked the team to beat in their pursuit of a third successive NRL premiership. They lost Jake Friend early and that was a big blow, but they will have to get by without him again against the Panthers which will not be easy. His place in the team has gone to Freddie Lussick, a 20-year-old local from Beacon Hill who boasts just four games and only debuted last month against the Tigers. It’s a big ask for Freddie but coach Trent Robinson has faith in him to step in such a big game. Mentally the Roosters need to come back from one of the worst losses in the club’s history but they have too many quality players not to bounce back strongly against the Panthers. You can count on JWH getting up for his clash with James Tamou and the lead the Roosters through the middle while Luke Keary will be the man to launch the Roosters strike players. The Morris brothers love the big stage while James Tedesco has been a little quiet in recent weeks and we all know you can’t keep great players down for too long. This will be a beauty. Coincidentally, the last time these two teams met in the opening game of a finals series the Panther’s got home 19-18 on the back of a Jamie Soward field goal.
NRL Tipping – Saturday, October 3
Canberra Raiders v Cronulla Sharks
GIO Stadium, Canberra | 5:40 pm (AEST)
Canberra Raiders – Last year’s grand finalists are looking to go one better this year. Many thought their season was over when they lost their English import hooker Josh Hodgson but coach Ricky Stuart has guided them through some rough waters to finish just outside the top 4. Had no right to beat the Sharks 38-28 last weekend with a very inexperienced side after Stuart rested a majority of his players. In all seriousness, it is hard to fathom how the Sharks can make up 10 points against a side who will be 20 or 30 points stronger this weekend. We all know football is a funny game and anything can happen in that 80 pressure-cooker minutes but that looks a bridge too far. This being an elimination final the Raiders will have a full compliment back on deck and with all their stars back, that spells big, big trouble for the Sharks who’ve been disappointing heading into the finals. Look for Josh Papalii to take his game to another level in the middle and for Englishmen John Bateman and Elliott Whitehead to run more. Halfback George Williams and No.6 Jack Wighton will make sure the Sharks defence is fully tested out.
Cronulla Sharks – They couldn’t beat a second-string Raiders side last weekend so how are they going to beat a full-strength Green Machine 7 days later. In fact, it would be a stunning form reversal, to be honest given they struggled to beat a side who had to introduce themselves to each other before last week’s game. The return of Chad Townsend will help but with no Shaun Johnson, the Sharks attack just doesn’t flow or threaten much. Townsend’s return from suspension allows Wade Graham to return to the left edge which is another bonus, but it’s probably not going to be enough. The Sharks pack is strong and led by Braden Hamlen-Uelle and Aaron Woods they have two big bodies in the middle. Blayke Brailey is playing well and needs to be watched and the Sharks need him to get out of dummy half and make some quick metres. Discipline has been an issue for the Sharks in recent weeks and they won’t want to give the Raiders easy metres out of their own half. Winger Sione Katoa and centre Jesse Ranien will need to be at their try-scoring best because the Raiders look to have plenty of points in them after giving their star players a rest last weekend.
Melbourne Storm v Parramatta Eels
Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane | 7:50 pm (AEST)
Melbourne Storm – Showed off their depth last weekend when they rested a majority of their star-studded roster yet only went down 30-22 to the Dragons. They were entitled to lose by 30 last week yet they stayed in the fight for the 80 minutes which is a credit to the coaching staff and players. Now they are back to full strength with all their guns rested and a lot fresher for their showdown with the Eels who have not been all that convincing in the back half of the season. Still, coach Craig Bellamy will remind his players while games are usually won in the latter minutes, they can also be lost in the first 20 minutes with a bad attitude as Souths found out a few weeks ago when they lost to the lowly-placed Bulldogs. Melbourne though has too much finals experience to be anything but switched on and the man who will throw the switch will be Cameron Smith, the game’s most experienced player. The return of Smith and Cameron Munster along with speedster Josh Addo-Carr is a scary thought for the Eels who struggled to beat the Wests Tigers 28-24 last weekend. The one thing Melbourne do better than most is build pressure through their forwards and their kicking game and the Eels haven’t been great in recent weeks at working their way out of their own half. You can see Munster and Smith keep them in the corners as much as possible here and controlling the ball with a high completion rate. In some ways, Queensland fans, who do not have a team in the finals can adopt the Storm because they are based on the Sunshine Coast and have won all of their 8 games since relocating north.
Parramatta Eels – Not the same side that was so dominant early in the season and they were not overly impressive in their finals tune-up against the Wests Tigers who push them for the entire 80 minutes. On their best form, they can close but this is the real deal and Melbourne are a seasoned club who have been the finals many times. Coach Brad Arthur will need the perfect game plan here but as most coached have found Melbourne just have too many weapons to shut everyone down so defence and limiting the time their good players have with the ball will be vital. The Eels showed plenty of grit after the Wests Tigers threatened their place in the top four last week but can they go up another notch, or two to be more precise against a side like Melbourne Storm who do just about everything really well and even better come finals time. There’s no doubting the like of Mitchell Moses and fullback Clint Gutherson will have a dip and getting Dylan Brown back at five-eighth will help the Eel’s attack run smoother. Getting the services of Regan Campbell_Gillard back in the front-row is another bonus if he can recapture the early season form when the Eels were flying. There is a reason bookies have Parramatta the longest price in all four games.
NRL Tipping – Sunday, October 4
Sydney Rabbitohs v Newcastle Knights
ANZ Stadium, Sydney | 4:05 pm (AEST)
South Sydney Rabbitohs – Turned on a display last weekend against the Roosters that should have every opposition club shaking in their boots. The 60-8 scoreline shocked many but that is what a Wayne Bennett coached team can do come finals time. 10 tries, half of them scored by flyer Alex Johnston. It was a joy to watch how they attacked with speed and precision and backed themselves with the football. Their under-rated forward pack just kept doing the hard work in the middle and the class of their halves Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker did the rest. There is always talk about who is the game’s best player, who is the most influential player and it usually centres around James Tedesco, Nathan Cleary and Cameron Smith but trust me, Cody Walker is right up there with those guys. It was evident for all to see again last week how he led his side to a huge win against the class of the Roosters. Now if Souths played every 80 minutes as well as they did last week the JJ Giltinam Shield would be theirs to collect. But we all know a week is a long time in football and Souths only have to go back a fortnight when they were stunned by the lowly Bulldogs to remind them of what a slow start and bad attitude can do. The Knights have been poor lately and while I can’t see any result but an easy South Sydney victory, they will still have to go out and earn it.
Newcastle Knights – Stumbled into the finals and unless they can improve sharply in a number of key areas they will be one of the first teams knocked out. I can’t see how the Knights showed nothing and lost by 30 points to the Gold Coast last weekend, can turn around and beat a team which put 10 tries on the reigning premiers!!. Did the Knights decide to keep something in the tank for their first finals appearance since 2013 or has the tough season caught up with them? I think it is the latter, to be honest. They were flat, lacked line-speed and barely put the Titans under any pressure which won’t be nearly good enough against the rampant rabbits who looked hungry, aggressive and ready to rip into finals football. It goes without saying the Knights need season-best games from players like Kalyn Ponga, Mitchell Pearce, big Dave Klemmer, Kurt Mann and Daniel Saifiti to have any chance of causing a major upset and keeping their finals hope alive. I can’t see it happening however and this looks a comfortable win for the Rabbits.