Canberra v Souths: Which team is the real deal?
The maestro: Nathan Merritt celebrates scoring a try (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Renee Mckay)
There’s kind of a game show feel to the finals duel between South Sydney and Canberra at ANZ Stadium tomorrow night. Perhaps we can call it The Real Deal or No Deal.
The stakes are high – with a berth in the grand final qualifier against Canterbury up for grabs – and there are a number of tricky questions to be answered in front of a sizeable ground and TV audience.
The red and green contestants suffered badly from stage fright in last week’s show in Melbourne whereas The Green Machine was slow to the buzzer early on but romped home against a Sharks combination which completely fluffed its lines in Canberra.
I’m tipping this game to be a thriller from start to finish.
Two big and mobile teams, Canberra with amazing momentum after six straight wins versus a star-studded Rabbitohs side which is laden with ability, but clearly struggling to deal with the pressure of finals football and the weight of public expectation.
David Furner’s Raiders are revelling in the sudden death theatre armed with the knowledge they can score tries, and clusters of them, against the best drilled defences.
If they are to succeed in this one, Souths fullback Greg Inglis is the player they will need to silence. Melbourne did it last week with an astute kicking game and if Josh McCrone and Sam Williams study tape of that game, they will get a pretty fair idea of how it can be done.
The Raiders’ big men should be steeled for a midfield onslaught. Souths will come at them hard and often through the centre and I expect hooker Isaac Luke to be a major threat from the outset.
David Taylor, AKA The Coal Train, will probably find himself repeatedly tagged by Raiders’ hard man Josh Papalii, the not-so-little Engine That Could (who drove Paul Gallen stir-crazy last weekend).
Souths will need big performances from the likes of Inglis, Luke, halves Adam Reynolds and John Sutton and English spearhead Sam Burgess. Watch for some special cameos from winger Nathan Merritt who will be playing his 200th NRL game.
Canberra are dangerous all over the park and if attacking aces such as Josh Dugan, Reece Robinson and Blake Ferguson get quality ball, Souths will battle to hold them out.
Joel Thompson has been picked to replace the injured Jarrod Croker at left centre. He is a damaging runner and fearsome tackler who will perform well in a big match like this.
I like the look of emerging Raiders second rower Mark Nicholls, a 20-year-old Leeton product who has been named on the bench. Keep an eye out for him – he is a quality player of the future.
The Raiders may strike trouble in the goal kicking department with the reliable Croker ruled out for the season. Kicking guru Darryl Halligan was spotted at training this week showing Dugan and Ferguson some finer points.
I’ve had a stab at guessing the right suitcase.
MY VERDICT: The Raiders are The Real Deal. Canberra by eight.
In tonight’s Manly-North Queensland game at Allianz, all eyes will be on Sea Eagles co-captain Jamie Lyon who is carrying a well publicised calf injury.
The champion centre has been a standout for Manly all season and if he breaks down, or is down a notch or two on form, the Eagles will struggle.
Fellow centre Steve Matai will be watching from the stand, suspended again, placing more duress on a Manly team that struggled to make a second-half break against the Bulldogs last week.
Undoubtedly, the Eagles have enough class players and finals experience to get through this one but their opponents will be anything but easy.
The Cowboys have an ordinary record at Sydney venues but their form leading into the finals has been excellent. The Johnathan Thurston/Matty Bowen Show has been unstoppable over the past six weeks and if the Cowboys forwards lay a solid foundation, this pair will have the Eagles grabbing at air.
The key to it all might be a quick start by the Cowboys as Manly will be feeling the effects of a tough game against Canterbury one week ago.
As always, the Eagles will look to the freakish try scoring ability of fullback ace Brett Stewart. I never tire of watching this guy play and he rarely disappoints.
If Manly can shake off all of their adversity and score a win, it will be an astonishing feat for first-year coach Geoff Toovey. His team is really under the pump for this match and if he can conjure a win, the men from the northern beaches will gain enormous heart and confidence for the week or weeks ahead.
The prize for the victors will be a match-up with the Melbourne Storm the following week.
MY VERDICT: We’ll be saluting new premiers again this year. Cowboys by 10.