As rugby league fans – and even greats like Cooper Cronk and Sam Burgess – rejoice in the mooted 28 May resumption of the NRL, St George Illawarra veteran James Graham is warning optimists not to count their chickens.
It’s here and it’s exciting, it’s the Queensland Cup. The northern state’s top rugby league competition gets a jump on the NRL this weekend to begin its finals series.
Just the top six remain in the Queensland Cup after the 25-round regular season came to an end last weekend, and the finals are shaping up to be a classic with all remaining teams having plenty to offer and chances to win the competition.
The standout team is the Townsville Blackhawks, who won the minor premiership in their first season, and lost just the three games en route to a staggering 500-plus for and against difference. The Papua New Guinea Hunters pushed them all the way, though an unbeaten run since Round 6 wasn’t enough as they finished just one competition point behind in second.
Ipswich Jets and Wynnum Seagulls were ever present in the top six throughout the year, as they seem to be every season, and both earned home finals for week one by finishing in third and fourth respectively.
Easts Tigers and Northern Pride round out the finalists, and both teams spent time outside the top six this year, but strong second halves of the season gave them the momentum to qualify for the finals.
Every team has the necessary quality to win the competition, and all will still have grand plans of playing on the last Sunday of September at Suncorp Stadium.
Let’s take a look at each club’s credentials.
Regular season: 1st
Record: P23 W19 D1 L3 F/A +507
Record against other top six teams: Played 9 Won 5 Loss 3 Draw 1
Odds for Premiership: $2.25
Player to watch: Robert Lui
Townsville have had a hold on the Queensland Cup for most of the season, and the novelty wore off quickly for the other teams as the Blackhawks asserted their authority with some big wins. The 78-6 defeat of Burleigh was a frightening exhibition of their superb powers.
But they weren’t invincible, and the four games they didn’t win were against the other top six teams. Papua New Guinea are the bogey team for Townsville with two wins from their two meetings.
Interestingly, the other non-wins came in south-east Queensland against Ipswich (loss) and Easts (draw). Maybe there is a question of whether the Blackhawks can win in south-east Queensland, not a good statistic if one wants to win a grand final at Suncorp.
But the Blackhawks boast a team full of NRL experience, and even better, players with NRL premierships under their belt like Neville Costigan and Glenn Hall. That experience will be a major plus over some teams, especially the Hunters whose players are all in their first finals series. All the other teams in the top six will have an edge of previous Queensland Cup finals experience.
The Blackhawks are favourites to take the trophy, and deservedly so, but the fact they play the Hunters first, and no wins in Brisbane, is the concern.
Papua New Guinea Hunters
Regular season: 2nd
Record: P23 W18 D2 L3 F/A +507
Record against other top six teams: Played 9 Won 7 Loss 2
Odds for premiership: $3.25
Player to watch: Willie Minoga
The Hunters started off the year with three wins and three losses and it looked like second season syndrome was setting in after a promising first campaign ended with the Hunters just outside the finals in sixth place.
The loss against Wynnum in Round 6 was the last they have suffered in 2015, as a 17-game unbeaten run featuring 15 wins and two draws saw them enter the top six and fight Townsville all the way to the last week for the minor premiership. And they have done it in their usual style that wins so many admirers. For more on the Hunters’ season catch up with one of our previous reads.
Where 2014 was all about the electric style that people love about Papua New Guinea rugby league, they have added extra steel this year and have won a lot of close games where the previous season they may not have. That bodes well for what will no doubt be a tight finals series. What also looks favourable is they have the best record against other top six with just the two losses from nine games, including wins in both games against the Blackhawks, their first finals opponent.
But how long can the unbeaten run last? The big question is whether they can handle the pressure of finals and make the offloads stick under pressure. The fact that they have played in front of a frenzied home crowd of 15,000 three times this year and won on each occasion gives an indication they might just handle it.
Regular season: 3rd
Record: P23 W16 L7 F/A +198
Record against other top six teams: Played 10 Won 4 Loss 6
Odds for premiership: $6.00
Player to watch: Marmin Barba
Always the entertainers, and a side from whom you never know what you’re going to see, the Ipswich Jets were their usual competitive selves throughout 2015 and sealed third spot for the season in the final round of the year.
Ipswich were among three teams earlier in the season fighting over second spot, before the Hunters went on their big unbeaten run, and have been blow for blow with Wynnum throughout the season. Their stoush was only decided on the last day of the season.
The Jets’ record against the top six teams is under 50 per cent and a great deal of those losses were in a very tough run in the second half of the season where they played all of the other top six sides over seven rounds. One thing in their favour is they are only one of two sides to beat the all-conquering Townsville side this year, and went very close to doing the double in Charters Towers in Country Week.
One thing that can be guaranteed is that there will be plenty of entertainment in their fixtures, and no wonder the TV cameras are descending on North Ipswich Reserve on Sunday. They might surprise all with a standard game plan full of one-out hit-ups, but with their electric backline hopefully they don’t.
Wynnum Manly Seagulls
Regular season: 4th
Record: P23 W16 L7 F/A +183
Record against other top six teams: Played 8 Won 4 Loss 4
Odds for premiership: $8.00
Player to watch: Mathew Seamark
Wynnum Manly sealed their home final last weekend against the very opponent they play this weekend, with just the venue switched. The Seagulls grabbed the home ground advantage with a hard fought 17-10 win over their local rivals. For the second year in a row these teams meet in the last week of the season and first week of the finals.
Home ground may not be the big advantage it seems on paper as the Seagulls lost four of their 11 games at home this year, and two of four against top six sides. One of those home wins, however, was against the Papua New Guinea Hunters, a feat completed by just the Tigers and Sunshine Coast in 2015.
A late season stumble of two straight losses cost Wynnum a chance at third place. But the Seagulls are a finals hardened teams having won premierships in the recent years of the Queensland Cup. They are regular finals participants and are well experienced about what is required.
They must defeat local rivals Easts Tigers to keep their premiership dream alive, and have the advantage over Easts thus far in 2015, with both of the home-and-away fixtures being won by Wynnum. However, the Tigers did turn around the last round loss at home to Wynnum last year to beat the Seagulls at BMD Kougari, and will be hoping to repeat the feat again this weekend. Unlike last year, these sides can’t meet again in the finals.
Regular season: 5th
Record: P23 W13 D2 L8 F/A +204
Record against other top six teams: Played 10 Won 3 Loss 6 Draw 1
Odds for premiership: $12.00
Player to watch: Shaun Nona
The Tigers just missed out on the home final last weekend, and will be looking for revenge against their rivals on their turf on Sunday afternoon. That loss was only their second at home as the Tigers have proved very hard to beat at Tapout Energy Stadium. Ask Ipswich and Townsville, who both came away with a loss and a draw.
Away form is the worry for Easts as they were far less successful on the road in 2015. Their record of four wins, a draw and seven losses doesn’t sound great, but their away record against the top six is worrying coming into the finals with all five meetings ending in a loss. They also haven’t won north of Rockhampton which will make things hard as the Hunters or the Blackhawks will be the final stepping stone to the grand final.
But Easts are the kind of club that can turn that statistic around, just as they picked up after the loss of Grant Giess during the season and powered from fringe top six side to contender. They remain a dangerous finals side to play and they look ready after their performance against Redcliffe last week. Whether they can do it away against the top sides is the question.
Regular season: 6th
Record: P23 W14 L9 F/A +76
Record against other top six teams: Played 8 Won 3 Loss 5
Odds for premiership: $21.00
Player to watch: Linc Port
Last year’s premiers started the season off terribly with four straight losses and looked like a long way from a top six side, let alone defending premiers. But the Pride got their season back on track with a good run from Round 6 onwards.
In fact after that start the Pride’s record of 14 wins and five losses is as good as any with the exception of the top two. The fact they sealed their top six spot with a week to go shows the quality of their late season run after such a poor start.
One thing about the Pride is that their games are usually tight, giving them experience of what’s required in finals football. Experience is also the key as most of this side won last year’s Queensland Cup and the State Championship on NRL grand final day.
The Pride’s record against the top six looks doesn’t look strong, but their three wins have come against the sides they are either playing this weekend, or likely to play next weekend if they win. They ran Ipswich close to in Round 4, and snuck home against Wynnum by a point earlier in the season. A loss at Easts in Round 1 rounds out the 1–2 record in South East Queensland against the top sides. The record is much better up north, however from sixth they won’t get that advantage.
Can they win the competition from sixth? A team with a winning pedigree will always have hope they can, and Channel Nine will be there for all to see.
What’s happening grand final day?
For those keen to attend the end of season finale, it’ll only cost $20, and not only will you get top shelf Queensland Cup action, but there’s also three curtain raisers as well. So clear the schedule and head to the home of Queensland rugby league. Talk about value.
Grand final is on September 27 at Suncorp Stadium, with the gates opening at 10.45am.
The NRL Development Cup begins at 10.55am, followed by the Schoolboys Test between Australia and New Zealand at 11.55am and the Colts Challenge at 1.45pm.
Then the big game kicks-off at 3.55pm.
How does the finals series work?
Here’s the quickest explanation of what’s going to happen this September. Surprisingly it appears as if Channel Nine will show the elimination final instead of first versus second next weekend – their loss, or our loss I suppose.
Yet we will keep those interested in touch throughout the finals.
Teams three to six play each other, with the two losers are eliminated.
Game A: Ipswich versus Northern Pride – Sunday 1:40pm (TV game)
Game B: Wynnum versus Easts – Sunday 3:00pm (Look out for a live stream)
Teams one and two play each other for a place in the grand final, while the two winners from Week 1 play each to face the loser of one versus two.
Game C: Townsville versus Papua New Guinea Hunters – Saturday 5:00pm (Pray for a live stream)
Game D: Winner A versus Winner B – Sunday 1:40pm (TV game)
Loser of one versus two from Week 2 play against the winner of Game D for a place in the grand final.
Game E: Loser of Townsville-Papua New Guinea Hunters versus winner of Game D
The grand final, with the winner heading to the State Championship on NRL grand final day.
Game F: Winner of Townsville-Papua New Guinea Hunters versus winner of Game E
After looking into the crystal ball I foresee a Papua New Guinea Hunters versus Ipswich Jets final, which will entertain and end up in the Hunters’ favour.