We’re finally at the business end of the season, with eight teams playing in the NRL finals this weekend, and the other eight probably nursing grade-one reckless hangovers all morning, courtesy of their Mad Monday celebrations.
At the time of the writing, no incidents have been reported (knock on wood!), so we can only hope that the football will take centre stage, as it should this time of year, with four finals to be played this weekend.
Following are the big questions for each game, the answers to which will go a long way to deciding who wins.
How much do we read into the Bunnies’ two victories over the Chooks this season?
The finals kick-off on Friday night, with bitter rivals the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs resuming hostilities after their epic and bloody encounter just last week.
The Bunnies won 16-10, which actually gave them the clean sweep over the Chooks this season, as they also beat them 26-16 way back in Round 1. Considering the boys from Bondi finished second on the ladder and only lost seven games all season, losing twice to the same team seems pretty significant.
So is it?
There’s no question that the Rabbitohs can, and should, take something out of the two victories. If nothing else, they should approach this game with extreme confidence, knowing they can beat the Roosters.
However, the reality is that there are noteworthy mitigating circumstances to the two wins. The games quite literally came at the start and finish of the season, and that provides a little context worth mentioning.
Every team is allowed the leeway of perhaps starting the season a little sluggish, so the opening game of the season is hardly the best gauge of a team’s finals fortunes. Plus, it was back in March – the Chooks have developed a lot since then.
Conversely, in the last game of the season, the Roosters didn’t really have a lot to play for, having sewn up second spot on the ladder. Plus key five-eighth Luke Keary was also absent, so again, it may not be the best indication of how Trent Robinson’s team measure up against Souths.
That’s not to say the Chooks would be happy with losing those two games, or that the Bunnies’ wins should be dismissed outright. Souths are a very good team, and these clubs hate each other. I couldn’t think of a better game to kick off the finals, but I also won’t be reading too much into the two results during the season.
Are the Raiders getting wobbly at the wrong time of the year?
Canberra enter the finals coming off a disappointing loss to a disappointing Warriors. Though plenty will rightfully say it’s not the best lead-in to the finals, the truth isn’t quite as sensationalistic or dramatic.
I can’t believe people are worried about Canberra dropping their last game. The Raiders didn’t have a whole lot to play for against New Zealand, had five players out, and were coming off a gruelling golden-point victory over Cronulla the week before.
A little perspective is important at times.
Canberra finished an impressive fourth on the ladder for a reason, and there’s also the salient point that they defeated their opponents this Saturday – minor premiers the Melbourne Storm – just a few weeks ago.
Canberra’s defence has been very good this year, and while the Storm should be scared of no team, they should at least be wary of a Raiders club that has talent across the park, and play a brand of football suited to the finals. It will be a tough affair, and decided in the middle of the park.
In particular, look for Josh Hodgson to have an impactful game, and show an audience that may have slept on Canberra this year just how good he and his team really are.
Can Manly win without Tom Trbojevic?
I can keep the answer to this question pretty brief. In short, no.
Sadly, the Sea Eagles will be without the services of their brilliant fullback, due to a torn pectoral muscle. Considering how talented the No.1 is, it leaves a gaping hole in Manly’s roster, and it’s one they simply won’t be able to overcome.
If that wasn’t bad enough – and it would have been anyway – Manly’s injury list also includes Curtis Sironen, Joel Thompson, Taniela Paseka and Toafofoa Sipley, plus they could be joined by others. With Marty Taupau also suspended, I struggle to see how the Sea Eagles will be able to keep up with the Sharks, who will be buoyed by their season-extending win over the Tigers at Leichhardt on Sunday.
Cronulla looked pretty ominous in the second half of their do-or-die match against Wests, and this game could get ugly in a hurry for the Sea Eagles.
Are the Broncos just making up the numbers?
I would have loved for my Doggies to make the finals, even if they were eventually bundled out in week one. There’s never any disgrace in making the top eight, even if you don’t make much noise once you’re there. So believe me when I say, kudos to Brisbane for playing finals football.
Now that we have the niceties out of the way, we can call this game exactly what it is: the ugly stepsister of the opening round of finals games.
Brisbane shouldn’t even be here. They couldn’t even beat the Bulldogs last round. The Broncos making the eight says more about the disappointing number of teams in the competition this season than it does about Brisbane.
Well done to them for being less sucky than all the other sucky teams this year, but I’ll be shocked if they score a point on Sunday, let alone win. They are not a good football team.
On the other side of the fence, I thought the Eels would be battling for the wooden spoon this season, so for them to finish fifth with 30 points is as surprising to me as it is impressive for them. That’s a very good season in anyone’s books.
Though consistency has been an issue all year, Parramatta are lucky to be handed a bye in week one, and it could even be the catalyst to get on a roll at the best time of the season to have momentum.