The regular season is in the books for another year, and with that the real games begin this weekend when the NRL finals series gets underway.
Once again the Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters have finished as the two best-performed teams during the minor rounds, with Craig Bellamy’s side taking out their fourth valid minor premiership this decade – with reigning premiers the Roosters not far behind.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs rode their luck to finish third on the ladder, beating the Roosters last week and then watching on as the Canberra Raiders suffered a shock defeat against the New Zealand Warriors at home on Saturday.
This sees the Rabbitohs and Roosters face off for the second consecutive week, while the Raiders will have to travel south for a daunting clash against the Storm in Melbourne.
Wooden spooners last year, the Parramatta Eels rocketed back up the ladder to finish fifth, with the Sea Eagles, Sharks and Broncos rounding out the eight.
For those four clubs it will be sudden death, while the Storm, Roosters, Rabbitohs and Raiders can look forward to a second chance in September if two of them lose their qualifying final this week.
Here is your guide to the first week of the 2019 NRL finals series.
Roosters vs Rabbitohs
This season: Rabbitohs won 26-16 at the SCG in Round 1, Rabbitohs won 16-10 at ANZ Stadium in Round 25
Last meeting in a finals match: Roosters won 12-4 at Allianz Stadium, first preliminary final, 2018
The 2019 NRL finals series kicks off with the greatest rivalry in Australian rugby league history, with the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs to face off in a final at the Sydney Cricket Ground for the first time in 81 years.
(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
The Rabbitohs secured a place in the top four for the third straight after after completing the double over the Roosters in a regular season for the first time in a decade, but they wouldn’t anticipate what was to happen on the Saturday.
Wayne Bennett’s side watched on as they were gifted third place by the Raiders, who crashed to a shock 24-20 loss to the Warriors at home, the result seeing the Bunnies earn another shot at the Roosters this Friday night.
Their win last Friday night came as the Roosters treated the match as a dead rubber, having been locked in to finish second on the ladder.
However, Roosters coach Trent Robinson still wasn’t happy with his side’s performance and will have the reigning premiers primed to make it third time lucky against the Bunnies this year after two losses to bookend the regular season.
In a boost for the Chooks, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves will play after beating a one-match ban at the tribunal overnight for a high shot on Liam Knight which many described as a “rugby league accident”.
However, Rabbitohs captain Sam Burgess will miss after accepting his own one-match ban for pulling the hair of Billy Smith last week.
Still, fireworks will be expected as two of rugby league’s most bitter rivals continue their feud with the SCG as the backdrop for their first finals clash at the venue since 1938.
For the winner: Bragging rights in the battle of the oldest rivalry in Australian rugby league, and direct passage to the preliminary final.
For the loser: Await the winner of Saturday night’s Battle of the Beaches, and host the semi-final next Friday night.
Prediction: Roosters by 12 points.
Storm vs Raiders
This season: Storm won 22-10 at GIO Stadium in Round 2, Raiders won 22-18 at AAMI Park in Round 22
Last meeting in a finals match: Storm won 14-12 at AAMI Park, first preliminary final, 2016
NRLW: Roosters vs Warriors
The second of the qualifying finals brings together the Melbourne Storm and Canberra Raiders, also for the third time this year, with the two regular season matches evenly split with the two teams winning on each other’s home grounds.
While the Storm had nothing to play for in its final round match against the Cowboys, they still won quite convincingly to put the icing on another minor premiership-winning season, their fourth this decade after 2011, 2016 and 2017.
Meantime, Ricky Stuart will be wondering what went wrong for his side last Saturday after the Raiders paid the price for taking the Warriors too lightly in its 24-20 loss at home last Saturday.
Playing for third spot – which would’ve meant facing the Roosters at the SCG – the Green Machine gave up a half-time lead to crash to a side which just over twelve months ago were gearing to play in finals, but were instead playing for pride.
Making matters worse, rookie forward Hudson Young will be suspended for the rest of the finals series and at least the first month and a half of next season after being found guilty by the tribunal of eye-gouging the Warriors’ Adam Pompey in the defeat.
While the Raiders must regroup ahead of what shapes as a difficult trip to the Victorian capital, they can take heart that they did cause a huge upset in their last trip south when they came from 0-18 down in the first half to win 22-18.
However, facing the Storm in a finals match will be a different proposition altogether and thus Ricky Stuart’s side will have their work cut out if they are to repeat their Round 22 result.
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
The Storm haven’t lost a finals match at home since the 2015 preliminary final and I can’t see that changing on Saturday night.
Earlier in the day, Melbourne will get another taste of the NRL Women’s Premiership when last year’s runners-up – the Sydney Roosters – begin their campaign to go one better when they face the New Zealand Warriors in the curtain-raiser.
For the winner: Direct passage to the preliminary final, which if the Storm win will be played on the Friday evening to avoid a clash with the AFL grand final.
For the loser: Await the winner of the Eels vs Broncos elimination final.
Prediction: Storm by six points.
Sea Eagles vs Sharks
This season: Sea Eagles won 24-14 at PointsBet Stadium in Round 10
Last meeting in a finals match: Sea Eagles won 24-18 at Allianz Stadium, first semi-final, 2013
The second match of the Saturday double header sees the Battle of the Beaches between the Sea Eagles and the Sharks at Lottoland.
A season from hell last year saw Trent Barrett walk out as Sea Eagles coach with twelve months left on his contract after the club finished 15th on the ladder, just ahead of bitter rivals the Parramatta Eels.
The club then welcomed two-time premiership winner Des Hasler back into the fold, returning for the first time since he was controversially sacked 40 days after the club took out the 2011 flag.
Despite predictions of another lowly finish, Hasler’s return to Brookvale Oval revitalised the club as he got the best out of the Trbojevic brothers, rookie centre Reuben Garrick and captain Daly Cherry-Evans – who was a rookie in Hasler’s last year at the club in 2011.
The result was a rise to sixth on the ladder, though they were in a good position to claim a double chance until they lost their last two matches of the regular season against the Storm and Eels.
Now they will face the Sharks, who took out the last place in the eight after they stormed Leichhardt Oval and crashed Robbie Farah’s farewell party by thrashing the Wests Tigers 25-8, with Paul Gallen kicking the first field goal of his storied career at the death.
John Morris’ side could have so easily finished in the top four had they been more accurate with their goal kicking throughout the regular season, in which they lost five matches despite scoring at least one more try than their opposition.
(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
Nonetheless they qualified for their seventh finals series in the past eight years, only missing out in 2014 when the ASADA scandal saw them crash to a wooden spoon finish.
If they are to stay alive in the race for this year’s premiership they’ll have to not only win behind enemy lines, but also reverse a 24-14 home loss to the maroon-and-whites back in Round 10.
For the winner: Face the loser of the Roosters vs Rabbitohs qualifying final next Friday night.
For the loser: Lights out for 2019, and retirement for Paul Gallen if the Sharks are beaten.
Prediction: Sea Eagles by six points.
Eels vs Broncos
This season: Eels won 38-10 at Bankwest Stadium in Round 14, Broncos won 17-16 at Suncorp Stadium in Round 24
Last meeting in a finals match: Broncos won 24-14 at Queensland Sports and Athletics Centre, second qualifying final, 2002
NRLW: Dragons vs Broncos
The second of the elimination finals brings together the Parramatta Eels and Brisbane Broncos, who will be contesting the first finals match to be played at Bankwest Stadium which opened for business in April.
The return to their spiritual home has been a highlight for Eels fans this year, after they spent the last two years having to trek east to ANZ Stadium for their home games while the old Parramatta Stadium was knocked down and rebuilt into the current masterpiece.
Another highlight was their rise back up the ladder after they took out the wooden spoon last year, and the emergence of rookie winger Maika Sivo who finished with 20 tries for the season – one short of the record of 21 for a first-year player held by Israel Folau in 2007.
A hat-trick of tries saw the Eels finish the regular season in fifth place on the ladder, giving them the home ground advantage for their knockout final against the Broncos which overcame a poor first half of the season to just finish the season inside the eight.
All eyes were going to be fixed on the NRL’s glamour club the moment Anthony Seibold was dramatically installed as their new coach before Christmas last year, with veteran coach Wayne Bennett going the other way and heading to South Sydney.
(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
The Broncos started the year poorly – including copping heavy defeats at the hands of the Roosters in Round 4, the Rabbitohs in Round 8 and to their opponents this Sunday – the Eels in Round 14 – all away from home.
But they managed to turn their season around after the mid-season bye, winning six and drawing one of their last ten matches after at one point being third-last on the ladder.
Now to go all the way and end their longest premiership drought, they will have to travel for the entirety of the finals series – and this will be the second week that they are on the road having lost to the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium last Saturday night.
While they were humiliated in their last visit to Bankwest Stadium, they did beat the Eels in golden point extra time back at home nearly a fortnight ago and also took the points in their most recent finals meeting – way back in 2002.
Broncos fans will also be in for a double treat, with their women’s side – who are the defending premiers in the NRLW competition – to play the Dragons in the curtain-raiser. It will be the first time the city of Parramatta witnesses a professional women’s rugby league match.
Lighting the fuse for that match will be the fact that the Red V have poached a number of players from the Broncos ahead of this year’s competition, though they will be without Sam Bremner who gave birth to a baby last month.
For the winner: A trip to either Melbourne or Canberra next Saturday night to face the loser of the Storm vs Raiders qualifying final.
For the loser: Season over.
Prediction: Eels by six points.