Criticism of referees used to be about the inaccuracy of their decisions, but during the NRL grand final the referees came under spotlight because they arrived at the correct decision.
Whatever happens today, we’re going to see something we haven’t seen since the early 1990s.
A Roosters’ win gives us a back-to-back premier for the first time since Brisbane beat St George in both 1992-3 (remember, Brisbane’s 1997-98 titles don’t count as back-to-back), while a Raiders’ win breaks a 25-year long premiership drought going back to 1994.
It’s a piece of history on offer for both clubs and their fans. Canberra fans especially have been getting incredibly excited for the game, even though the green machine are rated rank outsiders.
All the ‘official’ stats and all the analysis points to a successful title defence by the tricolours. But this is grand final day and we want more than reasoned, robust data to hang our hopes and dreams on for the day.
Let’s take a look at some omens, trends and under the radar statistics that give both team’s supporters reasons to be cheerful – and reasons to be fearful.
The road to Homebush
Like last year, both grand finalists are through in straight sets, so to speak. This year Sydney and Canberra have also done so and both come off bloody tough preliminary finals against class opposition.
Canberra have scored 28 points in winning two finals and conceded 20, the Roosters have scored 44 and conceded 12.
The Raiders have been rightly lauded for their defence in 2019 but it’s a whole other world of attacking quality headed their way this time. Which brings me to…
This year’s previous meetings
They’ve played twice, Round 9 in Brisbane during Magic Round and Round 21 in Canberra.
The Roosters have won both games, but as has been noted a bit in the lead to the grand final they only won them by six and four points respectively.
So it might look it’s a near thing between the teams, but let’s take a closer look at the two games.
In Round 9, the Roosters blew out of the gates and led 30-6 just after halftime. They cut Canberra’s new and improved defence to ribbons. But Latrell Mitchell went off injured (he returned late in the game).
Boyd Cordner got concussed. Daniel Tupou went off on a medicab in a neck brace. Other Roosters got dinged up but couldn’t come off.
Canberra flew home against a weakened opponent but came up short 30-24.
In Round 21, the Roosters and in particular James Tedesco and Latrell Mitchell were a handful for Canberra all day. Although the Raiders led 12-6 after 15 minutes, the Rosters turned that into a 22-18 lead and held out the Raiders for 15 minutes to get the win.
A missing clutch gene
I’m talking about kicking. Many teams this year have cost themselves games with poor kicking for goal. Cronulla went six games where they scored more tries than their opposition but lost because they missed conversions.
It’s a straightforward yet vital part of winning a game of rugby league.
It will be Jarrod Croker and Latrell Mitchell with the hopes of the teams on their kicking tees and it’s not good reading for either set of fans. In their two finals games each, Mitchell and Croker are a combined 10/19 when kicking for goal. That’s just 52 per cent accuracy.
Mitchell is six successful kicks from 11 attempts, Croker is four from eight. Whatever way you slice it, that ain’t good. If this game goes the way many have predicted and it’s a dour gritty grinder, the ability to kick goals will have a premiership attached.
Usually Canberra’s x-factor is Josh Papalii, Joey Leilua or Jordan Rapana, but I’m taking Nick Cotric. Cotric was fantastic in the first final against Melbourne before being concussed by a stray boot to the face.
He’s got speed, he hits hard, he’s got a great eye for a pass and he has grown in stature in 2019 with a debut State of Origin outing for New South Wales.
For the Roosters, it’s a somewhat overlooked yet still potent attacking weapon, the 6’5 winger Daniel Tupou. Although he hasn’t crossed for a try yet this finals series, he has a knack for scoring in big games and is a most useful ‘get out’ target for Keary and Cronk when there’s a defender in their face late in the tackle count.
He’s also the reason why the Raiders are unlikely to be firing too many attacking kicks into the air near the tryline.
Under the radar workhorses
Mitch Aubusson was worthy of a Clive Churchill medal this time last year for his performance in the Roosters’ win and here’s nothing that’s changed in 2019 to say he’s slowing down or fading away.
He protects the halves in defence, makes incisive runs when the occasion presents itself and is sniffing out a try more than ever, his seven scores this year his most since 2014.
On the green side of the field, it’s another second-rower. With the focus on Josh Papalii, John Bateman and Josh Hodgson, Elliot Whitehead has been more out of the spotlight but no less vital to his side. Whitehead has been dominant in his defence this season and remains one of the NRL’s hardest hitters.
Like Bateman, he is faster than you think and can bust through a line and dish an offload before the defence know what’s happened. Whitehead’s going to be relied on in this game to keep his team on track and he’s doing it with little fanfare in 2019.
A fairytale ending?
Cooper Cronk is a legend of rugby league. Don’t believe me? Watch last year’s premiership win with the Roosters. Luke Keary may have won the Clive Churchill medal, but Cronk’s direction and presence on the field made a massive difference.
It was a sign of his value to the club that the Roosters preferred Cooper Cronk with one arm to any alternative.
Has he earned a fairytale finish? Why not? Hasn’t his whole career pretty much been a fairytale, though?
This should be a fantastic game. There’s a convincing case to make for both teams to win. And that’s how a grand final should be.