Laurie Daley sent shockwaves through the NRL this week by reporting that Newcastle were looking to offload star halfback Mitchell Pearce.
The first week of finals are locked in which brings us some interesting match-ups. We go into each game to see what to look out for and our predictions of who advances to the next stage.
Penrith Panthers vs Sydney Roosters
The Panthers and the Roosters first met in Round 1 where Penrith had an impressive victory and show of character before we really knew what would occur during the season.
A lot of changes have obviously occurred since Round 1 and when you look at the match-up, it’s a classic scenario of the best attacking team against the best defending team.
Panthers have now made the finals four times out of the last five years. The past three occasions saw Penrith bounce out in the semi-finals. With the Panthers securing the minor premiership, there are different expectations and goals set for the club this time around.
Penrith have been able to tackle every challenge thrown at them so far and now facing back-to-back champions will their ultimate test. The major battle will be mentally and whether they can show they are legitimately the best team in the NRL.
Roosters have faced plenty of changes throughout the season with major injuries. Nonetheless, they still have an extremely strong and deep team and the Panthers will need to be on their A-game.
The match will come down to the halves. Whoever provides the better last tackle options will go a long way to getting the upper hand.
The two teams’ stats-wise are fairly equal in a number of categories. One X-factor is also the Roosters’ offloading as their ability to get the ball away can create problems for Penrith’s defence, especially with the likes of James Tedesco supporting.
Overall, both forward packs are strong, and the outside backs are equally great for both teams. It should be a high-quality game.
Prediction: Panthers to win 1-12
Melbourne Storm versus Parramatta Eels
The Eels and the Storm meet again in the finals after facing each other in 2017 and 2019. These two teams faced each in other Round 15 although Melbourne had many players missing during that time.
Parramatta have stumbled their way into the finals, but they’ve managed to secure their top four spot by picking up wins along the way. While they haven’t had the prettiest of performances, to their credit they’ve persevered for results.
The main issue with the Eels is that you don’t know what to expect from the team throughout the game. There have been many moments where they have looked fluid and confident and other times, they have looked clueless and helpless.
Now is the time for Mitch Moses to establish himself. Parramatta have one of the best forward packs in the NRL but more often than not, he hasn’t been able to capitalise.
They are one of the top teams in metres gained and in offloads, yet they are still the worst attacking team out of all the top eight when it comes to points scored.
On the other hand, the Storm as a team of veterans continue to remain consistent and do what they need to do. They don’t beat themselves and punish teams for not playing to a certain standard.
If Parramatta are to be competitive in this match, they need to ensure their discipline and focus is up to scratch. They make a lot of errors and their kicking game at times is ordinary.
They’ve shown stout defence many times, but the Eels are going to need their best performance of the season as Melbourne have quality players across all positions.
Prediction: Storm to win 1-12
Canberra Raiders versus Cronulla Sharks
The Raiders just missed out on getting a top four spot but dating back to Round 8, they have won every game except for their meetings against Panthers, Storm and the Roosters.
They have been playing some great football heading into finals and you could pencil them in as a dark horse team to make some noise outside of the Top 4.
Meanwhile, Cronulla are an above-average attacking team. They are up there in line breaks, tackle breaks and offloads which have led to lots of points. The major downfall is their defence which is the worst out of all top eight teams by far.
They lead the NRL in missed tackles and Josh Papalii, Dunamis Lui and Joseph Tapine will be licking their lips. It should provide great opportunities for Nicoll-Klokstad to come in support for try-scoring chances if they get through the line.
The Sharks were also dealt some big blows when Shaun Johnson snapped his achilles against the Roosters. They’ll be hoping a returning Chad Townsend can lead the team around.
Ultimately, Canberra have so much firepower they should comfortably take care of a poor Cronulla defence. Expect a fast pace, free-flowing game between these two sides.
Prediction: Raiders to win 13+
South Sydney Rabbitohs versus Newcastle Knights
The Knights have come into the finals in erratic form, especially in their last five performances. They’ve had a mixture of high-scoring games against the Dragons and the Sharks but also have conceded no less than 36 points against the Warriors, Roosters and Titans.
This should be a concern to Newcastle fans.
Minus the slip up against the Bulldogs, Rabbitohs have been playing spectacular footy. Not only have they been winning games, but they’ve been scoring a mountain of points also. Having dealt with quite a few injuries themselves, the Rabbits have had the depth to cover for it.
Knights five-eighth Mason Lino will have a tough task trying to support Mitchell Pearce. He was inserted into the line-up due to injuries five weeks ago which is where the erratic performances began to creep in.
The forwards for Newcastle will need to step up to give Kalyn Ponga the room he needs to operate. But most importantly, if Newcastle are going to have a chance, they need to lead with their defence. If they engaged in a high scoring affair it would play into South Sydney’s favour.
Fresh off a 60-8 demolition against the Roosters, the Rabbitohs are feeling great about themselves. They should have Jayden Su’a returning from suspension and the spine of Cody Walker, Adam Reynolds and Damien Cook are functioning well.
Realistically, the Rabbitohs have too much class for the Knights. If Newcastle don’t show up with more grit and physicality than the Rabbits, the scoreline could get ugly.
Prediction: Rabbitohs to win 13+