There are two key match ups that will decide a preliminary final tonight that I see as a toss of the coin.
The first is Adam Reynolds’ kicking game versus the impact of Tom Trbojevic, and how successfully Souths can pin him back in his own half.
I think Reynolds will kick early behind Jason Saab to try and turn him around. Souths will be nice and physical on that left hand side, trying to take the sting out of what Manly are going to try – which will be to top load their forward start like they did against the Roosters to try and get Tom that momentum and build position early.
If I’m Reynolds I’ll be putting put some miles into Tommy early to try and draw the sting out of him, get down and be physical.
Melbourne showed that if you have a disciplined kick-chase, and you’re not giving away six agains, when Tommy brings the ball back if you can swarm in numbers you’re going to be able to win momentum and field position.
The other key battle is in the forward packs.
If Manly’s young forwards can stand up like they did against the Roosters, and break even against a South Sydney side refreshed and having enjoyed a week off, then it’s going to be a very tight game.
But those Manly forwards, that first week against Melbourne, really scared me.
South Sydney surprised a lot of people by the way they played defensively against the Penrith Panthers and how desperate and how in sync and trusting of each other they were.
If they carry that momentum on they’re going to be hard to beat. They’re up against a Manly side that has plenty of attack, but I just want to see how much damage has been caused by that first week loss.
They were expected to win last week and they played like that. But can that forward pack stand up against the might of what Souths dished up against Penrith?
If they can do that and get Tom in field position, then they’re going to be in with a chance. Manly will know what to expect but there are question marks about their physicality upfront.
Against Melbourne they were rolled through the middle of the field and Melbourne taught them a lesson in what finals games are like, taking Trbojevic out of the equation.
Manly went back to the drawing board and their reaction was strong. Rather than wait for Tom to win the game for Manly, guys like Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran were involved heavily.
For me, one of the key pieces for Manly is Lachlan Crocker. Having him back at nine gives them a settled spine and they looked a lot more comfortable than what we saw against Melbourne, when he didn’t play.
Souths would have made the most of their week off and Wayne Bennett is the master of getting people ready for a big game.
If you look at how Souths performed against Penrith, that was a Bennett masterclass in terms of preparation, talking the focus off the absence of Latrell Mitchell and going out and executing a game plan.
Wayne will have been very relaxed during the week. He trusts his players and will have them ready to run out as relaxed as possible.
Preparation is key for Wayne. He doesn’t need to rant and rave at the start of the week. Everyone does their work and then on the big day he knows what to say and how much is enough to say just to be able to get you going.
Ahead of the Dragons’ big games in 2010, he just reminded me to do my job and get involved. It wasn’t anything complicated.
Often, we see vision inside a dressing room before kick-off and we coaches are taking players aside and filling them with lots of information.
Wayne probably knew that I’d done the work to prepare to get there and less was more with me ahead of a game.
That’s the key for Wayne. He’s got guys like Cody Walker, who is an instinctive player who reacts to how the game’s going. Wayne doesn’t need to coach Cody Walker, he just needs to get everyone else on the same page as Cody so that when they go there, they can execute.
His longevity and enthusiasm are incredible. He just loves being involved with the boys and enjoying that side of things. And that’s why he doesn’t want to give it up.
With the expansion team coming in 2023, he’s going to head that up and start something special with a rivalry in Brisbane.
I know since retiring, I’ve missed being in that team environment, and I look forward to hopefully one day getting back in there where I can be around a team full time and enjoy that side of things.
It is infectious and you crave that being part of a winning environment and part of that team environment.
Des Hasler has plenty of experience as well. He’s shown this year that he’s got a quick turnaround in terms of when things are going great, rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, he’s able to make adjustments.
That got his team into the top four which didn’t seem likely after four losses to start the season.
For Des, the weirdness and the quirkiness works in his favour. He’s been very successful, not only this year, but in past seasons in getting sides to the big games.
And he’s probably got a better squad than he’s had in recent years. If you look at how well Tom’s played this year, DCE is the second or third best half back in the game, Kieran Foran’s almost back to his best.
They’ve got a young side, and that probably sways my thinking. The excitement levels were there week one, the balloon burst really quickly, they pumped it back up. But this is an experienced Souths side that have been here and know how close they are to a Grand Final. So that experience counts this time of year.
Both coaches will be confident in their teams’ ability this week to be able to get up for this game in terms of executing the game plan.
But the edge goes to Wayne because his team has had the week off and we probably underestimate how important that week off is in the NRL.
I’ve got it going to golden point. I think that Reynolds’ ‘clutchness’ at the end will win it for them.