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Opinion

Round 27 Talking Points: And then there were eight - the key factors that will make or break finals hopes

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Expert
3rd September, 2023
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There’s no substitute for experience when it comes to the finals and Penrith have got the rest of the playoff teams covered in that regard.

Brisbane haven’t been in the playoffs for a few years but they make up for that with Adam Reynolds being back at halfback and the fact that many of their key players are Origin or Test representatives.

Discipline is another key factor in finals. You can’t take shortcuts or you’ll get found out and penalties or sin bins get magnified.

For the guys who have only ever played first grade, a finals match is the closest thing they’ll get to be in Origin.

The faster pace of the game takes it out of you, mentally and physically, and the result often doesn’t get decided until the last 10 minutes of the game when everyone is close to being spent.

The eight teams who made the playoffs thoroughly deserve to be there. 

Teams like South Sydney, North Queensland and Parramatta ultimately weren’t good enough while at the other end of the ladder, the Wests Tigers, Canterbury and St George Illawarra are starting from a long way back heading into 2024. 

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It sounds like most of the nine teams who have missed out are going to have a review of some kind or another. They will have to take some decisive action if they hope to avoid the same fate next year. 

Panthers vs Warriors 

It looks to me like the premiers have timed their run perfectly. 

Despite having Nathan Cleary out for six weeks mid-season with his hamstring injury and many of their stars in and out from time to time, the juggernaut rolls on. 

They’ve lost half a dozen top-line players to other clubs in recent years but to still win the minor premiership for the third time in four years (finishing second the other time) is a tremendous achievement. 

They’re arguably a better side now than they were 12 months ago and that’s saying something because they were easily the best team last year.

Jarome Luai is going to be out for the first couple of weeks of the finals but Jack Cogger knows what he is doing and will not to overplay his hand next to Cleary in the halves.

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Cleary, Isaah Yeo, Liam Martin, Dylan Edwards, James Fisher-Harris, Brian To’o, are all firing and they got Izack Tago back in the final round and he brings a decent whack of X-factor to their side. 

They dismantled the Cowboys on Saturday night – their first half domination to be up 26-0 was something we’ve seen over and over these past few years.

When they need to, they can go to top gear and North Queensland had no answers. 

The Warriors will know what Penrith are going to bring but it’s a different matter being able to stop it – their attack and defence over the past month has been moving in the wrong direction. 

They’ll be up for the contest but the Panthers can play the pressure game for longer than anyone else they’ve met this year so they’re going to have to put in a faultless, grinding performance.

The Warriors have got plenty of skill but their attitude needs to be totally focused on every play to ensure they don’t make any errors because that’s what the Panthers excel at in counter attack.

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Broncos vs Storm

I think Kevin Walters might have pulled the wrong rein by resting so many players on Thursday against the Storm.

It was a calculated gamble but it has cost them the minor premiership and they could have been matching up against a Warriors team that is playing their first finals game in a long time.

But now they face the Storm again who have a great record against the Broncos and one of the best finals’ coaches in Craig Bellamy.

Reynolds being back from his calf injury is huge for them. He calls the shots and with Payne Haas, Patrick Carrigan, Reece Walsh and all their other Origin players being back on deck, the odds are certainly in their favour to get the better of Melbourne at what should be a sell-out at Suncorp Stadium. 

I think they’ve got enough high-level guys who’ve played in big games. 

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It’s a tough call for Craig Bellamy with Ryan Papenhuyzen. You need those quality players at this time of year but after a couple of games back at NRL level I’m not sure he’s quite got his speed and strength back.

It was quite a serious injury and it takes a while before any player gets their confidence back to hit the defensive line at the same speed as what they used to do.

As long as Jahrome Hughes is good to go with his knee, I’d be keeping Nick Meaney at fullback and using Papenhuyzen off the bench. 

They’ve got the combination of high-calibre spine players and physicality in their forwards but I’d give the slight edge to the Broncos. 

Their attack has been probably the best in the comp the past five weeks and with Walsh back at fullback, they should get up in a tight one.

Sharks vs Roosters

This will be the tightest game of the first round, I reckon. 

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The Roosters have done really well to win five straight in pretty impressive fashion. Their on-line defence has been strong, they’ve been able to absorb pressure and then kick on to win. 

They’re playing more like the Roosters we’ve seen the past few seasons, with a bit of speed in everything they do.

Luke Keary is coming up with some decisive plays, James Tedesco has been excellent at fullback, Lindsay Collins is leading the way up front and they’ll probably get Joey Manu back this week. Brandon Smith has found some form, Sam Walker has returned with more confidence and Victor Radley has been playing with high work rate and great control.

But the Sharks have the ability to go with teams and then choose their moments to put the foot down.

They went toe to toe with the Raiders on Sunday and when Seb Kris was sent off they clicked into gear. Nicho Hynes was clever for them – I think he gave the last pass for two or three of their tries in the second half and put the kick in for the other one. 

Defensively both teams have been very strong of late and both look fit over the course of 80 minutes but I think the Sharks by virtue of having the home-ground advantage look a little bit more well balanced. 

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The Roosters have put away a few fading teams over the past five weeks but I think the step up in company against Cronulla will be a huge hurdle.

Knights vs Raiders

Newcastle have got some serious momentum  off the back of nine straight wins and the city is rallying behind them in a way that we haven’t seen for a long time. 

Whether Kalyn Ponga plays or not remains to be seen but I think even if he’s not going to be right with his shoulder, Lachie Miller showed enough on Saturday night in the win over the Dragons to prove and should be able to get the job done if he starts at fullback.

Adam Clune has also stepped up with Jackson Hastings out so even if those two guys are out, I’d say the Knights will be too strong.

Dane Gagai will be back, Bradman Best is in the “best” form of his career, Tyson Frizell has had a rest and the Saifiti brothers are both getting through big minutes. 

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Their fill-in guys played above expectations against the Dragons at Kogarah. St George Illawarra were trying to shift the ball sideways but Newcastle went hard and straight and I know which one works better at this time of year.

The Knights have been among the top teams in attack and defence over the past few weeks but Canberra look like they’re running out energy and troops at this time of year.

Josh Papalii is out for the year, Corey Horsburgh is still out suspended and I dare say Seb Kris will be getting a little holiday for his spear tackle. 

Nine teams have some soul searching 

All the teams that missed the finals need to look in the mirror to figure out what they need to do differently.

South Sydney were the biggest surprise out of the nine clubs that missed the finals but they didn’t have enough of their main players in form in the closing rounds of the season and they paid the price.

The Rabbitohs weren’t travelling well enough as a team to cope with Latrell Mitchell being suspended on Friday against the Roosters and when Blake Taaffe went off early with a concussion and Alex Johnston had to move to fullback, they couldn’t find their rhythm. 

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They looked disorganised and never had their players in synch like they normally do to convert half chances into points.

The Cowboys also could have made the finals with a win on the weekend but they ran into a much better organised team at Penrith. 

They weren’t physical enough in their defence, didn’t value the ball and didn’t nail their execution in attack. 

Teams that had the benefit of a full pre-season like Brisbane and the Warriors have finished in the top four so all is not lost for the nine sides that missed out and Newcastle have returned to the finals after missing the play-offs last year.

But without hammering them too much, some of the footy dished up this season by the Wests Tigers, Canterbury and the Dragons was not up to standard.

If you want to be in the top eight, you need everything going your way and to be prepared to work harder than anyone else and those three teams are well back from the rest of the field.

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It’s no coincidence that those three teams had a lot of negative stories leaked into the media this year as we saw with the Bulldogs’ wrestling issue.

Those things don’t happen at the strong clubs, the ones that are united and well run. 

It’s hard when you’re out of the finals to be motivated but the fans of those teams have every right to feel deflated by what they’ve seen. 

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