This NRL season has been incredibly exciting, and the finals series will be no different as the premiership finished with the tightest top 8 in history.
With many teams playing strong football and coming into the finals in great form, this series is shaping up to be as exhilarating as ever, and if the regular 25 round season is to go by, there will be many close games. With the Roosters, Storm, Sharks and Rabbitohs all having a second chance if they loose, it’s do or die for the Panthers, Broncos, Dragons and Warriors.
Here is how the final’s series will be structured:
Elimination Final 1: Penrith Panthers (5) vs New Zealand Warriors (8) @ ANZ Stadium, Saturday September 8th, 5:30pm
The last time these two teams met resulted in a 36-16 win to the Warriors at Mt. Smart, but a round 17 thrashing by the Panthers lands these two team on an even playing field. The Panthers will be flying after a big win against the Storm which allowed the Roosters a window to steal the minor premiership by total points. This game will without doubt be a test of grit, with two huge forward packs attempting to get the better of one-another. No team has won the comp from outside the top four since 1995 and both of these teams are capable of achieving this feat.
Key match-up: Nathan Cleary and Sean Johnson are vitally important for their respective teams. Cleary is the more refined of the two, will be looking to steer his forwards around the park and create chances. Johnson, who is full of flair and pure skill and talent, is fairly on and off, but on his night he is as hard to stop as any player.
Stats of note: This will make panthers fans cringe, but James Maloney has had the most miss tackles of any player in the NRL with 149, while only playing 21 of the regular 25 season games, averaging 7 missed tackles a game. The warriors will target him in defence and hopefully create some holes for the speedy Warriors outside backs. The warriors also haven’t made a finals appearance since 2011, which will be in the back of their mind, but with the competitions leading try-scorer in David Fusitu’a they should feel confident in getting some points on the board
Elimination Final 2: Brisbane Broncos (6) vs St George Illawarra Dragons (7) @ Suncorp Stadium, Sunday September 9th, 4:00pm
These two only met in round 1 this year, resulting in a win to the Dragons. The two teams have had differing ends to the regular season with the Broncos winning their last three, with two against top four teams, and the Dragons, having lost six of their last nine. Dragons welcome the return of their star man Gareth Widdop as Ben Hunt’s confidence has faltered, and Broncos are looking for their halfs to fly also, with Kodi Nikorima and Anthony Milford playing exciting football. The Broncos wide men have an immense amount of flair and pace and will be very hard to defend, firing in the last rounds of the competition.
Key match-up: The collision between two of the best forward packs of the competition will be huge, but the dynamics between the two halves of Nikorima and Hunt will be hugely important in this game. With Nikorima flying and Hunt struggling to stay above water, the Broncos may able to target Hunt and really halt the Dragons ball movement and playmaking. If Widdop and Hunt do not link together effectively, the Dragons can nearly kiss another week in the finals goodbye.
Stats of note: A 38-0 loss to second last place Broncos two weeks ago against 12th placed Bulldogs would be leaving an immense amount of doubt in the dragons mind, even if they were able to ramify it with a solid win against Newcastle in round 12. Corey Oates scored four times in their last round fixture and Jamayne Isaako leads the competition in points with 233, these stats would also be ticking over in the minds of the Dragons backline.
Qualifying Final 1: Melbourne Storm (2) vs South Sydney Rabbitohs (3) @ AAMI Park, Friday September 7th, 7:40pm
After a loss to the Panthers and missing out on taking the Minor Premiership, the Storm will look to continue their defence of the premiership when they take on a strong Rabbitohs outfit. The Rabbitohs have been riding on the back of brilliant playmaking by their halves, with their hooker Damian Cook having the season of his life and the Burgess brothers playing as hard as ever and will be incredibly hard to hault their rolling style of play. But, if anyone is to do it, it’s Cameron Smith and his band of merry men (that includes arguably the best full-back to play the game, Billy Slater).
Key match-up: The most obvious is the match up between the Origin hookers, Cook and Smith have different play styles, but both have an incredible impact on the game. Look out for both the leave their mark. Also, the Burgess brothers vs the Storm forward pack will lead to some big blows and huge amounts of metres made. NRL fans will seriously be looking forward to big impact between any of the Burgess boys and the big men of the Storm in Bromich and Kafusi.
Stats of note: The overall match-up stats between these two teams are staggering. In the NRL era the teams have met 29 times, with the Storm coming out on top 24 of those game. Unbelievable numbers. But, the Rabbitohs this season have been the most dangerous team in attack, leading the competition for points scored, tries scored, line breaks, total run metres and line break assists, making them the most potent attacking threat in an attempt to dethrone the juggernaut that is the Storm.
Qualifying Final 2: Sydney Roosters (1) vs Cronulla Sharks (4) @ Allianz Stadium, Saturday September 8th, 5:30pm
The Roosters managed to clinch the Minor Premiership on points after beating the Eels in a 44-10 flogging of the wooden spooners (the most wooden spoons of any club, might I add). Being the competition favourites at the start of the season, the Roosters have delivered to date and become the team to beat, but a high-flying Cronulla side, on the back of four straight wins, could be the team to knock them off and force them to play for their spot. Especially considering they are missing one of their star forwards in Dylan Napa, and the Sharks boast a number of tough battle hardened veterans such as Paul Gallen, this should be a brilliant contest.
Key match-up: A strange point, but the key match-up here will be the Sharks attack against the Roosters line defence. The Roosters have defended their line impeccably this season, and it will come down to the Sharks ability to cross over the line. With natural try scorers like Holmes and Feki, the Sharks do have a good chance at beating the defence but the Roosters pride themselves on their defence and will look the eliminate these threats.
Stats of note: The Roosters have recorded the most errors of any team with 276, but somehow have managed the least average points conceded per match, with 15. They will need to reduce these errors, as the speed and creativity out wide of the Sharks could potentially hurt them, with Valentine Holmes looking to pounce on any loose ball score from anywhere on the field. Holmes holds the most line-breaks of any player with 24 and will be looking to continue his brilliant form and get a week off for his team with a win.