Two mouth-watering matches of ultimate playoff pressure whet the appetite this weekend. The prize is a spot at the Big Dance at the end of what are aiming up as absolute crackerjack contests. A month ago the playoffs were shaping as a prolonged procession for the Storm as they were expected to fling aside their rivals for the crown nonchalantly as they ascended to the NRL throne. The Eels exposed cracks in the Storm that the Broncos hope to hammer home. The Cowboys are the fairy tale of this year’s finals and everyone bar the latte lovers in the eastern suburbs are hoping the North Queenslanders can continue their magical run. A repeat Grand Final of the Cowboys versus Broncos 2015 classic is still a possibility. Both the QLD teams go in as underdogs but they knocked off the best of Sydney’s west last week with ease.
1st Preliminary Final
Melbourne Storm v Brisbane Broncos
If the Storm play the rugby league that skittled the field in the regular season they will batter the Broncos and win this in a canter. The fly in the ointment is most NRL finals matches rarely go to script. The Storm’s frantic display in the face of the Eels assault in week one of the playoffs has also handed Brisbane the blue print to cause a Bronco boilover: get in their face, stick it to the Storm and throw them off their rigid structure. The assignment for the Storm forwards is simple, soak up the punishment and then set the platform for their legends to launch Melbourne’s majestic machine. The Storm’s week off to freshen up will have benefitted the ageing Big 3 Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater as they prepare for what they hope is not their final match together. Last year’s stinging Grand Final loss to the Sharks is motivation enough but to go out premiers one last time is adding to the hunger for the best in the business. The Broncos are the Storm’s bunnies, they have a horrific head to head record and last time they met the Storm toyed with them at Suncorp like a cat playing with a blind mouse. The Broncos were unimpressive in defeating a flat Panthers outfit last start but have skipper Darius Boyd back which will give the attack that sharp edge required to do any damage against the Storm’s imperious defence. The Broncos heavily favour attacking the left side and Storm centre Will Chambers must make good decisions, luckily he’s the best in the game in his position. Chambers will be all over Tautau Moga like a skin tight purple mankini. The Broncos will attempt to mimic the Eels assault. The Storm don’t like aggressive, in your face defences, the Sharks did a number on them early in the season as well as the GF last year. Adam Blair and Josh McGuire will harass Cooper Cronk and stick to him like Tarzan’s Grip. The Storm will love this as the Broncos have been susceptible up the middle. Watch Cronk and Cameron Smith turn the ball back inside exploiting the Broncos ropey ruck defence and send Billy Slater piercing through like an exocet missile. Explosive speed is one thing not lacking in this game as the Storm’s flyers Josh Addo-Carr and Suliasi Vunivalu take on the Broncos James Roberts. Jimmy the Jet is the player the Broncos will look to give space to as he is up against the super talented but inexperienced Curtis Scott. The match up of the master coaches and prickly pair of personalities, Craig Bellamy v Wayne Bennett, is always a highlight. Their demeanour during games couldn’t be more different if they tried. Bellamy rides every play and decision as if he’s placed his last pound on it while Bennett wouldn’t look out of place sat next to an Easter Island statue. The cagey old fella knows the right buttons to press to get the best out of his side and will have his Broncos prepared to bust their gut for him. Unfortunately for Bennett his poor record against Bellamy will continue to haunt him. The Storm have been the best team all year, it would be a travesty if they fell short and deserve to play in this year’s Grand Final and will.
Storm by 12
2nd Preliminary Final
Sydney Roosters v North Queensland Cowboys
The quality contests continue with the razzle dazzle Roosters taking on everybody’s darlings the courageous Cowboys. The romantics are riding the Cowboys all the way to the Big Dance on the first weekend of October and I’m ‘fessing up, I’m getting swept up in the emotion. Make no mistake the Cowboys are in this right up to Jason Taumalolo’s thick as his thigh’s neck! The Cowboys are on a serious roll, their momentum has everyone jumping on their bandwagon and they will be hard to stop. The Roosters will attempt to start fast and circle the wagons before the Cowboys have time to warm their weary bodies to their sizeable task. The opening exchanges will be fast and brutal as the Roosters try to uncover any Cowboy fatigue. The Chooks big men led by Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Dylan Napa and Boyd Cordner on the edge will pound away before they hope to unleash their excellent X factor edge weapons, Luke Keary and Latrell Mitchell. Keary’s preparation has been interrupted after a bout of food poisoning, eating that beef jerky sent from Cowboy country mightn’t have been such a great idea, but he’ll be fine and must fire if the Roosters are to progress. As always these matches are won in the engine room and the Cowboys have one colossal factor in their favour, the human wrecking ball Jason Taumalolo. If the Roosters can’t combat Taumalolo in Beast Mode than its panic stations in the Chook pen. Taumalolo’s consistent monster metre eating matches makes him the superstar he is, only the elite play footy in this stratosphere. Michael Morgan is the man who can control this match if his Cowboys still have the energy to repeat last week’s finals footy clinic. The Roosters concentration lapses are their Achilles heel as they drift in and out of the contest. They will not get out jail as they did against the Broncos if they continue this terrible trend. Mitchell Pearce must step up and take the reins for the full 80 or it is au revoir for the tricolours and bienvenue to Bali. Both sides play similar styles, the forwards could cancel each other out, so the key matchup is out wide. Daniel Tupou’s inclusion in the starting line-up moves Latrell Mitchell to the centres and he’ll be trying to laser past the much slower Kane Linnett. Mitchell is a match winner, his freakish skills and strength, combined with electrifying speed is a lethal cocktail and if Linnett gets burned Mitchell could be the difference. Mitchell is inexperienced and this will be the biggest moment of his young career. He has a lot of expectation to shoulder, if Mitchell fires the Roosters can not only account for the Cowboys but take out the title, if he doesn’t handle the occasion the Cowboys will strike. Fairy tales are fables but the Cowboys remarkable run and faith is not fantasy. The Roosters have had the week off, the Cowboys have the belief but the fresher feather dusters will fly home in a nail biter.
Roosters by 2
Enjoy the footy and remember gamble responsibly. An all Queensland Grand Final is a long shot but never write off them off, they’re made of stern stuff and though both are underdogs if the Broncos and Cowboys are to farewell the finals, both will go down swinging from the hips!
Let’s hope the best two teams will meet in next week’s Grand Final and neither game is marred and mired in controversy. Remember the referees are under just as much pressure as the players and generally get the big calls right. Shane Flanagan deserves some credit for manning up and saying sorry for his bad-tempered tirade, the apology about a week too late but at least he bothered. Trent Barrett’s must be caught behind the backlog of Same Sex Marriage postal votes. Who’d be a coach? Des Hasler just got ditched from the Dog house as punishment for missing the playoffs for the first time since his last haircut.
It’s a tough school the NRL but one worth following even if just for the comedy factor. John Grant’s latest stand up schtick featuring his rollicking routine on rugby league ruling the world and taking China by storm when the Roosters Cowboys final will barely half fill Allianz Stadium was hilarious and I’ll require a needle and thread because it split my sides. I’m not sure what John is smoking, but think he forgot to exhale!!!