by Warren Boland
Now just one win away from the Grand Final, three of the top four teams after round 26 have prospered to make it through to Week Three of the Finals.
The trio – the Storm, Roosters and Broncos – have been joined in the preliminary finals by the death-defying Cowboys who scraped into the final eight by the skin of their teeth but have now posted final series wins over the Sharks and the Eels.
Parramatta who had finished the regular season in fourth place self-destructed with bad handling against North Queensland.
The Cowboys played with a high completion rate, accurate kicking and overall control in the second half to pressure the Eels into error. As Eels coach Brad Arthur pinpointed, the superior finals experience of the Cowboys, and Michael Morgan in particular, exposed the nerves and tension in the Eels when they fell behind.
Ahead this weekend are two fascinating battles with the winners going to the Grand Final.
Storm v Broncos – AAMI Park – Friday 7.55pm
Melbourne are fresh from a week off after a narrow 18-16 win over Parramatta in Week One of the finals. The Storm’s performance was below their brilliant best but good enough to win.
The minor premiers are carrying the burden of being clear favourites to win the Grand Final but their scare against the Eels should have shaken any complacency out of them.
The Storm have been the best in attack and defence throughout the season. While the star trio of hooker Cameron Smith, half Cooper Cronk and fullback Billy Slater dominate any analysis of the team’s ability and strategy, they have class in every position with a relentless pack of forwards and lethal strike-power across the backline.
No team executes their own game better than the Storm.
Brisbane repelled the Panthers 13-6 last weekend with a gritty defensive effort that was far more committed than their 24-22 loss to the Roosters the week before.
The return of captain Darius Boyd at fullback is a major boost. Boyd will keep the Broncos in shape in defence and edge attack, and his calm authority and talk will add to the Broncos’ confidence on the field.
The addition of Tevita Pangai Junior is a welcome injection of forward size and strength off the bench which has been noticeably lacking since Korbin Sims broke his arm. The Broncos have been making up for size with energy from the likes of Adam Blair and Josh McGuire but in finals you have to fight fire with fire.
The Broncos backs have speed and footwork in abundance. Given half a chance from broken play, Anthony Milford and James Roberts can cut any defence to pieces. Ben Hunt, Kodi Nikorima and Benji Marshall, off the bench this week, aren’t far behind.
But first the Broncos have to match Melbourne in the tough stuff – the battle for metres and quick play the balls, line speed, aggression, discipline, low error count and controlled kicking. In the forwards, McGuire and punishing tackler Matt Gillett will have to lead the way against Jesse Bromwich and co.
Both teams have rock-wall defences on their own goal line. It’s better to be aiming big attacking plays at them from thirty or forty metres out to score tries, and then falling back on a variety of kicks from close range to finish the set.
The Storm have an imposing record against their opponents. Brisbane have won only four of the last 29 meetings between the two. Wayne Bennett will be thinking records are made to be broken as he goes up against his former assistant Craig Bellamy in another battle of the master coaches.
In front of their home crowd in Melbourne, and farewelling Cooper Cronk (again), it’s hard not to tip the Storm.
My tip: The Storm by 8
Roosters v Cowboys – Allianz Stadium – Saturday 7.40pm
Like the Storm, the Sydney Roosters are fresh from a week off after beating the Broncos in week one. It was a strong performance with numerous flashes of brilliance from Luke Keary and Latrell Mitchell but there were lapses of concentration as well, most notably from Blake Ferguson when he tried to avoid a Marshall 40/20 only to donate a try to Corey Oates.
Too often the Roosters kicked ineffectively or too long, conceding a 20 tap and seven tackles.
The Chooks’ dynamic and experienced forward pack is peaking at the right time and will be a handful for the Cowboys who have a hard-working forward pack of the own, spearheaded by the unstoppable Jason Taumalolo.
The unexpected inclusion of prop Matt Scott in the possible reserves will bring a shot of enthusiasm to the the Cowboys even if he does not make the final seventeen. The representative prop hasn’t played since round two and was assumed to be out for the season but, with John Asiata and Coen Hess carrying injuries, Scott may be just what the doctor ordered.
For the Roosters, the tall Daniel Tupou, so good in the air, has been picked to start on the wing and the tough Zane Tetevano returns from suspension on the bench.
With half Michael Morgan steering the ship with control and threat, the Cowboys are playing wholeheartedly for each other though they’ll need to cover for rebounding grubber kicks after conceding two length of the field tries to Parramatta.
The winning of the game could well be in the hands of opposing half-backs Morgan and Mitchell Pearce or goal-kickers Ethan Lowe and Michael Gordon.
Both coaches Trent Robinson and Paul Green, in another case of master versus former apprentice, have a vital task to get the best out of their charges.
The Cowboys will have to dig deep into their energy reserves to repeat their two spirited, 80-plus minute efforts of the last fortnight.
The Roosters, on the other hand, freshened up and injury-free should be primed to fire but have struggled to produce a full 80-minutes of quality. Nevertheless, at home in Sydney, in sudden-death football, with a grand final berth waiting, it’s the time to do it.
My tip: Roosters by 4
If you want to read more from me about Week Two of the NRL Finals, go to ABC News at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-18/warren-boland-the-question-nrl-finals/8955962?section=sport
And for my thoughts about the bunker and refereeing controversy in Week One of the Finals: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-11/nrl-finals-bunker-use-causes-controversy-in-opening-week/8892832?section=sport
Don’t forget the PNG Hunters will meet the Sunshine Coast Falcons in the Queensland Rugby League Intrust Super Cup Grand Final this Sunday September 24th at Suncorp Stadium.
Mark Braybrook and I will be calling the game live on 1116 4BC in Brisbane. Join us from 3pm as we preview the Grand Final which kicks off at 3.25pm.
Meanwhile the New South Wales Intrust Super Premiership will be decided this Sunday (September 24th 6.45pm) at Leichhardt Oval in Sydney when the Wyong Roos take on the Penrith Panthers.