While it is only early days, there are several patterns emerging that do give us an idea of who is a genuine chance of taking Rugby Leagues biggest prize.
Almost all of us are biased towards own our teams, however you would have to think at this stage that the Melbourne Storm or the Sydney Roosters are the only genuine chances to take this years prize. Think about it this way, if you had to pick a winner and put your house on them – who would you pick?
There are so many factors to consider now; obviously injuries are a key component – staying healthy vital to winning consistently. As such, warm downs and recovery sessions are now mandatory for the majority of NRL teams. Take St George Illawarra for example, well known as the most injured side in the NRL competition – regularly having millions of dollars worth of talent sitting idle on the sidelines.
Apart from these factors, many of the leading teams feature different styles of games. Take for example Ricky Stuart and his Cronulla Sharks. The Sharks don’t have a roster with many superstars, they have the likes of experienced campaigners Brett Kimmorley, Lance Thompson and Luke Covell along with some promising youngsters thrown in – but it’s their unique grinding defence based style of NRL that’s getting them over the line each week.
For the Melbourne Storm, coach Craig Bellamy places the utmost importance on the ruck. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that Melbourne focus completely on the wrestle. From chicken wings to broken wings, they pull, probe and twist to slow their enemy down.
What about the Bulldogs? Bash and barge? Yep, you guessed it. For years the Dogs charge up the middle – hard and straight. Winning the game through strong forward platforms. The hard nosed Bulldogs have regularly won on physical domination and heavy collisions.
Tim Sheens likes his team to play expansive, almost a touch football brand of Rugby League. Quick passing, light stepping and fit mobile forwards are the order of they day. They will generally frustrate and run rings around their bigger slow opponents and with all their playermakers on deck they are capable of cutting anyone to pieces.
In addition to the various styles, possession is now the absolute key to winning the game. With some many areas that referees can award penalties now, a drop of focus for a second or maybe hanging on to a ball runner for more than 100 milliseconds in a tackle could cost you and your team a penalty. If you make errors or give away penalties, more often than not the opposing team will score from that ensuing set – lack of possession will tire you our and the pressure builds usually unable to be stopped unless you get some luck coming your way. While most of us know this, the critical nature of ‘having the ball’ is now more important than ever and continues to get more valuable every year in the modern game.
Harmony in your teams front office also seems to play a part in the success of your team. With the mental factor of the players just as critical as their ability and fitness, a boardroom showdown or staff changes in the office can distract and worry the players. You even see the mental pressures on players as they travel long distances to and from away games now, a small drop in their mindset can see them get blown away on the park. Not just beaten, but if you don’t turn up on the day – the opposition could possibly put 40 points on you before you know it. Such is the closeness and intensity of todays NRL.
A few recent examples of this have been with the Dragons, Bulldogs and Cowboys. All suffering a bashing in the media and experiencing coaching changes – their NRL Results at the same time have been very inconsistent.
Ok, so get your checklist out; Healthy Players, Sound Game Plans, Study the Opponent, Office Harmony, Well Coached and you need to throw in 1 or 2 superstars to really complete the list. Not much to ask is it?
With all these elements considered, this is why *any* team can win on their day. There have even been some Cinderella Stories in recent years – just look at the Panthers in 2003, Wests Tigers in 2005 and more recently the South Sydney Rabbitohs making the Top 8 in 2007.
While anyone can have their day, the value of the superstars in your side cannot be underestimated. You absolutely must have a game breaker or two, along with their experience to get you over the line in the biggest games.
A Cameron Smith 40/20 kick will turn a game.
A Benji Marshall side step or flick pass will change things too.
Sonny Bill Williams offloading with 13 defenders trying to tackle him helps too.
If you look at this element, you instantly see why the Wests Tigers can’t win without Benji Marshall or Robbie Farah. You can understand why guys like Jonathan Thurston and Scott Prince are so critical to their teams each week. Probably the biggest example is Andrew Johns, considered one of the best – the minute he didn’t play, his side generally had no chance.
So when you look over the teams for 2008, the only real NRL contenders that can win the big prize at this stage look like either the Melbourne Storm and the Sydney Roosters. Both having a great blend of experienced superstars, promising young talent, smart coaching and a good religious manager in their team to say weekly prayers for safety from injury, a friendly bounce of the ball and generous referee calls.
So with Melbourne at $3.50 and the Roosters at $6 to win the NRL Grand Final – providing they stay healthy, it’s worth throwing a few dollars on each of them because at this stage – they are the only real contenders.