NRL Finals: Advantages on offer

NRL Finals Week 2, 2007
By John Chelsea

The media attention and overall build-up to this Saturdays NRL Final between the Eels and the Bulldogs has been unlike anything seen in recent years. The two old foes getting all the Sydney headlines and look certain to attract a large crowd to Telstra on the weekend.

While the build-up is great for the NRL; ‘a promoters dream!’ as they say – The advantages are also there for the winner of this match to take with both hands.

While survival is the first thought for both teams; winning this match also brings huge benefits; bucket loads of confidence, momentum and a finals experience edge moving into Week 3. The Sydney winner will benefit from increased mental toughness after a week of media and fan scrutiny in Week 2 of the Finals.

The winner faces Melbourne at the Victorian Telstra Dome venue. A big road trip no doubt; however the Storm face hurdles of their own as one of the Sydney sides head down south to put an end to the Storm juggernaut.

The lack of tight, gritty, arm wrestle style matches for the Storm is sure to hinder them in their Week 3 outing. After smashing Brisbane and then having a week off – not really an ideal build-up, will they be ready for a battle hardened, defence oriented Sydney team that is ready to take them into the trenches?

While many think the Storm are specials, their free flowing style might not be the right type of game against their upcoming opponent. In recent years of NRL Finals – the Grand Final winner has done so on the back of Finals form, not so much regular season form.

Take the Broncos in 2006, struggling for most of the regular season – they put it all together in the Finals and it was momentum through the final 4 weeks got them over the line. It was the same for the Wests Tigers in 2005, an average contender through the year – their fairytale came true when they started believing in themselves after some big finals wins. Their run at the end just couldn’t be stopped.

Thats why all the spoils are on offer for either the Eels or the Bulldogs if they can win on Saturday night. Winning the tough local derby will give them confidence and momentum – putting one of them in a perfect position to mount a serious attack on the highly fancied Storm in Week 3 and give themselves every chance of making the NRL Grand Final.

NRL Finals: Eels More Relaxed

NRL Finals Week 2, 2007

As they get ready to face their long time finals nemesis the Bulldogs; a team they have traditionally struggled against at this time of year – the Eels have one advantage they didn’t have in previous years: Michael Hagan.

While the astute teachings of Brian Smith over the past decade have helped lift the Eels to a regular NRL Finals contender; the school teacher and sometimes over analytical style of Brian Smith has at times hindered the Eels at crucial times of the season.

The granular detail of the game plan, the tense pre-game speech and sometimes baffling substitutions would all contribute to the nerves among Eels sides in previous years. The Smith coached Eels became experts at beating themselves at times.

Enter: Michael Hagan

Denis Fitzgerald and the Eels chased Hagan for one main reason; his cool and calm persona under any conditions. Many questioned the decision to chase and sign Hagan – some Eels faithful crying foul when Jason Taylor was let go in 2006. But it seems Fitzgerald and the Eels have got things spot on.

Never was this more evident that last week against the NZ Warriors. In a classic finals style Rugby League game – the Warriors and Eels slugged it out with limited scoring opportunities. With 15 minutes remaining and no points on the board, the Eels clawed their way back. Parramatta players later claiming they always had belief they could get over the top of the Warriors. In one period of the match the Eels defended 6 consecutive sets from the Warriors; while their strength and ability has come from years of Brian Smiths regime – their coolness under pressure and total belief is something Michael Hagan has added to the mix.

With finals demons fresh in some of their minds, Michael Hagan is the perfect tonic for the sudden death bound Eels. Senior Eels players have commented on the surprising calmness of Hagan regardless of the situation at hand; Nathan Cayless commenting that Hagan only raised his voice once in 2007 – during the St George Illawarra upset loss at WIN Stadium.

As the Eels prepare for sudden death this week against the Bulldogs, their relaxed and ice cool coach will be a huge asset. The other ace Hagan has up his sleeve – when he does ‘rev up’ or give the players a serve, they will surely sit up and listen due to its rarity.

I’m sure the Eels are hoping that Hagan saves that ‘Ace’ for the Grand Final.

NRL News

NRL Finals: Bulldogs Firming

NRL Finals Week 2, 2007

The Bulldogs have now firmed to $1.78 favourites with Australian bookmakers, with the Eels $2.05 outsiders in the Sydney based NRL elimination final this Saturday Night.

Amazingly even after 3 consecutive losses and a recent loss against the Eels in regular season; the Bulldogs still remain outright favourites. The Eels have done their best to talk up the strike power of the Bulldogs, their off-field plan seemingly working – with the Eels relishing the underdog tag for the game.

With Sonny Bill Williams returning for the Bulldogs, their scrum build certainly does look potent. Nearly every player in the Bulldogs forward pack is an international; with the likes of Willie Mason, Mark O’Meley, Sonny Bill Williams, Andrew Ryan and Reni Mautuia locking in together.

There is no question the Dogs will be a force centre field, but can their struggling halves and outside backs get the job done when the gaps open? A fresh Sonny Bill Williams should be worth at least 6 points to the Dogs if not more, an extra gallop last week for Willie Mason and Mark O’Meley should have them getting closer to prime match fitness.

The Bulldogs have gone to great lengths to pull the shutters down at training this week, reports of Matt Utai, Corey Hughes and Luke Patten all having niggling injuries have been hidden from reporters and prying cameras.

The Bulldogs will most certainly be targetting Eels new boy Joel Reddy with high balls and fringe running forwards; however the same can be expected of their own Matt Utai – with the shorter and possibly injured Utai lining up against the likes of Eric Grothe. With Hazem El Masri on the other flank, expect both Bulldogs wingers to be heavily targetted by larger, high flying Eels outside men.

The key to this game for the Eels will be a mistake free, positive start. The Eels tend to struggle after early setbacks, while the Bulldogs have a mentally strong grinding style – they can usually dig themselves out of problems no matter how far gone the game is. When these teams met recently, the early parade of Eels tries really set the scene for Parramatta. The Eels growing an extra leg that eventually saw them close out the match.

Referee Shayne Hayne takes control of this game and his laid back style will probably be slightly more suited the Bulldogs. The Eels rely heavily on quick play the balls and the Bulldogs will fight hard to slow the ruck and assist their lack of speed. Hayne tends to take a back seat and not ‘over officiate’ like Steve Clark and Paul Simpkins do. Expect the Bulldogs to take full advantage of this and try to gain a slight edge.

NRL Tip: Bulldogs in a close one.

NRL News

Channel 9 snares Laurie Daley

As reported by NRL News earlier in the year, Channel 9 has successfully chased and secured Laurie Daley for a supporting commentary and possible Footy Show role with the station in 2007.

The talented Fox Rugby League man will join the likes of Sterling, Gould and Matt Johns for Channel 9’s weekend NRL coverage and is rumoured to be spearheading a revised Footy Show format with Matt Johns on Thursday nights.

The acquisition of Laurie Daley is a smart move by Channel 9; many feeling that the current lineup is a little tired and in need of new blood. The likes of Ray Warren have been an institution for many years and while ‘Rabs’ is considered the voice of Rugby League – some minor slip-up’s of late have seen colleague Sterling make corrections for the veteran when he gets things mixed up.

The opportunity for Laurie Daley to also take a leading role on the Channel 9 Footy Show is also a big draw card for Channel 9. The struggling show rates poorly these days and has done for the past few years; the original and unique humour of the early years by Paul Vautin and the team has been impossible for them to recapture. Channel 9 may elect to turn the Footy Show away from its current variety format and make it similar to the NRL on FOX program currently involving Daley and Warren Smith each Wednesday on Foxtel.

It has also been rumoured that Channel 9 have come to an agreement with radio man Ray Hadley to join their stables in 2008. If true, it would be a case of ‘Back to the Future’ with the current 2GB radio announcer previously involved with the Footy Show several years ago.

The moves are long overdue by Channel 9; the recent additions of Ben Ikin and Mark Geyer certainly weren’t enough to secure the future of Rugby League at the station. With the signing of the astute Daley – Channel 9 suddenly get a lot more credibility; their only problem now is the imminent retirement of Ray Warren and who to replace him with. While Andrew Voss is next in line, the reliable Voss doesn’t have the aura or profile Ray Warren does. Maybe this is where Ray Hadlee might be coming into play?

NRL News

NRL Finals: Week 2 Teams

NRL Finals: Week 2 Teams, 2007

The NRL teams have been announced for Week 2 of the finals, and the all important referee allocations have gone to Shayne Hayne and Tony Archer. The stalwarts Steve Clark, Paul Simpkins and Sean Hampstead no where to be seen – certainly a changing of the guard.

SATURDAY
First semi-final

PARRAMATTA EELS v BULLDOGS at Telstra Stadium, 7:45pm

EELS: Jarryd Hayne, Krisnan Inu, Joel Reddy, Timana Tahu, Eric Grothe, Brett Finch, Tim Smith, Nathan Cayless (c), Mark Riddell, Fuifui Moimoi, Nathan Hindmarsh, Ian Hindmarsh, Feleti Mateo. Interchange: PJ Marsh, Josh Cordoba, Chad Robinson, Daniel Wagon.

BULLDOGS: Luke Patten, Hazem El Masri, Daryl Millard, Willie Tonga, Matt Utai, Ben Roberts, Brent Sherwin, Mark O’Meley, Corey Hughes, Willie Mason, Sonny Bill Williams, Andrew Ryan (c), Reni Maitua. Interchange: Adam Perry, Chris Armit, Nick Kouparitsas, Jarrad Hickey.
Referee: Shayne Hayne

SUNDAY
Second semi-final

NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS v NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS at Dairy Farmers Stadium, 4pm

COWBOYS: Matt Bowen, Ty Williams, Ashley Graham, Paul Bowman, Ben Farrar, Justin Smith, Johnathan Thurston (c), Matt Scott, Aaron Payne, Carl Webb, Sam Faust, Matthew Bartlett, Mark Henry. Interchange: David Faiumu, Jason Smith, Jacob Lillyman, Ray Cashmere, Neil Sweeney (one to be omitted).

WARRIORS: Wade McKinnon, Todd Byrne, Tony Martin, Simon Mannering, Michael Crockett, Michael Witt, Grant Rovelli, Sam Rapira, Nathan Fien, Steve Price (capt), Ruben Wiki, Wairangi Koopu, Micheal Luck. Reserves: Logan Swann, Evarn Tuimavave, Epalahame Lauaki, Louis Anderson, George Gatis (one to be omitted).

Referee: Tony Archer

NRL Finals: Power Rankings

As South Sydney and Brisbane crash and burn in Week 1 of the Finals; we take a look at the remaining NRL teams still in contention for this years NRL Premiership.

1. Melbourne Storm: It’s hard to keep coming up with unique words to favourably describe the Storm. Once again they put in a complete performance against a hapless challenger; revenge was achieved against last years nemesis the Broncos and the game was nothing more than a training run for the classy Melbourne side. With another home final in Week 3 – the Storm are virtually assured of a Grand Final birth again in 2007. Only tripping over their own shoes can prevent them from winning this year, surely?
Power Score: 9.5/10
Odds of Cooper Cronk getting tangled and injured as he runs through one of the Melbourne Storm’s promotional banners at Telstra Dome in Finals Week Three – 50/1

2. Manly Sea Eagles: Have been bridesmaids all year to the Storm; but again they proved their grit and skillset against the street fighting style of South Sydney. While it was a home game, Manly powered through injuries and the strong defence of the Bunnies to post a big win. Are really starting to believe they can consistently compete and win against the best in the NRL. Injuries are their main worry at present, but if they can get into the big one against the Storm – they are the only side that really trouble the Melbourne juggernaut. Showed a good mix of experience and talent in the win over the Bunnies.
Power Score: 8.5/10
Odds of Sydney finally getting behind Manly in the Grand Final should they face the Melbourne Storm or another out of town team? – 500/1

3. Parramatta Eels: Were able to get a win on the hardest NRL road-trip there is. While they went from scoring 68 points against the Broncos to only 12 against the Warriors – their often questioned defence won them this tight match. Braved an impressive and enthusiastic onslaught
from the Warriors to only let in 4 points all match. (Other 6 points came from penalty try). Did lack some cohesion at times when attacking, but adapted to finals defence style well and would be quietly confident after taking down a big scalp in their own backyard.
Power Score: 8/10
Chances of Bill Harrigan admitting he may have made the wrong call in awarding the penalty try during the Eels / Warriors game? 500,000/1

4. NZ Warriors: Didn’t do too much wrong in their opening game against Parramatta. Some in-experience probably cost them at crucial stages. The Logan Swan no-pass was their turning point, his failure to score did cost them the match. Are young enough to shrug off the early failure and I believe they will beat the Cowboys on Sunday. Ivan Cleary has them conditioned to the road-trips now and regardless of the Townsville heat during the day, they should be too big and strong for the limping Cowboys. A solid win will inject confidence that could see them sneak into the Grand Final.
Power Score: 8/10
Chances of Ivan Cleary and Warriors officials asking for Bill Harrigan to be re-instated as the on-field and video referee for future Warriors clashes? 15/1

5. North Queensland Cowboys: Flashes of brilliance combined with wafer thin defence. The home crowd again having a huge impact in their win; while their ‘off-the-cuff’ style offence does work well and is impossible to plan for, they simply can’t defend successfully for extended periods and their diminishing forward pack is really hurting them. Are a team that plays on confidence and I think they have used up their last remaining barrels.
Power Score: 7.5/10
Chances of Cowboys CEO Peter Parr wildly banging any more rubbish bins during post match team victory song? Getting slimmer by the week.

6. Canterbury Bulldogs: Got blown away in the first 25 minutes of their match against the Cowboys. Once they settled, they began to make line breaks but just couldn’t make the final pass. They are a side low on confidence after a month of losses – but they are now counting their blessings; a home final and Sonny Bill Williams returning could give them the launch pad they need to take down the Eels in Sydney this Saturday night. Their fanatical home supporters will be there in massive numbers and previous form over the Eels in big matches will have the Parra crew looking over their shoulder. While many talk of their dominating forwards, the lack of footspeed from the Bulldogs could be their undoing.
Power Score: 7.5/10
Odds that security at Telstra Stadium this Saturday Night will be tighter than that seen during recent APEC exercises? – 3/1

NRL News

NRL Finals: Injury Factor

NRL Finals Week 2, 2007

While we have talked about the referees and their impact on the outcome of the NRL 2007 Premiership, as a long season draws to a close injuries start to play a huge part in your teams chances of glory in a few weeks time.

Today we have a look at each remaining team and examine their casualty ward:

Melbourne Storm:
The no.1 side in the NRL has been able to rest and rotate several players in the lead-up to the finals. This luxury has seen them keep most players not only healthy, but fresh. With Steve Turner successfully returning from some injury concerns, their only worry is Greg Inglis. While Inglis is a superstar, they have Matt Geyer as an able replacement should Inglis have any problems. Have superior depth to cover any losses anyway. Week off again gives them an edge in terms of injury and freshness.
Injury Meter: Low

Manly Sea Eagles:
The boys from Brookvale have been hit hard in the past 2-3 weeks by injuries and are doing their best to keep some of the problems in-house. Obvious problems for Chris Hicks and Glenn Stewart will see them race the clock and use the fortnight break to their advantage. Brent Kite should make it back ok, but ideally they would have liked more game time for Kite. The medical report on Brent Kite suggests ‘severe tear’ to his groin muscle; even if he makes it back for Manly’s next game – surely there is some risk. With Matt Orford also suffering chest problems, Manly really need the additional week off. Depth is starting to get tested, the likes of Cuthbertson are answering the call well so far – coach Des Hasler would surely be quietly worried about the growing hospital ward at Brookvale.
Injury Meter: High

North Queensland Cowboys:
Their injury problems have been hovering all season: Luke O’Donnell, Steve Southern, Shane Tronc and Carl Webb – all gone. While Webb is hoping for a speedy recovery to his quad problems – the forward pack is starting to look very flimsy for the Cowboys. Without the go forward, naturally Thurston and Bowen cannot weave their magic. While they play at home this week – the Warriors big and aggressive pack will really test their mettle. Injuries at the Cowboys are widespread enough to threaten their campaign – as their depth is already strained in the forwards. Very fortunate to have secured a second home game, otherwise would have been cannon fodder in foreign territory. If they win this week, week 3 becomes mission impossible for them.
Injury Meter: High

Parramatta Eels:
Eels centre Ben Smith has succumbed to a knee injury and has been forced out of this weeks match against the Bulldogs. A crucial loss for the Eels, as Smith a noted defender – was set to mark Sonny Bill Williams and try to contain the Dogs superstar. Halfback Tim Smith is also in cotton wool, with on-going shoulder problems consigning him to end of season surgery. The no.7 continuing to play with some discomfort, but may be targeted in games ahead. Depth looks ok at this stage – incoming Joel Reddy forces a backline reshuffle, with Kris Inu likely to move into centres. Reshuffle may take edge from previous combinations.
Injury Meter: Medium

Bulldogs:
Seemed to have got all their injuries out of the way leading up to the finals. They now boast a fresh Sonny Bill Williams along with dynamic duo Willie Mason and Mark O’Meley. The return of Matt Utai has also boosted their muscle and speed on the flank. Behind Melbourne and the Warriors, they are probably the next healthiest team. While depth isn’t fantastic for the Dogs – as this stage they don’t need it. When Sonny Bill fires up, it usually spurs on the like Willie Mason and Co. Playing out of their home ground, they will like their chances; regardless of previous form. Only concern has been the continuing poor form of Hazem El Masri’s goal kicking.
Injury Meter: Low

NZ Warriors:
Have been a healthy side all year. Their lack of injuries has seen the current squad build a good rapport and take down some big name oppositions. Were unlucky in the first final against the Eels, showed good enthusiasm – just lacked experience. Will be better for the run and will absolutely test the Cowboys on Sunday. Apart from Manu Vatuvei they are mostly problem free. Also boast some depth should injuries arise in weeks ahead.
Injury Meter: Low

NRL Finals: Week 2 Fixtures

NRL Finals Week 2, 2007

The 2nd week of the finals is already upon us. While the Cowboys earn themselves a home final against the Warriors with their win, the winning Eels find themselves playing at the home ground of the Bulldogs (Telstra Stadium) – even though the Dogs lost their match in Week 1.

This looks to be another area of Finals format that needs some tweaking in future years.

The loss by the Warriors forces them to take a tough roadtrip this week. Their journey to Townsville will seriously test their mental strength, however their aggressive, steamrolling attack could hurt the flimsy Cowboys defence; an area that North Queensland have struggled with over the past month. If the Warriors can replicate their impressive defence shown against the Eels, they have some chance of an upset here.

The Eels will be scratching their heads looking into this weeks match up. After winning in New Zealand, they now return to Sydney to face the Bulldogs in their own backyard. With Sonny Bill Williams returning and the Eels traditionally struggling against Canterbury – they will need to ensure they score enough points to withstand the Bulldogs on the night. The Dogs will be counting their blessings for a second chance and will be like a bear with a sore head – expect some fireworks in this game on and off the field. It’s more than likely several SWAT teams will be needed to keep Bulldogs and Eels supporters apart – both Sydney teams contain some rogue supporter elements that get out of hand, maybe just send the APEC security teams directly from the city to Homebush?

More NRL News later today; including the ‘Power Rankings’ from the Grubber and on-going NRL Finals reports and insight from the NRL News team

NRL Finals: Ref Report Card Week 1

NRL Finals Week 1: Completed

With the dust settled on Week 1 of the NRL Finals, the referees again dominated the headlines after some mind blowing calls in several games from the weekend.

On Friday night, referee Tony Archer hadn’t done too much wrong in the Warriors v Eels match. Any interpretations were very consistent and the form referee wasn’t swayed by a large and vocal crowd. Just when he thought he was home and hosed, referee Archer has Bill Harrigan swooping down from the heavens like a thunderbolt; to come up with a mind boggling penalty try call in the final 2 minutes.

It’s widely known that Bill Harrigan has a strong personality and will make calls for his own reasons and not take the situation on face value. ‘Hollywood’ Harrigan always likes to make his presence felt. Unfortunately for the Eels it nearly cost them a finals match. Many of the Eels players fearing it was actually an 8 point try and a possible golden point outcome. Once again considering the decision was made using ‘video technology’ it should rarely if ever be wrong. 98.9% of people in the Rugby League world knew that the illegal tackle was a penalty and maybe a 10 minute sin-binning of Eel Chad Robinson at best. I don’t know what is worse, the shocking call by Bill Harrigan or the support from referee’s boss Robert Finch – backing ‘Hollywood’ Harrigan to take control of the box during the Grand Final.

When we thought the decisions from the man in the sky must only get better; along comes another whopper in the Manly v Souths match at Brookvale. Spectators treated to a gripping contest; the style and skill of Manly against the defence and grit of South Sydney – a real traditional battle. With Manly only just ahead of outsiders Souths with 20 minutes to go – a jaw dropping video referee call changes the whole course of the match. This time former referee Tim Mander was in control of the universe – the video referee box and made the blunder that seemed impossible to make.

Once again, 98.9% of the Rugby League population could see the collision between Manly’s Matt Orford and Souths’ Ben Rogers was pure un-avoidable contact. While Orford looked to be seriously injured and not playing for the penalty; he didn’t make any attempt to avoid Ben Rogers and the Souths man had his back turned, not even veering off his original path. It was a classic ‘no call’ and play on. On field ref Shane Hayne was seemingly having a fair game himself, keeping things tidy and not favouring the home team. Then boom! The man will all the hindsight in the world – the video referee; makes a horror call and the game changes totally.

The NRL and the referees bosses can sugar coat, avoid or fine all those that talk about their problems – but the issue is not going away. The public do realise that ‘on-field’ referee’s are human and will make mistakes occasionally. However;

What the public won’t cop is wrong decisions by video officials with the benefit of video evidence and technology to view the incident from multiple angles and in slow motion if required. Whether the problem is an aging video referee with eye-sight or technology comprehension problems, or a video referee with an ego problem – sort the problem out before it costs anymore teams their season.

NRL Finals: Storm wipe out Broncos

NRL Finals, Week 1 2007
Melbourne Storm 40 def Brisbane Broncos 0
By John Chelsea

It was a close to the best revenge the Melbourne Storm could impose on the Broncos, after the beaten by Brisbane in last years NRL Grand Final.

The Storm sent the Broncos packing as predicted, the home side again doing everything right and firing on all cylinders to beat the struggling Queenslanders. Its very hard to commend the Storm in just certain areas; everyone from their forwards to the halves and the backline just played near enough the perfect match – keeping with the NRL tradition of the Top ranked side eliminating Team 8 every year.

The signs were ominous for the Broncos early, their inexperienced pack misreading a Melbourne backline sweep play – with Anthony Quinn scoring untouched in the corner after 5 minutes. The Broncos minus Tony Carroll looked even more at sea, this week Sam Thaiday trying his hand at pivot. With Dane Carlaw lining up in the front row – it was a side that looked light on across the park.

The Storm began turning the ball inside from dummy half plays and had success for most of the first half. Quick play the balls followed by steam rolling forwards and then short second phase to the likes of Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk was a recipe for disaster – Brisbane getting spanked severely and ending any hope of an armwrestle with the Storm.

Precision kicks from the Storm in seriously heavy wind was extremely impressive, Cronk finding good yardage and making a nice 40/20 play to continually heap pressure on the Broncos. The Storm possess such a complete game, the only chance of another side beating them is to continually look for stoppages in play. Kick for touch, even kick dead – thus allowing teams facing the Storm to set their defence line.

Even coach Craig Bellamy was in form; making the ideal substitution changes from the bench – injecting the right player at the right time and keeping the tempo upbeat despite having the game in their keeping from early on.

The Storm got through the game without any major injury worries, only Matt King getting a small neck bump, but running it out towards the end. The only worry for Melbourne now is a major injury scare in Week 3 or a flu like bug hitting the team in the weeks ahead – as certainly no competitor looks like stopping them.

The only other interesting point to come out of the game was the form of referee Steve ‘Terminator’ Clark. The normally pedantic whistle blower changing his game slightly and letting the play flow a little more. He did start blowing the pea out of the whistle late in the game, but it was a decent game from the much maligned referee.

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