The weekend with no second chances
. It’s crunch time for every team, with more pressure on NRL front runners; the Melbourne Storm and the Manly Sea Eagles.

Melbourne and Manly have been this years success stories; both teams realistically a class above everyone else during NRL 2007. Both well coached, possessing strong skills across their entire first grade squads, meaning they don’t rely on a single or small few players to get them over the line every week.

In changes to the McIntyre Finals System this year, the top ranked sides continue to earn ‘regional’ home finals in the weeks prior to the Grand Final. A system that really aids non-Sydney teams. The Cowboys and Storm will really reap the rewards from this kind of system, both having claims on virtually their whole home state – compared to Sydney teams who share the immediate state with plenty of other teams.

Nevertheless, today we look at the teams ahead of this weekend and barring some intervention from the footballing gods, fairytale finishes to 2007 for outsiders Parramatta and North Queensland remain at long odds. The Storm and Eagles should win this weekend and earn their rights to face each other as the two best sides of this years NRL.

1. Melbourne Storm: Have no injury concerns and used their week off wisely, coach Bellamy organising a full-contact session for the Storm squad. The intensity of the session as evident after several players pulled up sore the following day, a good sign and keeps them in routine moving towards their Sunday showdown. While some concern has been raised about their lead-up games, the Storm have a mental edge about them – boasting supreme confidence. The only downside for the Storm, should they trip up this weekend or in the Grand Final – their confidence will be shattered forever and surely this is playing on their minds. Coach Bellamy would be a certainty for suicide watch should they fail this week or next. It’s widely known the Storm don’t like a dogfight, must be prepared to get into the trenches this week or next and play ugly football when needed.

KEY: While they possess quality men across the park, the key for the Storm is Cameron Smith. When left unchecked, Smith guides his side around in a much more composed fashion and keeps them sharp in attack. If he is allowed to play his natural game he will ensure the Storm don’t get the jitters and choke in tough situations.

2. Manly Sea Eagles: Are a little bit of an unknown at the moment. The Eagles disposed of gritty South Sydney at Brooky – but have since been struck down with injuries and illness. Their week off was ideal given their problems; however may be a little underdone after their strike weapons went without a gallop last week. Have shown all year they can win in any situation, so they shouldn’t be written off at all. The advantage Manly have is their adaptation to all styles of Rugby League this year. The Eagles can shine in free-flowing, uptempo NRL just like the Storm and they can also roll the sleeves up and grind out a match when needed, this is something that will be a massive asset to them in the weeks ahead.

KEY: Injuries. I fear they may be concealing more problems that lie underneath the surface on the Northern Beaches. If Manly’s injuries can be managed and their fitness is on par this week, they should be a good thing to win. Brent Kites return, along with the Steve Menzies battling illness would be playing on the mind of Des Hasler; their medico’s will have played a big role if they get over the line this week. Need to avoid injuries in this game like the plague to be ready for the GF.

3. North Queensland Cowboys: Have continued to stay alive despite the fact they have lost virtually their entire starting forward pack. Ring-in’s have done a mighty job and two home finals games were heaven sent. Their ad lib Rugby League is hard to coach against and that remains their biggest weapon in the weeks ahead. Now that JT has pulled off the houdini act of the year, questions are being asked about his and Matt Bowen’s niggling injuries. Thurstons shoulder and Bowens thigh issue are certain to be tested by Manly’s chargers. Playing away from home presents another hurdle for them, as does the problems for big man Carl Webb. Have shown in the past few years they are capable at this time of year and an upset is not beyond them. Having referee Simpkins in charge of their game will help them, his reluctance to get involved at times may allow them to hinder Manly in the ruck if they start to get a roll on.

KEY: Their ability to win away from home. While many are talking about the injuries the Cowboys have, the truth is they have been at home for the past 3 weeks – winning away is something they have struggled with in 2007. Take the Tigers match for instance, a struggling Cowboys couldn’t stop a momentum roll that eventually swallowed them into a big hole. If they can take the crowd out of the game early, it will help them big time.

4. Parramatta Eels: Have shown in the past two weeks they have the ability to win close, tightly contested and intense matches. Have also played away from home in the past 2 weeks and still got the cash. Unheralded forwards have been the secret to the Eels finals success; all quarters of their pack have done the job and have setup wins where only limited amounts of points were scored. Enjoy a good discipline rate during games and will need to take this into the match against Melbourne. Have made errors at critical times in the past 2 weeks but weren’t punished by the oppositions – can ill-afford any similar slip ups this week. Playing in Melbourne is a tough ask, however the relocation to the Dome suits the Eels as opposed to the close quarters of Olympic Park. Early success is crucial to silencing the Dome crowd for what poses as a hostile environment after back office barbs were fired between Melbourne and Parramatta this week.

KEY: Underdog status. No one expects the Eels to win this match barring themselves. In previous years have entered the finals series with the weight of expectation on their shoulders and under the guidance of a serious and emotionally draining coach. Seemed to have basked in their underdog status this year; the relaxed style of Michael Hagan combined with the injection of care-free youth look to be their biggest assets this week. In saying that, will need all the stars to align to get a win in this one.

By ricky

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