Now when I say massive, I don't mean that it's a massive result that The Dazzler has decided to share his thoughts with us, I use the term in reference to the size of his offerings. Get your mind out of the gutter, I don't mean "those" offerings, I just suggest that if you need to go to the toilet you do it before you start reading, your going to be awhile! Oh and please don't hesitate to share your thoughts about what he has written!
…AND NOW AS THEY ENTER THE STRAIGHT…
OK, people! We’re about six weeks out from the NRL finals series, so I would imagine you have an idea as to who is most likely to square off on the big one on Sunday October 4th. It would be fair to say that a vast majority of people are backing a Canterbury and St George-Illawarra grand final – and with good reason. They have clearly been the two best sides all year, and apart from Melbourne, both these sides arguably have the best attack and defence in the competition thus far.
However, am I backing a Dogs/Saints grand final for the first time since 1985? Honestly? No. The simple reason is that, unlike the AFL where everyone knows that it’s a two-horse race, the NRL competition is still wide open. There are a number of other sides who I believe are capable of winning the title. Conversely, there are a few sides in the top eight at the moment that will only be there to make up the numbers. I’ll start with these teams first…
Newcastle. There are three certainties in life – Death, taxes and that any team coached by Brian Smith will never win a title. Seriously. He has never won a premiership in Australia, despite having a number of very good chances of success. He had chances in 1992-93 at St George before moving to Parramatta in 1997. Does anyone remember that grand final playoff in 1998? Leading Canterbury 18-2 with 10 minutes left only to lose 32-20 in extra time? Or what about the following year – where they the in the same position but only to lose against eventual winners Melbourne? What about the first-half capitulation in the 2001 Grand Final against Newcastle? Or the 29-0 thrashing in the 2005 Grand Final playoff against North Queensland despite being overwhelming favourites?
Now that Brian Smith has decided to move to the Roosters next year, two things will happen – the Roosters will not the title in 2010, 2011 and/or 2012 (that’s if he sees out his contract – which by the way he hasn’t to date); but more importantly, given their inept performance against Manly, do you seriously think that the players will give their all to a coach who will have his mind on future success at Bondi?
Gold Coast. Although they are a good side, they are not a great side - yet. Yes, they have made big strides compared to the last two years simply due a number of factors - injuries haven’t been a problem this year as well as winning all their games at Skilled Park. But for them to really challenge for the title they need to have their finals game(s) at home, as I think they will struggle away and that they need to have all of their big guns on the park (i.e. Campbell, Prince, Rogers, Minichiello, Harrison, Friend & Bailey) – and firing.
Brisbane. I know that you shouldn’t write off the Broncos, but I am for one reason. Defence. Over the last two months their defence has been, well, non-existent. They have been conceding over 30 points on a consistent basis and you simply cannot win a title leaking that number of points each match. In fact, if you look at the ladder heading into this round (round 20), of the nine sides that can make the eight, the Broncos are the only side to concede over 400 points, and are the only side to have a negative differential. Although they have a favourable run home, defence will be the key if they want to be taken seriously.
Penrith. After escaping the chop at the end of last year, I think Matt Elliot has done a fantastic job with the Panthers. But given that, I can’t see them climbing any higher than seventh or eighth, which will result in an elimination clash with either the Bulldogs or the Dragons in week one of the finals. Unless you’re a die-hard Panthers fan, I think their off-season will begin in mid-September.
Now that I have disappointed the supporters of the above sides, here are the sides (apart from the Dragons and Bulldogs) that are more than capable of standing on the winners’ dais on the first Sunday in October…
St George Illawarra. Could this finally be it? Is this the year that the red-and-white of both St George and Illawarra can finally celebrate? Or will it be another false dawn? Dragons’ fans tend to be sceptical. Since St George’s 1979 win, they have lost the grand finals in 1985, 1992 (the same the Illawarra Steelers lost the grand final qualifier to Brisbane), 1993, 1996 and 1999.
But I think this year is different. The Saints have so much going for them. They have the best defence in the comp and are third in attack. Their side has class stamped all over them – Soward, Hornby, Sailor, Boyd, Morris, Cooper, Poore, Wayman, Creagh, just to name half their side! If that’s not enough, they are coached by a bloke who has won six titles beginning in 1992 – the one and only Wayne Bennett.
I believe that 2009 is the Dragons best chance of taking out the big one. Actually I’ll go one step further – if they do not win this year, there is only one thing to do – approach the greats of the 1956-66 era and ask them to make a comeback At least the likes of Raper, Gasnier, Provan, Walsh and Langlands know how to get the job done…
Canterbury. Regardless of who wins the premiership this year, the Bulldogs will be the feel good story of the year. I find it very, very difficult to hate the Bulldogs nowadays, and I don’t think I’m the only one. The dark clouds of the last few years are well and truly gone and if they can complete the last-to-first transition it will be nothing short of remarkable.
I believe that there are four reasons for this turnaround – three of which are Sonny Bill Williams, Willie Mason and Reni Maitua - enough said. The fourth reason is the personnel the Bulldogs bought to the club during the off season - mainly Brett Kimmorley, Michael Ennis, Greg Eastwood, Josh Morris, David Stagg and Ben Hannant. The results speak for themselves – first in attack, third in defence, first in line breaks made and second in line breaks conceded. Add in Hazem El Magic’s goalkicking and Luke “safe as a bank” Pattern at the back, and it is going to take a very good side to beat them.
Given their run home, a top four spot is a minimum, and they should at the very least be one of the final four teams standing.
Melbourne. Any side that has the likes of Slater, Inglis, Smith, Cronk, Hoffman and Johnson must be taken into account – and their coach is pretty good too. Another factor that has to be taken into account is redemption. Apart from Manly (being the defending premiers), the Storm will desperately want to erase the nightmare that was the 2008 GF – and the only way to do that is to not only make the grand final, but to take the title back to the AFL heartland.
North Queensland. Or should I say, a Johnathan Thurston-led North Queensland. If he is on the park, I think they are the dark horse of the competition. So dark in fact, that I think they have taken the ‘under the radar’ banner that Manly used last year. I haven’t heard anyone mention the Cowboys as contenders, but despite their hooker Aaron Payne being ruled out for the rest of the year, they do have a fast backline including Matt Bowen, Ty Williams, Willie Tonga and new recruit Michael Bani and an experienced forward-line consisting of Carl Webb, Steve Southern, Antonio Kaufusi and Luke O’Donnell. In addition, they are equal-first (with the Bulldogs) in attack However, the fate of the Cowboys in 2009 mirrors that of the Knights in past years – it rests with the man in the No. 7 jersey.
So, after considering the pros and cons of each of the above teams, who do I think will win the Premiership? Answer: NONE OF THEM!! Anyone who knows me knows that I look at Rugby League through rose-coloured glasses – or should I say, maroon-and white coloured glasses…
2009 PREMIERS – MANLY-WARRINGAH
OK, First things first. I have supported them since I was five. And yes, they had a shocking start to the year due to various events that I don’t think needs reminding. Yes, we are without our X-Factor in Brett Stewart. Yes, it has taken two-thirds of the season to make the top eight.
But wait a minute – Manly couldn’t win without Brett Stewart. Manly have only won two from their first eight games – they won’t win it this year. The in-fighting going on between the Manly board members is taking its toll on the team. That was the talk three months ago. But yet, after their thrashing of Newcastle (and yes, I concede that Newcastle gave us that game on a platter) we have been taken seriously again!
I’ll also point out that after the win against Newcastle, Manly have won eight of their last ten games – and one of their losses was the one-point defeat in that controversial game against the Titans. Also, in their run home they only play two teams that are in the top eight – Melbourne (away – Rd 24) and Gold Coast (home – Rd 26). Not only is a top-four birth is possible, but players such as the Wolfman, Kite, the Stewart brothers, Lyon, King, Perry, Orford, Ballin, Robertson, Matai, Watmough and Co. know what it takes to get to the grand final, let alone win it. And mark my words – like 2008, Des Hasler will have this side peaking at just the right time.
So yes, you Dragons, Bulldogs and Storm supporters should be looking over your shoulder.
Because we will be there in September.
And yes, we will have Brett Stewart back before the finals.
Don’t say you weren’t warned…