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NRL Rugby league finals: The Contenders

NRL Finals Week One

Friday night: Qualifying final 1 - Sydney Roosters (1) v Melbourne Storm (4), SFS, 7:45pm (AEST)

Saturday: Elimination final 1 - Canterbury Bulldogs (5) v St George Illawarra (8), Olympic stadium, 5:50pm (AEST)

Saturday night: Qualifying final 2 - Brisbane Broncos (2) v Nth Queensland Cowboys (3), Lang Park, 7:55pm (AEST)

Sunday: Elimination final 2 - Cronulla Sharks (6) v South Sydney (7), SFS, 4:10pm (AEST)

Six teams from the 2014 NRL finals are back again to challenge for the premiership.
While defending premiers the South Sydney Rabbitohs appear to have dropped their bundle ahead of the finals, the Roosters once again sit atop the competition table at the end of 26 rounds.
Who can beat the white-hot Roosters for the 2015 title? Grandstand assesses the contenders. 

SYDNEY ROOSTERS

Position on table: 1st
Premiership odds: $2.75 
After capturing a third successive minor premiership the Sydney Roosters head into the finals as competition favourites not just due to their position atop the competition ladder.
They are also in outstanding form.
The Tricolours have won their past 12 matches and made a statement in their last match of the home and away season with a 30-0 thumping of premiers South Sydney.
The Trent Robinson-coached Roosters boast both the best attacking record and defensive records after 26 rounds of the NRL.
If the Roosters go undefeated through the finals and claim the premiership it will complete a winning run of 15 matches. No other team before them has won as many successive matches on the way to winning a premiership.
But the Roosters' charge has not been without its setbacks. In their third last game of the regular season the Roosters lost prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves to a season-ending knee injury
In the same match half-back Mitchell Pearce suffered a hamstring injury and has not been seen since.
Pearce is expected to return during the finals series but even without him his replacement Jackson Hastings seems more than capable in assisting five-eighth James Maloney steer the team around the park.
The aggression of the Roosters forwards, even without Waerea-Hargreaves, supplemented by the strike power out wide with the likes of Michael Jennings and Daniel Tupou appears too much for most sides to handle.
The team to beat.
Game-breaker: Full-back Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has the speed, power and step to worry any opposition defence. He is a rising star of the game and looks set for a major impact during the finals.

BRISBANE BRONCOS

Position on table: 2nd
Premiership odds: $4.25
Once super-coach Wayne Bennett returned home to Brisbane expectations of a much improved finish were high.
Those expectations have been met with the Broncos leaping from an eight-placed finish in 2014 to second place this year
The Broncos took a gamble on young recruit Anthony Milford, who played mostly at full-back for the Raiders, proving an effective accomplice for half-back Ben Hunt who had a breakout season in 2014.
The young halves pairing has blossomed under Bennett and have played a big hand in getting the Broncos into the finals.
It has been the young guns like Hunt and Milford that has grabbed the attention of Broncos' fans in 2015, but the side has a fair mix of experience with Darius Boyd at the back, Justin Hodges in the centre and Sam Thaiday, Corey Parker and Adam Blair up front.

And it is those players that must lead the Broncos in the key moments that could go either way in the finals.
The Broncos have showed their flair with performances like the round 25 47-12 blitz of Souths but can they win the arm wrestle.
Brisbane disappointed in their final competition match with a 15-8 loss to Melbourne but will be strengthened with the return of Hunt, Alex Glenn and Jordan Kahu for their qualifying final against the Cowboys.
Starting the finals series with a huge crowd behind them may be just the impetus the Broncos need to make a run for the title.
Game-breaker: Anthony Milford definitely has the X-factor that can blow an opposition side away. The important question is can he show the cool head needed to make smart decisions when the heat is really on.

NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS

Position on table: 3rd
Premiership odds: $5.00
Cowboys fans will be hoping for a bit of luck in 2015 after receiving more than their fair share of poor referee calls in recent finals' campaigns.
Luck also eluded the Cowboys in the run to the finals with State of Origin representatives James Tamou and Michael Morgan suffering injuries late in the season
But in a change of fortune prop James Tamou returned from a neck injury in the Cowboys' round 26 win over the Titans and five-eighth Morgan is tipped to return from an ankle injury in the first week of the finals.
If Morgan can prove his fitness the Cowboys will be back to full strength for their fifth successive finals campaign.
Another bonus for the Cowboys is that they will play their first two finals matches in their home state.
Perhaps the injuries to key players can be given as an excuse but the Cowboys have mixed their form in the run to the finals.
A scrappy win over Canberra was followed by losses to Cronulla and Souths. The Cowboys showed some character coming from behind against the Warriors to score 50 unanswered points despite the loss of Tamou and Morgan in the first half.
A loss to Melbourne followed, and the Cowboys started slowly again before producing a solid final-round over the Titans.
Is it good enough form to worry opposition sides? Probably not, but it is what this side is capable of that makes the Cowboys a threat.
Game-breaker: The Cowboys obviously pin their hopes on one of the proven stars of the game - half-back Johnathan Thurston. He will guide them around the park and compete to the last minute to ensure that they remain in the contest. But will the baggage of being dudded by refereeing prove too much on Thurston at a crucial time, or will it drive him to success?

MELBOURNE STORM

Position on table: 4th
Premiership odds: $7.00
The Storm have slipped into the top four somewhat under the radar while more attention has been paid to their premiership rivals.
Melbourne's big three of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk became two with Slater ruled out for the season with a shoulder injury in the middle of June
At the time the Storm was all but written off as a premiership chance especially as they followed the Slater injury with a series of losses that saw them drop four successive games.
They turned it around in round 19 and 20 with strong wins over the Panthers and Dragons before dropping a game to the Tigers. Wins over the Titans and Sharks were punctuated with a shock loss to the Knights. The Storm then finished off the competition rounds with strong wins over the Cowboys and Broncos.
Coinciding with the Storm's resurgence has been the maturity of replacement full-back Cameron Munster. He has quickly shaped into a star of the future. His evasive abilities adds to a more than competent backline that includes Origin centre Will Chambers and elusive winger Marika Koroibete.
But it is the Storm's ability to grind out a narrow victory that makes them a formidable opponent. The experienced Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk can be relied upon to take advantage of the platform laid up front by the likes of Jesse Bromwich and Tohu Harris.
The Storm are seasoned finals campaigners and there is no better coach come September than Craig Bellamy. But their inconsistency this year may be due to experience lying with just a couple of on-field generals in Smith and Cronk and an injury to either would cruel their chances.
Game-breaker: Half-back Cooper Cronk shapes as the side's most likely match-winner, not for his razzle dazzle but his ability to make a match-winning call. Whether it be a deft pass or a timely field goal, Cronk is likely to play a key role in any Storm victory. 

CANTERBURY BULLDOGS

Position on table: 5th
Premiership odds: $8.00
No one expected much from the Bulldogs when they finished seventh last year on the back of two losses, but they marched all the way to the grand final before losing to South Sydney.
Again they have moved into the NRL finals without much fanfare but all sides will be wary of the Bulldogs who have finished two places higher in 2015
Coach Des Hasler says his side has momentum after winning its past five matches.
The charge into the finals may have slowed a little with a lacklustre 26-22 win over the Warriors in the final round but you cannot knock winning form.
The biggest disadvantage for the Bulldogs is the loss of Blues half-back and goalkicker Trent Hodkinson whose season ended with a dislocated wrist two weeks out from the finals.
Josh Reynolds has returned from injury as a timely replacement but while Reynolds can certainly inspire the Bulldogs he does not have as good as kicking game as Hodkinson.
The Bulldogs have a powerful pack and will out-muscle most sides before send the ball out wide to attacking weapons like Brett and Josh Morris.
Canterbury will be favoured to get past the Dragons in week one with building confidence will trouble other sides in their path.
Game-breaker: The strength of Josh Morris is as much an asset as his speed and close to the line he is difficult to stop. And as one of the best defensive centres in the game Morris can be counted on for numerous try-saving efforts.

CRONULLA SHARKS

Position on table: 6th
Premiership odds: $34
Rather than wilt on the back of fatigued New South Wales captain Paul Gallen after State of Origin, the Sharks surged with five successive wins to book a place in the final
Losing the Origin series may have been a blessing in disguise for Gallen who returned determined to lead the Sharks into premiership contention.
As the season went on the depth of the Sharks' squad appeared to grow with several players putting their hands up to be counted on in tough matches.
Michael Gordon and Valentine Holmes proved potent attacking weapons out wide while the experience of Gallen, Luke Lewis and Michael Ennis boosted the forwards.
But Cronulla's final-round loss to Manly suggests their 2015 finals campaign again could be set for disappointment with the Sharks still searching for their maiden first grade premiership.
With everything to play for the Sharks could not put away a side out of finals contention, and as a consequence missed out on a vital top-four finish and the confidence to give the title a shake.
The Sharks will be boosted by the return of former Origin forward Andrew Fifita and brother David from an internal suspension but the Sharks may lack the overall strike power of their premiership rivals.
Game-breaker: Valentine Holmes is a young player with speed to burn who will pounce on a loose ball and turn it into points at the other end. Just as skilled with his feet do not be surprised to see Holmes called on for a match-winning field goal attempt. 

SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS

Position on table: 7th
Premiership odds: $21
The defending premiers have ridden a slippery slide to the finals and would have been surprised to find themselves in seventh spot at the end of the 26 round
The Rabbitohs have lost four of their past five games and were comprehensively thrashed by both the Roosters and the Broncos in the final two rounds of the competition.
In those two games alone Souths conceded 77 points, a far cry from the resolute defence the Rabbitohs were renowned for when winning the title last year, and even earlier this season.
In both those losses the Rabbitohs were missing their biggest star in full-back Greg Inglis who returns from knee surgery for the first week of the finals.
His return will be significant in both attack and defence but the Rabbitohs will miss the service of dummy-half Issac Luke who remains suspended for another week due to a shoulder charge.
If you can take confidence out of not conceding a point in the second-half in their 30-0 loss to the Roosters the Rabbitohs still have some fight left in them and should not be written off.
Game-breaker: If 100 per cent fit Souths will get plenty out of Australian and Origin star Inglis. His kick returns from full-back can be potent while he is a reliable last line of defence.

ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS

Position on table: 8th
Premiership odds: $67
After hovering around the top of the table early to mid season the Dragons fell away somewhat to scrape into the top eight
The Dragons confirmed their ability to play finals football with a 36-0 thumping of the Warriors but they followed that up with a thrashing by the Broncos and a loss to the lowly Titans.
A golden-point win over the Wests Tigers in the final round secured the Dragons a place in the final but left fans in doubt of their ability to make an impact in the remaining weeks of September.
The Dragons were guilty of going to sleep in their past two matches, leading the Titans 20-12 at half-time before losing, and then the Tigers by 30-8 before winning by two points.
Fans will find out what the Dragons are made of when they face a fired-up Bulldogs pack in a first-up elimination final. The Dragons boast an experienced halves pairing in Benji Marshall and Gareth Widdop but Widdop missed the game against the Tigers and remains in doubt for the clash with the Bulldogs.
Game-breaker: Full-back Josh Dugan will be itching to play finals football and is more than ready to make an impact. He had a solid State of Origin series and his ability to sniff out a try makes him a handy attacking weapon for the Dragons.    


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