The finals are upon us, and there are four genuinely fantastic fixtures to look forward to!
BRISBANE V GOLD COAST Suncorp Stadium, Friday night
Brisbane are going into this one as short-priced favourites and deservedly so after notching five straight wins. On the other hand, Gold Coast have fallen into the finals after losing their last two games and then having to rely on the Tigers to slip up at Leichhardt Oval last week to secure the eighth and last spot.
THE BRONCOS BUNNY
Brisbane will be chock full of confidence going up against the Titans as they have completely dominated this fixture ever since the Gold Coast’s inception in 2007.
The Broncos have taken out 15 of 20 against the boys from the Glitter Strip including the last four in a row.
Titans coach Neil Henry already had his work cut out for him but how does he overcome the Suncorp Stadium hoodoo that hovers over his team? They have won just three times at the venue in nine years and haven’t registered a win there since 2012. Making things more ominous is their average losing margin in their last seven defeats at the ground is a whopping 23.1 points per game.
HOW IT PANS OUT
Wayne Bennett seems to have worked his magic again in getting his team back to winning ways at the right time of the season. Losers of seven of nine midway through the competition, their five-match winning streak has been built off the back of outstanding defence which is conceding just 12.8ppg during this span.
On top of that they have scored a minimum of 20 points in their last four games against the Eels, Bulldogs, Storm and Roosters. This all spells big trouble for the Titans who have just two wins against Top 8 opponents all season (Canberra rd3, Penrith rd 11).
While they have been competitive and the inclusion of Jarryd Hayne has bolstered their attack, more often than not they have been found wanting against the better teams in the competition.
Brisbane has found their mojo again and that victory against the Storm in Melbourne really proved it. No team has won the competition from outside the top 4 since the eight-team finals series was introduced, however, this Broncos outfit might be able to do it.
Gold Coast has done a fantastic job to even be here and this is their first finals appearance in six years but their journey will be ending on Friday night.
HEAD-TO-HEAD: Brisbane ($1.35 Ladbrokes) all the way!
MARGIN: Go for a 13+ ($2.25 Sportsbet) win as we think the Broncos pack too many guns.
EXOTIC BET: Broncos Try 1st Score Type ($2.30 Bet365). Gold Coast has been prone to giving away big starts recently while Brisbane has tended to come out of the blocks firing of late.
CANBERRA V CRONULLA Saturday night, GIO Stadium
Canberra are riding a 10-match winning streak which has included wins over the Storm, Sharks and Cowboys.
It has to be remembered that the last time these teams met was back in Round 22, where the Raiders ran out 30-14 winners over the Sharks at Southern Cross Group Stadium. That subsequently ended their 15-match winning streak. Cronulla has subsequently won just once in six games since that fantastic winning run came to an end.
POINT SCORING MACHINES
Canberra easily had the best attack of any team in the regular season, averaging a tick over 28 points per game. They scored 104 more points than the next best attacking team (North Queensland).
One badge of honour for the Green Machine’s attack is the fact they are just the fifth team in history to score 50 points or more three times in a season. The last time to do so was Parramatta back in 2005.
Cronulla’s regular season finished off pretty meekly considering the high standards they set themselves throughout 2016.
Losing four of six including the Minor Premiership showdown to Melbourne 26-6 last week isn’t the best formguide heading into the finals.
Something that is playing in their favour is their record at GIO Stadium which has seen them win nine of their last 12 at the venue. Their latest victory here was against Canberra back in Round 7 when they won 40-16.
HOW IT PANS OUT
Ricky Stuart would have been breathing a huge sigh of relief with fullback Jack Wighton getting off on a shoulder charge at the judiciary during the week.
That means Canberra are nearly at full strength barring the season-ending injury to Blake Austin. They do get back Junior Paulo which is a big boost while the Sharks are without Joseph Paulo but on the flip side they welcome back Ricky Leutele to the centres.
The way the Green Machine destroyed the Wests Tigers finals hopes last week by winning 52-10 suggests they are going to be extremely hard for any team to stop in this finals series.
Their form is too good to resist and off the back of that we are tipping the Raiders to progress to Week 3 of the finals.
Having registered at least 20 points or more in its last 10 matches, Canberra’s attack is set to worry the Sharks defence which has leaked 21.6ppg in the last six weeks.
HEAD TO HEAD: Canberra ($1.62 Ladbrokes) to make it 11 straight wins.
MARGIN: Raiders by 1-12 ($3.25 Bet365) as the Sharks weren’t all that bad last week against the Storm and showed signs of rediscovering their best form.
EXOTIC BET TYPE: Jordan Rapana 1st Tryscorer ($9.50 Sportsbet). He is just the seventh Canberra player in history to reach the 20-try mark and the first since Joel Monaghan in 2003. Most of his tries have been away from home though.
MELBOURNE V NORTH QUEENSLAND AAMI Park, Saturday night
Melbourne has won both games this season against the defending premiers – one in a 15-14 result at Suncorp Stadium and the other by eight points in Townsville, which was the only loss for the Cowboys at home this season. Importantly, that loss for the home side came without the services of Johnathan Thurston.
FINALS FRIGHT NIGHT
While the Storm has been exceptionally good at home in recent years and indeed this season (10 wins, two losses), they have actually lost three of five finals at the venue since winning the 2012 premiership. Of more concern to Craig Bellamy’s side is since lifting the trophy they have just one win at all grounds from their five finals matches and that was last season against the Roosters.
FINDING FORM AGAIN
North Queensland has overcome a season-high slump of three straight losses with a hat-trick of wins. In what will be a big warning sign to Melbourne’s league-best defence (12.5ppg) the Cowboys have averaged 30 points a game in knocking off the Warriors, Bulldogs and Titans.
HOW IT PANS OUT
We are in for a ripper of a game regardless of the result. Has Melbourne really been going as good as their form suggests? They were lucky to knock over the bunnies and then had their pants pulled down by the Raiders and Broncos. Even last week when they ran out 20-point winners over Cronulla, there was one point in the match which would have seen the Sharkies level up. In the end they didn’t and the Storm ran away with it.
As for the Cowboys, one big blot on their copybook in 2016 has been their away form. Their form on the road, which was the catalyst for helping them to their maiden premiership last year, has deserted them. Their four wins from 12 games away is easily the worst of the teams remaining in the finals.
This is a flip of the coin job but we are leaning to the home side and banking on the fact they have played a solid, structured style of football at AAMI Park this season that not many teams have been able to break down.
One other big factor is the fact that Cowboys co-captain Matt Scott is in doubt with a number of niggling injuries including a broken finger.
HEAD TO HEAD: Melbourne ($1.82 Ladbrokes)
MARGIN: 1-12 ($2.90 Ladbrokes). Four of their past five encounters have been decided by eight points or less with the only exception being North Queensland’s 20-point win here in the Preliminary Final last season.
EXOTIC BET: Tohu Harris to Score a Try ($5 Sportsbet). The Melbourne forward has crossed the line on eight occasions already this season.
PENRITH V CANTERBURY Sunday afternoon, Allianz Stadium
We have the attacking brilliance of the Panthers versus the stuttering attack, yet resolute defence of the Bulldogs in the final match of the opening week of semi-final football.
Canterbury has been under immense pressure from supporters and the media for losing three straight matches heading into this one. From looking assured of a fourth placed finish they slipped to seventh.
Penrith, on the other hand have really clicked in the last month and have registered a season-high five wins in a row and seven wins from their past eight matches.
The attack of the Panthers has been one of the best in the NRL over the last five weeks, scoring over 30 points in four of those games while topping 40 in two of them.
Their only close call during this run was against the Titans a fortnight ago when winning 15-14 on the Gold Coast after leading 14-0.
One important point though is that despite all their points and impressive average winning margin of late (23.4ppg in their last five games), four of those wins came against teams not competing in the finals.
No team in the NRL-ERA (1998 onwards) has won a finals match after losing its last three regular season games. What’s worse for Des Hasler’s men is that during this slump they are ranked last in the league for points scored, line breaks and tackle busts.
The return of big Sam Kasiano from suspension will go a long way to helping those damning statistics but will it be enough to spark the misfiring Bulldogs?
HOW IT PANS OUT
Penrith has been installed as hot favourites but while the Bulldogs have been disappointing of late, this definitely won’t be a walk in the park for the exciting young Panthers.
Barring that win against the Titans a fortnight ago, Penrith has only beaten two other Top 8 teams since Round 9 (Canberra, rd9, Broncos rd 20). It doesn’t read any better for the Bulldogs who don’t have a win against any of the finals sides since smashing the Broncos 40-14 in Round 16.
Penrith’s attacking flair and youthful exuberance might be too much for a Dogs team lacking confidence and whose defence has conceded 22 points per game in the last month.
While the Dogs might be a finals outfit and always lift for the big occasion, it is hard to ignore the way they have played in three straight losses which is a season-high for them.
HEAD TO HEAD: Penrith ($1.53 UNIBET)
MARGIN: 1-12 ($3.20 Bet365) could be a good thing regardless of who wins. An average winning margin of just 5.6 has resulted from their last six clashes.
EXOTIC BET: Waqa Blake 1st Tryscorer ($13 William Hill). After just two tries through the first 21 rounds, he has been on the scoresheet in each of the Panthers five wins to round out the season.