THE feeling is unanimous among league circles that when two clubs face off in a grand final ? the players should decide the outcome. Sadly, last night, the outcome was prevaricated by a sub-standard refereeing performance from a sub-standard referee.
SOME could argue that the NRL is merely a token national competition, given that it only consists of clubs from three states. But in saying that, there is no better advertisement for a national game than two non-NSW teams contesting a Grand Final. And with last weekend?s victories to the Brisbane Broncos and the Melbourne Storm, we will see just that come Sunday evening.But here?s the ironic part. The NRL has made a point in recent years of staging the Grand Final on the Labor Day long weekend. However, the Labor Day weekend is only held in NSW.Just how will Melbourne or Brisbane supporters fare trying to catch that last plane home after a grand final victory or loss on Sunday night? Not to mention getting to work on Monday morning.On that basis, the NRL should revert to a Sunday afternoon decider. But how unfair of me to think of the fans before the dollars generated by rising television ratings?There?s the gripe out of the way. Now to the weekend?s matches.Just what happened to the Bulldogs on Friday night? Willie Mason and co came out last week and told us all how great the Bulldogs are and how na?ve the media were to make references to the team?s two previous clashes with the Broncos this season, of which Brisbane were victorious.Until halftime, his statements had merit. The Bulldogs looked outstanding early and held a 20-6 advantage at the break. At that stage, you could be forgiven for penciling them in for a second Grand Final appearance in three seasons.But an inspiring halftime address from Brisbane Coach Wayne Bennett, combined with a suffocation of epic proportions from the Bulldogs, gave Brisbane a resounding 37-20 victory.I must question Steve Folkes? decision to start Friday night?s contest with four forwards on the bench. The injury to Daniel Holdsworth resulted in a major reshuffle and placed the Bulldogs on the back foot. All sides should have at least one backline player on the bench.The bench should be selected to replace injured players. Not to rest unfit forwards. The Dogs need to learn their lesson here.Having said all that, full credit must go to the Broncos for their comeback win. I fail to see evidence as to why Andrew Johns is currently a better player than Darren Lockyer. In the title for world?s best player, I think we have a new leader. Shane Webcke and Petero Civoniceva may be aging but they are still two of the world?s best props. We?ve been hearing all year that the Bulldogs boast the best forward pack in the competition; I fail to see how they?re superior to a Broncos pack which has out-muscled them on three occasions this season. I think overrated could be the adequate term used to describe both the Bulldogs? forward pack and their ability to rise to the occasion for crucial matches.Back to the drawing board for Willie and co in 2007 and I?m sure they?re indulging themselves in a few cold ones as we speak.Onto Saturday?s match and it was a professional display from the best team in the competition, the Melbourne Storm. St George Illawarra was never in this match. Right from the outset they found themselves on the receiving end after some vigorous and typical Melbourne defence.Even at 6-all, the Dragons were hard pressed to find their first try and Melbourne cracked the Dragons? line with ease. There?s no place for any doomsayers towards Nathan Brown ? the Melbourne Storm were just too strong.The Dragons will rue the fact that their current crop of players never played in a premiership, however. Trent Barrett, Shaun Timmins and Luke Bailey will all be moving on and this will enter a rebuilding phase for the Dragons? playing roster, one which will provide a true test of just how far Nathan Brown?s coaching career has developed.Melbourne?s X-factor would have to be its organisational skills in both attack and defence. They are, without question, the most organised unit in the competition. And you can look no further than coach Craig Bellamy for the side?s success this season.They have a workman-like forward pack which features names such as Brett White, Garret Crossman and Ian Donelly, a settled halves combination in Scott Hill and the ever-improving Cooper Cronk, and a formidable backline which terrorise its opposition week after week.The Storm illustrated each of these traits against the Dragons, and it has to hold them in good stead for the decider on Sunday evening.It will be a Grand Final to remember. I?ll stick my neck out and tip Melbourne but a Darren Lockyer blinder could swing this one the other way, which is why it will be a fascinating duel. I?m sure the Queenslanders and Victorians will be laughing all the way to Telstra Stadium with no NSW teams present, and the build-up should be fairly intriguing.Another issue this week has been the Sharks decision to sack Stuart Raper, with Ricky Stuart his likely successor. I think Stuart is Cronulla?s ideal choice in this situation. Raper tended to take a more relaxed approach to his coaching ? something the beach boys out at the shire probably relished for the wrong reasons. Stuart will deliver a no-nonsense approach and will command success from the outset. A mindset the Sharks, as a club, desperately need.
WELL ladies and gents, get ready, what we?ve been waiting for has finally arrived ? NRL Season 2006 kicks off this Friday night. That?s right, four NRL sides will face off in a truncated knockout extravaganza. The Bulldogs will play Brisbane in the season opener, with the Melbourne Storm and St George Illawarra Dragons rounding out the weekend with a clash on Saturday night which is sure to silence a few demons for the successful club.This fortnight thriller will culminate with a Grand Final showdown between the two winners the following Sunday evening.Now you may think I?ve gone crazy here. But I think it has taken us 28 weeks to dispose of the deadwood in this competition. We now have a competition on our hands. Last weekend is a case in point. We supposedly had two classic finals matches but they were soured by the alarming difference in standard between teams three and four, and teams five and six. The winners clocked up a total of 78 points, whilst all the losers could provide was six points between them.I liken the NRL this year to a grand slam tennis tournament. There are 128 players in the draw but there?s really only eight or nine players battling for the title. And most of the spectators are waiting around for the second week of matches to see these far superior rivals face off.In comparison, the NRL has 15 players in the draw. But it?s really only the top four seeds with any realistic chance of taking the title. Although unlike tennis fans that only need to wait a week or so for the deadwood to be cut, as rugby league fans, we?ve needed to occupy ourselves for 28 weeks.Mouthwatering ? that?s the only phrase that could be justifiably used to describe this weekend?s clashes. The reason I?m excited at the prospect of these blockbusters is because the sides playing each other have styles which mirror those of their opponents. Friday?s night?s Preliminary Final between the Canterbury Bulldogs and the Brisbane Broncos will be a battle between the NRL?s two fiercest packs. The likes of Mark O?Meley, Willie Mason, Andrew Ryan and Roy Asotasi will go head to head with Broncos heavyweights Shane Webcke, Petero Civoniceva and Tonie Carroll in arguably the most anticipated finals forward battle in 20 years.I see trouble brewing for the Bulldogs here if they don?t win the battle up front early. While I feel they have the slightly better pack, bolstered by today?s announcement that Roy Asotasi and Reni Maitua will play, I have held similar feelings before clashes between these two sides in the past and the Broncos have seemingly managed to contain the Bulldogs? forwards. They then subsequently punch the ball out to their formidable backline and score points at will. A luxury the Bulldogs just don?t have.The first 20 minutes here is vital. The Dogs could shut the Broncos out of the game but if they don?t, and in recent times they have struggled to do, the Broncos will run over the top of them over the course of the 80 minutes. It will be an entertaining contest all the same and make sure you get out to Aussie Stadium on Friday night, regardless of who you support.The St George Illawarra Dragons and Melbourne Storm are very similar but for the opposite reasons to the Bulldogs and Broncos - they boast the two best backlines in the NRL.Players like Mark Gasnier and Matt Cooper taking on Matt King and Greg Inglis, among many other big names from both backlines, will be a feature of this match. Unlike the other match, I feel that if Melbourne is to be any chance they must stay with the Dragons for the early part of proceedings. The Dragons have a forward pack running into red-hot form and I?m not sure that the Storm can contain them. Having said that, pound-for-pound, these backlines cancel each other out. The Storm?s forwards will need to roll up their sleeves in the first 20 minutes and dig deep. If they can do that, it?s anyone?s game. But if the Dragons? big men maintain their recent dominance in the first 20 minutes of this game, it could be all over red rover. Adding further spice to this knockout qualifier is the fact that this is a 1999 Grand Final replay ? probably the most controversial on record. The bad blood has stuck between these two clubs and a crowd of any less than 50,000 wouldn?t do this match justice. Be sure to get out to Telstra on Saturday evening.Michael Crocker has lit the fuse by claiming that the Dragons have let their fans down in recent years. His statements may have merit, but if we have learned anything over the last few years or so, these sorts of comments can leave those who make them eat their words. I?m certain that Craig Bellamy would be privately fuming that Crocker has given the Dragons this added motivation.However, I guess all questions will be answered over the weekend.Game, set, match. Let the tournament begin.
TWO down, six to go. The Canberra Raiders and Parramatta Eels, as expected, have been eliminated from the 2006 NRL competition following losses to the Bulldogs and Melbourne respectively. I guess that begs the question as to what relevance the other two matches had. But that?s another story. We?ll now take a look at where each team stands after the first weekend of the play-offs.Melbourne: They have lost only four matches this season and were by far the best side in the minor premiership, but I?m sorry to say for Melbourne fans that the bubble could be well on its way to bursting at the wrong time of the year. While their defence was still intact on Sunday against the Eels, their options in attack, particularly in the second half, lacked any real desire. They limped to the finish line against the eighth placed side and the effort they displayed on the weekend won?t be good enough to beat any of the remaining sides in the premiership. Back to square one for Craig Bellamy over the next fortnight.Canterbury: A classic example of why you only need to turn up on the day in finals matches and produce the goods. They looked a shadow of themselves in the last three weeks of the premiership but all of a sudden they find themselves one game away from a grand final appearance, just two seasons after their last premiership. With injured players likely to return for the Preliminary Final, they?ll do the same thing ? turn up on the day and try to produce the goods. And who is to say they can?t at this stage?Brisbane: What is it about their abysmal record come September in recent years? I thought this season may have been different given that they had a winning run of three matches going into the finals, but it?s the same old story for the Broncos. They?ll have their work cut out against the Knights this weekend and a straight sets elimination will yet again ask questions of Wayne Bennett. Newcastle: They did well to come back against the Sea Eagles but something still doesn?t seem right about the Newcastle side. Danny Buderus is sure to be suspended for a lengthy period and Brisbane will be looking to make amends for their poor showing against the Dragons. Jarrod Mullen is certainly a find for them but Andrew Johns will need to step up if they?re to account for the Broncos minus Buderus.Manly: A spirited effort up north in Newcastle and were unlucky not to come away with the victory. Should have won the match after holding an 18-6 lead at one stage. A very strong defensive effort which is a positive they can take into this week?s match against the Dragons. But even if the Dragons are minus Mark Gasnier, it?ll take a superhuman effort from Manly given the form the Dragons are in at the moment.St George Illawarra: Certainly the most likely of the four sides playing this weekend to dismantle the Storm or Bulldogs from a title decider and ultimate supremacy. They showed the Broncos how to play finals football on Saturday night and maybe this could be the year their supporters have been waiting patiently for. They needed to win that match in case one of the top sides dropped their bundle and they made sure that they?d stick around for another week. I get the feeling it will be much longer than just one week, though. Mark Gasnier will be missed but when Mathew Head is on his game, no side can match the Dragons for creativity.A massive weekend of finals approaches as Manly play St George Illawarra on Friday night and Newcastle take on Brisbane on Saturday night. The winner of Friday night?s clash will meet Melbourne in week three, whilst Saturday night?s victor will play the Bulldogs on the following Friday for a spot in the Grand Final.I?m tipping the Dragons in the opening match. They were clinical in dismissing the Broncos last weekend and they should prevail despite the loss of Gasnier. Manly?s defence will need to be on and if it is, they?ll give themselves a chance at an upset. But the Dragons? form last weekend was irresistible and they could go all the way to the Grand Final given the shakiness of the Storm on Sunday.As for Saturday night?s clash, I?ll stick with the Broncos but only because Buderus will be missing from the Knights? line-up. The men north of the Tweed have a lot to prove in finals but I?ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they?ll beat Newcastle in a close game. This game will be an absolute cracker and Canterbury will be awaiting the winner.That?s all for this week?s rant. Enjoy the finals matches this weekend and I?ll catch you next weekend with a review of those games and a look ahead at the Preliminary Finals.
FINALS 2006 Week 1 Melbourne Storm 12 v Parramatta Eels 6at Olympic Park MelbourneReferee: Steve ClarkCrowd: 15,690Match Summary:Melbourne has joined the Bulldogs in week three of the 2006 NRL finals series with a hard-fought 12-6 victory over the Parramatta Eels at Olympic Park today.In somewhat of an anti-climax, the Eels managed to keep themselves in the match for the full 80 minutes and the Eels very nearly took the match into golden point extra- time through a dangerous Brett Delaney dash with just three minutes remaining.But after a John Morris pass from the subsequent scrum win, the Eels turned possession over to the Storm and the win was confirmed.This match has been soured by a controversial decision from video referee Chris Ward. The replay appeared to be inconclusive as to whether the ball was grounded in the in-goal or not. This should usually result in a benefit of the doubt ruling as a number of replays were looked at. But strangely, it wasn?t to be.Earlier, Melbourne?s Steve Turner crossed for a try after five minutes of play and at that stage, a massive score-line looked possible.But the Eels grinded their way back into the match and it wasn?t until a 38th minute barge-over from Storm prop Antonio Kaufusi that more points were added. Melbourne took their 12 point advantage into half-time.The Storm was unsuccessful in striking the final nails into the Eels? coffin in the second half. And midway through the second period Daniel Wagon scored under the posts to send a nervous shimmer over the Olympic Park crowd. But the Storm were lucky to hang on and will find life difficult in week three when they come to Sydney to meet either the Manly Sea Eagles or the St George Illawarra Dragons.Melbourne has slight injury concerns with David Kidwell coming off second best in a head-clash, and Jake Webster feeling the effects of an Eric Grothe elbow, of which Grothe was placed on report for.The men south of the Murray will now cool their heels over the next fortnight but Craig Bellamy has some issues to address on today?s performance. They?ll need to do their homework as the winner of Friday night?s match between Manly and St George Illawarra will be running into form.The mad Monday drinks will taste that little bit sweeter for the Eels after a spirited performance. If it weren?t for some debatable decisions from today?s officials, we may have witnessed history today with the eighth side beating the first side for the first time ever.Scorers:Melbourne Storm: 12Tries: Antonio Kaufusi, Steve TurnerGoals: Cameron Smith 2/2Parramatta Eels: 6Tries: Daniel WagonGoals: Luke Burt 1/1By the Clock:The fourth qualifying takes place today between Minor Premiers the Melbourne Storm and the eighth-placed Parramatta Eels. The weather is clear in Melbourne today with slight winds. The Storm have to be favoured here but stranger things have happened.Changes: A big loss for the Storm with Greg Inglis ruled out injured, Jake Webster comes in for him.Also, Brett White will be missing through injury. Garret Crossman comes into the starting side with Adam Blair coming onto the bench.The Eels are as-per-program.KICKOFF! Finals footy underway at Olympic Park!5 min: TRY Melbourne StormMelbourne have struck at the first opportunity - moving the ball quickly through the hands close to the Eels' line, culminating with a try in the corner to winger Steve Turner. Cameron Smith converts. Storm 6-010 min: NEWS Parramatta managed to hold Melbourne on that occasion but it's all the Storm at the moment. The Eels have had no possession or field position in the opening 10 minutes.16 min: NEWS NO TRY: Luke Burt was unable to ground the ball off a Tim Smith grubber kick as ruled by the video referee. Cameron Smith knocked the ball dead and a Storm line drop-out is the result. Eels with a chance here.19 min: NEWS Parramatta bomb the chance as Tim Smith's kick goes too deep and over the touch in-goal line. Opportunity wasted by the Eels who simply cannot afford to make a habit of this.26 min: NEWS Parramatta are holding down far too long in tackles and Nathan Hindmarsh has been spoken to by Steven Clarke as a result. The Eels must improve their discipline. 5-1 is the penalty count now in favour of the Storm.33 min: NEWS Melbourne are looking clinical and dangerous in attack but they still only hold a 6-0 lead on the scoreboard. A great effort by the Eels to be this close to the Storm at this stage.38 min: TRY Melbourne StormAntonio Kaufusi has barged over the line from close range, sending fear into the Parramatta defensive line in the process. A heartbreaking try for the Eels right on halftime after their spirited defensive efforts of the first half. Smith successful with the conversion. Storm 12-0HALF TIME min: NEWS While it's not out of the realms of possibility that the Eels come back from here, their chances of doing so look highly unlikely. Melbourne are in control with a 12-0 lead and a very tight defensive structure at the moment. Anything other than a Melbourne victory would almost be a miracle. A long way back for the Eels.Second half underway at Olympic Park48 min: NEWS Parramatta have lifted their intensity but Melbourne have held sway again in defence. Still 12-0 the locals lead.50 min: NEWS NO TRY: We can now establish that the benefit of the doubt rule is irrelevant in our game. A number of replays were looked at by the video referee who came to the conclusion that Glenn Morrison failed to ground the ball. Poor decision. Storm leading 12-0 with 30 minutes remaining.59 min: TRY Parramatta EelsDaniel Wagon has completed an exciting passage of play for the Eels with a try under the sticks. They've done a tremendous job to remain in this game for as long as they have. Luke Burt converts and the Eels are within six points now. Storm 12-667 min: NEWS In the blinking of an eye this match is there for the Eels' taking but Melbourne's defence is still proving difficult to crack. An exciting finish nonetheless.72 min: NEWS Melbourne off the hook as Parramatta bomb another opportunity with a kick that goes dead. The Storm have taken their foot off the pedal but they might just have too much for Parramatta in any case. Tight finish here.FULL TIME: min: NEWS The Melbourne Storm have hung on to defeat the Parramatta Eels by 12 points to 6 this afternoon at Olympic Park. Match report to come...-----------------------------------------Leagueunlimited.com players of the match:3 - Antonio Kaufusi2 - Nathan Hindmarsh1 - Matt Geyer-----------------------------------------
WHILE I have been cynical about the standard of football to this point of the 2006 season, I must admit this finals series has me intrigued more than most over the years.
THIS week we have three real bone-crunching issues to stick our teeth into. First and foremost, the Roosters? decision to sack coach Ricky Stuart. Also, the drugs debate with North Queensland?s Mitchell Sargent receiving the grim news that his contract was to be torn up after testing positive to cocaine use, and the demise of the Cronulla Sharks who seem to have gone missing in action for the last eight weeks. But we?ll start with the dramas at Bondi.
ISN?T it amazing how 20 minutes of football can turn a team?s season on its head?
IS anyone else as perplexed as I am with the lack of depth in this competition? Call me cynical, but the number of inconsistent sides this season in comparison with past seasons is unprecedented.The most alarming aspect of the competition table after 23 rounds is the fact that the fourth placed side, the Parramatta Eels, have won 11 matches and lost 10. I know the Eels have been in great form recently but of their 21 matches this year, to have won 11 games would usually place a side in the bottom half or on the fringes of the top eight.Not this year. 11 wins out of 21 matches have the Eels sitting in the top four, vying for a home semi-final.I guess now you?re expecting me to say that a top five finals system would better serve the NRL. I won?t, because even a top five this year would consist of sides that don?t deserve to play off in September!Even for Manly, a side sitting in third position, a record of 12 wins and 9 losses from their 21 appearances this season illustrates their standing is somewhat flattering. Usually a side with that sort of record would be sitting in sixth place, fifth if they?re lucky. The only just way to determine this year?s title fairly, would be to play the grand final the weekend after round 26, between the Melbourne Storm and the Canterbury Bulldogs at Olympic Park. This grand final will probably eventuate, but given Melbourne?s superiority to the Bulldogs on the competition table, I feel that the only way to see a fair contest would be to play the match in Melbourne, given their six-point lead on the Bulldogs at the moment.How naive of me to even contemplate that the fairest way to contest finals would be the way the NRL adopts. Reality is that in most years, we get three or four genuine contenders who deserve a shot at the title, another two sides which have been reasonably consistent and another two which are making up the numbers.Not this year. This year, there are only two with any right at all to be there. Melbourne should play Canterbury at Olympic Park in the only match of the finals series, and maybe Manly have earned the right to carry the water out to the players. Nevertheless, with the way the competition is designed, everything starts again when the finals begin and if momentum is given any credence, the Parramatta Eels will have a fair bit to say to those who feel that the Storm and Bulldogs will barely need to revert from second gear to qualify for the 2006 decider.Parramatta?s resurgence has been a feature of the 2006 premiership. Jason Taylor has taken full advantage of his brief first grade appointment but something tells me he won?t have to wait too long before slotting into a more permanent first grade coaching role.Some highlights have been the emergence of rookie Jarryd Hayne, the relentless ability of Nathan Hindmarsh and a more controlled role from halfback Jeremy Smith since his return from suspension. These three stars have each greatly contributed to the Eels? recent success. Smith has flourished under the tuition of Taylor, and his decision to follow the Eels coach to South Sydney, at which Taylor is taking up an assistant?s role, came as no coincidence.The only other place left for me to look this week is the other end of the scale ? the North Queensland Cowboys. I find it astounding that a side can go from competition leaders and favourites after eight rounds, to missing the top eight in the same season. They have continued to deny any off-field dramas, but from the outside looking in, it seems that those sorts of accusations may have affected the club regardless of whether there was any truth to them. Admittedly they have had injury concerns and coach Graham Murray was involved with the State of Origin series this year but there seems to be more to this fall from grace than meets the eye. A 26-0 defeat to the lowly Warriors was nothing short of spineless. They can certainly kiss their finals chances goodbye for 2006.Some may think I need to get off my high horse after these comments but here?s one to think about. Are referees becoming the scapegoats of every team?s close loss? Coaches, players and ex-players alike simply cannot find anywhere else to point the finger after a loss than the man with a whistle. It?s never a sub-standard effort from the side, or a lack of discipline, or poor execution. Now, it?s just the referee?s fault. In the current climate, who in their right mind would become a referee? I would like to applaud the NRL?s decision to charge Andrew Johns over the incident in which he allegedly swore at touch judge Matt Cecchin. You simply cannot speak to match officials in the manner which he has in the last few weeks.Another example was Nathan Brown?s outburst at referees after the Dragons were penalised heavily against the Parramatta Eels. Brown was rightly fined for his comments. We all know the real problem with the Dragons is their own lack of discipline.This continued acceptable culture that the referees are to blame does nothing for our game. All this mentality does is provide more reasons not to become a referee. I have heard many pundits blame referees over the last week or so, but none have offered valid alternative solutions to improve their performances. Referees don?t grow on trees. It?s time some of our most respected figures commented more laterally rather than shoot their mouth off at the man in the middle for good measure. You can hate the referees all you want. But if they stop refereeing, the game simply cannot operate.
AT this time last season, with four rounds remaining, I remember thinking to myself that while the Dragons and Parramatta were the two dominant forces of the NRL, other sides like the Wests Tigers and North Queensland could scamper through the pack and take the title.