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September is here and that means Finals.
From The Couch returns after an injury induced layoff of 3 months to analyse the 2005 Telstra Premiership Qualifying Finals.
Qualifying Final Four
Eels by 32
Where it will be won:
Parramatta holds all the aces going into this contest. Home ground advantage, Minor Premiers, knocking off the Broncos at the same ground a week earlier, their halves are in awesome form, four wins from five starts, the NRL?s best attack with 704 points, the NRL?s best defence only conceding 456 points, all three grades will play in the Finals on the same day and their captain is back in the kind of form that made him a star.
Nathan Cayless is the most important card in the deck however, as the Eels enter the Finals Series without their best player in Nathan Hindmarsh. The Kiwi prop has been nothing short of sensational this season, leading from the front in every game and dispelling any thought that his days as a strike forward were over. At only 27 he has nailed the one aspect of his game that had been missing for the past two seasons and that was consistency. As a leader that is the most important characteristic and Cayless quite possibly has been more important to the Parramatta campaign than Hindmarsh was this season.
When you have Glenn Morrison, Paul Stringer, Daniel Wagon, Michael Vella, Dean Widders and Chad Robinson also in the pack with Cayless, even without Hindmarsh, there is not a lot lacking in the makeup of your forwards. The fact Cayless is in such inspired form has allowed Stringer and Morrison in particular to do their jobs without the burden of being their team?s best forward on their backs. Morrison is lurking wide not being required to do as much work up the centre as he used to and Stringer is thriving as the second cog in the go-forward machine. Add Widders off the bench and his ability to inject himself into the contest 20 minutes in and you have the NRL?s most complete forward pack.
Even with Hindmarsh out, Manly still can?t match that kind of depth and consistency the Eels will bring into the contest. While the Sea Eagles boast a superb backrow of Ben Kennedy, Steve Menzies and Anthony Watmough, they have failed to get regular impact from their props with only Brent Kite providing consistent go-forward this year. Despite the obvious class of their three best players and Kennedy has been amongst the best in the NRL period, they simply won?t be able to match the Eels strength for strength as the game progresses.
Michael Monaghan and Brett Stewart are great footballers but like their backrow team-mates lack the support to overcome a far superior Eels backline featuring Tim Smith, John Morris, Timana Tahu and Eric Grothe.
How it will play out:
Manly must come out all guns blazing to give themselves any chance of unsettling the Eels style of play which relies on steady go forward, quick dummy half runs and the skills of Smith and Morris in attack. Monaghan will attack Grothe and Burt with cross-field kicks, as both are not great under the high ball and the Sea Eagles captain needs Watmough and Menzies giving him options in attack. By playing Menzies at five-eighth Manly are committing their entire attacking structure to the skills and smarts of Monaghan and see how far he can take them. The ironic part in this is the fact the Sea Eagles were so eager to replace Monaghan in the #7 jersey with Matt Orford for 2006.
Parramatta should have the desire and focus to open the game strongly and control possession. As their mutlitalented pack gets going the space wide of the ruck will allow Smith and Morris to work second man plays and cross field kicks at will. This onslaught coupled with the size and speed of the Eels three-quarter line will cause nightmares for the Manly backs and when Parramatta score they will score down the edges.
Also look for Menzies and Watmough to zero in on the Eels halfback early in the match and pressure him as much as possible in an effort to dissipate his confidence and attempt to freeze up the Parramatta machine.
Manly?s performance in the first half against Canberra last week was much improved from their previous form and they have nothing to lose in this match. Also Parramatta were somewhat fortunate to get a lion?s share of possession in the second half of their last two matches to roll over the Raiders and Broncos after tough first forties. But if Manly are to spring an upset here they would need an incredible amount of possession themselves over the course of the match and it is hard to see the Eels making that many errors given their current form. Eels in a second half canter.