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East meets West in the battle for Rugby League supremacy. There are a thousand clich?s that can be used to describe the first Sydney grand final since 1996 and by now, I?m sure you?ve heard them all ad nauseam so I won?t bore you with the socio-economic differences between the two teams, their fans and cultures.
The game itself offers many intriguing battles within the major battle and for every reason why the Roosters can win, a reason for the Panthers demise has also been offered. The punters have the Roosters as overwhelming favourites at somewhere around $1.45 and the Panthers $2.55 which is astonishing considering it?s a two horse race and the points have been shared between these two sides in their two meetings this season.
The Roosters are playing it cool after winning the premiership in 2002 while the Panthers are champing at the bit as they make their first grand final appearance since 1991 and the enthusiasm has been evident for all to see throughout the week but will the underdogs be overwhelmed once the players take the field in front of 80,000 rugby league fans? For the good of the game and the people of the west, one can only hope not.
Brad Fittler is aiming for his third premiership and there is no more experienced player in the game but there are still many questions to be answered over his suspect shoulder and can it take a further 80 minutes of punishment. Fittler holds the key to the Roosters success and while Craig Wing, Craig Fitzgibbon, Luke Ricketson and Adrian Morley provide a superb ensemble cast, we have seen the Roosters without Fittler fold like a proverbial house of cards. This was no more evident than in their last meeting when Fittler left the field with his bung shoulder and the Panthers came roaring back into the contest. The Panthers need to give his shoulder the most stringent of workouts in the hope it fails again and the men in black take full advantage.
The other key to victory is the battle of the dummy half area. If Rhys Wesser can get into dummy half and get the Roosters forwards on the back foot, the Panthers big men and outside backs can then go to work trying to exploit any weakness. The Roosters will be trying to do exactly the same thing and it has been a hallmark of their success this season with Craig Wing easily the most explosive runner out of dummy half. I?m sure John Lang has done his homework but the slightest lapse and Wing will disappear like a thief in the night and with hi will go the 2003 NRL Telstra Premiership.
The Panthers also have the wily Luke Priddis who, while not as explosive as Wing, is just as dangerous and what he lacks in speed, he makes up for in guile and cunning, especially close to the opposing try line where his brute strength will see him take three defenders across the line with him to score. Again, Ricky Stuart will have the Roosters on their guard to watch for Priddis close to the line.
The battle of the outside backs also shapes up as a mouth watering clash with the some of the games best on display. Luke Lewis is the best winger in the NRL at out jumping his opposite number to score a swag of tries. Against the Bulldogs he made Matt Utai look second rate and did not break stride in doing so. Craig Gower will be peppering the Roosters flanks all night with Luke Lewis and Luke Rooney looking for the match-winning try.
Goal kicking will also be a crucial element to the game and with Ryan Girdler and Craig Fitzgibbon, you have two of the league?s best sharpshooters on display. One solitary miss could cost their team the premiership.
History has shown Australia loves an underdog and so often the underdog rises to the occasion to steal the glory. Newcastle in 2001 and Melbourne in 1999 immediately spring to mind as teams who overcame the odds to win big. I think the Panthers can and will win tomorrow night to rub out any thoughts at a possible Roosters dynasty but man this is going to be one hell of a match and don?t be surprised if the game goes into extra time. As I am from the west, I have to follow the age old tradition and will the underdog to victory over the consumate professionals from the east.
Get your hair dirty boys, the chicks dig it!