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It is the penultimate week of the NRL season and after 26 grueling competition rounds and a pair of explosive playoff weekends, we have arrived at the Preliminary Finals.
The two heavyweights of the second half of the competition Parramatta and St.George Illawarra hold deserved favouritsm in their respective matches, but only the most passionate (dare I say one-eyed) Eels or Dragons supporter would think their team is a sure thing to go through to the Grand Final on October 2nd. Need I remind you of the St.Kilda fans who openly declared their team a certainty while they lined up to buy Grand Final tickets in the week before their own Preliminary Final clash with the Sydney Swans. We all know how that ended. (Go the Swannies!)
But football has a funny, if cruel, way of throwing spanners into the plans of many a title favourite in the weeks before the Grand Final.
Brisbane looked the most composed and powerful lineup in the competition until another late season fade saw them disappear from the race last weekend. Melbourne looked like breaking Parramatta?s 2001 point scoring records after bolting out the gate with huge wins in the early rounds, but they too fell by the wayside on Saturday night against the Cowboys. Both Manly and Cronulla fans had their hopes lifted to the stratosphere with excellent starts to the season, only for them to plummet out of the Top 4 with a combined 7-18 record from Round 13 onwards.
Now with two games remaining, four teams have overcome all the adversity a regular season throws at them and thanks to outstanding stretch runs, have put themselves in a position to challenge for the 2005 Telstra Premiership.
From the Couch takes a look at a few statistics which shows the dominance of these four teams at different stages in the season and analyses the chances of the Preliminary Final combatants.
PRELIMINARY FINAL ONE
St.George-Illawarra Dragons vs. Wests Tigers at Aussie Stadium
QF3: Won 28-22 over Sharks
Best Winning Streak ? 6 (Rd 21-26) Worst Losing Streak ? 4 (Rd 1-4) Best Stretch Run ? 16 wins in 20 matches (Rd 7-26) Worst Stretch Run ? 5 losses in 6 matches (Rd 1-6) NSC Consistency Rating after 26 Rounds - +25 (1st with 8 Wins by 20+) Key NSC CR Stat: The Dragons won 8 games by 20+ points equal best in the NRL with the Storm.
Clearly 16 wins in their last 20 regular season matches (17 in 21 if you include their Qualifying Final win over the Sharks) is an impressive statistic. That equates to a winning percentage of 80%, which is awesome considering the parity the NRL threw up week to week this season. But don?t overlook the fact the Dragons dropped 5 of their first 6 matches, including heavy losses to the Bulldogs, Storm and Raiders by a combined 72 points. That slide came before the Dragons were completely healthy and the results with their best squad on the park in the months since have seen a rampant team rack up the wins. Their four 20+ victory margins over a five week period (Rd 19-23) showed the Dragons at the peak of their powers, however in their past three matches the Dragons have only beaten Parramatta by 3, the Knights by 8 and the Sharks by 6. Now that?s not to take anything away from their own or their opponent?s performances in recent weeks, but the Dragons thrive on dominating their opponents and rolling over the top of them with unstoppably momentum.
As the Sharks showed in their qualifying final, if you muscle up on the Dragons on the edge of the ruck you smother a lot of their attacking potency by restricting the space and field position the Dragons edge runners like Gasnier and Cooper crave. During that game you had the feeling if the Sharks could have put a couple more tries on in the first half when they had the best of the field position, the Dragons could have been playing last weekend. But the Dragons stood firm and in a polished second half performance they ended the Sharks season.
Against the Tigers this weekend they will face a team with the ability to throw the ball about like the Knights did in the second half of their Round 26 encounter when Joey and his offload crazy band of Knights nearly toppled the Dragons at Oki Jubilee. That care free, dare to dream style of play will worry any team and for the Dragons to overcome the Tigers they must shut down the ball carrier at every opportunity and smother the edge of the field with fast moving defenders.
The absence of Mathew Head looked to be a savage blow to the Dragons title hopes, but Ben Hornby has been outstanding in the halfback jumper. While the Dragons have missed Hornby?s ability to chime into the play when he saw the right opportunity present itself from fullback they have not suffered too much. That off the cuff kind of spark in attack coupled with Head?s brilliance around the rucks would have made the Dragons an even more fearsome unit but it was not to be. While Hornby?s involvement has picked up in attack obviously, the Dragons biggest coup in the shift has been their ability to hide him in defence. For any fullback moving to the defensive line is a tough assignment (just ask Darren Lockyer) but in the past 3 matches Hornby has been required to make only 8 tackles against the Sharks, 14 against the Knights and 13 against the Eels. This small workload has only resulted in him missing a total of 3 tackles over those three matches. Considering Lockyer racked up tallies of 21, 23, 24 (missing 16 tackles over the same period) in his last three matches you must give credit the Dragons defensive structure for doing an incredible job in protecting their halfback. You would expect the Tigers to try and maximise Hornby?s involvement in defence to potentially minimise his involvement in attack. How effective the Dragons are in preventing this could be a big factor in the result of the match.
But the Dragons have the form on the board and it is hard to see a team who has posted such an incredible record for such a long stretch being beaten but...
QF1: Won 50-6 over Cowboys SF2: Won 34-6 over Broncos
Best Winning Streak ? 8 (Rd 16-24) Worst Losing Streak ? 4 (Rd 6-9) Best Stretch Run ? 11 wins in 14 matches (Rd 10-24) Worst Stretch Run ? 6 losses in 9 matches (Rd 6-15) NSC Consistency Rating after 26 Rounds - +12 (5th) Key NSC CR Stat: The Tigers were beaten by 20+ points only once all season by North Queensland in Round 6, only the Warriors who were not beaten by 20+ points at all had a better record.
It is amazing how the Tigers have quickly erased all memory of their two game lapse at the end of the regular season with two of the most contrasting semi final victories in recent times. Before the qualifying final against the Cowboys my own feeling was the Tigers bubble had burst. They had lost Todd Payten to injury which looked to have severely weakened their forwards and their double losses against the Storm and Panthers didn?t help contradict that assessment. Heading into the game they looked to lack the go-forward necessary to overcome an apparently more powerful Cowboys pack. How wrong did I turn out to be! Helped by a Cowboys side devoid of direction and passion, the Tigers turned on the magic in the second half of their final to completely run away with the match 50-6. Within the space of a week the Tigers were back in their groove and the confidence that we?d seen over their 8 match winning streak had returned.
Against the Broncos they were well behind their opponents in every significant category except for the one that matters ? the scoreboard. I can?t think of a game that had one team so far behind the other in terms of field position, possession and attacking opportunities, yet led 22-6 midway through the second half. The final score was a little insulting towards the Broncos, especially when you consider they were incredibly duded when Darren Smith was denied a try when he clearly got the ball on the line before Benji Marshall flipped him. That decision became a 12 point turn around when Marshall pounced on a Smith inside ball to race almost the length of the field for the first points of the match. But be that as it may, the Tigers ability to lead the game at half time 10-0 let alone 34-6 at full time proved to me that the confident swagger Tim Sheens had been trying to keep under control for the past few months had been replaced with something even more dangerous for opposition teams: self belief.
There is no doubt that if a team rides high on confidence that they can beat anyone when they click, but if the same team sees their cohesion and skill level drop in the face of adversity, more often than not that confidence is shattered and the team doesn?t recover. In the process of beating the Broncos (who did everything right but put points on the board) the Tigers replaced that confidence with the kind of self belief Tim Sheens wanted his charges to feel weeks ago after their back to back losses. In both of those games the Tigers had patches where their passes stuck and they scored points with ease, but their defence lacked bite and desperation. Because of this deficiency the Tigers didn?t pull themselves out of the holes they dug for themselves in both matches. Last weekend however they pulled themselves out of what could have been a massive hole before halftime and as an added bonus had kept the better team in the contest scoreless.
They were behind the 8-ball, yet were ahead on the scoreboard. It was exactly the kind of game the Dragons didn?t want the Tigers winning. They?d have much preferred a repeat of the week before and another total drubbing, ensuring the Tigers confidence remained, but a genuine self belief that no matter the situation the Tigers could win had yet to be found.
On Saturday night we?ll see just how deep the self belief of the Tigers runs. In front of a sell out crowd they have the opportunity to firmly entrench themselves as the first true Cinderella team since 1998 when the Bulldogs made the Grand Final from 9th.
FTC Prediction: Tigers by 4