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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 TWO
QF4: Won 46-22 over Sea Eagles
Best Winning Streak ? 6 (Rd 9-15) Worst Losing Streak ? 2 (Rd 19-20) Best Stretch Run ? 12 wins in 16 matches (Rd 11-26) Worst Stretch Run ? 4 losses in 7 matches (Rd 2-8) NSC Consistency Rating after 26 Rounds - +25 (2nd with 6 Wins by 20+) Key NSC CR Stat: Parramatta were involved in 10 ?close? games ending with 6 wins by 1-10 points and 5 losses by the same margin, Penrith led the league with 16 ?close? games with a 6-10 record.
While winning 12 of their last 16 (13 of 17 including semi final) matches has the Eels well oiled for a premiership assault, one can?t help but wonder how big the loss of Nathan Hindmarsh could be if the Cowboys turn it on in the Preliminary Final. Hindmarsh is the best forward in the world without a shadow of a doubt (thanks Matty Johns for making that line sound so played) and even though the Eels have the most rounded pack in the competition, his absence could end another Parramatta dream one game from the Grand Final. His ability to close down one side of the ruck in defence cannot be understated. The Eels will find a capable replacement for his work rate in attack, but his defence is second to none and against a Cowboys team with the likes of Thurston, Bowen and Firman dancing on the edge of the ruck, Hindmarsh?s absence will be targeted early and often by North Queensland?s attack.
But that is the negative heading into Sunday?s game; the positive is the Eels were irresistible in the first half against Manly playing a brand of football that systematically works over an opposition?s defence with a balance of up the guts and around the edges play that is extremely effective. Tim Smith and John Morris like to have their runners hit their passes on the alternate angle that they themselves run. This gets the defence moving one way with their footwork, making it harder to readjust to the battering ram coming back the other way. Having Nathan Cayless, Glenn Morrison, Paul Stringer, Michael Vella and Dean Widders as their primary weapons makes the tactic even more effective.
Then there?s the ability of Smith and Morris to kick the ball in the attacking zone, for you stat fans out there: Tim Smith has created 23 Tries this year from kicks including 10 from Grubber Kicks, 10 from Cross Kicks and 3 from Chip Kicks. John Morris has created 9 Tries from kicks including 2 from Grubber Kicks, 6 from Cross Kicks and 1 from a Chip Kick.
But perhaps the biggest weapon the Eels have in their arsenal is their centres: Timana Tahu and Ben Smith ? both athletic big men who love to hit flat passes from Smith or Morris on a straight angle on the far edges of the ruck. Look for the Smiths to operate on the left and Morris and Tahu on the right using this play after a forward run back in towards the ruck.
The fact the Eels have been involved in more ?close? games than any other Top 4 side suggests they build a lot of their success off the back of a strong defence. Against a Cowboys side that lives and dies by its ability to score points, this defensive advantage should get the Eels across the line in another ?close? but possibly high scoring game.
NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS
QF1: Lost 6-50 to Tigers SF1: Won 24-16 over Storm
Best Winning Streak ? 2 (Rd 6-8) Worst Losing Streak ? 2 (Rd 9-10, Rd 14&16, Rd 18-19, Rd 22-23) Best Stretch Run ? 8 wins in 12 matches (Rd 1-13) Worst Stretch Run ? 6 losses in 9 matches (Rd 14-21) NSC Consistency Rating after 26 Rounds - +11 (6th) Key NSC CR Stat: North Queensland were blown out more than any other Final Four team with 4 losses of 20+ points and 3 in the 11-19 range, a far cry short however from the Bunnies who leaked 20+ 9 times.
The team that is flying under everyone?s radar this weekend has perhaps the most room for improvement of all the preliminary finalists. North Queensland was average in their first half against the Tigers and abysmal in the second, and then turned that around in their win over the Storm with a great first forty and a lackluster final half. This kind of Jekyll and Hyde act does not normally get you into the penultimate weekend of the season, but the deficiencies of the McIntyre System delivered the Cowboys an opportunity to sneak into the title decider without playing their best football. It is an opportunity this team must take if they are to genuinely take the next step as a club.
Last season the media got on the North Queensland bandwagon and coupled with fantastic wins over the Bulldogs and Broncos, the Cowboys fell just one game short of the Grand Final. This season they were expected to do well and despite only 3 wins between Rounds 14 and 21, the team finished in fifth and had a great chance at a title shot. But after capitulating to the Tigers in the first week of the Finals many wrote this year?s Cowboys off as also-rans and cannon fodder for the following week. But despite Paul Simpkin?s poor refereeing, the Cowboys improved enough to take out the Storm and book a place in a second successive preliminary final. This time the Cowboys will not get another chance if they put in a bad half of football, they must click and start well against the Minor Premiers, as the Eels thrive on the a high possession rate and use it to their full advantage.
Johnathan Thurston and Matthew Bowen are the difference makers in this game. Should they fire behind a forward pack that has yet another opportunity to use its monster size to run over their opposition, the Cowboys can not only beat the Eels but beat them well. But the key is momentum, give Bowen and Thurston room and they will create try scoring opportunities and the Cowboys will score 18-20 points before you know what has hit you. They have this innate ability to freeze defensive lines and pick the right option to exploit any weaknesses that present themselves. Only a handful of players in the NRL have this ability and the Cowboys are blessed with a pair of aces in their deck. The probable move of Ty Williams into the right centre position to replace Josh Hannay would actually increase the attacking potency of the Cowboys, and Williams would be given chances to work over Ben Smith early and often.
But the Cowboys for all their attacking potential are a flaky football team. Despite coach Graham Murray?s best efforts, this side drifts off during games and loses all focus. It is a problem that has reared its ugly head in two Finals and throughout the season. Of the last four teams the Cowboys lost more games by 20+ points (4 times) while between them the other three teams lost only 6 games by that margin. It is a statistic that suggests if the Eels start well the Cowboys will be shot ducks before their gun even leaves the holster.
FTC Prediction: Eels by 8