NRL Grand Final Preview

We?ve finally arrived at the big day after 190 first grade games, a Test match, three State of Origin?s and a City v Country fixture.

It?s funny the feeling when you get to the end of the season - you begin to think ?where has it all gone?? Fans of teams that didn?t making it through to the semis are starting to get itchy about next year, and those dumped from the finals action are probably still a bit filthy on the whole thing.

This year?s Grand Final pits two non-NSW teams against one another for the first time ever, a fact that has made it easier for fans of traditional clubs to get even darker on the game.

One thing the NRL are going to be happy with is the jingle on their marketing campaign. ?7 Premiers in 8 Years? can be re-used as both sides have won a premiership within the time allotted and the only thing the gurus down at Fox Studios will need to do is take to the 2007 slogan with a bit of liquid paper.

Anyway, onto the game:

Both clubs have a few emotional heart-strings being tugged with the retirement of Webcke (Broncos) and departure of Hill (Storm) set to ensure plenty of tears following the game. Add to that fact that neither club has lost a G.F. and the stakes are raised even higher.

I closely observed both Preliminary finals last week and it?s not easy to draw a line of form from with which to compare.

The Broncos

Brisbane made a remarkable comeback from 20-6 at halftime against Canterbury to win 37-20, whilst the Storm were clinical and always in control against the Dragons. The only change to either side is the loss of Crocker for Melbourne, and I do think this will have an impact.

The Broncos won?t lose this game through lack of effort. Their forward pack is full of workers like Webcke, Civoniceva, Carroll, Berrigan and Parker who have been doing an outstanding job recently. Their go forward in the second half against Canterbury was exceptional and a weapon they will likely use against Melbourne.

You can?t say enough good things about Hodges at the moment; his break to inspire Berrigan?s try last week is typical of his natural ability and his understated grunt factor. The man has a real mean fend and has been more effective from fullback recently, adding mystery to where Hunt will play. Another player to look out for in the three-quarters is Tate. He?s been a little bit quiet lately but we all know what he?s capable of and I think he might have a real bottler.

The halves for Brisbane are a bit like something you?d get on Perfect Match. Gun five-eighth Darren Lockyer has been paired with the tradesman-like Shane Perry at the scrumbase. But it?s not really Perry who?s been playing at halfback. Lockyer has slipped into that role more often than not with Berrigan taking pressure off him when necessary and Perry spending a bit of time at hooker. It seems to be working but the key is obviously getting the ball to Lockyer with time which is easier said than done considering how quickly and effectively Melbourne get off their own line.

The Storm

The runaway minor premiers hit back against the Dragons last week, showing all those doubting Thomas?s out there that they mean business after a bit of a lame effort against Parra three weeks ago.

Their control of the game was outstanding as was the scrum play they hatched for Inglis?s first try. It begs the question: why don?t Leagueies do this more often? I suppose they kept this one for dramatic effect and it was a beauty.

Speaking of Inglis, the Broncos had better keep a close eye on him. You can?t really call him a rising star any longer, but I think he can certainly rise higher. His battle with Tate will be great to watch but he doesn?t mind spending a bit of time on the other side of the field too. King on Stagg and Turner on Boyd will also be intense battles.

Slater, the guy Inglis was keeping out of first grade for a while, will also be key to victory. His returns are quality and it gives a big advantage to the Storm pack who get to start further up the field against the larger Broncos forwards. Kidwell, Hoffman and Johnson are a great backrow but their props give away a bit of weight and experience to Brisbane.

This is where Smith comes into the equation. His running, passing and kicking out of dummy half give so many more options and points of attack to the Storm. He also makes 30-odd tackles a game, offering more to his team than the in-from Berrigan.

This brings us to Melbourne?s halves: Cronk and Hill. These two have forged a great understanding throughout what has been a turbulent season. Hill was dropped at one point but has since fought his way back and provides an experienced head for Cronk to turn to when he needs it.

Not that he has very often - Cronk loves to run the ball and finds gaps in the middle of the park like a beagle looking for drugs at the airport. His kicking game is astute and fitness is without question.

And the winner is?

I?m tipping Melbourne here and if there?s any justice in this world they?ll win it. To lose this Grand Final will be akin to Parra?s capitulation in 2001 and we all know what?s unfolded out there since then.

There is a bit of an undercurrent suggesting the scoreline will blow out in favour of the Storm. Whilst they?re a great attacking side I don?t think this will happen. Brisbane are a proud club and there is no bigger day than Grand Final day ? they won?t be leaving anything to chance.

Plus, has anyone considered a Melbourne choke? I know they?re very disciplined and wonderful to watch, but it could happen. They are a predominantly young side who took all before them this season and are expected to win, so if things don?t quite go their way from the outset, that?s generally when things start to get a bit tight around the neckline.

And don?t rule out a bit of biff, Paul Harragon is was quoted as saying in the sheds at halftime in the 1997 decider ?They don?t send people off in Grand Finals? No wonder Carroll?s head came out looking so shabby. It?s been a while since Hanley was belted by Lamb and perhaps that?s the tonic Brisbane need to win. After all, it?s win at all costs in this one.

I?ll stick with Melbourne, as they have a few scrappers too, but either way we?re going to see one of the more memorable Grand Finals in recent times.