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Two down, six to go. The Canberra Raiders and Parramatta Eels, as expected, have been eliminated from the 2006 NRL competition following losses to the Bulldogs and Melbourne respectively. I guess that begs the question as to what relevance the other two matches had. But that?s another story. We?ll now take a look at where each team stands after the first weekend of the play-offs.
Melbourne: They have lost only four matches this season and were by far the best side in the minor premiership, but I?m sorry to say for Melbourne fans that the bubble could be well on its way to bursting at the wrong time of the year. While their defence was still intact on Sunday against the Eels, their options in attack, particularly in the second half, lacked any real desire. They limped to the finish line against the eighth placed side and the effort they displayed on the weekend won?t be good enough to beat any of the remaining sides in the premiership. Back to square one for Craig Bellamy over the next fortnight.
Canterbury: A classic example of why you only need to turn up on the day in finals matches and produce the goods. They looked a shadow of themselves in the last three weeks of the premiership but all of a sudden they find themselves one game away from a grand final appearance, just two seasons after their last premiership. With injured players likely to return for the Preliminary Final, they?ll do the same thing ? turn up on the day and try to produce the goods. And who is to say they can?t at this stage?
Brisbane: What is it about their abysmal record come September in recent years? I thought this season may have been different given that they had a winning run of three matches going into the finals, but it?s the same old story for the Broncos. They?ll have their work cut out against the Knights this weekend and a straight sets elimination will yet again ask questions of Wayne Bennett.
Newcastle: They did well to come back against the Sea Eagles but something still doesn?t seem right about the Newcastle side. Danny Buderus is sure to be suspended for a lengthy period and Brisbane will be looking to make amends for their poor showing against the Dragons. Jarrod Mullen is certainly a find for them but Andrew Johns will need to step up if they?re to account for the Broncos minus Buderus.
Manly: A spirited effort up north in Newcastle and were unlucky not to come away with the victory. Should have won the match after holding an 18-6 lead at one stage. A very strong defensive effort which is a positive they can take into this week?s match against the Dragons. But even if the Dragons are minus Mark Gasnier, it?ll take a superhuman effort from Manly given the form the Dragons are in at the moment.
St George Illawarra: Certainly the most likely of the four sides playing this weekend to dismantle the Storm or Bulldogs from a title decider and ultimate supremacy. They showed the Broncos how to play finals football on Saturday night and maybe this could be the year their supporters have been waiting patiently for. They needed to win that match in case one of the top sides dropped their bundle and they made sure that they?d stick around for another week. I get the feeling it will be much longer than just one week, though. Mark Gasnier will be missed but when Mathew Head is on his game, no side can match the Dragons for creativity.
A massive weekend of finals approaches as Manly play St George Illawarra on Friday night and Newcastle take on Brisbane on Saturday night. The winner of Friday night?s clash will meet Melbourne in week three, whilst Saturday night?s victor will play the Bulldogs on the following Friday for a spot in the Grand Final.
I?m tipping the Dragons in the opening match. They were clinical in dismissing the Broncos last weekend and they should prevail despite the loss of Gasnier. Manly?s defence will need to be on and if it is, they?ll give themselves a chance at an upset. But the Dragons? form last weekend was irresistible and they could go all the way to the Grand Final given the shakiness of the Storm on Sunday.
As for Saturday night?s clash, I?ll stick with the Broncos but only because Buderus will be missing from the Knights? line-up. The men north of the Tweed have a lot to prove in finals but I?ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they?ll beat Newcastle in a close game. This game will be an absolute cracker and Canterbury will be awaiting the winner.
That?s all for this week?s rant. Enjoy the finals matches this weekend and I?ll catch you next weekend with a review of those games and a look ahead at the Preliminary Finals.