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Well ladies and gents, get ready, what we?ve been waiting for has finally arrived ? NRL Season 2006 kicks off this Friday night.
That?s right, four NRL sides will face off in a truncated knockout extravaganza.
The Bulldogs will play Brisbane in the season opener, with the Melbourne Storm and St George Illawarra Dragons rounding out the weekend with a clash on Saturday night which is sure to silence a few demons for the successful club.
This fortnight thriller will culminate with a Grand Final showdown between the two winners the following Sunday evening.
Now you may think I?ve gone crazy here. But I think it has taken us 28 weeks to dispose of the deadwood in this competition.
We now have a competition on our hands.
Last weekend is a case in point. We supposedly had two classic finals matches but they were soured by the alarming difference in standard between teams three and four, and teams five and six. The winners clocked up a total of 78 points, whilst all the losers could provide was six points between them.
I liken the NRL this year to a grand slam tennis tournament. There are 128 players in the draw but there?s really only eight or nine players battling for the title. And most of the spectators are waiting around for the second week of matches to see these far superior rivals face off.
In comparison, the NRL has 15 players in the draw. But it?s really only the top four seeds with any realistic chance of taking the title. Although unlike tennis fans that only need to wait a week or so for the deadwood to be cut, as rugby league fans, we?ve needed to occupy ourselves for 28 weeks.
Mouthwatering ? that?s the only phrase that could be justifiably used to describe this weekend?s clashes. The reason I?m excited at the prospect of these blockbusters is because the sides playing each other have styles which mirror those of their opponents.
Friday?s night?s Preliminary Final between the Canterbury Bulldogs and the Brisbane Broncos will be a battle between the NRL?s two fiercest packs. The likes of Mark O?Meley, Willie Mason, Andrew Ryan and Roy Asotasi will go head to head with Broncos heavyweights Shane Webcke, Petero Civoniceva and Tonie Carroll in arguably the most anticipated finals forward battle in 20 years.
I see trouble brewing for the Bulldogs here if they don?t win the battle up front early. While I feel they have the slightly better pack, bolstered by today?s announcement that Roy Asotasi and Reni Maitua will play, I have held similar feelings before clashes between these two sides in the past and the Broncos have seemingly managed to contain the Bulldogs? forwards. They then subsequently punch the ball out to their formidable backline and score points at will. A luxury the Bulldogs just don?t have.
The first 20 minutes here is vital. The Dogs could shut the Broncos out of the game but if they don?t, and in recent times they have struggled to do, the Broncos will run over the top of them over the course of the 80 minutes. It will be an entertaining contest all the same and make sure you get out to Aussie Stadium on Friday night, regardless of who you support.
The St George Illawarra Dragons and Melbourne Storm are very similar but for the opposite reasons to the Bulldogs and Broncos - they boast the two best backlines in the NRL.
Players like Mark Gasnier and Matt Cooper taking on Matt King and Greg Inglis, among many other big names from both backlines, will be a feature of this match.
Unlike the other match, I feel that if Melbourne is to be any chance they must stay with the Dragons for the early part of proceedings. The Dragons have a forward pack running into red-hot form and I?m not sure that the Storm can contain them. Having said that, pound-for-pound, these backlines cancel each other out.
The Storm?s forwards will need to roll up their sleeves in the first 20 minutes and dig deep. If they can do that, it?s anyone?s game. But if the Dragons? big men maintain their recent dominance in the first 20 minutes of this game, it could be all over red rover.
Adding further spice to this knockout qualifier is the fact that this is a 1999 Grand Final replay ? probably the most controversial on record. The bad blood has stuck between these two clubs and a crowd of any less than 50,000 wouldn?t do this match justice. Be sure to get out to Telstra on Saturday evening.
Michael Crocker has lit the fuse by claiming that the Dragons have let their fans down in recent years. His statements may have merit, but if we have learned anything over the last few years or so, these sorts of comments can leave those who make them eat their words. I?m certain that Craig Bellamy would be privately fuming that Crocker has given the Dragons this added motivation.
However, I guess all questions will be answered over the weekend.
Game, set, match. Let the tournament begin.