At this time last season, with four rounds remaining, I remember thinking to myself that while the Dragons and Parramatta were the two dominant forces of the NRL, other sides like the Wests Tigers and North Queensland could scamper through the pack and take the title.
Sadly for the health of the competition, I don�t share similar sentiments this season.
While the Eels have been red-hot in recent weeks, and while there is another month before the competition enters its finals phase, let�s not beat around the bush � NRL 2006 has really come down to two contenders � the Melbourne Storm and the Canterbury Bulldogs.
Again we must emphasise the fact that serious injuries to key players could come into play, and another month remains in the 2006 premiership. But any side other than these two playing off on the first Sunday of October should now be considered a possibility rather than a probability.
I�ll take this opportunity to compare these two dominant sides, and what may occur should they meet in October - assuming all players are fit and well which I guess could be considered na�ve in this day and age. But nevertheless, here�s one for argument�s sake.
When you look at Melbourne you look at a side which plays the game at a frenetic pace. Even if you feel as though you�ve dominated a tackle, they�ll still find a way to get a quick play the ball. It�s always one or the other, a quick play the ball or a charge over the advantage line. And a charge over the advantage line usually means both will occur. When it�s both, good luck preventing them from scoring a try in the same set of six.
Their backline is the best in the NRL. If you think Billy Slater is hard enough to handle, wait until you have to deal with Greg Inglis. Then you just throw in a few guys like Jake Webster, Matt King and Matt Geyer, and you have a backline which is irresistible. Their ability to score from anywhere on the park is unbelievable and they certainly showed the �Dogs this first hand when the two sides met in Round 16 � scoring in the last 10 seconds to snatch victory.
On to the halves and Cooper Cronk has been an astute pupil of Craig Bellamy�s. Cronk is definitely the most improved player in the NRL for 2006. You don�t lead the competition by six competition points without a noted halfback, and Cronk�s contribution has been excellent. He hasn�t tried to overplay his hand at any stage and plays well within his limitations. He has a very structured game and he knows where to be at all times. This just adds credibility to the work of Bellamy. Scott Hill appears to have recovered from a shaky start to 2006 and is beginning to look ominous for opposing sides. Melbourne loses nothing in the halves.
The Storm forward pack is underrated to say the least. Players like Garret Crossman, Ian Donnelly and Brett White aren�t as revered as the Bulldogs� pack, but their work ethic is superb. Throw in the dangerous running and offload ability of David Kidwell and you have yourself a first class pack.
Now to Canterbury. They play a traditional sort of game which, as always with the Bulldogs, revolves around their forward pack. Their main asset as a unit is definitely their fitness. They are without doubt the fittest side in the NRL, they seem to hit as hard in the 75th minute as they do in the fifth. That is their other asset. Their punishing nature in defence. They hit sides with brute force all game and eventually it takes its toll on the opposition. You just can�t keep up with that sort of punishment when the Bulldogs are on their game. The pack mentality of the side is scary. You couldn�t blame anyone for looking at the guy next to them when it�s their turn to take the ball up against the �Dogs.
While their backline is fairly stable it could be considered a weak point in the Bulldogs� case for premiership favouritism. I will say that Luke Patten has been outstanding this season and why he doesn�t gain representative recognition more often is a mystery to me. Hazem El Masri just keeps converting tries and Willie Tonga is very dangerous when given early ball from the halves. But I have question marks over Andrew Emelio at centre and while Matt Utai has his moments, his discipline is a major issue and his height is also a problem. Don�t be surprised to see sides bombing to Utai�s wing as soon as he returns from suspension. El Masri�s lack of height on the wing is also a problem the �Dogs need to address. I think largely the backline lacks mobility but the way the forwards are going, the Bulldogs might get away with it.
To the halves and whilst they have been improving, it�s still advantage Melbourne here. Daniel Holdsworth has had a solid first season for the Bulldogs and certainly hasn�t let anyone down this season. People keep saying that Brent Sherwin is back to his best. He is slowly improving but to say that he�s playing as well now as he was in 2004 would be ludicrous. He still directs his troops around the park very well, but he may just need to find that extra gear if his side is to topple Melbourne.
The forward pack is the logo on the Mercedes for the Bulldogs. If Melbourne have the advantage in the backline, Canterbury definitely boast the superior pack. First you have Mark O�Meley and Roy Asotasi nailing you up the middle. If you think that isn�t enough, Willie Mason will soon follow with Andrew Ryan lurking on the edges of the ruck. Still want more? Try dealing with Reni Maitua in the form he�s in at the moment. Once you�ve had fun there, enjoy Sonny Bill Williams� and Nate Myles� input after about 25 minutes. Chris Armit and Jarryd Hickey aren�t too bad either. It�s the best forward pack in the competition and comparisons to the Bulldogs� packs of the eighties are not out of line by any stretch of the imagination.
An area the Bulldogs need to clean up is their discipline. Corey Hughes and Matt Utai have let the side down on a number of occasions and failure to address these issues could spell danger for a side which has traditionally been strict on discipline. They�ve let their guard down massively in that area this season and Melbourne certainly hold the edge in that regard also.
Now to a verdict on the sides and hypothetically speaking, if they were to meet in a Grand Final tomorrow, I�d have to go with the Melbourne Storm.
I think they have the ability to absorb whatever punishment the Bulldogs� forwards throw at them and they have a lethal backline which can capitalise on any try-scoring opportunity. The lack of mobility in the Bulldogs� backs will hurt, especially trying to overcome their Melbourne counterparts.
However in saying that, I will acknowledge a valid point mentioned by Phil Gould on television over the weekend. Gould pointed out that invariably, things never go according to plan on Grand Final day. You need to find a way to win without playing at your best and I must say I agree with his thoughts there.
Look at The Bulldogs of 2004, Penrith in 2003, and the Roosters in 2002. None of those sides played at their best on the big day but found a way to win. The Bulldogs hold an advantage over Melbourne in that they have proven their ability to win at all costs, even when the side is having an off day. This doesn�t change my prediction that Melbourne will be the 2006 premiers, but I thought it was a valid point worth noting.
There�s one for argument�s sake. Until next week, enjoy your footy!