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It?s Finals time! And with the first of the Qualifying Finals kicking off tonight, we break down the two key men in each game. While the Top 8 system remains in place for financial reasons to be fair the first week of the Finals has some delicious games on offer. That being said a Top 5 system would have two absolutely cracking games with the Bulldogs facing the Broncos in the Major Preliminary Semi Final and the Knights against the Sea Eagles in the Minor Preliminary Semi Final, but what is the sanctity of the Finals Series versus the income generated from another two games of football this weekend? But we digress. Here are the two key men in each Qualifying Final. Friday ? Knights v Sea Eagles @ Energy Australia Andrew Johns, Knights We all know he is still the most dominant player in the game and the two week rest he had for some creative language was probably a good thing for the 32 year old. Looked to have been carrying some knocks in the previous couple of months and a little downtime surfing etc will have this champion primed for a big one against the Sea Eagles. Will particularly want to silence his critics by beating the Sea Eagles well before the last minute when a referee/touch judge call can have a significant impact on the result. Expect a big one from the game?s Number One. Ben Kennedy, Sea Eagles Will he be fit? There is no doubt Kennedy will play but regardless of the strong rumour that he wanted to play against the Storm in Round 26, Kennedy being 100% for this game is a pipedream. Manly?s vaunted backrow looked fairly average without him, although to be fair Steve Menzies has tried hard to fill in for Kennedy?s absence. Could be playing his last game of Rugby League so expect a huge hit up count and an 80minute performance from the big fella (even if he isn?t fully fit). Kennedy won?t be a major threat to run through the line but his ability to offload halfway through defenders will be devastating if Brett Stewart lurks around his captain every time he takes the ball up. Prediction: Johns? err Knights by 7 Saturday ? Broncos v Dragons @ Suncorp
Shaun Berrigan, Broncos Has been dynamic in the #9 the past month and with that experience in the hooking role he is primed for a big Finals run. His coach Wayne Bennett resisted the move for most of the year because of the value Berrigan had in defence out wide in the centres (as well as try-scoring ability), but now with the need for a genuine threat out of dummy-half Bennett has devised a way to get the best of both worlds out of Berrigan. Now Berrigan still defends in the centres, with David Stagg moving to basically hooker in the centre of the park defensively and the two swapping places in attack. While Stagg doesn?t offer the same incisiveness that Berrigan once did, the reward for the Broncos is a player who can shred defences from the vital hooking position. Ben Hornby, Dragons Hopefully Nathan Brown sees the sense in playing Mathew Head at halfback and officially moves Hornby to hooker ? a position he has effectively played for the past few weeks. With Dean Young out for the season and Aaron Gorrell no longer the preferred plug in the middle to start the game, Hornby has added a creative spark in the middle of the ruck and Jason Ryles in particular has been the beneficiary with his runs being far more effective than they had been for most of the year. If Head starts at half, Hornby will be excellent at hooker meaning Clint Greenshields should stay in the fullback role for now. Prediction: Broncos by 1 Saturday ? Bulldogs v Raiders @ Telstra Willie Mason, Bulldogs This big dog has been caged for the past two weeks and expect him to simply cut loose against the Raiders. There is every chance that Mason will play upwards of 60 minutes as he should be refreshed after his suspension and the way he has played all year with extra minutes suggests he is capable of sustaining his quality for the duration. Has added some flair to his game with a deft tip on play near the line but his willingness to tuck the ball under his wing and grunt out the extra metres in each carry has this superstar primed to carry the Dogs pack during the Finals. But Mason must lead them by the Raiders first and that is a rather large challenge with no Roy Asotasi by his side. Todd Carney, Raiders The Raiders produced their best 40 minutes of football in 3 years against the Sharks in the first half of Round 26 and Carney was the central figure in that display of crisp, clean and effective style of play. Individually Carney has run the ball an awful lot in the past few weeks and that has added another element to the Raiders attack not named Jason Smith. With Smith returning for the game don?t expect Carney to stop running the ball, in fact he?ll likely let Smith run the passing plays and he?ll keep probing the fringes of the ruck for holes to run through. His kicking game is also good enough to share with Smith, or in fact take over completely if Smith?s knee injury doesn?t allow him to kick. Prediction: Bulldogs by 2 Sunday ? Storm v Eels @ Olympic Cooper Cronk, Storm Anybody who has watched every Storm game this year knows exactly why this young halfback beat out a few more illustrious names at the Dally Ms the other night for halfback of the year. While that awards ceremony is steeped in flaws the fact remains Cronk has developed into a quality playmaker with a very strong kicking game. It?s funny you watch Cronk play and he is just busy. He does everything well: he runs, he passes, he supports, he kicks, he tackles and he directs his team around the paddock like he?s a veteran ? but by the same token he doesn?t have to dominate every ruck. That in itself is what would make his coach Craig Bellamy most pleased with Cronk?s development, although he?s been superb all season Cronk has never selfishly claimed the team?s playmaking as his own job, rather he knows that when Cameron Smith or Scott Hill want the ball it is his job to give it to them. Against the Eels we?ll see the same busy yet poised performance by a player who could be in the Kangaroos squad come October. Tim Smith, Eels Returned from a collarbone fracture with an encouraging game against the Cowboys. While the Eels lost the game and Smith never really asserted himself in the contest, he showed enough to suggest he could come out against the Storm and make his presence felt. It was just the little things like his trademark skip after he reels off a crisp cut out pass that hits its target or being willing to kick the ball with the defence rushing up. As a halfback who must have as many early touches as possible to gain confidence for the rest of the game, Smith will know he has no choice but to call every shot at Olympic Park. The Eels need to start with points not just possession and Smith will be the man who has to create them. Prediction: Storm by 14