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As we move into the semis from the most exciting regular season in a long, long time there is an air of anticipation that the normal will take place. This year has been full of upsets and you get the feeling that the comp is ready to sort itself out this week.
Tigers v Cowboys
The first semi of the weekend kicks-off on Friday night amid some very exciting circumstances.
The Tigers are making their Finals debut in front of what should be a bumper crowd, depending on the weather. If it?s fine, I?m tipping fans of both the Balmain Tigers and the Western Suburbs Magpies will come out of the woodwork with their kiddies and head down to Homebush to show them what League is all about.
This year the Sydney public is with the Tigers as opposed to last year when they got behind the Cowboys and their underdog status. North Queensland has a very good record at Telstra (2 from 3) but this will make little difference. The loss of Carl Webb is a huge blow and the pure aggression in the team has been given a six-match holiday. On the flipside, Dally M winner Johnathan Thurston will be upbeat and into the game, firing on all cylinders.
But I?m going to tip the Tigers to win here. They seem to have lost their concentration over the past few weeks and I think they had an eye on this game. Their young players can get up for a match at the drop of a hat and their interesting back-row combination makes me think they?ve got a few things up their sleeves.
Broncos v Melbourne
This match will be a huge test of credibility for both teams. The Broncos were embarrassed 50-4 back in round 2 against the Storm. They went a small way towards revenge 15 rounds later when they dusted Melbourne 28-15 but they have only won one game since.
The storm have had a topsy-turvy sort of year, failing to really stamp any sort of dominance over the comp. They have been doing well of late though, but several things are against them here. Firstly, Darren Lockyer ? I think he will come out and have a blinder. Secondly, they will be reminded about the 31-14 smash-up they copped from the Storm last year when they met them in the first week of the semis.
All these things should be enough to tip the Broncos over the edge. I think they will come out on Saturday in the twilight and send a firm message to everyone remaining in the comp.
Dragons v Sharks
Well, here come the Dragons at WIN Stadium. This game kicks-off at 8pm on Saturday night and is a sell-out.
The Sharks haven?t played on the hallowed turf in Wollongong since 1996 and haven?t won there since 1989. Considering the Dragons won?t let them train there right now you?d tend to think they really won?t know what to do when they hit the paddock.
Meanwhile, Cronulla are reeling from several injuries to key players Stevens and Maiava who will detract from the engine room in a big way. It?s not sounding good for the visitors, is it? But, with the psychological demands of the game these days, perhaps Cronulla can use this to motivate them in some sort of siege mentality, thereby staging one of the biggest upsets of the year.
If this happens, Dragons fans could be throwing themselves off buildings. They have played so well in the past seven weeks that they should account for the Sharks in a very tidy fashion. Even without young-gun Ben Creagh, the likes of Bailey, Ryles, Thompson, Sims and Young will be simply too strong for a Cronulla outfit lacking in the forward department.
Eels v Manly
Here we go again, Manly and Parra?but, this time the stakes aren?t that large and both teams represent entirely different ideologies.
Parra, once a working class club, are more Silvertail than the Sea Eagles now. But their team is similar in many ways. They?ve got a great young halfback, a free-running centre by the same name and a winger called Grothe. Not to mention the absorbing forward pack they have.
The Sea Eagles have just fallen over the line to make the semis, but last week?s victory over Canberra was easier then they would have thought. This may provide them with the mindset that they?re in this game with a real chance, after all it is a two horse race. I get the feeling that Kennedy, Watmough and Kite off the bench will really dig in, with veteran centre Terry Hill sure to provide as much verbal distraction to the Eels as possible.
But I cannot pass up the home team here. Parra are simply undeniable in this contest, although the loss of Hindmarsh and Moi Moi will have an enormous affect on the team in general.