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We?ve arrived at the beginning of the end for season 2006 as eight clubs fight it out for the right to continue into weeks 2 and 3 of the semi finals series. This week throws up a few random situations and I don?t think everything is exactly as it seems.
Funnily enough, three of the games are Grand Final replays from years gone by. As for the odds, well there?s a bit of value out there. From a betting and emotional hedge perspective, I?d look at backing the Sea Eagles and the Dragons into one another, and perhaps even the Raiders ? although any permutation of those three will get you some super value.
I ended the regular season with 113 correct tips from 180 games (63%). That's not too bad in my books even though I've tipped like a dog some weeks. I hope all you people out there went well in your respective tipping comps, but it's a new game now and with it comes fresh opportunities for punting.
Knights v Sea Eagles
Game I sees Manly head up north to take on the Knights in a powerful clash at EnergyAustralia Stadium. The last time these two sides met in the finals was the 1997 Grand Final, and we all know what happened in that one.
Manly are looking good I think. I know they went down last week v Melbourne but with Kennedy they grow another leg. I also thought they put in one of the better performances at Olympic Park recently. Last time they were in Newcastle they came away with a very controversial win after a knock-on from Steve Matai was let go. The back row is looking great and the team overall is pretty strong. With BK the bench is great and they should put up a huge fight and Leuluai or Bryant will drop off.
In the Newcastle camp, there?s a few uncertainties. Thaiday has succumbed to the ankle injury that has dogged him for a few weeks with Seage deputising. I?m a bit unsure about the rest of the reserve though, Lowrie will probably find himself out in the cold but the rest is unclear. They put Penrith away nicely a fortnight ago and proved they had lots of points in them if tested.
Overall, I favour the home side here. I know they?re coming off the bye but a strong home crowd and the freshness factor for Joey should be enough to carry them home. The forward contest will be absorbing and a big part of the outcome. Manly is solid value in a tight contest though, with the bookies offering $2.35
Broncos v Dragons
Game II kicks-off in Bris-Vegas where the Dragons travel to Lang Park with a bit of history behind them. Coach Brown is the only remaining legacy from the 1992/93 Grand Finals but a few players like Bailey, Barrett, Timmins and Ryles probably still remember the 44-28 shellacking in 2001 at the SFS.
The Dragons have a pretty good track record up north, winning 3 of the past 4 contests at Suncorp. In fact, Saints have won the last three in a row against the Broncos which is a club record. But this is semi-finals football and it?s a totally different game. The ongoing saga with Head isn?t winning any friends I don?t think. They?ve been doing ok without him and to change a formula that has won three on the trot is bit dangerous I think. Plus they seem to rely an awful lot on scoring from kicks and need to get more ball to Gasnier.
Let?s not be shy about it, Brisbane are on fire at the moment. They probably don?t want people to think this but I rate them as premiership favourites and they can get better. Hodges at the back is dynamic and Berrigan seems to be fitting in at hooker all of a sudden. Webcke and Civoniceva are carting it up as they always do and Lockyer is in good touch as well.
I?m going to stick with the home team here and tip the Broncos. I think it?s too difficult to go against them in this one and they also have improvement left in them, plus Brisbane is due against them at Lang Park. For the Dragons to win they?ll need to be focussed 100% of the time and I?m not sure they can achieve that. They might want to put in that bit extra though, as I think they might be gone in week 1.
Bulldogs v Raiders
Game III sees the Raiders head up to Homebush to play the Bulldogs in the late Saturday game. This one is different to all other games as it offers little if any home ground advantage to Canterbury. It?s also a replay of the 1994 Grand Final which was a fair dinkum smash up by the Raiders.
Canberra got the chocolates in round 14 at Telstra v the Bulldogs and amazingly their only loss in six games at this ground was the round 21 capitulation to the Rabbitohs. They?ll be primed for this occasion but I?m wondering how they?ll start the match. Smith from the bench won?t work that well I don?t think as Carney adds more impact. Interestingly, Canberra has never beaten Canterbury in a semi final (3-0 to the Dogs) but have won the big one in 1994 as mentioned earlier.
Canterbury are looking ok now I think. Mason is back and he will add heaps to their outfit. I?m a bit worried that the Bulldogs have been playing within themselves over the past few weeks. But their bench is pretty light on and I?ve got my doubts over their backs. I?d prefer SBW in the forwards and probably use another centre, if they have any left, to add some more pace to the backline. That?s where they might get caught out in particular the taller Raiders backs could expose them under the high ball.
I?m tipping an upset here with the Raiders to prevail. From what I?ve seen lately they have got what it takes to win a game like this and their forwards a pretty strong enabling them to get momentum over the Canterbury pack. At $3.05 they present great value.
Storm v Eels
Game IV of the finals has Melbourne at home to Parramatta in the most one-sided contest of the finals.
For Melbourne to lose this one some life-changing things must take place. But all due respect to Parramatta ? I have admired the way they battled to get to the semis but in the past fortnight they have struggled to keep it together. Cayless is back which adds some power up front and I prefer Luke Burt at fullback. McKinnon was shocking last week ? how many tackles did he miss? The crux of a good team is there but they were pretty tired last week. It?s hard to see them getting up for this one given the venue and the respective form.
As for Melbourne, well they need to put in a clinical display here and get back into that groove prior to the game against the Warriors. I think they?ve been off their best since the round 23 clash v Brisbane but they can make a statement to the rest of the comp with a resounding victory here. They?ve got the recent wood over Parra and have won the only finals game between the two clubs back in 1999 (18-16).
So I?m tipping the Storm which is the obvious selection in this one. I?m not saying Parra can?t win but it would be a real stretch and pretty much outside the realms of possibility. The Eels are the longest odds for the win this weekend, as you?d expect, and they?re paying a handsome $3.65 for the win. But I think you?d be throwing your money away.