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Last week took me a bit by surprise. The more I think about them the more I?m impressed by the Bulldogs. They beat-up the Raiders without really working up a sweat and in atrocious conditions as well. I actually picked the Raiders figuring that they would turn up and have a real dig. It was looking promising for the first 10 minutes anyway. Canterbury again proved they have the forwards to dominate the comp and it wouldn?t surprise me to see Asotasi line-up next week. I feel for Grimaldi though, that?s a tough break for a fair dinkum toiler of the game.
Another surprise to come out of Week 1 was the form of the Storm. I think they?re looking a little shaky right now and could slip up in the Prelim. They couldn?t put Parra away at home where they enjoy an obscenely favourable record and at one point I thought the Eels might even get them. Morrison?s no-try was the worst use of ?benefit of the doubt? I?ve seen recently, Delaney went close and if it weren?t for Smith?s inept pass two minutes from time they may have had another shot.
Moving on, we?ve got two quality games each with a splash of controversy to keep everyone guessing until the boys run out onto the field.
Dragons v Sea Eagles
The Dragons bolted out of the blocks against the Broncos last week up at Suncorp in what you?d probably say was an upset given their respective form heading into the game. Saints looked sharp, decided to run the ball more and got width and depth when they did. Greenshields and Cooper?s tries were great examples of that whilst Bailey decided to get in on the act with a super effort as well. Hornby?s astute kicking game nullified Hodges? damaging running from the back and everything else fell into place.
A big talking point at the moment is the injury to Gasnier with Millard coming into the side as his listed replacement. Manly has also decided to get in on the act by ruling out Bell with Hicks moving to centre and Creary or Stephenson entering the game on the flank. You?d imagine, given their importance to each team, that both players would be given until the last possible moment to be passed fit so I think there?s a bit of ducks and drakes going on from both clubs here.
Manly let themselves down last week against Newcastle. After opening up the game so well and leading by a healthy 12-point margin, the Sea Eagles collapsed in what can only be described as a bit of a choke. Some things didn?t go their way and the crowd helped Newcastle back into it, but you just shouldn?t lose in those situations. Out wide they were strong though and they should look to exploit the air this week against the Dragons as that was probably the only thing they didn?t dominate against Brisbane.
Since St George and Illawarra merged these two clubs haven?t met in the semi-finals, but prior to that the Dragons went down 20-8 to Manly in the 1996 Grand Final. Strangely, the Dragons face the possibility of playing the Storm then the Bulldogs in the coming weeks and after defeating the Broncos last start they could be facing the prospect of exorcising the demons of five Grand Final defeats with each game.
I think this will go right down to the wire and may turn into an attacking-based game. Both sides showed their defensive wares last week but I think they?ll try to out-score each other this time around. Their last meeting at Brookvale was a close and physical contest, and while I give Manly a good chance at winning this game, I think it?s the Dragons that will live to fight another day. Late changes (if any) will be key to the outcome.
Knights v Broncos
Moving on to our Saturday night fixture and this is the first time Newcastle and Brisbane have crossed paths in a finals match of any description. It?s quite puzzling really as both teams have existed for the same amount of time (1988 expansion clubs) and enjoyed strong patches in the late 90?s stretching into 2001. They each won a premiership in 1997 before the Broncos took out the 1998 and 2000 titles. The Knights followed on in 2001 with a shock win over Parramatta but since then neither side has really had an impact come September.
Brisbane?s finals woes are well documented but for everyone?s benefit we may as well go over it one more time. They have not won a finals match since defeating the Eels in 2002 and in their past 11 finals have won on only two occasions, prior to that they took out the comp in 2000. Last week they were ambushed by the Dragons, and whilst the forwards stood up, the backs lacked penetration. Hunt is back this week and that may help things along. But last week Lockyer played too much first receiver with Berrigan often electing to run at every opportunity. As mentioned earlier, Hodges was nullified and that stymied Brisbane?s roll early in the tackle count. Webcke and Civoniceva continued to ply their trade but the backrow didn?t really assist.
Newcastle overcame a gun-shy Sea Eagles outfit who probably didn?t know what to do once they got to the front. But again controversy has entered the game with Buderus being suspended for six matches. I?m a little tired of hearing he was hard done by; the tackle he made was probably worth 10 weeks. Anyway, Quigley comes into the side and he?ll go alright. I haven?t thought much of Bedsy?s recent form anyway. I like the look of Mullen but I?m also wary that Gidley junior will be examined with the high ball. Newcastle will probably try it on Hodges as well so this game might be a tribute to the great John Peard. Newcastle?s forwards, particularly the backrow, need to step up here if they are to hold the Broncos.
This is a hard one to call. The SFS will probably assist the Knights with plenty of support sure to book a ticket on a Firefly bus and get their backside trackside. Looking over the past few years, Newcastle have gone alright in semi?s when Johns is fit but before last week he hadn?t participated in one since 2002 and he was injured in that one. Brisbane is equally unimpressive. The last time they won a semi at the SFS was against the Dragons in 2001 and all this talk about Bennett can?t be helping matters.
But having said all that I don?t think Shane Webcke is ready to play his last game of footy. I?m going to take the Broncos here as I doubt they?ll put two bad performances together.