What a difference a year makes

The first week of the NRL Finals for 2006 have come and gone, with Canberra and Parramatta no longer in the picture and just six teams remaining in the hunt for October glory. With the Semi Finals kicking off Friday night, let?s take a look at the differences between the lineups the Sea Eagles, Dragons, Knights and Broncos had in their last game of 2005 and the sides they named for this weekend.

Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles

2005 Qualifying Final Team: B Stewart, P Stephenson, T Hill, S Matai, C Hicks, M Witt, M Monaghan ?, B Kennedy, S Menzies, A Watmough, B Kite, L Williamson, J King. Bench: S Dunley, D Heckenberg, K Leuluai, S Harris.

2006 Semi Final Team: B Stewart, M Robertson, S Bell, S Matai, C Hicks, T Burns, M Orford, B Kennedy ?, S Menzies, A Watmough, B Kite, M Monaghan, J King. Bench: S Dunley, K Leuluai, L Williamson, G Rose, M Bryant. (one to be omitted) The Key Differences: Out go Terry Hill and Michael Witt and in come Steven Bell and Matt Orford ? it is a fair upgrade. With Travis Burns ready for the big time this year Monaghan was moved to hooker which strengthens that position considerably. Robertson has been a pleasant surprise on the wing making an already easy job of forgetting Paul Stephenson even easier. Heckenberg was a solid bench prop but Rose has stepped up and delivered enough impact to balance that ledger out.

Verdict: This is a stronger Manly team even if Ben Kennedy is not 100% fit. Orford in the side is a massive upgrade but with Bell and Burns also in the side this team really should give the Dragons a shake on Friday. St.George-Illawarra Dragons

2005 Preliminary Final Team: C Greenshields, C Best, M Gasnier, M Cooper, W Naiqama, T Barrett ?, B Hornby, S Timmins, L Thompson, B Creagh, J Ryles, D Young, L Bailey. Bench: M Henderson, J Poore, C Payne, M Ennis.

2006 Semi Final Team: C Greenshields, W Naiqama, D Millard, M Cooper, B Morris, T Barrett ?, B Hornby, B Creagh, A Sims, M Bickerstaff, J Ryles, A Gorrell, L Bailey. Bench: D Wicks, M Henderson, S Isemonger, J Poore, S Timmins, M Head. (two to be omitted) The Key Differences: Even without the services of Mark Gasnier (or will the Dragons be without him ? the following is written assuming he does in fact play), Mathew Head is in the squad and that alone is the key reason the Dragons should go into this game as favourites. May not miss Young as dearly as they would have if Gorrell didn?t have such a strong game against the Broncos in Week 1 (and year in general). Creagh is also relatively fit this year (he wasn?t last year) while Morris replaces Best on the wing. The notable absence is Lance Thompson who was let go at the end of last season and had a great year with the Sharks in 2006.

Verdict: Probably had a stronger side on paper took on the Tigers in last year?s Preliminary Final, but with Head in the squad they have an X-factor they so dearly lacked in that game (whether Gasnier plays or not). Newcastle Knights

2005 Round 26 Team: M Thaiday, T Salkeld, D Cooper, B Tighe, A Quinn, K Gidley, A Johns ?, R Tanner, C Newton, S Simpson, A Woolnough, D Buderus, C Smith. Bench: D Tolar, T Lowrie, R Brown, G Carmont.

2006 Semi Final Team: K Gidley, B Carney, M Gidley, G Carmont, A Quinn, J Mullen, A Johns ?, R Tanner, C Newton, S Simpson, J Perry, L Quigley, A Woolnough. Bench: L Davico, T Lowrie, C Smith, R Brown, K Reynoldson, D Abraham. (two to be omitted) The Key Differences: No Danny Buderus is a gigantic loss for the Knights and one that despite the weakness of the 2005 Round 26 backline ? is too huge an omission to make this an even comparison. Remember the Knights had a great end to 2005 and although Johns is still Johns the loss of Buderus is massive. Other significant changes include no Thaiday at fullback and the shift of Kurt Gidley there allowing Jarrod Mullen to start, Matthew Gidley and Brian Carney combining on the right hand side, Luke Davico and Josh Perry bolstering the front row and the availability of Daniel Abraham and Kirk Reynoldson. But without Buderus?

Verdict: Add Buderus to the 2006 lineup and you have such a better team in so many areas ? and much deeper. But to be fair even without Buderus the overall squad is a better unit than the side that fell 36-28 to the Dragons in Round 26 last year. Luke Quigley is a decent footballer so don?t write off the Knights yet. Brisbane Broncos

2005 Semi Final Team: K Hunt, S Minto, S Berrigan, B Tate, J Hodges, D Lockyer ?, B Seymour, T Carroll, B Thorn, D Smith, P Civoniceva, B Berrigan, S Webcke. Bench: C Parker, C McGuire, D Carlaw, S Thaiday.

2006 Semi Final Team: J Hodges, D Boyd, B Tate, D Stagg, K Hunt, D Lockyer ?, S Perry, T Carroll, B Thorn, S Thaiday, P Civoniceva, S Berrigan, S Webcke. Bench: C Parker, C McGuire, B Hannant, D Carlaw, T Tupou. (one to be omitted) The Key Differences: Hodges at fullback and Hunt (if he is fit) on the wing is the big change. Shane Perry at half might be see an older head in the #7 but Seymour is the better attacking player. The swap of Shaun Berrigan to hooker in place of Barry bodes well for the Broncos. Darren Smith played well in the corresponding game against the Tigers last year but Thaiday has matured into a better footballer and adds much to the starting pack. Tupou onto the wing if Hunt doesn?t play is another upgrade over Scott Minto in 2005.

Verdict: This is a better football side than the one that was torn apart in the second half of the Semi Final against the Tigers in 2005. Lockyer is in great form (although he had a down game last week) and the pack is more dangerous with Shaun Berrigan and Thaiday starting there.

Predictions: So after picking 3 from 4 last weekend and getting the margin in the Knights-Sea Eagles game spot on (although clearly way off on the others) here are my tips for the Semi Finals. Sea Eagles by 2? just got a feeling, maybe a bit of an inkling that Ben Kennedy is not ready to end his career just yet and feel that this emotional drive is far stronger than the one that drives players who are simply moving clubs at the end of the year? but we will see. Broncos by 8? Darren Lockyer and his Broncos could keep Andrew Johns in the game for at least another season with a win in this one and that alone is a good enough reason to pick the Broncos to beat the Knights on Saturday.