Brisbane Broncos (5th) v Gold Coast Titans (8th)
The Broncos got their campaign back on track after mid-season slump and have momentum heading into this game. They sit at 5 consectutive wins, with their effort last week enough to move past the Roosters. After a slow start (down 14-nil after 28 minutes), the Broncos wrestled momentum from their opponents and finished the stronger of the two teams; even if their opponents had more possession, it meant that the Broncos defence was tested. They have performed strongly at home this season too, with 9 wins from 12 matches and they will be aiming to ensure the Titans misery at this ground continues. Their fate rested in the hands of the Tigers on Sunday, needing them to lose to progress into this week. They had the opportunity to seal a pot with a win against the Cowboys in Townsville, although they found themselves outclassed throughout. Having a lesser share of possession and missing 32 tackles didn’t help their cause, yet it was a reminder of what they need to produce if they’re to compete with the leading teams. It hasn’t been an ideal finish to the season for the Titans; they’ve lost 3 out of their past 6 matches and have had 1 draw. Even if they have performed better in 2016 than most thought, they will want to head out hear and cause an upset. Neither team is without injury concerns heading into this game also, nevertheless, players tend to lift to another level during the Finals to overcome and niggling injuries they may have.
Broncos = Unchanged, with Joe Ofahengaue and Jonus Pearson added to an extended bench.
Titans = Unchanged, with Anthony Don, Will Zillman and Lachlan Burr added to an extended bench.
Overall = Broncos 15 Titans 5
Last 5 matches = Broncos 4 Titans 1
At Suncorp Stadium = Broncos 61% Titans 19%
Form = Broncos 5 wins – Titans 2 losses
Given the form of these two sides, the Broncos rightly head into this game as strong favorites. The Titans have fallen away in recent weeks and the intensity in the Finals appears to be something that is beyond them. Their two most recent losses have been against Top 8 teams and the quality they lacked is worrying heading into this game. Sure, the two matches were needed to get Ashley Taylor back to match-fitness and reconnect with his halves partner and team, but at the same time the Broncos have been working towards goals of their own. The fact that they upset the Storm in Melbourne and then came form 14-points down against the Roosters, shows the reversal in their form. Furthermore, they’ve increased their confidence and are peaking at the right time of the year. Having a match played at home only supports their cause; the Titans have a 19% winning record at the ground, which equates to just 3 wins in 16 attempts. Not only that, the Titans have only won 2 out of the past 10 meetings between these two teams. If they bring the same tempo as last week though, the Broncos could have to dig in and combat the intensity they offer. In the end though, the Broncos have too much power for the Titans to handle. The Broncos will have to lift to another level though, as the Titans are bound to have a game plan that troubles them early on. The line being offered in betting markets is very generous and hasn’t taken into account that this is Finals football, nor the fact that the Broncos haven’t been winning by large margins. In fact, only one out of their past 5 wins have been by a margin of more than 10 points. This points towards the margin being tight and the line coming into play.
Broncos 1-12 @ $2.75
Titanic effort = Titans 10.5 @ $1.90 – As mentioned above, the Titans are better than the odds suggest. Providing that they go back to a game plan that worked well for them earlier this year, they can pressure the Broncos to make sure that this contest is very tight.
Air Jordan = Jordan Kahu FTS and/or LTS @ $7 – Kahu has been on fire recently, scoring 3 tries in the past 2 outings. There is news floating around that he may even move into centre for this game, bringing him closer to the ball and a greater chance of crossing the line.
Canberra Raiders (2nd) v Cronulla Sharks (3rd)
The Raiders powered their way into second on the competition ladder last week with a dominating display over the Tigers at Leichhardt. At a ground that has proven difficult for other teams this year, the Raiders had no issues capturing home field advantage with relentless attacking pressure that racked up 52 points. Their execution wasn’t great early, however they overcame that to finish with an 81% completion rate that lead to 11 linebreaks being created. Admittedly, the Tigers defence is one of the worse in the league but was impressive to see the way the Raiders went about their task. This means that the Raiders take a 10-game winning streak into the Finals, a position the Sharks wish they were in after their winning streak ended. It was another loss for them last week too; a 20-point defeat at the hands of the Storm when the Minor Premiership was on the line. This means that they have now won just 1 out of their past 6 matches and looked lost for answers at times against the Storm. Intensity was good early, but the longer they persisted, the more their performance fell away and all the Storm had to do was outlast them. They need to remain patient in attack and rely on the formula of dominating the middle and structure working, something that had worked well for them previously. Perhaps teams have figured them out now but either way, this game is going to be extremely tight!
Raiders = Junior Paulo (injury) has been named at prop, forcing Paul Vaughan back to 18th man.
Sharks = Ricky Leutele (injury) returns to centre, pushing Gerard Beale back to the bench to cover for Jospeh Paulo (injured).
Overall = Raiders 15 Sharks 19
Last 5 matches = Raiders 3 Sharks 2
At GIO Stadium = Raiders 57% Sharks 51%
Form = Raiders 10 wins – Sharks 1 loss
The Raiders are flying currently and have a strong record at home this season to support their cause. In 12 matches, they’ve lost just 2 games and their fans will be out to ensure that this is a hostile environment in their first Finals appearance at this venue in a long time. There are some causes for concerns though and it isn’t the form of their opponents that will worry them. Fact is, the Sharks have a horror recent record and their two most recent wins have come against the Knights and Roosters. On the other hand, the past 3 times the Sharks have travelled down to Canberra, they have left with 3 victories at an average winning margin of 15 points. Furthermore, the concern for the Raiders lies within their halves and without Austin, they are not the same team. Coping with that in recent weeks has been overshadowed by their performances against struggling teams, although they’re yet to be pressured by a quality team. The pressure will come in Finals football and their winning streak only included two Top 8 teams (one of which was the Sharks). The Sharks have been here before and they have a wealth of experience within their squad. Ricky Stuart eluded to the lack of Origin players within his team and even exposure at that level will assist here. Basically, if there is a very strong chance that the Raiders will be overawed by the occasion and the Sharks comfortable with the intensity. With the odds being offered on the Sharks, they’re too good to overlook. If you think the margin will be close, remember that the average margin between these two sides in 2016 sits at 20-points and both have the capabilities of piling on plenty of points in the right conditions.
Sharks @ $2.50
Melbourne Storm (1st) v North Queensland Cowboys (4th)
The Storm clinched the Minor Premiership with a dominating 20-point win over the Sharks in Melbourne, surprising most along the way in achieving this. They are arguably one of the teams to beat moving forward, showing that a defeat by the Broncos in Round 25 on home soil was only a slip and that they are confident in their own ability. They’re clinical, averaging an 82% completion rate for the season and missing the least amount of average tackles (21 per game). This game pits them against the Cowboys for the third time this season, with two thrilling encounters already taking place between these two teams. The Cowboys took care of business as expected in their match against the Titans, demonstrating to their opponents, the class that is needed if they’re to be competitive. Interestingly, there are key players yet to return for this side and one would think that they’re only going to get stronger. The challenge for them is improving upon their road record; something that was a strength last year yet has evaded them in 2016. Nevertheless, they’re a dangerous side to contend with as their potency in attack has lead to 584 points being scored, while also averaging a 77% completion rate. The environment for the Cowboys may be tough, but so too is the fact that the Storm enjoy two wins over them so far this year; one by a FG and the other by 8 points. If this game doesn’t take too much out of either team, we may have an early preview of a possible Grand Final.
Storm = Unchanged.
Cowboys = Matt Scott (injury) is named to return at prop, pushing Scott Bolton back to the bench.
Overall = Storm 22 Cowboys 10
Last 5 matches = Storm 3 Cowboys 2
At AAMI Park = Storm 73% Cowboys 50%
Form = Storm 1 win – Cowboys 3 wins
Even before you consider the two wins the Storm have had over the Cowboys this season, they have plenty of momentum after their win last week. They’ve learned to deal with the loss of Slater and are firing in all areas. The key for the Cowboys revolves around the fitness of Matt Scott. His inclusion in this match is vital to their chances and reduces pressure off the shoulders of JT. This could be the reason why the Storm are strong favorites for this match, apart from the obvious home ground advantage which stands at an 83% for the season, compared with the Cowboys 33% on the road. That is alarming to say the least and will not serve them well, regardless of how hard they try to put this statistic behind them. The Cowboys have an element to their play that can cause a disruption to the Storm; the Broncos showed in Round 25 how offloads and second phase play could pressure them in defence. That will work to some extent but the Storm are a very patient team. It is no surprise that they’re favorites for this game and they’re the preferred selection. It will be a tight game though; the past 3 matches between these two sides have been decided by an average of 5.7 points. The same is expected here, more so as teams are under the force of Finals football.
Either team under 6.5 points @ $2.65
Storming to victory = Storm 1-12 @ $2.75 – If they are to win, it would be surprising to see either team win by more than two converted tries. Given that the Storm are the preferred selection for this game, this result almost picks itself.
Penrith Panthers (6th) v Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (8th)
The Panthers flexed their muscles last Sunday with a confidence building 30-point win over the Sea Eagles. The win powered them into 6th on the ladder and gives them the rights to “host” this game; but don’t be fooled, they will have to travel to Allianz Stadium for this game. As impressive as that effort was, it must be noted that they were up by 30-nil at HT and failed to bury their opponents in the second half. Obviously, they lowered the intensity due to their lead and to avoid any issues running into this week, nevertheless it would’ve been pleasing to see them put the Sea Eagles away by a large margin. As for the Bulldogs, the less said about them the better. They’re on a 3-game losing streak, with their most recent loss coming against the Rabbitohs by 28-10. A loss to a team that was well out of Finals contention was intended and it left many convincing that the Bulldogs are limping towards this match. They simply do not have the quality and their attacking structure is searching for answers. At best, their Plan A is dull and when that fails, they have nothing else to fall back on. If their forwards are beaten in the middle, they struggle even more and are difficult to watch. Nevertheless, there is the slight chance that they can produce something out of nowhere given the quality they have; although it has been lacking in recent weeks with the same group of players and the form of the Panthers has them prime for this contest.
Panthers = Unchanged, with Moses Leota added to the bench as 18th man.
Bulldogs = Brett Morris is shifted to fullback to cover for Will Hopoate (religion), with Tyrone Phillips coming onto the wing. Sam Kasiano (suspension) is named to return on the bench.
Overall = Panthers 16 Draw 1 Bulldogs 16
Last 5 matches = Panthers 2 Bulldogs 3
At Allianz Stadium = Panthers 42% Bulldogs 54%
Form = Panthers 5 wins – Bulldogs 3 losses
If the competition went a few more weeks, the Bulldogs would probably have slipped out of contention altogether. Despite all of their flaws though, any team would be foolish not to be cautious of them or the game plan Des Hasler may create. The only thing holding the Panthers back is a lack of experience but their confidence is compensating for that at this point. They have what it takes to heap plenty of pain on the Bulldogs and if they go into this game with a similar with the same approach as their past 3 losses, they’re in big trouble. Regardless of how hard the Bulldogs try to disrupt their opponent’s game, the Panthers will have too many answers in both attack and defence. They have been vulnerable on the edges though, so expect plenty of traffic from the Bulldogs big men to be heading this way. Once they come to terms with this, the Panthers need to focus on the Bulldogs own weaknesses and they are numerous. Pressuring the kick on the 6th tackle, as well as the spine, will reap them rewards. As for the margin, only twice in the past 10 meetings between these two sides have the margin gone beyond 12 points, with the most recent being a 20-point victory to the Bulldogs in Round 25, 2013. This game should be no different and even with the Panthers power recently, as well as the Bulldogs defensive fresh in punters minds.
Panthers 1-12 @ $2.80
Peach of a performance = Tyrone Peachey FTS and/or LTS @ $10 – He will be coming up against Holland on the Bulldogs right edge and you can expect plenty of traffic his way. It was hard to overlook Waqa Blake ($10) but they have an impressive left-hand edge that also brings Josh Mansour ($8) into play.