Sydney Roosters (2nd) v Brisbane Broncos (3rd)
The Roosters assured themselves of second spot on the ladder amid a very close match against the Titans. Playing from behind in the second half, the Roosters were pushed to score 2 converted tries and a penalty goal with 10 minutes remaining to capture a 4-point win over a struggling club. While it wasn’t convincing, the Roosters did enough for victory and this has been a common theme for them throughout 2017. Patience was also an issue, with the home side completing at just 68% and making 15 errors for the match, hardly the statistics you wish to see leading towards the Finals. Thankfully, their defence was strong and only missing 15 tackles demonstrates that their structure in this area is looking good for the weeks ahead. The Broncos locked up 3rd spot and a trip south to Sydney with a 10-point win over the Cowboys that came at a cost; Darius Boyd, Alex Glenn and Tevita Pangai Jr were all injured and add to a growing list at the worse possible time. The win was needed though, bouncing back from an 18-point hammering by the Eels in Round 25. Similar to the Roosters, the Broncos did just enough to win the contest, although it was far more convincing. They completed at 78% and made just 9 errors, taking every opportunity to build pressure on their opponents. Their defensive structure was also good, but missing 39 tackles alludes to a potential weakness moving forward. Neither team will want a weakness limiting them in coming weeks and you can rest assured that they will be out to target that of their opponents. These two teams have met twice this season with each winning once when playing at home. The most recent was in Round 13, a 2-point victory to the Roosters in a high quality match following Origin 1; the other result, a dominating 32-8 win by the Broncos is one that the Roosters will want to forget as they look to expose their opponents like other Top 8 teams have in the closing weeks of the competition.
Roosters = Dylan Napa (injury) returns at prop and Aidan Guerra (injury) in the second row, pushing Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Ryan Matterson back to the bench and Victory Radley and Zane Tatevano (suspended) out of the team.
Broncos = Kodi Nikorima shifts to fullback for Darius Boyd (injured), with Benji Marshall named at halfback. David Mead replaces Tevita Pangai Junior (injured) on the bench, while Jai Arrow fills the other vacant bench spot.
Overall = Roosters 16 Broncos 19
Last 5 Matches = Roosters 2 Broncos 3
At Allianz Stadium = Roosters 64% Broncos 63%
Form = Roosters 3 wins – Broncos 1 win
The win last week for the Roosters was vital in giving them home field advantage in this contest; the Broncos do have a fairly strong record at Allianz Stadium but in the closest game of the weekend, the less travel someone has to do, the better. Furthermore, the Roosters have won their past 4 over the Broncos at this ground and have won 9 from 10 at Allianz this season (the best of any team in the league). The injuries suffered by the Broncos have hampered their chances of winning this game and had they been at full strength, they may have started as favorites. The loss of Boyd has been covered to some extent, although having Benji Marshall towards the end of his career calling the shots in the halves isn’t ideal and it means that all bar one of the players in the spine is playing in their regular position. The concern around the Roosters relates to their patience of play; there is no doubt that they have a strong set of forwards capable of controlling the middle and dictating the terms of the match, it is just what the halves and outside backs choose to do from this point onwards that has a great say in the match. A major cause for concern is the Roosters average of 11.6 errors per game (highest in the league) and if the Broncos gather momentum, they will make their opponents pay for their mistakes. Again, you cannot help but think that they would be more dangerous with the unavailable players featuring; it will only take some confidence to ensure that Pearce and Keary play with poise and this will be lead by their forwards and hooker, Jake Friend. Hunt has done well to fill the void for the Broncos in this area but Friend is a special player that has an impact on the players around him. In terms of a margin, the intensity of Finals ensures that the margin should be relatively close; it must also be noted that the Roosters have recorded their past 5 wins over the Broncos by an average of 6.4 points. Providing they play to their potential and limit their mistakes, they will have too much quality for the Broncos to limit over 80 minutes and earn themselves a week off.
Roosters 1-12 @ $2.70
Melbourne Storm (1st) v Parramatta Eels (4th)
The Storm cruised towards the Finals with a dominating 32-6 win over the Raiders; everyone has expected them to reduce the intensity in recent weeks or perhaps suffer a loss, rather, it has been the opposite. The power and tenacity they are playing with, reinforced by class across the field, has them as one of the strongest Premiership favorites at this point in recent memory. It is no surprise given they completed at 86% last week and made just 5 errors; they are a team that grinds their opponents into the ground and strikes when given the slightest opportunity. Their opponents for this game is the high-flying Eels and tensions will be high following inflammatory remarks by Brad Arthur leading into this match. The Eels left things late to capture victory over the Rabbitohs last week, with a 74th minute try to Radradra sealing the result. It was hardly a convincing display from the 4th placed team, as they completed at 76%, made 10 errors and missed a massive 40 tackles. To add perspective, this performance came against the same team the Storm dismantled 64-6 the previous week. Nevertheless, the Eels have confidence and pride behind them, as well as freedom without the fear of being eliminated in Week 1 of the Finals. Interestingly, the Eels last trip south delivered a 22-6 win, yet it must be stated that the Storm were missing all of their Origin players. That aside, the Minor Premiers will still have to be at their best; with the Eels winning 9 out of their past 10 matches and the Storm only suffering 4 losses all year, a high quality contest is expected here.
Storm = Dale Finucane (injury) returns at lock, pushing Kenny Bromwich back to the bench. Tim Glasby (injury) returns to the bench, forcing Robbie Rochow to the reserves and Nate Myles out altogether.
Eels = Unchanged.
Overall = Storm 19 Eels 13
Last 5 Matches = Storm 3 Eels 2
At AAMI Park = Storm 75% Eels 40%
Form = Storm 7 wins – Eels 3 wins
Many people are making a case for the Eels winning this game, although it appears to be falling on deaf ears. Most markets have them as large outsiders for this match and rightly so given what the Storm have displayed in the back half of the season. There is no doubt that they have the edge over their opponents; the form of the Eels in the closing rounds of the competition is somewhat affected by the quality of teams they faced. Aside from playing the Broncos twice (for two wins), they played teams no higher than 11th on the competition ladder and many would argue that they struggled in some of those matches; these include a loss to the Knights, a 1-point win over the Tigers and a 6-point win last week against the Rabbitohs. Nevertheless, you can only play what is in front of you and they will believe that they are a genuine chance in this match; if anything, their form has given them the confidence they will need to be competitive and lead their team. In reality, for the Eels to beat the Storm would be a monumental effort; the Storm have a 9-3 home record, average 26.4 points per game in attack and have allowed their opponents to score just 12.4 points per game. The one area the Eels have struggled with in 2017 is limiting their opponent’s points; they only have a difference of +39, allow an average of 19 points per game while scoring 20.7 points themselves. The pressure that the Storm will generate through the middle of the field will be relentless and it appears as though majority of their squad is in career-best form. They control the speed of play on both sides of the ball and the concerns that Brad Arthur has raised to the referees may only halt the momentum of the Storm to some degree. The increased intensity will also motivate the visitors, although recent history to isn’t kind to them; the past 5 Storm victories over the Eels has been by an average of 24-points and the if their defence doesn’t aim up, it could be a long journey back from Melbourne with a must win game for the Eels next week.
Storm 13+ @ $1.90
Using history as a guide = Storm 19+ @ $2.65 – The Storm have a history of large victories over the Eels; the average margin of victory in their past 5 matches sits at 24 points. While this is a remarkably different team and the intensity of Finals football often means close matches, the class of the Storm is so far ahead of the rest of the competition that it is uncertain whether or not another team can get close to them.
Leading the league = Suliasi Vunivalu FTS and/or LTS @ $6 – The regular season finished last week with Vunivalu leading the league with 23 tries for the season. He is a man in form too, scoring 5 tries in the past 3 weeks. The matchup between him and Radradra is exciting but the players around Vunivalu give him the edge over his opponent.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (6th) v Penrith Panthers (7th)
It is Groundhog Day, with these two teams facing off a week after meeting in Round 26 at Lottoland; it is also the third time within 9 weeks that the two teams will do battle. Last week saw a convincing 28-12 win to the Sea Eagles, with the class of the home team too much for the struggling Panthers. At one stage this season, the Panthers were flying high following a 7-game winning streak. That form has now abandoned them, losing their past 2 matches and struggling to match the quality of opponents with key players missing from their team. The Sea Eagles dominated last week from the opening moments, having a 57% share of possession, they completed at 85%, made 10 errors and missed 27 tackles; more importantly, the Sea Eagles key players lifted to another level that their opponents struggle to match. They were not woeful in term of statistics, they completed at 76% with 10 errors, yet missed a massive 46 tackles over 80 minutes. A true indication of the one-sided nature of the contest is that it took the Panthers 75 minutes to score their first points and 2 late tries only flattered the visitors. Perhaps there will be a reversal of form with the losing team to be eliminated; the Panthers were not even expected to make it this far earlier in the season. The Sea Eagles were in a similar situation but have appeared to wrestle momentum back in their favor with a 2-game winning streak restoring confidence in their play. Nevertheless, it is a completely different game now with the intensity of the Finals taking centre stage and it is bound to be compelling viewing for the third time this season.
Sea Eagles = Unchanged.
Panthers = Unchanged, although Dylan Edwards has been named in the reserves.
Overall = Sea Eagles 14 Panthers 15
Last 5 Matches = Sea Eagles 1 Panthers 4
At Allianz Stadium = Sea Eagles 56% Panthers 44%
Form = Sea Eagles 2 wins – Panthers 2 losses
An improved effort compared with last week is expected of the Panthers; a team does simply not progress this far in the competition to drop out of the Finals. Having players absent from their team due to injuries makes the task of winning this game extremely difficult; if Edwards were to be a late inclusion then the chances of the Panthers would increase slightly. Then again, the form displayed by the Sea Eagles last week was dynamic; their key players are performing with confidence and it is built around their strong forward pack. The Panthers are still ranked 1st for missed tackles (36.3 per game) and 3rd for errors (10.95 per game), with these two factors being major limits to what they can achieve. In order for them to win this match, they will have to dominate the Sea Eagles in the middle of the field. When the Sea Eagles have been pressured in matches, their forwards have struggled to establish dominance and last week they carried the ball for 522m less than their opponents with 42 less runs. Having Nathan Cleary leading the way draws plenty of attention his way and opposition teams know how they can target him to impact upon the rest of the team. This all worked for the Sea Eagles last week and there is no reason why it will not be the same again this week. The Panthers are getting found out for their revival of form that was clouded by the quality of opponent they were facing. Now, at the business end of the season, the Sea Eagles have the momentum in their favor and the edge in quality on the field. This game is theirs for the taking and it is reflected in the odds offered on the match. In terms of an investment, as improvement is expected following a flat performance, the Panthers should be expected to keep things tight. With that in mind, the safest option appears to be taking the Sea Eagles to cover the line and watch to see whether or not the Panthers have really earned their position in the Finals or not.
Sea Eagles -4.5 @ $1.90
Cronulla Sharks (5th) v North Queensland Cowboys (8th)
The Sharks went through the motions last week against the Knights, knowing that they could not finish any higher or lower than 5th after the Eels were victorious on Friday. Coach Flanagan attempted to rest players, but that bid under the new NRL Team Lists rule was rejected and his players delivered a 26-18 win. While the result was expected to be more convincing, the Sharks will be pleased with what they achieved against spirited opposition; they dominated possession with 56% and in doing so, completed at 79%, committed 10 errors and missed 24 tackles. This is an improvement on some areas across 2017 and they will hold no fears keeping their title aspirations alive against the Cowboys. The North Queensland boys are lucky to be here considering they lost 20-10 to the Broncos in Townsville; they have the Bulldogs to thank for being here, as it was their 26-20 victory over the Dragons that allowed the Cowboys season to progress just one more week. There is no doubt that their end to the season has been hampered by injury and losing performances; the Cowboys have won just on of their past 6 matches (Round 25 v Tigers) and the quality within their team is constantly being tested. The fight, enthusiasm and execution has been a large part of their play and no one can question their effort on the field; in the match against the Broncos they completed at 87% with 55% possession and made just 6 errors, with 37 missed tackles the only concern. They are putting themselves in positive field position and pressuring opponents, yet are unable to capitalise when it matters. The lack of experience within their squad is evident, while greater attention is also focused on the playmakers that are filling the void. Even if they are here just to “make up the numbers”, you can be sure that the Cowboys will be out to cause a major upset in Week 1 and translate their positive play into success.
Sharks = Jack Bird (injury) returns to the centres and Wade Graham (injury) to the second row. Their return pushes Jesse Ramien and Kurt Capewell back to the reserves.
Cowboys = Unchanged.
Overall = Sharks 24 Cowboys 15
Last 5 Matches = Sharks Cowboys
At Allianz Stadium = Sharks 50% Cowboys 30%
Form = Sharks 1 win – Cowboys 1 loss
These two teams are not strangers to one another at this stage of the season, this is the third time they have met one another in a Finals match since 2013. The Cowboys have limped their way into the Finals and will consider themselves lucky to be here with their recent form plagued by a horror injury toll. The Sharks are still in need of improvement in multiple areas, they are ranked 2nd for errors (11.1 per game) and 5th for missed tackles (33.2 per game). They have been doing enough to win matches and at least putting themselves in winning positions when capable. Last year gave them the confidence they need to win the important matches and it has been a feature of their play for majority of 2017. When they have lost, it has been through their own faults, which they have worked hard to fix. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they do not have the quality to match it with their opponents in this match. The loss of key players directs more attention to the likes of Morgan and Coote at the end of sets. There is no doubt that the responsibility of leading this team in the middle will fall on Taumalolo; he is undoubtedly one of the best forwards in the competition but the likes of Lewis, Graham, Gallen and Fifita should have what it takes to nullify the Cowboys key man. Once they establish dominance in this area, it should only be a matter of time before the Sharks completely control this match. In terms of the margin, don’t be surprised if this game is a blowout on the scoreboard; the last 2 matches between these two teams have been decided by 12 points and 39 points respectively. The only thing that may stop this from occurring is the pride that lies within the Cowboys team; they have been great this season at hanging in matches and overcoming opinion about their ability. Then again, this is now a different ball game altogether with sudden death hovering over the heads of both teams.
Sharks 13+ @ $2.40