Brisbane Broncos (3rd) v Penrith Panthers (7th)
Things didn’t go according to plan leading into the Finals for the Broncos, with key players ruled out and therefore, unavailable for last weeks match. In the end, their presence could’ve been beneficial, as the Broncos were overcome by a 74th minute try to Latrell Mitchell to lose 24-22. Despite the margin of victory being so close, there was always a sense that the Roosters were going to win the match. They had a superior completion rate compared with the Broncos 75%, with the visitors missing 33 tackles and committing 10 errors over the 80 minutes. Being capable of fighting their way back from a 14-nil deficit after 26 minutes demonstrated their character, although the decision to switch the starting team and start Kodi Nikorima form the bench raised some concern. They hadn’t trained this way all week and it disrupted some of the momentum they were hoping to build. It helps that they get to head home to Brisbane for a second chance and face the Panthers, a team they defeat 32-18 at this ground back in Round 9. The Panthers are full of confidence after defeating the Sea Eagles in tough circumstances, turning the tables on a comprehensive 28-12 loss to their opponents in Round 26. The return of Dylan Edwards at fullback provided stability and allowed a reshuffle that strengthened their edge defence. This limited the Sea Eagles to just 2 tries in the match for a 22-10 victory. It was a high quality match that had the Panthers completing at 80%; although they will still need to improve upon their 11 errors and 41 missed tackles that they allowed. The key for them in turning around the result was dominating the middle and the Panthers forwards took the battle to their opponents with a high level of physicality. They will need to bring a similar level of intensity here, with the Broncos possessing high quality pack of forwards with plenty of experience.
Broncos = Unchanged, with Darius Boyd named in the reserves and an outside chance of playing.
Panthers = Unchanged.
Overall = Broncos 20 Draw 1 Panthers 12
Last 5 Matches = Broncos 2 Panthers 3
At Suncorp Stadium = Broncos 62% Panthers 33%
Form = Broncos 1 loss – Panthers 1 win
The Broncos are strong favorites for this game and no surprise given their strong record at home; even with the Panthers winning 4 of the past 6 matches against the Broncos, they have won 4 of the past 5 at this venue. It will assist them in many ways and late inclusions will only boost their chances of winning. The Panthers head to Brisbane with plenty of confidence and are playing a brand of football that is enough to disrupt the momentum of their opponents. They strive to dominate the middle and create enough attacking room for Nathan Cleary to lead the team around the park. What cannot be overlooked ahead of this contest is the record between the two coaches; Bennett, who was replaced at the Broncos by Griffin, has a poor 18.2% win record against his rival. One would think that Griffin, who was once an assistant of Bennett at the Broncos, knows his opponents game plan. This game is a different set of circumstances though and these two teams are far closer than the odds are suggesting. An issue plaguing the Panthers this season has been their missed tackles and errors, they were ranked 1st for missed tackles (36.3 per game) and still managed a high amount last week, while their 10.95 errors per game (3rd in the league) limited their potential over 80 minutes. Last week, they were able to translate their defensive scramble into success and it showed on the scoreboard. If they can limit the Broncos points, they are going to be in with a chance of winning. They need to start the match strongly, they have scored 21 tries in the last 10 minutes of matches across the season but the Broncos are not the team that you want to give a large lead to. This happened in their Round 9 match and the Panthers were unable to peg back the Broncos 28-nil lead after 51 minutes. While the Broncos confidence is damaged following a loss last week, they will have left learning plenty about what is needed to improve; the switch at the back prior to KO will probably not happen again, with the potency Nikorima valuable to his team when he is in the halves. The Broncos also managed to score 22-points against a strong defensive team and the Panthers will have to lift their application if they are to match that of the Roosters last week. That is enough to suggest the Broncos win this match, although it will be far closer than most are thinking. The Panthers have developed desperation that previously wasn’t a feature of their team at the start of the season and that will push the Broncos to find something special to overcome their opponents. As for the margin, this is Finals football and on top of the average 7.6 point winning margin in the past 5 matches between these two sides, 3 of the 4 matches last week were decided by 2-points or less while the average of the 4 games was 3.4 points; get set, this is going to be another thrilling contest.
Broncos 1-12 @ $2.75
Parramatta Eels (4th) v North Queensland Cowboys (8th)
The Eels lost no admirers last week in heading down to Melbourne and leaving with a 18-16 loss. After a slow start, the Eels regained momentum and scored two tries to close out the half when the Storm lost a player to the sin bin. Their opponents kept coming at them and a 65th minute try pulled them to within 2-points of their opponents but that is where they would remain. Their performance was a sign towards what they are capable of and just how much they have improved; they completed at 87% for the match and made just 7 errors. Missing 37 tackles across the match was one area they will want to improve upon ahead of this match; nevertheless, they are a team that is moving in the right direction. The Cowboys were lucky to make it into the Finals and took full advantage of their opportunity in their upset 1-point win over the Sharks. The scores were locked at fulltime and the two teams were separated in the second half of extra time by a perfectly executed FG to halfback Michael Morgan. The Cowboys came ready to play against the Sharks and made their opponents pay for a poor completion rate, while keeping their own high (80%) and defence strong (15 missed tackles). The intensity and power of their forwards to penetrate the middle of the Sharks defensive line was just what is needed from a team hoping to extend their season in the Finals. It is a shame that they are missing so many quality players to injuries at a crucial stage of the season; however, their fight, passion and determination in matches is surprising most and causing trouble for other teams in sudden death scenarios.
Eels = Unchanged.
Cowboys = Unchanged, although Justin O’Neill could return from injury after being named in the reserves.
Overall = Eels 17 Draw 1 Cowboys 17
Last 5 Matches = Eels 2 Cowboys 3
At ANZ Stadium = Eels 49% Cowboys 41%
Form = Eels 1 loss – Cowboys 1 win
The Eels have plenty of momentum in their favor ahead of this game and they will use every bit of it to their advantage. While losing form is never great, the fact that they were so competitive against the leading team in the competition on their home turf sees them head into this game as strong favorites. For those believing that the Cowboys are simply making up the numbers, they will be heading to Sydney to fight to keep their season alive. The points were evenly split between the two teams this year with a dominating victory to the away team on each occasion; the major concern for the Cowboys is that the loss was when Thurston was absent from their team. Life without him is something they are becoming familiar with and Michael Morgan is leading this team around strongly with the support of other key players. Overcoming the Sharks was one thing and there is no doubt that the Eels will probably make far less errors with the ball, thus reducing their attacking chances. The Eels will not become guilty of taking their opponents lightly, they are aware of how important this stage of the season is and it has been a long time since they have been in such a position. As measured as the Cowboys are with the ball, the Eels have an attack that is awkward enough to surprise opponents and cause them plenty of headaches. It was demonstrated last week against the Storm, a team who had conceded the least amount of points of any team in the competition in 2017. This points towards the Eels enjoying more freedom in this match. The Cowboys are a team that plays with plenty of pride each week and their strong defensive structure will attempt to limit their opponents scoring opportunities. It has been a long season for them in terms of covering injured players and it is bound to have taken a toll on them. There is only so much they can absorb and no doubt the players fatigue levels are growing, while the Eels are fresh given their current circumstances. If they can ascertain dominance in the middle, expect a bold showing from the halves throughout the contest. This leads to the though that while the intensity of Finals keeps matches close, this game may be more one sided than we are thinking. If the two matches this year is anything to go by, then the margin of victory could be larger than expected.
Eels -8.5 @ $1.90