With the NRL’s Top Eight now set for the play-offs there are some mouth-watering match-ups on the horizon, and a very interesting question which is set to be answered – Who will prevail? The teams which work together the best, of the teams with the strongest individual stars?
I started thinking about this question when I looked at the Bulldogs’ side. Under the tutelage of Des Hasler the Doggies have unquestionably been the most consistent team of the 2012 season, a fact that has secured them their first Minor Premiership in nearly two decades.
But the interesting fact is they have done it without the services of a renowned half. Sure, the Bulldogs have plenty of talent, with game-breakers like Ben Barba and Josh Morris capable of ripping open an opposition at any moment. But the Bulldogs’ success this season has been so impressive given the relative anonymity of their halves. As Brett Kimmorley remarked recently, Des Hasler has picked players that he can rely on to fulfil a role within a system, with every player who pulls on the famous blue and white jersey equally responsible for the outcome of the game. The results speak for themselves.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Melbourne Storm. In Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk they have two of the game’s most consistent, professional performers, with Smith’s cool-headed, dependable leadership style as much an asset to the Storm as it is to Queensland’s champion Origin side. Then there’s Billy Slater, one of the finest to ever don the number one jersey. These three players are so incredibly integral to the Storm’s game that taking any one of them out severely diminishes their chances of winning.
The Rabbitohs fit in to the same category as the Storm, setting up an enticing clash in the first round of the play-offs. Greg Inglis is the form player of the competition, and his menacing defence, combined with his startling ability to turn up at the right place, at the right time on attack, allows him to single-handedly change the dynamics of a match. Without Inglis the Rabbits have no chance. With him they just might find themselves in title-contention.
Just as Souths and Melbourne bare so many similarities, the Bulldogs’ first-round opponents, the Sea Eagles, are similar to the Minor Premiers. While they have plenty of experience their team is primarily made up of very, very good players, as opposed to a handful of exceptional, world-class stars.
Sure, Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry Evans have a fantastic combination, but it’s the Sea Eagles’ ability to function as a single unit that is their true strength. Brett Stewart is a fantastic attacking weapon, but his influence on a game isn’t nearly as great as fellow-fullbacks Inglis or Slater, and the Manly side operates much more like the Bulldogs than the Storm or the Rabbits, in terms of having strict structures and defined roles.
Like the Storm, the Cowboys rely completely on several stars, and in fact would be totally loss without one in particular, Johnathan Thurston. While the experienced Brent Tate and fullback Matt Bowen have both been on scintillating form, and have played a huge role in getting the Cowboys to fifth spot after the normal season, Thurston is the conductor of everything that the North Queenslanders do, and he is so good at it that he is simply irreplaceable.
Their opponents in the first round of the playoffs know just what it is like to lose such an influential player. The Broncos have stumbled in to the eight, and without the genius of Darren Lockyer they are at long odds to feature at the business end of the season. While they have plenty of experience they have no-one who is a genuine game-breaker, and their fate in the finals will rely on their ability to execute a game-plan, and the ability of their senior players to draw on a culture which has embraced success over the last 20 years and is used to prevailing in crunch games.
The final game of the upcoming weekend sees the Raiders hosting the Sharks. Cronulla rely so heavily on Todd Carney and Paul Gallen that they are essentially a different team without them, while Canberra have managed to create a side which is exciting and flamboyant to a man. Of all the clashes this is perhaps the one that will best answer the question posed at the start of this article. The Raiders play as a team, while the Sharks leave Carney to do all the play-making, and Gallen to create the impetus going forward. If Cronulla can beat the ‘Green Machine’ it will be on the back of stand-out performances from those two players; if the Raiders prevail it will more likely be because of a sound team effort with solid performances from 1 thru 17. Time will tell!