After just one week of the playoffs in the NRL it has become clear that finals footy is a different kind of monster altogether, and there are some key boxes that any side hoping to win the title will have to tick if they are to be in contention.
Having senior players in your side who have experienced knock-out football is critical. For all that Melbourne may have stumbled to their second-spot finish after the regular season the men in the Storm jerseys looked every bit the Premiership contenders as they comprehensively outplayed Souths in Melbourne last weekend, and when you look at the experience they had on the field it’s not surprising. In Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk they have three key players, in critical positions, who have already scaled the heights of the sport. They know what it is like to compete in cut-throat, winner-takes-all matches, and they know what it’s like to win in those environments.
On the flip side, Brisbane never looked like getting up against the Cowboys, and have struggled this season without the leadership of Darren Lockyer, only just sneaking in to the Top Eight. Petero Civoniceva and Justin Hodges have plenty of experience, but are not necessarily in the right positions. While Melbourne have that winning experience sitting at hooker and in the halves, the Broncos lacked a dominant figure to direct them around the field.
In tight games, it is flamboyant players with the self-confidence to put it all on the line that decide the result. Ben Barba is a great example of this. On current form he poses such a threat that even when he’s not involved in a play the opposition is worrying about him, and not necessarily paying attention to whichever player actually has the ball. He fronted against the Sea Eagles, and will undoubtedly feature heavily in the rest of the Bulldogs’ campaign.
Cronulla lacked that kind of spark as they bowed out of the competition in Canberra on Sunday. Renowned for their grit, determination and ability to grind out tight wins, they didn’t have anyone who they could turn to for a moment of individual brilliance when the match was in the balance. Canberra had plenty of exciting talent on the field, and that imbalance between the two sides resulted in the scoreline running away from the Sharks in those crucial final minutes.
Lady luck always plays her part at the business end of a competition such as this. In this instance, while the bounce of the ball and the decisions of the match officials will be relevant too, I’m specifically talking about injuries.
Had Cronulla prevailed on the weekend they were stuffed anyway, with Todd Carney suffering a serious injury which would have ruled him out of any further games. Manly are in trouble in the midfield, with Steve Matai staring down a suspension, and Jamie Lyon under a serious injury cloud. The loss of Lyon would be devastating, as he plays a huge role organising the defence on the right hand side of the paddock, an area which the Bulldogs exploited when he left the field on Friday night.
The teams with depth, who can sustain the injuries that will inevitably occur, will be in the best position, but every side still relies on luck. Melbourne might have plenty of stars, but the loss of Cronk or Smith would be a huge blow, while the Cowboys would be dead and buried should Johnathan Thurston sustain any damage.
As this week’s knock-out games take shape we see the red-hot Cowboys getting set to meet a Manly side which is looking decidedly vulnerable, and an exciting, youthful Raiders team preparing for a shot at the Rabbitohs, who rely so heavily on Greg Inglis that they have very little else to offer. I think the Raiders will tip-over the Rabbits, and the Cowboys will end Manly’s hopes of defending their crown.