1. Souths set for revenge
South Sydney v Melbourne
These two teams have met twice so far this year. The Storm won both matches; 17-10 in Sydney and 26-8 on August 9 in Melbourne. It's the second match that interests me most. The score suggests a comfortable victory for the Storm, but the winning margin is misleading. Souths were understrength on the night and I left the stadium believing the Rabbitohs would be quite capable of reversing the result if they were to meet again in September. Since that time, the Storm have been anything but impressive; but we know they have the big-match coach and players to snap into action now the finals have arrived. Souths have since performed creditably, but stumbled at the final hurdle against the Roosters last weekend. They are also unproven at this end of the season. I'm going to stick by the gut feeling I got in August when the two teams last did battle. I think Souths will learn from that match. I also think last week's finals dress rehearsal against the Roosters could be great preparation for this challenge. The Storm boys have wobbled a bit over the past month.
Tip: South Sydney by seven.
2. Carney key to victory
Cronulla v North Queensland
The Cowboys have won both matches against the Sharks this year. In Townsville it was 24-4 and then 31-18 in round 25 at Cronulla. However, the most recent result can be discounted because Sharks' playmaker Todd Carney was missing. He is the key to this Cronulla team. Without his creativity, I doubt the Sharks can trouble teams in the top four. If Carney is fit and well, they can challenge for the title. Carney has missed the past two games, so provided he takes his place this week, he comes into the match a little underdone. The Cowboys have made a long run to qualify for the top eight after looking a forlorn hope halfway through the year. They do have Johnathan Thurston though, and at the start of the season their player roster was considered top-four material. The test will be whether they are satisfied with their top-eight finish, or if they are determined to make a deeper run into September. I think the Cowboys may have run their race. The Sharks had the luxury of resting a few players last weekend. They might grind out a narrow win.
Tip: Cronulla by four.
3. Chooks rule, but only just
Sydney Roosters v Manly
I love the rivalry between these two wonderful clubs. They always produce great matches. The Roosters have won both games between the two this year, 16-4 at Brookvale Oval and 18-12 at home. There wasn't much in either of these games and I expect a close one again on Saturday night. The Roosters bounced back after a couple of poor weeks to win that big clash against South Sydney last Friday night. It was a timely return to form. In particular, I was impressed with their defence that had been the backbone of their tremendous form this season. Manly produced a season-best effort to blow Melbourne off the park a fortnight ago. That performance is burned into my brain. Gee, they were good. The Sea Eagles have the best back line in the NRL and when they are hot, they are hot. I'm going to stick with the minor premiers, but I will not be in the least bit surprised if Manly get the result.
Tip: Sydney Roosters by two.
4. Bulldogs to turn tables
Canterbury v Newcastle
Again we have a situation where these two teams have met twice this season and one team has dominated the results. The Knights thrashed the Bulldogs 44-8 in May. I don't know what happened there. They met again in Mackay in July and the Knights prevailed 18-12. I just don't know what to make of the Bulldogs at the moment. Every time they threaten to return to the form that took them to a grand final last season, they seem to stumble. Despite the return of Ben Barba last week they lacked potency against the Broncos. The Knights boast a brilliant back line and a creative set of halves to set them alight. There's no doubt they have points in them. Both teams will be prepared by experienced finals coaches. I have a slight leaning to the Bulldogs. I think they have a slight edge in the forwards and they will be playing at home. That might be just enough to tip the result in their favour.
Tip: Canterbury by seven.
5. Premiership table seems about right
With a number of inequities in the NRL draw, and the impact of State Of Origin, the competition table after 24 rounds is not always a reflection of how the home-and-away season went. But this year it is hard to argue with how the teams finished. The top four all had positive differentials (the difference between points scored and points conceded) above 200, whilst the best of the remaining finalists was just over 100. All teams in the eight had a positive differential whilst all teams that missed the eight did not. The bottom four all had negative differentials above 150 whilst the remaining teams that missed the finals had negative differentials under 60. Sydney Roosters, as minor premiers, had a positive differential of 93 points greater than their nearest rival, whilst the wooden spoon Parramatta, had a negative differential 113 points inferior to its nearest rival. So the finishing order seems about right.
6. A little decorum, please
We had a tremendous crowd that provided a great atmosphere for the minor premiership showdown between the Rabbitohs and Roosters at ANZ Stadium on Friday night. However, the actions of a minority of home fans that produced that highly offensive banner took some gloss off what was a marvellous night for the game. That type of banner, plus the orchestrated profanity whenever the away team was awarded a penalty, did not sit well with the vast majority of the crowd, including, I'm sure, a majority of Souths fans. The intense rivalry between the teams, and the passion of the supporters who attend these matches, is what creates the atmosphere that prevailed throughout the clash. Friendly banter between fans and good-natured ribbing of the opposition team is part and parcel of any competition but we, as a game, should not condone what occurred last Friday night, and let's hope Souths ensure that this is the last we see and hear of it. I applaud South Sydney chief executive Shane Richardson distancing the club from the antics. Let's hope the fans get the message.