Almanac Rugby League – NRL 2022 Finals Week 1 and NRLW Round 4: Great expectations as we head into the finals

 

There are two distinctive atmospheres apparent in the NRL this week – on the one hand there’s despair and drama for the clubs which finished in the lower half of the ladder while, on the other, there’s determination and a different sort of drama for the finalists. Meanwhile in the NRLW, the main interest centres around which team will grab fourth spot on the ladder to secure a finals spot.

 

Round 25 of the NRL panned out pretty much as expected and determined final placings in the top eight, at the same time exposing a myriad of issues among the also rans. Out of the lower half of the ladder, it seems to me that the only club that can look forward to 2023 with any positivity is the Bulldogs. The latter part of their season was predominantly on the up with considerable expectations for next year. The other seven all have significant problems of some kind with the prospect of explosive reactions in the coming weeks and months. I won’t go into them in detail as we all know the various scenarios at each club.

 

Let’s be positive instead and focus on the upcoming Week 1 of the finals series. If our top eight can put on a first week to match last weekend’s offerings in the AFL, then we’re in for some mighty footy. Here’s my take on what might happen:

 

We start tomorrow night with the Panthers v Eels match at BlueBet Stadium. The Panthers will be fresh after almost their whole team was given a rest for the final round. That, and their imposing record over the past three years, probably gives them clear favouritism for this game. But the Eels came away with wins both times these sides clashed during the year and have been in good form of late. Last week they put the Storm away with a gear or two left over. Have Parra worked out how to beat Penrith? On paper they’re evenly matched up forward, in the backs, as teams and on form. My feeling is that the result will be determined in the forwards (as most big games are) where Penrith may have an edge through the likes of Fisher-Harris, Martin and Yeo, particularly the latter. The only question will be whether or not Cleary can return and find his mojo immediately. Parramatta have done well to earn the double chance but I can’t help but fear that they may still have another of those ‘off’ games lurking in the background. They’re the more likely to crack under the pressure of finals footy. So I’ll go with Penrith.

 

On Saturday afternoon it’s the Storm v Raiders at AAMI Park, another case of a hometown favourite which has had its colours lowered in recent times by their surging visitors. It’s hard to question the Storm given their tremendous record over the past two decades but they looked tired and out of sorts last week. Too much is expected of Grant and Munster; their forward pack is showing its age; they miss Papenhuyzen so much; Hughes needs to return and be at his very best from the get go. But look at their record! Ricky’s Raiders put the Tigers through the ringer last week but it’s hard to gauge if the Raiders were so good or the Tigers so bad. I think one enabled the other. Nevertheless, it’s better to go into the finals on such a high. I like the energy and enthusiasm of the Raiders forwards and Wighton is a force at No. 6. Have they timed their run to perfection or is it a bubble waiting to be burst? I’m just glad that the Raiders made the eight and, however long they last, expect them to provide an entertaining game. I think I’ve convinced myself that Canberra is good enough to win this one.

 

On Saturday night it’s the Sharks v Cowboys at PointsBet Stadium. This should be a ripper! The Sharks are one of the surprises of the season – the Cowboys are the other main one! Their respective coaches are worthy of ‘Coach of the Year’ honours for what they have achieved this year. Cronulla took a while to get going last week but, when they did, won on the bit; the Cowboys were gifted a win by Penrith and used the opportunity to refine their game plan. So both teams come into this one in full flight. Patience might be the necessary virtue in this game rather than all-out attack. If that’s the case, then I think the Sharks will come out on top. If it’s played at real pace, then the Cowboys are right in it. Hynes v Townsend should be good to watch as will Moylan v Dearden.  It’s a toss of the coin for me but I think I’ll go with the Sharks. 

 

Finally, the Roosters v Rabbitohs return bout may turn out to be just that – a fierce, physical confrontation where the last man standing wins. Both sides have injury concerns and so the final make-up of the teams may have a deciding influence on the outcome. I thought the Bunnies finished the stronger last week while the Roosters looked a bit tired after all the effort they’ve expended over the past two months to get into the finals. Manu is a huge loss, as Murray would be to Souths. What sort of an approach will Mitchell take? Will he go macho or keep his cool and unleash his considerable power and skills? How will the respective Walkers handle the pressure? Both are potential match-winners. The Roosters will win if it’s a dour struggle based on physicality; it’s an even bet if it’s open and flowing. Given that it’s a final, it’s more likely to be a grind so I’ll go with the Roosters. (Sorry, Mark.)

 

So my NRL winners this week are the Panthers, Raiders, Sharks and Roosters.

 

And while still on the men’s game, ‘Vale’ to Queensland great Barry Muir who passed away last week. One of the great characters and players of the 50s and 60s who never took a backward step. You’ll find suitable tributes to Muir across the internet and in the press so I won’t try to reinvent the wheel here. Instead, I’ll use the famous Billy Moore word to hail Barry Muir – ‘Queenslander!’

 

In the NRLW, the Roosters confirmed their premiership favouritism by running away from the Dragons after an even first half, the Broncos finally found some form against the Titans to creep into fourth spot, and the Knights had to struggle to the very end to snatch a win over the Eels.

 

In Round 4 this weekend, the Titans and Eels meet on Saturday in the early game with the winner still a mathematical chance of scraping into fourth spot. The loser is gone. The Eels will be confident after a good showing last week while the Titans are not without ability. Hancock up front and Nicholls at the back have had standout seasons so far while the likes of Hale and Brown are quality players. But I feel that the Eels might be a tad stronger across the park and should come away with a win.

 

In the later game, it’s the old Broncos v Dragons rivalry back for another chapter in their developing history. The Broncos looked very good at times last week but may be without Lenarduzzi this week which would be a huge blow. Brigginshaw and Aikin are on song, Robinson is always looking to attack and Chapman has added to their attacking prowess. But the Dragons have the likes of Tonegato, Pearson, Davis, Apps and Bent. So it should be a beauty. I have a slight leaning towards the Dragons in this one (but I fear they may have used up a lot of petrol last week).

 

The Knights v Roosters game is the match of the round. The Knights are the big improvers of the season while the Roosters are the powerhouse competition favourites. We’ll find out more about the Knights as a result of this game but I expect that it will be that while they’ve come a long way they still have a bit to go. The Roosters for me.

 

So my NRLW winners this week are the Eels, Dragons and Roosters.

 

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About Ian Hauser

A relaxed, Noosa-based retiree with a (very) modest sporting CV. A loyal Queenslander, especially when it comes to cricket and rugby league. Enjoys travel, coffee and cake, reading, and has been known to appreciate a glass or three of wine. One of Footy Almanac's online editors who enjoys the occasional editing opportunity to assist aspiring writers.

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