Daly Cherry-Evans and his Manly teammates are shaping up nicely to defend their crown
Photo: Getty Images
WHAT WE LEARNED: Hasler's influence runs deep at two title favourites but the Broncos still battle...
All of the heavyweight contenders flexed their muscles and made the right moves in the final round of the regular season. The top four sides all won, setting up a tasty pair of matches for the right to proceed to the preliminary finals.
Minor premiers Canterbury will host Manly, with the main plotline being Des Hasler coaching the premiership favourites against the team he took to the title last year. We are tipping this as a grand final preview.
Melbourne will play Souths in a clash between the best team of the past decade and the competition's sleeping giant. The Storm have looked moderate at best in the past two months, but will have home advantage and an experience edge over a Rabbitohs combination that is in better form and has a wider spread of stars. Billy versus GI, established star Cronk versus rookie Reynolds, Michael Maguire coaching against his old mentor – it will be a beauty.
In the bottom half of the eight, three of the four teams won in round 26 and the two sudden-death finals also provide plenty of excitement. North Queensland will host 'big brother' Brisbane in Townsville, and will be the warmest favourite of the weekend.
The fourth final will be a knockout in Canberra where the visiting Sharks have an excellent recent record. Todd Carney and Blake Ferguson will be facing their former teams.
Four finals in four different states/territories, with three of them being so close in prospect that flipping a coin might be the best approach to tipping. Magnificent!
Is Greg Inglis the best player in his position? The best player in the comp? The best player ever? These are unanswerable questions. However his dominant display against Newcastle, on a night when Souths' players in jumpers two, three, four and five were mediocre, added to his legend. Yes, he brushed off Chris Houston to score a smart try from dummy half. Yes, he ran a long way and busted a lot of tackles. But the play that will be remembered for years was a defensive masterwork. Akuila Uate, a rival to GI in ‘Hardest to Tackle' polls, sprinted 30 metres down the touch-line, tried to put a big right-foot step on Inglis just before the try-line, but was taken front on. In one fluid motion Inglis hit Uate, raked the ball out of his hand, then flicked it in-field to a support player as he fell out of the field of play. Simply brilliant.
Josh Jackson has got better and better in his debut season with the Bulldogs. His outing against the Roosters – his ninth first grade game – was his best yet. He scored a hat-trick, broke seven tackles, ran further (133m) than he ever has before and did plenty of clean-up work. At a club with some classy international backrowers, the kid is a keeper.
Yes, Ben Barba's millimetre-perfect put-down for his try was yet another highlight for the Dally M fave – but did you see the superb banana kick put in by Josh Reynolds to set it up?
Rough year for Penrith, but the Panthers faithful will be heartened by the development of Josh Mansour who looks a fine backline prospect. He finished his debut season with 13 games under his belt, and ran more than 100m in every one of them. He capped it off with 163m and a try against the Broncos.
Manly had only 45 per cent of possession, five offloads to 23, made 324 tackles to 247, ran for just 1080m – but still controlled the contest against Gold Coast. In a game where staying uninjured was the most important goal, the Sea-Eagles showcased their creativity for four tries between the 18th and 43rd minutes and otherwise did just enough to get the job done. Perfect.
Sisa Waqa will never be a superstar but he inspired his higher-profile Storm teammates with his energy and enthusiasm against the Tigers. Waqa's kick-chasing was superb, his urgency in attack and defence was first class, and he carried the ball further than any Melbourne player.
A lovely tune-up for the Cowboys against Cronulla. While they did not need to win to earn a home final, they handled the Sharks with ease for a result which will buoy their confidence before the semis. Most of their scoring came from perfectly worked backline movements, although James Segeyaro's cheeky dummy-half dart and Jason Taumalolo's dynamic bust up the centre of the ruck provided spectacular tries.
Prop of the Week goes to the mighty Ben Hannant. His 173m running and 35 tackles was the sort of robust output we see from Mr Effort every week.
Things looked pretty grim for Brisbane with 75 minutes gone against Penrith and scores tied. A converted try and a field-goal sealed the finals berth, but it was a scratchy effort. The Broncos' finals card is stamped: Must Do Better.
Kade Snowden failed to set the world on fire in his first season as a Knight. Rated possibly the best prop in the game when he left Cronulla, he had a tough year – exemplified by his last outing, where he carried the ball just 61m and missed five tackles against Souths. Much more will be expected in 2013.
Fascinating to notice during the Saturday evening telecast that the most vocal crowd support at Gold Coast's home stadium was for the visiting team. Does Manly have a lot of followers on the Sunshine Strip, or does this indicate the lack of love that locals feel for the Titans?
Poor old Shaun Kenny-Dowell picked the last game of the year to have his worst game of the year. Just 34m running, three missed tackles and a whopping six errors. Ouch. Hope Mad Monday is a better outing, SKD.
The Warriors played their last game the way they played most of the season: without any heart. They were up 22-6 at half-time after 40 minutes with a howling gale at their backs, but when forced to dig deep against the wind in the second half they turned turtle, conceding 36 unanswered points. No forward ran 100m and apart from Ben Matulino none ran even 60m. Soft as Merino fleece.
Ben Pomeroy played his first game since round 20, was a good performer for the Sharks with an equal game-high seven tackle breaks – but probably won't play again this year. His hit on Johnathan Thurston in the closing moments of the game was a bad one.
Do they use electricity in the lights at Leichhardt or are gas lanterns still the go? We love the suburban ground, but the illumination for night footy is not up to scratch.
Israel Folau kicked just his second career goal for Greater Western Sydney in front of 6,696 people on Saturday arvo. It is horrible watching this champion of one code look like a nebbish playing a different code. Come back to the NRL where you belong, Iz.
Great work by Foxtel to provide a treat for home viewers on Saturday night. The pay-TV network managed to corral two of its sports channels so viewers could flick between the Bulldogs-Roosters game and the Tigers-Storm game, and see the minor premiership decided in real time. Kudos also for staying with the coverage at ANZ Stadium to show the presentation of the JJ Giltinan Shield live, although your average wide-screen TV would not be big enough to contain the smile on the face of Terry Lamb as he handed over the trophy.
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