Canterbury Bulldogs vs Manly Sea Eagles – Friday night – ANZ Stadium
You have to go all the way back to 1995 to revisit the last time these sides met in a final. Rather amazingly the current coaches of these sides both played in that final...as team-mates. And it was only last year that Des Hasler and Geoff Toovey were celebrating a premiership together. Those days are behind us now, and Hasler and Toovey have scratched each other off their Christmas card lists. One can only stand and politely applaud the achievements of both coaches in 2012. The Bulldogs have finished on the top of the pile after failing to make the top eight last year (and the year before that they finished 13th). Hasler achieved this with what is much the same squad - his only big name signing at the start of the year was English import James Graham. Granted he picked up a couple of handy wingers (Perrett and Inu) in mid-season transfers, but he also lost his club captain (Andrew Ryan) and Jamal Idris. It's an astonishing effort in a very tough competition. Geoff Toovey had a team of defending premiers to work with at Manly, but everyone and anyone was willing to tell you that the Sea Eagles were a rabble at the start of the season. Front-office issues, board issues, coaching issues, financial woes, a home ground held together by goodwill and gaffa tape, and rumours that just about every player in the side wanted out of the joint. They lost four of their first seven games this season, but they've lost just four times since then and go into the finals on a six-game winning streak. There are two things about that winning streak that stand out for me; four of those wins were away from Brookvale and even away from Sydney. The other thing is that three of those wins were against top eight sides, and in those three games none of their opponents could score more than six points. At times Manly have shown us their very best, and when they do they are the best side in this competition. They have next to no injury concerns and plenty of finals experience to draw upon. The Bulldogs secured the minor premiership with good reason and this will be one almighty tussle, but I think the Sea Eagles can prevail in what I expect to be a low-scoring and very compelling grind. Unmissable.
Verdict – Sea Eagles
Result - Bulldogs 16 defeated Sea Eagles 10
Melbourne Storm vs South Sydney Rabbitohs - Saturday night – AAMI Park
And so we have another game where the master coach (Bellamy) faces his apprentice (Maguire), and it's interesting to note that three of the top four sides are coached by first-season coaches. The coaches battle is a story in itself, but the headline-grabbing feature of this clash is the battle of the fullbacks. Greg Inglis returns to Melbourne to take on the mob that had to let him go, and since his move to fullback at the Rabbitohs he has become the most devastating player in the competition. Billy Slater is the best positional player in the competition, and he's so good he kept Inglis out of the number one jersey at the Storm. That we get to see them face each other in a must-win game is a treasure. Oh great football gods! Please deliver us a moment when Inglis has to take on Slater one-on-one in open play...and vice versa. We would be forever grateful. The Rabbitohs have an appalling record against the Storm, but Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire has transformed this side into a genuine finals contender. I'm not completely convinced by the form of either side at the moment, but I'm slightly less convinced by the Storm. That run of losses still worries me, and although they've won five in a row the quality of their opponent hasn't been flash. The best two sides they beat were the Broncos and the Sharks - neither of those are at their best right now and the Storm were lucky on both occasions. The Rabbitohs have won eight of their last ten, and one of those losses was to Manly and there's no shame in that. The Storm are favoured to win but I'll take the bunnies in an upset.
Verdict – Rabbitohs
Result - Storm 24 defeated Rabbitohs 6
North Queensland Cowboys vs Brisbane Broncos - Saturday night – Dairy Farmers Stadium
Over the last ten weeks the Broncos have won just two games - both wins were by narrow margins, over moderate opposition and both wins were at Suncorp. Here they face a genuine top eight side away from home on a four-game winning streak. In the last eight weeks the Cowboys only losses were to the Bulldogs and the Sea Eagles. During the last month they are averaging more than 35 points a game. That compares pretty favourably against the Broncos attack - which has scored more than 20 points just once in the last ten rounds. Even when they did score more than twenty points they still lost by twenty - and that loss was to the Eels. These sides have met twice already this season and the Cowboys prevailed on both occasions. They last met in round 15 at Dairy Farmers and the Cowboys kept the Broncos scoreless (although to give the Broncos some credit, that was one of the best games of the season). One can never write off the Broncos completely because they are one side with a history of digging deep and finding form when they have to, but on face value everything points to a Cowboys victory. If the Broncos score more than 12 points I'll be surprised, and 12 points won't be enough on Saturday night.
Verdict – Cowboys
Result - Cowboys 33 defeated Broncos 16
Canberra Raiders vs Cronulla Sharks – Sunday afternoon – Canberra Stadium
Not so long ago the axe appeared to be hovering directly above the head of Canberra coach David Furner. They were, at the time, second-favourite to take out the wooden spoon. Then, as if from nowhere, they won eight of their last ten and secured themselves a home final. During that period they notched up some very big wins over some very big scalps in the Bulldogs, the Storm and perhaps most importantly, the Sharks. They destroyed the Sharks in that game and they did so away from home. That win was only six weeks ago and little has changed since then to suggest the Raiders won't win again - particularly at home in front of a lime-green crowd. It should be remembered that the Sharks did beat the Raiders quite convincingly in Canberra earlier in the season, but the fortunes of both sides have swung since then. Canberra have clearly been my bogey side this year, and they do face a side that play a 'finals-style' of football, but I think the Raiders have more points in them and they'll get conditions to suit.
Verdict – Raiders
Result - Raiders 34 defeated Sharks 16
Wally Lewis - finals week one selections (in bold)
Note: tips from Wally will be published as soon as possible (usually on Thursday night or early Friday morning).
- BULLDOGS vs Sea Eagles
- STORM vs Rabbitohs
- COWBOYS vs Broncos
- RAIDERS vs Sharks