Penrith Panthers vs Parramatta Eels – Friday night – BlueBet Stadium
The finals series gets underway out in Pantherland, which seems a sensible place to start given their dominance in recent times. That said, it's a bit of a shame this game isn't taking place in a much larger and much shinier stadium. The NRL are willing to sell a grand final to the highest bidder but won't move a game a few kilometres where they could sell up to 60,000 more tickets. Anyhoo, I'm not even the boss of Thinker Manor so I don't get a say in any of this. Penrith should be well rested after the entire starting thirteen were given a break from football and the travel to and from Townsville in round 25. Nathan Cleary in particular, should be well rested as he returns from suspension. Taylan May has been suspended, but not now, a decision that rankles me no end but, as mentioned earlier, I don't get a say in any of this. On the casualty front, Penrith don't have a single player out of action. They're naming their best side, and we all know how good their best side is. The Eels are near enough to full-strength themselves (with apologies to Ray Stone) and, for them at least, are in a rich vein of form given the time of year. Traditionally the Eels start a season strong, then taper and fall away at the business end. In 2022 they started strong, had a few wobbles here and there, and now are arguably going as well as they have all season. Timing is important (ask the Broncos). The Eels also know they've beaten the Panthers twice already this season. Just as importantly, the Panthers know that too. Parramatta also know they have beaten Penrith in Penrith, and they know they beat a full-strength Penrith at Penrith. In round 9, the Panthers named the same starting thirteen that are lining up on Friday night. The Eels side is actually a little stronger this time around, as their first choice wingers (Sivo and Blake) weren't available in round 9. People mock wingers (including me), but in the modern game they are more important than ever. Their yardage early in sets can make a world of difference, and in a game that's likely to be close, their ability to find the try line could be the difference between winning and losing. The Eels halves are red hot right now, and Dylan Brown is starting to show the rugby league world just how good he can be. I suspect Moses is playing with a busted finger, but it didn't stop him last week. For the Panthers, Cleary can control a game like few others, but he hasn't played for over a month, and the Eels are going to run bodies at him. In the back of Cleary's oddly-shaped head, there will be a voice telling him over and over:
"Don't lift in the tackle...Don't lift in the tackle". Could be enough to put him off his game a touch, and he has gone missing in big games before.
I can't believe how short the Panthers are to win this. I'm not even convinced they should be favourites at all.
Verdict – Eels by 7
Result – Panthers 27 defeated Eels 8
Melbourne Storm vs Canberra Raiders – Saturday night – AAMI Park
The Raiders won't fear the trip to Melbourne - I'm all but certain they've won their last four games at AAMI Park, including a final way back in 2019. Their most recent outing was in round 18 where the Raiders won by 4 points (the game where Wighton inadvertently ended the season of Ryan Papenhuyzen). Earlier in the year they met at Wagga Wagga where the Storm Storm were comfortable 14-point winners. Comparing the team lists for Saturday night against that round 18 contest, the Storm add Coates and Smith while the Raiders add Cotric and Whitehead. Handy inclusions for both teams there. The Raiders have won 7 of their last 8 on their march into the top eight. That's a fine string of wins, but most of these games were against teams outside the top eight, and the one loss was at home to the Panthers who were without both their first choice halves. And they didn't just lose, they lost by 20. The Storm have lost their last two games heading into the finals, but they were competitive losses against what could be the most in-form teams (Roosters, Eels) right now. Even more importantly, they beat Penrith in Penrith 16-0. I'll bank on that Panthers form line to guide my tipping here, and a sizeable crowd in Melbourne to cheer the home side over the line. Whatever the result, I want to see Bellamy and Stuart having a drink and a chat in the sheds after the siren.
Verdict – Storm by 4
Result – Raiders 28 defeated Storm 20
Cronulla Sharks vs North Queensland Cowboys – Saturday night – Pointsbet Stadium
The two baldest coaches in the NRL face off at a half-finished suburban stadium because the Sharks need home ground advantage even though their opponent has to travel more than 2000km to get to Sydney. Just play the game at a bigger, shinier, finished stadium...seriously. The coaches may be bald but they are also the young guns in the coaching ranks coming through the coaching sausage machine. We'll be seeing those shiny noggins for quite some time. These sides met once in 2022, back in round 18 up in Townsville where the Sharks were dominant winners (26-12). Importantly, the Sharks named a full-strength outfit (almost identical to the team named here) while the Cowboys were missing Holmes, Taulagi, Deardon, Cotter and Nanai. Handy bunch of Origin players there. The Cowboys have won just half of their games against top eight opponents this season and are 2 from 5 in Sydney. Worrying statistics I grant you, but the Sharks have won just 4 from 9 against top eight opponents, and two of those wins were against Origin depleted opponents. Cronulla on a Saturday night is never easy, but I'm with the Cowboys in an upset.
Verdict – Cowboys by 1
Result – Cowboys 32 defeated Sharks 30
Sydney Roosters vs South Sydney Rabbitohs – Sunday afternoon – Allianz Stadium
A repeat of the contest last week, where the Chooks were convincing winners 26-16. The Roosters didn't score a point after the 45th minute, but they were always going to win the contest. Much was made of the injury to Cameron Murray and it's impact on the result. I don't disagree, but it's worth noting that Waerea-Hargreaves went off after 13 minutes and never returned, and the Chooks were also without Manu for much of the second half. The Roosters have won 8 in a row heading into the finals - scoring 298 points and concending just 118. That includes wins against top eight teams in the last fortnight. I did say at the start of the season they had the roster to win the premiership. They could, but winning from 6th is a big ask. Manu is out this week (and perhaps all year) but the Chooks welcome back Radley, Tupou and Suaalii. For the Bunnies, Damian Cook is back and he makes a world of difference. Most of the teams in the top eight have quality number nines, and Cook is still up there with the best of them. Campbell Graham is another welcome and important return. Last week, the Chooks found a way to contain Latrell Mitchell while the Bunnies had no such luck against Tedesco. A lot can change in a week and this should be closer than the round 25 result, but Roosters for mine.
Verdict – Roosters by 4
Result – Rabbitohs 30 defeated Roosters 14
Wally Lewis - finals week one (in bold)
Note: tips from Wally will be published on Wednesday night or Thursday morning
- PANTHERS (1st) vs Eels (4th)
- STORM (5th) vs Raiders (8th)
- Sharks (2nd) vs COWBOYS (3rd)
- ROOSTERS (6th) vs Rabbitohs (7th)