There’s just a touch over 48 hours until that other grand final this weekend, the one that comes just a day after the Sydney Swans and the Hawthorn Hawks take to the MCG to battle for AFL honours. The National Rugby League final promises to be an intensely physical encounter between two teams that reached the absolute pinnacle in 2012. The teams finished 1st and 2nd in the minor premiership with the Canterbury Bulldogs taking the honours in the regular season over a Melbourne Storm outfit that have been consistent performers over a number of seasons.
But of course season-winning exploits mean little when it gets to the big one. Generally speaking, the two teams that make the last match of the season are closer on paper and of course in with a 50% shot, theoretically. It’s also the case that, when both teams finished the regular season first and second, they are of course, automatically said to be nearer each other in their chances for glory than not.
Different games and their different team match-ups bring a unique complexion to each game where different players and player combinations are required to excel in order to clock-up a win. In this particular game, it’ll no doubt be a battle of the hookers and fullbacks with some wrestling manoeuvres likely to also play a significant part in the game as has been the norm for a few seasons in the rugby league.
The game on Sunday should pit the experienced and widely regarded world’s best fullback, Billy Slater for the Melbourne Storm up against the barnstorming and youthful up-and-comer Ben Barba for the Bulldogs. This should eventuate despite Billy Slater coming down with a cold, with the team certain he will play.
This is probably a closer match-up than most would admit, with Barba not exactly streets behind Slater in the race to be the best fullback in the world. Indeed Barba this year has been judged the best fullback in the NRL, effectively claiming the world mantle.
Both Ben Barba and Billy Slater are capable of swiftly moving up the field and breaking tackles. Both are known for their ability to easily streak past weary and unaware players, steaming away to score tries having run the length of the field. These plays alone have the ability to make all the difference on Sunday if playing conditions see the two teams competing on a dry playing field, no rain in sight.
The key to defusing the explosive tendencies of the two number ones will be with the kicking game of both sides. Both are usually strong under the high ball as they need to be, but a vulnerability exists there, especially in the case of Billy Slater who erred under pressure in the Origin series. The pack must be ready to chase after kicks targeting these players with gusto. The probability that one or two might be dropped increases with every opportunity taken.
Sending down a number of high kicks can also work for good defensive field position and can be used in attack for just as much efficacy, as long as the usage of such plays does not become predictable throughout the 80 minutes of the game.
The second key position will be the two hookers, Cameron Smith for Melbourne and Michael Ennis for Canterbury. One of the key players on the field, it will be Smith and Ennis, both class acts, as much as it pains to say about the on-field exploits of the latter, who will be there to get the ball into a good position in attack.
Another high tension element of the battle of the hookers will be the niggle. There is no love lost between Cameron Smith and Michael Ennis. The latter is more than capable of niggling opponents and chooses to do this a little more than most players in the competition. Cameron Smith will usually let his actions do the talking and the key will be him keeping his composure and perhaps forcing a penalty or two from an Ennis indiscretion.
Of course, the halves too, as they always have in rugby league will also be crucial, but in a game where Cronk is streets ahead of his opposing half, that equation doesn’t particularly change things and won’t signal a key two person contest within the broader game.
The final ingredient in the mix that is the Canterbury Bulldogs versus Melbourne Storm grand final will be the use of legal and perhaps sneaky illegal wrestling techniques. Both teams are professional at this with the Storm having pioneered the use of the so-called “chicken wing” tackle.
All NRL sides use wrestling moves, that is true. That is required in order to keep up with the competition. Such moves also act to slow the game down as well as causing a bit of pain. The referees will be on the lookout for the illegal chicken wing tackle, but most other moves are fair game and will be used more and more in the event of a very close contest on Sunday night.
The head says Melbourne will win, they’re big game players and have been there (the grand final) so many times in this decade, though Canterbury have been there more over the last 20 years. The difference is that the Storm have not been around that long. The Storm too, have more big game players than their opponents and this could also prove crucial to the end result. The heart on the other hand? Well, it doesn’t care.
Queensland sits just two days and 80 minutes, possibly slightly more from either winning its 7th straight State of Origin series or that same amount of time from at least briefly ending an era of dominance for the team. For a side that have been inconsistent whilst showing the occasional glimpse of brilliance that has allowed them to dominate over 6 years they are somewhat lucky to be challenging again for another series win at what is generally considered the toughest level of the game.
There’s been some juggling of the team after the injury Billy Slater suffered ruled him out of the series decider to be held on Wednesday. The best fullback in the world will be replaced in the number 1 jersey by a player best known for playing in the centres or on the wing at club and representative level, former Melbourne Storm teammate Greg Inglis.
But the now South Sydney Rabbitohs star Inglis is not unfamiliar with the position he will inherit from Billy Slater. Early this year Inglis was started in the fullback position while playing for his club which saw the team enjoy a strong win. Inglis has made the position at the club his own since then and will play in that position on Wednesday for the first time at a representative level.
Greg Inglis taking the number 1 jersey means that Matt Bowen from the North Queensland Cowboys, a former Queensland Origin player and again in form alternative to Billy Slater and his counterpart from the Canterbury Bulldogs, Ben Barba both miss out on an Origin call-up at the hands of the tall, broad and fast Inglis.
Bot can feel at least a little hard done by in a way as they’ve both certainly done enough to crack into the Queensland side this season for Origin at least as utilities, particularly in the case of Canterbury’s Barba who has been a revelation for the team, but also Bowen, especially in recent weeks showing point-scoring prowess.
But Mal (Meninga) has gone for team experience and relative youth in the form of Greg Inglis as opposed to the older and experienced club and representative player Matt Bowen and the relatively inexperienced Ben Barba who is early on in his rugby league career and will surely be a feature of both the Queensland and Australian teams in the future.
In game 1 the New South Wales team had all the pace and running and looked to have bamboozled the Maroons with their youthful exuberance and breakaway runs, but Queensland capitalised on mistakes and field position when it counted and referee decisions went their way.
The first game also saw Billy Slater struggle under the high ball and make mistakes in play which meant he had a quiet game and could easily have cost the team the game had other players been a bit more rusty.
Game two in Sydney saw a Queensland team with better legs but an inability to overpower a resurgent Blues team who were strong in defense where it counted and were able to capitalise on field position like the Queensland team did in the first match down in Melbourne.
On Wednesday night pace and consistency will be the key for the Queensland team as will be responding better to the high ball than has been the case other than when Brent Tate received the ball on behalf of the Queensland team, doing so in a brilliant fashion.
The key big men of the Queensland team will also need to put in a big defensive effort needing to tackle to prevent younger legs running away with the ball at immense pace.
As usual too it will be up to the expert Johnathon Thurston to direct the game from the halves along with playing partner Cooper Cronk who has slotted into the team well after the departure of Darren Lockyer last year.
This year it’s a lot harder to pick the side that will triumph, NSW have been inspired, but Queensland will still want to prove dearly that they can win without the legend that is Darren Lockyer. Both sides have the ability to win but it will be a close encounter of the third State of Origin kind.