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 are again on the cusp of another special achievement in the sport of rugby league, needing only one win from the remaining two matches in the series. Their first opportunity to achieve further sporting greatness comes in just a matter of hours when at just after 8pm the New South Wales Blues and Queensland Maroons run onto our Olympic stadium in Sydney, the Blues in front of a favourable crowd, to do battle on what is seen as the toughest stage of rugby league.
Origin is all about that old, well reasonably old adage anyway of mate against mate, state against state. The time of year where you find yourself squaring up against your fellow club men, them going hard at you and you required to show just the same level of intensity, strength, agility and passion as your temporary foe.
Queensland won the first game, but only just. The team were far from consistent throughout the match, starting incredibly poorly, but they were able to turn it around when it mattered and capitalised on enough of the opportunities they had to find the New South Wales line and dive or run over for those all important four pointers.
Were it not for the poor kicking game of Carney, including that awful decision by the Blues captain to go for the two points from so far out when the NSW team had all the running things more than likely would have been at least 2 to 4 points closer.
Then there’s the controversial try which for the first million angles didn’t look a try, but the more it was replayed and explained it seemed to flip a switch that said try and of course the decision was backed up by referees boss and known NSW friend, Bill Harrigan.
There were some flaws in the Queensland game that they will want to rectify if they are to beat a NSW outfit confident in the knowledge they have what it takes to be seriously competitive against the most dominant team in Queensland history, even though the Maroons are not doing it with Darren Lockyer this time around.
Our early possession rate was incredibly poor and to play against a New South Wales outfit that now knows the weaknesses that the Queensland team displayed in game one will be dangerous to deal with. So more consistent ball control will be key.
Part of the poor ball control was a pretty shocking game by Billy Slater’s world beating standards where one spill lead to a try that ordinarily wouldn’t have happened if his game was right on the money, indeed it may well have been a riot for the Queensland team if that were the case.
Our forwards too during game one were made to do an incredible amount of hard work early on and that meant that for the entire game the key Queensland big men racked in enormous tackle counts across the board. Queensland will need to do more to ensure that the work our forwards do in defense doesn’t tire them out for bringing the ball forward in a more concerted attack tonight.
Apart from being able to take advantage of the play more often as has been the case under the Maroons team for 6 years now and even prior to that but to differing levels of impact the Blues in the first outing absolutely had all of the pace against a Queensland team that may well have been suffering from complacency. There is a good chance though that the speed they lacked in the first game in Melbourne will not be required so much with wet weather being part of the recipe for tonight’s game.
Indeed though, this complacency may have been a key factor in the silly mistakes and lack of energy that the team displayed throughout the match, but mostly in the first half of the game so that will need to be put in check and it is hard to believe that a such a senior Queensland side would not be capable of closing that complacency gap for the game in Sydney tonight.
Sam Thaiday will clearly be missed tonight too as one of the tough enforcers that have been a strong leader of the muscle men in the pack but Thaiday is being replaced by experience and talent in the reshuffled 17.
Other than those areas, the Queensland team that won the first match by a whisker was a well-oiled and clearly experienced and tested machine that need to overcome psychological barriers perhaps much, much more than any physical deficit they will have against a comparatively young side full of energy and on fresher legs.
Nonetheless, there are not too many ingredients to add to the recipe to make the best Blues stew around.