1st. MELBOURNE STORM
WHY THEY CAN
1. Added strike power - Melbourne have more strike power out wide and size in the forwards than in recent years. The Storm have 2 of the most dynamic wingers in the game in Koribete and Vunivalu. Both are powerhouse wingers with Koribete a wrecking ball and Vunivalu a huge threat in the air. The Storm's forwards have been a little more powerful and damaging this year. With Bromwich, McLean and Proctor they have some size and some offloading ability which they have lacked in past campaigns. In past finals campaigns the Storm have been blown off the paddock in the forwards which should not happen this year.
2. Cameron Smith is the ultimate big game winner - With 10 Origin series wins, 3 Premierships (2 later stripped) and a World Cup and Four Nations victory, there is no bigger winner in the game today. Smith owns the big moments, not through individual brilliance but through his leadership and cool head under pressure. Smith has already cranked up the heat on the refs and he will be at his manipulating best in the finals. If the games are close and go right down to the wire, the Storm have a big advantage.
3. 1st Ranked Defence - Simply the Storm have the best defence in the competition, conceding just 302 points through 24 games. That is remarkably under 13 points a game. On Saturday night, their last ditch scramble against Cronulla was outstanding as they saved 3 or 4 certain tries. Melbourne's whole culture and winning mentality has been built around their attitude and hunger for the defensive side of the game. They are clearly at an advantage to their rivals here.
4. Storm are great front runners - This is a side that once they get in front are awfully hard to run down. They do not invite the opponents back in through poor discipline, or soft tries or cheap turnovers. In Cooper Cronk and Smith they have a structured game plan which is catered towards being in front. They will just grind you down and wait for you to wilt. Craig Bellamy's coached sides hardly ever beat themselves or get run down from behind
5. Home Finals - As Minor Premiers they could get a home final this week and potentially a home final in Preliminary Week. They will be well rested and playing in front of their home fans potentially right through until the Grand Final.
WHY THEY CAN'T
1. Too Robotic - The Storm are not good chasing points. If teams can get the jump on them early with a try or two, it might force Melbourne away from their game plan. The Storm have the 4th best attack in the game - however they are not a side that likes to throw caution to the wind. Recently we saw them against Brisbane a little out of their comfort zone and frustrated when behind by double digits.
2. Ceiling not as High as Others - Sometimes it looks like other sides have more raw talent and brilliance - that other sides have more points in them if they play to their very best. The Storm generally have to work hard for their wins, it requires a real team effort. If teams lift a level they could be in some trouble.
3. No Billy Slater - I know they have managed to win the Minor Premiership without him, however Billy Slater might be missed when the stakes are at their highest. Slater was a match winner and while Cam Munster has done a stellar job I don't see him creating the same big plays or making that diving save like Billy could in full flight.
Verdict - PREMIERS.
Melbourne are a big chance to win the title. They were my pre-season pick and I have seen little to change my mind. This team has far more potency then past versions and the experience to nail the big games.
2nd. CANBERRA RAIDERS
WHY THEY CAN
1. Momentum - The Raiders are the form team of the competition right now. If this competition is about momentum, well then shut the gates, give it the Raiders now. They are riding a remarkable 10 match winning streak which saw them dispose of the likes of Cronulla and Melbourne. They are in sensational form and don't look like stopping any time soon.
2. Number 1 ranked attack - The Raiders have by far and away the best attack in the competition. The Raiders were the only side in the competition to rack over 600 points averaging over 25 points per game. The Raiders are sizzling right now with the football. They have speed and power and skill outside and real size up front. Teams might have to score 30 odd to beat them which won't be easy. Guys like Josh Hodgson, Blake Austin, Joey Leilua have that bit of individual brilliance in them that can turn a game.
3. No Pressure - Canberra are playing without the weight of expectation. This side was expected to make the finals this year but maybe only sneak into the Top 8. This is a side playing with house money, they have already had a successful year. They don't have the burden of past finals losses or near misses. They will play freely and throw caution to the wind.
4. Ricky Stuart is at his best at finals time - Love him or hate him, Ricky is a master motivator in the big games. He won competitions as a player and a coach. He thrives on the big occasion. He will be taking all the pressure off his team in the press, while quietly telling his men they can win it. He will build up that siege mentality that everyone is against them. I am sure he will have them like caged lions by the time kick off rolls around.
WHY THEY CAN'T
1. Motivation - One worry I have about the Raiders is deep down they are already content with what they have done. The Raiders have been out of the finals for 3 years and it has been a big achievement to get into the Top 4. Whatever happens in the finals, they are unlikely to cop any stick.
2. Lack of finals experience - The Raiders biggest game in the last 8 seasons was a Week 2 home final in 2010 which they bombed against the Tigers. Coming to Sydney for the big games against sides with proven finals competition might prove a bridge too far for the Raiders. Sure they are red hot right now, however the intensity lifts a notch or two at finals time and it remains to be seen whether this young side can handle that intensity.
3. Leaky Defence - The Raiders have the 6th best defence in the competition and that could let them down when the heat is on. Sometimes finals can be tough, grinding, low scoring affairs and that might mean a soft try let in could cost you a game. The Raiders have some suspect defensive players that big teams might be looking to target. They don't quite have the same culture in their defence that other experienced finals teams have bought up.
Verdict - Exit Week 3.
I give the Raiders a realistic chance to go all the way. They have momentum on their side and their ceiling is high in terms of their best. However I still think the big sides might get a hold of them and put them off their game. I can see Canberra winning a final however I think they will bite the dust agonisingly short of the big dance.
3rd. CRONULLA SHARKS
WHY THEY CAN
1. Destiny - Call me a clown but I believe a little bit in the planets aligning sometimes for particular clubs. It's the Shark's 50th year, they are yet to win a title, if little moments in big games start to go their way, then maybe someone is smiling down on them. I have seen it happen in team's Premierships before, where pieces of luck just seem to fall into place and it was almost meant to be.
2. Their Veterans are desperate - Michael Ennis is retiring at the end of the season. Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis and Chris Heighington are not far away. It is now or never for these guys. Gallen has spent over half his life at Cronulla and will do anything to get his beloved Sharks a title. They will be putting everything on the line and leaving nothing in the tanks.
3. Strike Power - The Sharks have genuine strike power to match their menace and niggle. Cronulla in past finals series have been a tough and grinding side that could mix it up with anyone. Now with a red-hot Ben Barba, Valantine Holmes, and James Maloney the Sharks now have speed and skill to outscore teams. If they play on dry tracks and games open up it might suit Cronulla which could not be said in previous years.
4. Niggle / Finals Experience - The Sharks might be able to get under some teams' skin. In Ennis, Gallen, Graham and Maloney they have some blokes who can sledge and maybe put some young players off their game. I am sure they will bring these niggling tactics into the finals. Sometimes the refs like to put the whistle away in the finals and this might suit Cronulla. They might be able to get away with some cheap shots and some niggle and put teams off their game.
WHY THEY CAN'T
1. The Burden of History - I think it is a massive factor. It's like a gorilla around their necks. The players can deflect it as much as they want, however they will be thinking about it. They must get sick of being asked about it. They know people will revel in their demise if they fall short, so the pressure is on. 50 years with no title is a fair bit of weight to carry around.
2. Lack of Discipline / Too Desperate - The Shark have players that can lose the plot and be too desperate. The likes of Fifita and Gallen and Ennis could be ticking time bombs. They can get frustrated easily and their aggression could work against them. If they are behind on the score board or losing a penalty count I can see this team imploding. Their desperation to win a title could easily work against them if they don't keep cool heads.
3. Shane Flanagan - The coach looks stressed already. He has done a huge job, Shane Flanagan. However he looked mentally jaded by the Andrew Fifita drama. He looked a bit worn down already and that pressure will only be amplified in the finals. Whilst Flanagan is a good coach he doesn't have a huge amount of finals experience. Can he match it with a Bellamy, Hasler, Stuart, Green or Bennett in a grand final?
4. Form - The Sharks actual form is pretty rotten right now. 1 win from 6 matches is not the sort of record you want to have heading into the finals. They did create 7 line breaks against the Storm however the Storm did handle them pretty easily. Losses to the Bunnies and Dragons also showed Cronulla looking a bit tired and flat. Can they flick the switch now the finals are here?
Verdict - Exit Week 3 Finals.
I give the Sharks a realistic chance, however I have gone cold on them. I think they might have played their best football in the middle of the season and are hanging on a bit now. I think they arguably have more pressure on them than any other side and I see it ending in tears.
4th. NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS
WHY THEY CAN
1. They are Better than 2015 - Make no mistake this Cowboys side is even better than the side that won the Premiership last season. This side has not lost any players and their combinations are even more bedded down. Guys like Morgan, Coote, Taumololo have another year of experience under their belts and have elevated their games. They are in rude health and seem to be hitting their straps at just the right time.
2. Johnathan Thurston - The Cowboys legend and future immortal is still the most ravenous competitor and leader in the NRL. Most team like the Roosters, Dragons, Souths and Manly fall on hard times after they win a competition. It's because their senior players lose that 5% edge that was driving them towards their ultimate goal. Thurston is remarkable in that he has lost none of his. He looks as hungry as ever.
3. Their Ceiling is Higher than Others - The Cowboys best might be better than everyone else. This team, when they are on, can blow you away with a combination of dynamite attack and raw power through the middle. At their best I don't think there is a side that can match them. They have the 2nd best attack in the game and the 2nd best defence.
4. Forward Pack -The Cowboys pack can get on top in the big games. Matt Scott, James Tamou and Jason Taumololo can really win the collisions and give their backs the time and space to dominate. If games get dragged down into a battle through the middle the Cowboys will be well served.
5. Belief - This same team went to war and won the prize just last year. They know what it takes to win the big moments and the close games. They won't be phased by the occasion.
WHY THEY CAN'T
1. It's just too hard to go back-to-back - The Top 8 finals series has been in for 17 years and no team has managed to go back-to-back in that time. The last time was over 20 years ago when the Broncos won in 1992 and 1993. While the Cowboys are in good health heading into the finals, will they now become the hunted with other teams having that extra 5% motivation. Do they really have that same drive with a premiership under their belts when the going gets tough?
2. Game Plan - Teams are numbering up on Johnathan Thurston. Recently teams like the Roosters and Tigers did a number on Thurston by doubling up on him and rushing him. It put the Cowboys a little bit out of whack and some of their other stars' form has been patchy of late. Can they find different ways of scoring points or taking the pressure off JT to get them over the line?
3. Travel / Road Games - Can the Cowboys win on the Road in Week 3 of the finals potentially in Melbourne or Sydney and in Sydney in another Grand Final? They did it last year, however it is a big ask. They rolled Melbourne in Melbourne last year - however this year they are a far different beast. All that travel might start to take its toll eventually.
Verdict - Runners Ups
The Cowboys are a big chance. I am struggling to come up with reasons the Cowboys can't win it to be honest, besides history. I think this team is going straight back to the Grand Final again. I just think at their best they are going to be awfully hard to beat. I have Melbourne knocking them over by 1 in the Grand Final, which was my pre-season prediction.
5th. BRISBANE BRONCOS
WHY THEY CAN
1. Motivation and Redemption - This is a powerful factor. The Broncos have the same side that would be hurting like hell after losing in Golden Point to their little brother the Cowboys last year. They were 5 seconds away from being Champions and only a Hail Mary Cowboys play denied them. That would be a lot of nightmares and a lot of motivation to carry forward.
2. Intensity of their defence - At their best Brisbane are a brutal defensive side. If the finals are intense and low scoring it could suit this side down to the ground. They ambushed Melbourne in Melbourne recently showing they can beat the best. They were excellent in last year's finals series and are recently starting to get back to decent form.
3. Wayne Bennett - Bennett does not lose Grand Finals, well until last year. With a remarkable 7 Premierships, Bennett is the master coach at finals time. He knows how to motivate his sides and how to keep them calm when others might be fraying at the edges. I am sure he is desperate to avenge last years blot on his copy book.
4. Big Match Experience - There are no tomorrows for Corey Parker. Parker is retiring at the end of the year and will be putting it all on the line in one last quest to win another Premiership. Alongside Sam Thaiday and Darius Boyd they have proven Origin and Premiership winning players that know how to lift for the big games.
WHY THEY CAN'T
1. They missed the all important Top 4 - The Broncos won't get a second bite of the cherry, or a crucial rest week. They will have to do it the hard way. They will be on the road in Week 2 and Week 3 of the finals if they get that far and, with the travel and the crowds putting pressure on refs, they might be up against it.
2. Clunky Attack - The Broncos attack is not in the same ballpark as some other teams. Their celling in attack seems below all of the Top 4 sides. Brisbane still seem like more of a grinding side despite having some flair players. If games open up and the Broncos have to chase points, I think they are in trouble.
3. The ghosts of last year for Ben Hunt - Make no mistake Hunt will be haunted by last year's crucial errors. He has not quite found the same level of form this year and has appeared to drift in and out of games. I'm not sure whether mentally he has quite gone to the next level and whether he can step up in the big games.
4. Their forward pack are grinders not enforcers - The Broncos during their alarming mid-season slump were really exposed through the middle. Wayne Bennett is already on the look out to try and beef up his pack. Maybe that is a tell tale sign that he knows his pack needs more enforcers if they are to go all the way. I think they are in danger of being blown away in the forwards by a bigger side in the finals.
Verdict - Exit Week 2 Finals
I didn't really like the Broncos in pre-season like everyone else because I don't think they have that extra gear in them. While I give them a slight chance to win the competition other teams are more potent and have bigger packs. I think they will lift in the finals and be extremely competitive. However I just see one of the Top 4 sides coming down in Week 2 and ending their season.
6th. PENRITH PANTHERS
WHY THEY CAN
1. Momentum and Form - They are in red hot form right now the Panthers. With 6 wins from their past 7 matches the Panthers are the form side of the Finals along with the Raiders. Momentum and confidence are on their side. This side are riding that wave of confidence and they have all their troops on deck.
2. Youth and Flair - Penrith have youth and flair and plenty of points in them. They are not burdened by past battle scars. This side will not go into its shell or feel the pressure. They will continue to freewheel and that will make them dangerous. They will look to outscore teams and if they get a fast track and plenty of football other sides might struggle to go with them.
3. They have nothing to lose - Penrith were not in some experts Top 8. They have already had a good season. They have no weight of expectation. No one is expecting them to win this competition despite their recent form.
WHY THEY CAN'T
1. They lack control in games - Youth brings with it over exuberance and Penrith can make cheap and unnecessary turn overs. This has not been punished against some lesser teams late in the year, however against the big guns they won't get so lucky.
2. Their defence is simply not good enough - Conceding nearly 20 points a game, Penrith can leak points. They have some suspect defensive players and can concede some soft tries. I don't think it's a strong area of their game and in finals there will be times when your defence needs to stand tall.
3. They lack finals experience - When Penrith went to a Preliminary Final 2 years ago they had a proven final performer in Jaime Soward leading them around the paddock. If a games gets close at the end, Penrith might not have the experience to find a calmness and leadership to win the game. Recently they have beaten a lot of bad teams and I am not sure that is great preparation for the finals intensity.
4. Lack of Belief - Do they really believe they can win the competition? It has already been a successful year for Penrith. Are they already satisfied? Anything will be a bonus from here, they might have played their Grand Final already. I think so.
5. Anthony Griffin is unproven at this level - Griffin has done a great job this year. However at the Broncos he could not get them to the next level. He is a great coach at developing and nurturing young talent, however is he a master motivator I am not sure?
Verdict - Exit Week 1 of the Finals.
Sorry Penrith fans I give your side no hope to go all the way. I'm a bit suspect on Penrith's momentum coming into the finals. I think they had a soft draw the last 6 weeks and have blown away some poor sides. I could be totally wrong here however I think the Dogs might get a hold of them in the forwards this week and send them packing.
7th. CANTERBURY BULLDOGS
WHY THEY CAN
1. The Dogs save their best football for September - Time and time again they have limped into the finals and then ambushed sides. The Dogs have that "Dogs of War" mentality they built their whole culture on. They will be far from easy beats. They know how to win big games.
2. The Pressure is off - Just about all and sundry have written off Des Hasler's troops which makes them dangerous. The pressure is off and they can bunker down without the weight of expectation. I think they might thrive this week on being underdogs.
3. Their forwards can dominate -The Bulldogs have a big and aggressive pack that is suited towards the finals. In Klemmer, Graham, Jackson, Kasiano they have enforcers that can rumble over the advantage line and physically dominate. If they strike a heavy track or a low scoring struggle the Dogs might be at an advantage.
4. Des Hasler - Des has been in 5 of the last 9 Grand Finals. It is a fair record. He knows what works at finals time. Like Ricky Stuart, Des is at his best this time of year and will be relishing being the underdogs.
WHY THEY CAN'T
1. Their form is awful - The Dogs have limped into the finals in awful form. Their loss to Souths last week was particularly galling. The side has been terrible in the last 6 weeks to be honest particularly with the football. I can't see them suddenly turning that around and clicking into gear.
2. They lack pace and strike power - Other sides contain far more speed and skill outside. They have some slow and unremarkable outside backs. Will Hopoate won't even play this weekend which is another story. However I don't think the Dogs are capable of scoring 20 plus points which at some point you are going to need to go all the way.
3. Their Spine can't control games - It has been proven time and time again this year. This side has turned over way too much cheap ball and possession. They lack leadership in the spine and they seem to not be on the same page half the time. Lumbering forwards get in the way too often taking hit ups in the red zone when opportunities beckon.
4. Their kicking game is dreadful - Rarely have I seen a finals team have such a poor and unstructured kicking game. Indeed many times this season the Dogs don't even bother with a kick on the last play such is the lack of faith Des Hasler has in his halves. They have conceded way too many 7 tackle sets to end meekly with a limp kick.
5. This side needed to be in the top 4 - They don't have the brilliance to win 4 straight finals games particularly on the road. I think the Dogs might have been dangerous if they made the Top 4 because they could have afforded a loss or got a rest. However I can't see them getting up for 4 straight games. They are looking tired and jaded already.
Verdict - Exit Week 2 Finals.
This team has no hope of winning the competition. I think the Dogs will pull off a bit of a shock this week and beat Penrith. I have seen the Dogs do this before come into the finals looking horrible and suddenly start going back to their "Dogs of War" mentality. However this team has a really poor spine and kicking game and they will be no match for the Top 4 sides.
8th. GOLD COAST TITANS
WHY THEY CAN
1. They have nothing to lose - This team was tipped to win the Wooden Spoon this year, and they will have nothing to lose and everything to gain when they take on the Broncos. Neil Henry has done a magnificent job and knows they are playing with house money here.
2. They have recruited really well mid-season. Rarely can a team add 3 quality players late in a season - however the Titans managed that getting Nathan Peats, Jarryd Hayne and Konrad Hurrell. This has added to their potency and strike.
WHY THEY CAN'T
1. They Limped into the finals - The Titans were lucky that the Tigers got rolled at Leichhardt to get into the finals. They lost their opportunity by blowing a game to Penrith at home in an error riddled performance.
2. They are already satisfied - Getting to the finals was the Titans grand final. Even Neil Henry has already poured cold water on their hopes in the finals in a few interviews I have seen.
3. Belief - I don't think they believe they can win 4 straight finals games. They have a poor record against the Broncos and just getting past them will take a massive effort.
4. Roster - Put simply, the Titans do not have as strong a team as their rivals. They will be relying on other teams being off their game and them finding another gear.
Verdict - Exit Week 1 Finals
Gold Coast have done outstandingly well to make the finals. However they have no hope to win the whole thing. Brisbane will get a hold of them this week and end their brave season.