LIKE IT !!
Round 26 Games
NRL powerbrokers will be licking their lips at how results last week have opened the door for an outstanding Round 26 of football. There are at least 3 blockbusters with several games putting it all on the line with their results having huge ramifications. Indeed every side in the Top 9 in the competition can move up or down the ladder with a vital win or a crushing loss. The Cowboys and Titans are playing for spots in the top 4 and top 8 respectively when they meet at 1300 Smiles in what will be a Qld Derby cracker on Saturday Night. The Titans bungled their opportunity at home last week and now face a daunting trip to the reigning champs or they will be forced to sweat on Sunday’s results. The Tigers might have a blockbuster game at their spiritual home Leichhardt Oval playing for 8th spot if the Cowboys can beat the Titans as expected. The Tigers will be desperate to end a 5-year final drought as they have somehow managed to stay alive in the race despite poor early season form and the loss of James Tedesco late in the season. Throw in the battle for the Minor Premiership in Melbourne between the Sharks and Storm and the NRL must be thrilled with how things have worked out. The Storm are expecting a near sell out crowd to see if they can bounce back from last week's shock home loss. Sometimes the final round of a competition can be a bit of a fizzer with plenty of teams resting players for the finals or teams of contention being there in body but not in spirit.
Style of Footy Played in 2016
This season for mine has been one of the better ones in the past decade in terms of the contrasting styles of football played. Often over the last decade the wrestle and the grind have dictated rugby league seasons with teams implementing a copy-cat style of structured and regimented footy. To see teams like the Raiders and Sharks right up in the Top 4 playing an open and enterprising brand of rugby league has been a real treat for the fans. Young sides like Penrith and the Tigers are sides that play with real flair and ambition that you would expect from the exuberance of youth in terms of offloads and spinning the ball wide. Even more structured and disciplined teams like the Broncos and Storm have played a bit more footy this year rather than just rely on block plays and working the ball down field regimentally. A couple of seasons ago risk taking footy seemed to be going out the door as teams talked about completions and staying in the grind. However the style has changed for the better this season. It should make for a great finals series and long may it continue into the future.
Broncos Win Over Melbourne
The Broncos hit Melbourne early on Friday night with a couple of rapid tries and immediately took the Storm out of their comfort zone. The Broncos needed a scalp before the finals to get their confidence and swagger back after entering the season as premiership favourites. After a terrible mid-season slump the Broncos have now won 4 straight and are looking like a side that could still challenge for the premiership. Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford challenged the line and Brisbane's forwards got over the advantage line. Sam Thaiday was a bundle of energy out on the edge as Brisbane's senior player started to ramp up the intensity with the finals on the doorstep. While I don't think Brisbane's defence is quite at the same manic level it was last season and early this season, they are defending a lot better and shut out any Storm come back here. While the Broncos performance was as good as any side has produced this year against the Storm, they are still unlikely to make the Top 4. Their alarming mid-season slump could still really hurt them come finals time. Brisbane are likely going to have to win 4 sudden death games on the road if they want to win that title that slipped from their grasp in 2015.
Souths End to the Season
I've got to admit I thought Souths were totally broken under Michael Maguire. However over the past 2 months they have had 3 emphatic wins and a golden point loss to Melbourne. While many Souths fans will be asking the question where has this been most of the season, it is at least encouraging to see the coach and players must be still on the same page. I thought mid-season that the Bunnies looked like they had stopped responding to Maguire's methods and looked in need of a change. They looked tired and mentally fatigued and their trademark defence and brutal physical play which they built their culture on seemed to have totally broken down. However something has happened to get them playing good football at the back end of this season. It might have been some of the senior players who have had such disappointing years finally taking a stand and saying no more. The likes of Greg Inglis, Sam Burgess and Adam Reynolds have responded in the last month. With the signing of Robbie Farah on the horizon Souths fans can have some optimism heading into 2017.
Aaron Woods Form
I thought Aaron Woods was outstanding in the Tigers win over the Warriors. He still has a couple of bad habits in his game such as standing in tackles and trying to milk penalties resulting in slow play the balls. However he has added another dimension to his game this season with his ball playing. He has put on a few outstanding short passes the past few weeks resulting in tries to fellow front rower Suaso Sue and a few half opportunities for the Tigers. Woods primary job is to run the ball aggressively and get over the advantage line and he did that really well against the Warriors making over 130 metres in the first half. Woods can be a bit of stat man in terms of run metres, however he often lacks impact in terms of some of the intangibles. However he has stepped up in the last month in his role as Tigers' captain and I expect him to put everything on the line on Sunday if the Tigers are playing for a final spot.
DON'T LIKE IT !!
Cameron Smith's Rant
The Storm were taken out of their comfort zone by the Broncos, behind by double digits on the scoreboard and never able to quite find their way back. Cameron Smith had a rare tantrum at the referee after Anthony Milford was awarded a penalty and was deservedly marched 10 metres. It was a rare sight to see Smith lose control like that and it shows even the best at times feel the strain. The Storm love to have control and it was interesting to see how they reacted in having to chase a game. Smith's rant to the media during the week for mine was just another tactic to try and get advantage in the coming weeks.
New Zealand Warriors Late Collapse
I must sound like a broken record but the Warriors are just a club in need of a total overhaul in terms of their culture and attitude. Given a lifeline by the Panthers the night before, they fell to a Tigers side that was lapped the week before and missing James Tedesco. Ryan Hoffman and Andrew McFadden looked like broken men in the post match press conference as they fumed at the side's lack of concentration in the key moments of Sunday's contest. Josh Addo Carr is a good young talent but to let him run 80 metres off a scrum was unforgivable. Similar to let Suaso Sue stroll over for a double as well as Aaron Woods scoring an easy try. That is 3 tries conceded to front rowers which is totally unacceptable for a first grade side. I don't know where the Warriors go from here, however it is clear something has to change. Andrew McFadden has not got a response out of them in the crucial games so either he has to go or they have to recruit some players with some mongrel and leadership abilities.
Bulldogs Finals Prospects
I have officially given up on the Bulldogs. I think they are just making up the numbers in the finals. Sure they will be tough and physical and most likely right in the contest for the entirety of the match. However they are a mess with the ball in hand and will not threaten the clinical sides. At their spiritual home and with a place in the top 4 on the line, the Bulldogs rolled out the same dire football with the ball in hand. Too many errors and too many last tackle disasters mean the Bulldogs will more than likely miss the all important top 4. I think Des Hasler has seen enough to know that he needs to have a really look at his teams spine (1,6,7,9) over the off-season to see the Dogs be more dangerous and clinical with the football.
Michael Lichha's Form
While I am on the Bulldogs I am yet to see what all the fuss was about concerning Michael Lichha. The Bulldogs moved on an extremely classy and experienced number 9 in Michael Ennis to make way for this kid who was apparently a ready made star in the hooking role. Well, I am yet to see it nearly 2 years down the track. Lichha makes his tackles and his service is decent enough, however he doesn't seem to have a creative bone in his body. He has no kicking game, no real guile in his passing game and for me is ineffective in the hooking role. I think his job as a starter will be in jeopardy next year.
No Super Saturdays Over Summer
The A-League and a bit of domestic cricket doesn't quite cut it over summer in terms of getting a sporting fix on a Saturday. We have been spoilt on Fox Sports this year with wall to wall games on Saturday of the toughest and best game in the world. Fox Sports coverage has gone to a new level this year and has been an outstanding success. Warren Smith and Andrew Voss are excellent callers and Braith Anasta and Mark Gasnier have become good young talents in the media. It's not quite time to say goodbye though with Fox heavily promoting their ramped up finals coverage this season. It will be interesting to see if they can pull further viewers off the ancient approach of Channel 9. I know I will be watching.