With the much-anticipated NRL finals almost upon us, Mitchell Wood previews the eight finalists and their chances of taking home the Provan-Summons Trophy.
Sydney Roosters: After finishing in 13th place last season, the Roosters are undoubtedly one of the success stories of this year. They remarkably finished the home-and-away season with 18 wins and just six losses to finish on top of the ladder.
Key Player – Michael Jennings: In his first season with Sydney since crossing from Penrith, Jennings has scored 17 tries from 23 matches. The poised centre is also ranked equal ninth for the most line breaks in the competition.
Prediction: The Roosters are a formidable force that has the ability to win this year’s premiership. Trent Robinson’s side will be confident going into tomorrow night’s clash with Manly, having defeated the Sea Eagles on both occasions this year.
South Sydney Rabbitohs: South Sydney has been a pillar of consistency this season, finishing in second place on equal points with the Roosters. The Rabbitohs will be looking to build on last year’s preliminary final loss to the Bulldogs and earn a place in the 2013 Grand Final.
Key Player – Greg Inglis: Despite missing six matches due to a knee injury, Inglis has had a profound impact for South Sydney in his 18 matches. He has scored 14 tries, including a career best of four in the Round 10 victory over the West Tigers.
Prediction: Like last year, the Rabbitohs will go deep in the finals, but must defeat Melbourne tonight if they want to win their first premiership since 1971.
Melbourne Storm: The reigning premiers will feature in yet another finals series on the back of a strong season. The Storm took out third position with 16 wins, seven losses and a draw.
Key Player – Billy Slater: Melbourne’s barometer, Slater has enjoyed a stellar year at fullback. With 17 tries and the third most line breaks, he must be at his absolute best if the Storm’s hopes of going back-to-back are to be realised.
Prediction: Most of Craig Bellamy’s players have had previous finals experience and the talented playing group know how to play well in these big games. The Storm will go into tonight’s qualifying final against the Rabbitohs with a lot of self-belief, seeing as they have won nine out of the last 10 times against the men from South Sydney.
Manly Sea Eagles: Despite a mid-season slump in form, Manly won eight of its last 10 games to hold onto fourth spot and earn a double chance. This will be the Sea Eagles ninth consecutive finals series, as they aim to repeat their premiership heroics of 2011.
Key Player – Jamie Lyon: The co-captain’s on-field leadership is paramount to Manly’s success. Lyon has scored the second most points this season and managed to find the try-line 14 times in the centre position.
Prediction: The Sea Eagles have the talent and expertise to be a danger in the finals. They should make it into the preliminary final, but will be tested by the three teams ahead of them.
Cronulla Sharks: The Sharks playing group have played under enormous adversity this season, with the whole drug scandal. Nevertheless, they worked hard on the field to record 14 wins and earn a home elimination final against the Cowboys at Allianz Stadium.
Key Player – Andrew Fifita: Fifita is one of the Sharks’ most damaging forwards and has had a breakout season. The uncompromising prop is leading the competition in hit ups and played in all three State of Origin matches for New South Wales.
Prediction: The Sharks have struggled to match it with the teams above them this season. While a win over the Cowboys on late Saturday afternoon is achievable, Cronulla will find it hard to advance further than the semi-final.
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs: Finals were looking increasingly unlikely for last year’s grand finalists, after losing five of its first six matches. But the Bulldogs found form as the season when on to secure sixth position and a home elimination final against the Knights at ANZ Stadium.
Key Player – Sam Perrett: Perrett is an accomplished winger and has the ability to impact a game and lift his teammates. The New Zealand representative has scored the most tries for the Bulldogs this season with 17.
Prediction: If any team outside of the top four is going to be a genuine threat over the next month; it is the Bulldogs. The well-drilled side is more than capable of causing an upset victory against quality opponents in the finals series.
Newcastle Knights: Under the guidance of seasoned coach Wayne Bennett, Newcastle did enough to obtain a spot in the top eight. The Knights were consistent for the most of the home-and-away season, winning 12 games to finish in seventh position.
Key Player – Darius Boyd: Boyd is a potent fullback and crucial part of Newcastle’s team structure. The Queensland and Australian representative relishes the big stage, winning the Clive Churchill Medal for best afield in the 2010 Grand Final.
Prediction: The Knights have accounted for the Bulldogs twice this season, which is reassuring for the players. However, travelling to ANZ Stadium will be a difficult task and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Newcastle exit out of the finals in the first week.
North Queensland Cowboys: The Cowboys were three games out of the finals at the end of Round 20. Astonishingly, North Queensland went on to win its last six matches to defy all odds and earn the last spot in the finals.
Key Player – Jonathan Thurston: A reliable and gifted playmaker, Thurston is among the finest halfbacks in the game. He has had the second most try assists this season and continues to lead the Cowboys with enthusiasm and class.
Prediction: North Queensland has the capabilities of beating Cronulla away from home, as vindicated by its 13-point win in Round 25 at Remondis Stadium. Nevertheless, the loser of the Roosters and Sea Eagles should be too strong for the Cowboys in the semi-final.
Mitchell Wood is a second-year Bachelor of Journalism (Sport) student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter: @Mitchell_Woody