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NRL Grand Final preview

To finish off the weekend and complete the winter season for Australian sport, it's Grand Final Day for the National Rugby League (NRL). Since none of my readers from Sydney volunteered, British rugby league die-hard James Jack, @materialista27, has answered the call for a preview.

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NRL GRAND FINAL

This season's Grand Final pits 1st versus 2nd from the table after the weekly rounds as minor premiers Canterbury Bulldogs take on Melbourne Storm.

THE BACKGROUND

The Doggies last won the title in 2004 after defeating the Roosters. Last year's grand final winning coach Des Hasler joined from Manly, they look to have been galvanised and they come into this game having won 15 of their last 16. They knocked off Manly in week 1 of the finals and thumped Souths last week to set up this encounter. Their only defeat since May came in Canberra, losing 34-6 to the Raiders. That game aside, the have been consistent all season and as a result swept this year's Dally M awards, Hasler won coach of the year and Ben Barba, won the Dally M Medal as voted by the journos, the Provan-Summons medal as voted by the fans and the Peter Frilingos Memorial Award for best single-game performance, against the Storm in a 20-4 win in round 16. He also grabbed 21 tries during the season and that translated to a share of the top try-scorer award. As a result of their dominance through the regular season, the Doggies had Barba named at fullback, Josh Morris at centre and Sam Kasiano at prop in the team of the year at the Dally M awards. Should Canterbury win, Hasler will become the first coach in history to win back-to-back Premierships with different clubs The Bulldogs don't have any players from that 2004 championship side still active, but they do have plenty of experience with 5 of the squad having tasted the Grand Final previously Aiden Tolman, Krisnan Inu, Dene Halatau, David Stagg and Sam Perrett. Not to forget they have James Graham in his first season in Australia, he has played in 6 Super League Grand Finals, losing the last five.

The Bulldogs have named an unchanged side for the third week in succession and the only problem Des Hasler has is deciding who to leave out.

Bulldogs
Ben Barba
Sam Perrett
Josh Morris
Krisnan Inu
Jonathan Wright
Josh Reynolds
Kris Keating
Aiden Tolman
Michael Ennis
Sam Kasiano
Frank Pritchard
Josh Jackson
Greg Eastwood
Interchange: James Graham, Dale Finucane, Corey Payne, David Stagg, Dene Halatau (one to be omitted, probably Halatau)

Melbourne come into the game having won their last 7, but after that loss to the Bulldogs in round 16, they lost their next 4. They've looked sensational in the first two weeks of the finals, disposing of the Rabbitohs 24-6 and beating Manly 40-12 last week.

Much of their success this season has been down to the play of their 'Big Three' Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater. The rest of the squad have ably supported that and bought into coach Craig Bellamy's philosophy and despite the controversy over the 2010 salary cap scandal they've been the most consistent side in the NRL during the last 6 or 7 seasons, in fact even although they were docked of all points in the 2010 season, they would've finished 5th in the table.

As a result of that salary cap breach, they were stripped of their Premierships in 2007 and 2009 and their minor premierships in 2006, 2007 and 2008, but hey retain 7 players with Grand Final experience in: Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Ryan Hoffman, Todd Lowrie, Dane Nielsen and Will Chambers.

The Storm have more doubts over fitness and as a result Craig Bellamy has named a 21 man squad as follows:

Storm
Billy Slater
Sisa Waqa
Dane Nielsen
Will Chambers
Justin O'Neill
Gareth Widdop
Cooper Cronk
Jessie Bromwich
Cameron Smith
Bryan Norrie
Sika Manu
Ryan Hoffman
Todd Lowrie
Interchange: Ryan Hinchcliffe, Kevin Proctor, Jaiman Lowe, Richie Fa'aoso, Rory Kostjayson, Mahe Fonua, Siosaia Vave, Anthony Quinn (four to be omitted, Fonua will play if Waqa fails a fitness test)

THE GAME

FOR BULLDOGS TO WIN: Well it's simply enough, they have to dominate Melbourne's pack, keep the big three quiet and get the ball to Barba inside 20m, easy eh? They need to stick to Melbourne early in the game as Melbourne are outstanding when they take a lead into the sheds. They've won 27 of their last 28 when leading at half time. They need to dig deep in the halves, Reynolds and Keating are up against Cooper Cronk (Queensland and Australia) and Gareth Widdop (England) so they have to make up for their lack of experience with real effort and contain Cronk's incisive running and link with Smith and Slater. If there's one area the Bulldogs look stronger it's in the forward pack and if the likes of Sam Kasiano, Frank Pritchard and James Graham can get them rolling forward it will put the Storm on the back-foot. They look strong in the centres too with New South Wales and Australia's Josh Morris and Krisnan Inu who is playing in his third grand final in four years and after two losses previously with Parramatta and New Zealand, he will be desperate to finally grab a premiership ring.

FOR STORM TO WIN: Dead simple job for them too, stop Ben Barba. As I mentioned earlier he won the Dally M Medal and won the Peter Frilingos Memorial Award for his performance against the Storm scoring a try and setting up two others including his remarkable run from inside his own in-goal area to set up Josh Morris. If he gets the chance to stamp his class on this game, it could be curtains for the Storm, however he is up against, for me, The best fullback in the game in Billy Slater. Slater won last year's Dally M and won the Clive Churchill (man of the match) last time Melbourne played in the Grand Final. Melbourne's kicking game must be spot-on as it has been for most of the year. Cronk and Widdop need to find the corners at every opportunity. During the regular season 60.5% of the Storm's kicks in play found the grass, they excel at kicks around the goal line especially with Cameron Smith out of dummy half. Defensively they excel at diffusing bombs, they were the best team in the regular season safely defending 45 of 50 attacking bombs, and as Canterbury scored 27 tries during the regular season from kicks (best in the league) that defensive nous and skill has to show up on Sunday to keep the Doggies out. They say that to win big games, your big players need to show up and in Slater, Cronk and Smith, Melbourne have three of the biggest and arguably the best 1, 7, 9 combination in league.

THE VERDICT

The handicap line is set at Melbourne -2, but recent history tells us Grand Finals don't finish this close, you have to go back to Melbourne's win over St. George in 1999 to find a match with less than a try between the sides. So which side to pick? The Bulldogs have been almost unbeatable over the last 4 months, and with Hasler at the helm, they have all the tools to win this. However, the Storm were sensational in beating the Rabbitohs, completing 88% of their sets and despite the very wet and slippery conditions, they only made 5 errors and played old school footy, sticking it up their jumpers and running over the Bunnies. They dropped a bit in completion rate against Manly to a measly 82% but stepped up to dominate the Sea Eagles pack, limiting them to 774m against their own 1633m, breaking the Manly line 7 times and only missed 8 tackles. Particularly telling is the missed tackles stat, as Canterbury rely on breaking the line and cleaning up broken fields, which led to 3 of their tries against Souths last week. The Doggies however missed 22 tackles and although they gained 350m more metres in the game, they committed 8 errors and their success mainly came from their line breaks and offloads. If Melbourne can shut that down, they can win their first legitimate Premiership since 1999.

ADVICE

4pts Melbourne -2 : 10/11 generally (Melbourne -3.5, 2.10 with Centrebet)
1.5pts Will Chambers first try : 12/1 Paddy Power (13.00 with Centrebet)
1.5pts Ryan Hoffman any time try : 3/1 Ladbrokes (4.00 with Sportsbet)
2pts Cooper Cronk to win Clive Churchill Medal : 5/1 Coral (6.00 with Sportsbet)
1pt Sika Manu to win Clive Churchill Medal : 40/1 Bet365 (51.00with Luxbet)

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