Friday, 11 September 2015

NRL Finals preview

September means finals in both Aussie winter codes, and esteemed NRL analyst Chris Ryan, @imdabomb82, returns to the blog with his assessment of the premiership contenders.

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NRL Finals Preview

With 26 rounds done and dusted, we’re lucky enough to not have to watch Beau Falloon captain a first grade side, Mitchell Moses attempt to play football or anything starting with a Jono and ending in a Wright for another six months. On the plus side…it’s finals time!

Now as per usual plenty of experts will talk it up as the ‘most open comp we’ve seen in years’, and ‘anyone can win it’, which for the most part is dribble. There is a clear pecking order, so let’s go through them and assess their chances relative to the market.

Sydney Roosters – Juggernaut anyone? Come in riding a 12 game winning streak, none of which is through luck, throwing in a couple of their best performances in the last two rounds. For three straight years they have been one of the most injury free teams, copped their first couple with Pearce and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves going down in round 24, and haven’t skipped a beat. Have excellent front row depth with Moa, Napa and Evans to offset loss of JWH. The loss of Pearce seemingly had no effect with Hastings slotting in, and in any case Pearce is likely back this week, or the following game. Genuinely have no holes in the side 1 thru 17. Sometimes the Roosters’ biggest problem is themselves, as they can take things a little easy and expect their talent to shine through. Come finals time I don’t expect that to be an issue. They are flexible and can win a high scoring shootout with an in-form superstar backline of Tuivasa-Sheck, Jennings and Ferguson, or can get dirty and win a dogfight as they have the best defence in the competition. They have the highest ceiling in the comp, the best team on paper, and in my view despite being short priced favourites, there is still plenty of fat in their price.

Brisbane – Not quite as good a list of individuals as the Roosters, but not far off, and as far as I’m concerned they play the best as a team in the NRL. Not many weaknesses, though Milford can be exposed in defence, several teams managing to spot him in a 1 on 1 situation and exploit him. They are a bit short on dominant props, with both Sam Thaiday and Adam Blair having been second rowers most of their career, and a weak bench, with not much impact bar Jarrod Wallace. On the plus side, the halves are really clicking together, with Hunt following up last year’s breakout season with another excellent one, and Milford finding his groove in six, after a slow start in Brisbane colours. Coupled with those two, they have a solid outside back core, with Jack Reed having a career-best year and Corey Oates finally getting 80 minutes. Don’t overlook the advantage of Suncorp, guaranteed sellout crowds for the 2 matches they’ll host up there having finished second, it’s key. I think their price is around the mark, they have depth should injuries hit outside backs, but any injuries in their forward pack could be a killer blow.

North Queensland – Their price is too short, plain and simple. Whilst the Roosters have the best list and Brisbane play the best as a team, it is the Cowboys with the best player in Johnathan Thurston. They strung together 11 wins mid-season, but at no point really dominated like Brisbane and the Roosters have. They have a tendency to be slow out of the blocks and chase points, a dangerous strategy at finals time against quality defensive teams. They lack potency in outside backs, which they look to make up for in super speedy spine players, Michael Morgan and Jake Granville. Some question marks on Paul Green’s coaching for mine, went with the pedestrian Ray Thompson as a replacement to Morgan in the last few weeks over the far better offensive player in Robert Lui, and has played Taumalolo in the middle, and Ethan Lowe on an edge this year. Taumalolo has had a good year, but is somewhat wasted in the middle with his bullocking runs - they already have decent props for that. TWo tries from 22 appearances isn’t what I’d be looking for from a runner as dynamic as Taumalolo. We all know Thurston will be very good, but need Matt Scott and James Tamou to step up to the plate in the finals to be a shot, and I’m not sure they consistently will, a lay for mine.

Melbourne – Each time they’ve played a top 4 side this year, they’ve engaged in a slow, knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out style of game. Will they be able to do that for likely 4 straight games? A chance, but not likely. Have two superstars in Smith and Cronk, three on the next tier in Will Chambers, Jesse Bromwich and Marika Korobiete, and a lot more average first graders. And not to be forgotten of course, master tactician Craig Bellamy in the box. But I just can’t foresee them winning without the brilliance of Billy Slater. And I say that having been thoroughly impressed with the efforts of Cameron Munster (my rookie of the year), a fine defensive fullback who more recently has found his way into the attacking game plan. They can win, but in all likelihood I don’t think they have enough points in them to trouble the top teams for several weeks in a row. Price about right.

Canterbury – Unders. As maligned as Trent Hodkinson is, he has a kicking game that neither Josh Reynolds nor Moses Mbye has, and it’s tough to win a comp without your first choice halfback. And we absolutely can’t overlook that they don’t really have a 1st grade quality goal kicker. Seems that Tim Browne (!) is now their no.1, and when a bench prop who plays less than half the game is your best option, you’ve got problems! Tim Lafai or Moses Mbye will take the rest of the kicks. They do have plenty of pace and strike power out wide in Rona and Brett Morris in particular, an excellent bench and nippy halves. But the lack of a kicker worries me and when plan A doesn’t work to overpower teams with their massive forward pack, they can be a little stagnant and lack a plan B. $10 is a short quote to win the comp from fifth, needing to win four straight matches, and I’d be confident in saying you’ll get a better price backing them as an all-up individually to win all four, rather than their outright price.

Cronulla – A team that confounds me and most others, they almost finished fourth despite having a negative for and against! The team with the least ‘star factor’ of the top 8, and I can’t see that getting the job done. An ordinary backline is led by a pedestrian halfback and an overrated rookie in Jack Bird. It’s their job to dish the ball out to the even more pedestrian centres or the safe Michael Gordon at fullback. They have one genuine star in the back seven in Valentine Holmes, but don’t give him near enough ball! They do have an excellent and varied backrow, an enigmatic prop in Fifita (who can be a world beater at time) and are led around the park by Michael Ennis who has had a fantastic year, exceeding most people’s expectations. Bottom line is this team lacks creativity and any X factor. If they win, they’ll be the worst team to win the competition. Probably ever.

Souths – Have absolutely blown in premiership betting. So much so, that I now believe their price to be a little large. They’ve fallen into the finals, with three straight beatings by top five sides. However they have drawn a winnable game in week 1 against the average Sharks, and don’t have to travel. If they were to win, would likely play Nth Qld in Townsville, a game they happened to win comfortably just four weeks ago. They are just one player removed from their premiership backline of last year (Goodwin instead of Tuqiri). But their forwards which were such a strength for them last year, aren’t now. Souths’ price however has much better upside than the similarly priced Sharks. For starters Isaac Luke is due back in week two, and George Burgess week three. And Greg Inglis is back this week (although may be hampered). Their quality of play has a much higher ceiling than Cronulla, with their best games being only just behind the Roosters and Brisbane. Basically it means with recent history on their side and high quality returning players, just one or two wins and their price will crush, Cronulla’s won’t move anywhere near as much. At worst a back-to-lay trading opportunity.

St George – Play far too lateral, and as much as they might want to get out of it, they seemingly can’t. In fact if it weren’t for Leeson Ah Mau and Trent Merrin, St George would play every game East-West instead of North-South! To be any shot need Gareth Widdop back, as he has been their star this year, and they struggle in back-up goal kicking. Perhaps like Melbourne in that they would likely need to win some low scoring, ugly games to progress far, but don’t have the intestinal fortitude of Melbourne to keep it up for long periods. Don’t like their chances of winning it all, but they are overpriced this weekend. +10.5 is too big a number, particularly as Canterbury aren’t necessarily into putting teams to the sword and covering a big number. And with both teams without their main kicker and goalkicker, it could turn into an ugly scrap, at which point I’d much rather be on the big plus.

My NRL Premiership market to 100% in bold. (best available bookmaker price in brackets)

Sydney - $2.45 ($2.85)
Brisbane - $4.50 ($4.50)
N Qld - $8 ($5)
Melbourne - $10 ($9)
Canterbury - $15 ($10)
Cronulla - $45 ($34)
Souths - $32 ($38)
St George - $100 ($100)

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