When there’s no footy on television, Kickoff often flicks over to mixed martial arts. MMA is exactly what it sounds like, a contest that pits different styles of fighting against each other. In that arena fighters inevitably tell you: “I’m comfortable wherever the fight goes.”
It’s a useful analogy when summing up the chances of the four sides left contending for the NRL premiership. In the professional era every team has a plan but the art of winning finals games is often the ability to win when things don’t go to plan – the ability to win wherever the fight goes. Melbourne and North Queensland are proven old-hands at that art. Both are super structured but have players capable of going “off-script” as a game unfolds. At that Cam Smith is the best in business.
Cronulla have shown to be fast approaching that category. Things certainly didn’t go to plan for the Sharks in week one. They lost Sam Tagatese and Paul Gallen prior to kickoff and key forward Wade Graham 10 minutes after it. Coach Shane Flanagan also pulled under performing halfback Chad Townsend from the field with the game on the line which would not have been one of the dot points on the sheet leading into the match. And yet they found a way to win.
It remains the biggest question mark hanging over the Raiders. As good as they’ve been over the latter half of the season, their two finals matches have exposed some vulnerabilities. They were out-finaled by Cronulla in week one. They got off to a flyer, at home, and looked set to roll over their opposition only for the Sharks to absorb it all can come back and win.
Momentum swings in finals matches are inevitable and of the four sides remaining, the Raiders have shown the least adeptness at dealing with them. It’s why Penrith almost came back to get them last week. They’ll take plenty of confidence out of their 22-8 win over Melbourne in round 23 but they’ll also need to come up with something new. The Melbourne brains’ trust possesses so much football IQ that you’ll never beat them the same way twice. It appeared the Cowboys were aware of that in week one of the finals. The match in Melbourne was high quality but one got the sense both sides were playing knowing there was a next week – or possibly that they may meet again and didn’t want to put all their cards on the table. The Raiders will have to lay all theirs out.
Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk do things in the first minute they know will pay off for them in the 79th. Canberra have not yet developed that continuity in their performances. They are capable of blowing sides away early but they don’t yet have the players or the experience to exert that type of ruthless control on an entire match – to wrest back control of a game when it’s been lost. It’s the ace Melbourne have up their sleeve.
As for the Cowboys, their match with the Broncos last week was an absolute thriller and had the feel of an old 15-rounder between two champions where, even as you watch on enthralled, you feel in your gut that they won’t be the same again.
The Cowboys were already showing signs of weariness heading into the finals and face a monumental task to get up again for their clash with the Sharks. Their respective paths to the match mean Cronulla ‘should’ start favourites but if the Cowboys are thereabouts after 70 minutes, they have the greatest player in the game to get them home.