A fascinating NRL finals series gets underway on Friday night as 26 rounds of toil, jubilation and heartbreak are quickly forgotten and we look ahead to just nine remaining games to decide 2015’s champion club. We’ve run the rule over the remaining eight teams, starting with the top four sides in Part One of our NRL finals preview. The last 19 premiers have finished inside the top four at the end of the regular season – will that trend continue with one of these sides lifting the trophy on October 4?
Sustained excellence is difficult to come by in the salary cap era, which makes the Roosters’ achievement in claiming three straight minor premierships under coach Trent Robinson all the more remarkable. The 2013 champs are clear outright favourites for the title – and for good reason. Coming into the finals on the back of 12 straight victories, the Tricolours have barely missed a beat since losing star duo Mitchell Pearce and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves to injury in Round 24, swamping Manly and Souths in the last two rounds.
Strengths: Equally relentless in defence and attack, the Roosters appear to have complete faith in their systems – regardless of who is playing where. While the other contenders have stumbled over the closing rounds, the Bondi have got better and better – and it will take a mighty effort from a rival to unsettle their supreme confidence. There are virtually no weaknesses in their line-up.
Weaknesses: The winning streak may become something of a millstone around the club’s neck. If they’re to remain undefeated and win the comp, the Roosters will need to extend their run to 15 matches, which hasn’t been achieved since Manly opened its 1995 campaign with 15 straight victories. Last year’s qualifying final upset loss to Penrith should also provide a stark reminder that it’s a whole new ball game in September. The other sides will rise above recent performances, but do the Roosters have another gear to go to?
Squad health: Chief enforcer Waerea-Hargreaves’ injury blow was softened by the return of fellow Kiwi Test prop Sam Moa, and Dylan Napa, Kane Evans and Suaia Matagi are all excellent front-row performers. Jackson Hastings has done an outstanding job in Mitchell Pearce’s stead, while the co-captain is expected to return in the No.7 for the Roosters’ next game. Big-game player Shaun Kenny-Dowall’s return after a lengthy stand-down is a huge boost.
Key player: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is the game’s hottest player right now, getting through a mountain of work – all of it quality – and causing huge headaches for opposition teams at both ends of the field, and through the middle. Bound for the Warriors next year, RTS will be desperate to finish his Roosters tenure in style. Get on him for Clive Churchill Medal honours.
X-factor: Big-bird winger Daniel Tupou can be a rocks-or-diamonds proposition, but he has produced far more of the latter recently, reconfirming his status as the NRL’s most dangerous aerial player.
Needs to lift: It’s hard to fault any of the Roosters on their current form, but Warriors discard Matagi will want to repay the faith shown in him by Robinson and the club as he looks forward to his maiden finals campaign.
Wayne Bennett, the doyen of coaches, has ridden back into town and rescued the Broncos from three years in the doldrums. The club is well-placed to launch a premiership assault and boast a superbly balanced squad – but has four losses in their last six games, which ultimately cost them the minor premiership, stunted the Broncos’ momentum?
Strengths: A sizzling halves pairing, the wily influence of Justin Hodges and Darius Boyd out wider, and an international-stacked forward pack provide the Broncos with the best team on paper aside from perhaps the Roosters. Bennett has coached in a whopping 53 finals games – 39 of those with the Broncos – and in the form of Hodges, Boyd, Sam Thaiday and Corey Parker, he has a solid base of experienced henchmen to carry out his post-season battle-plan. Two finals matches at a heaving Suncorp Stadium will also help their cause, while their Round 25 drubbing of Souths was one of the most dominant team displays of the season, showcasing their ability as the best team at attacking from inside their own half.
Weaknesses: The Broncos’ only finals outings over the past three seasons were swift qualifying final exits in 2012 and ’14 after scraping into eighth; it’s not often a side makes a run at the title after a lengthy absence from the big end-of-season games. Halfback Ben Hunt has started in just one playoff, while five-eighth Anthony Milford will make his NRL finals debut. Losses to three of their fellow finals sides – Roosters, Bulldogs and Storm – in the last five rounds may give the Broncos’ rivals a slight psychological edge.
Squad health: Hunt and Alex Glenn return after sitting out Round 26 due to injury and suspension respectively. Corey Oates and Jordan Kahu have claimed the wing spots ahead of Lachlan Maranta, Daniel Vidot and Dale Copley, but the Broncos’ backline depth is a plus. Origin prop Josh McGuire (Achilles) is the only first-choice player not available for selection.
Key player: The Broncos’ fortunes often ride on Hunt performances – he is one of the NRL’s finest individual talents, but his kicking game can go to water and his temperament will be strenuously tested in the finals pressure-cooker.
X-factor: Few players can break a game wide open like the will-o-the-wisp Milford, and he will relish the opportunity to play in the biggest matches of his career to date.
Needs to lift: The starting pack may feature five Test players, but the onus will be on the comparatively unheralded bench of Jarrod Wallace, Mitchell Dodds, Joe Ofahengaue and Kodi Nikorima to provide quality support.
North Queensland Cowboys
Johnathan Thurston has led the Cowboys to a top-four finish for the first time since 2007, and the club is arguably better placed than any time in its history to break through for a maiden premiership as it celebrates 20 years in the big time.
Strengths: Taking his side to premiership glory is the only achievement to elude the mercurial Thurston – the sense of destiny surrounding the Cowboys’ 2015 campaign is as much about the player as it is the club. Helping JT’s cause is having arguably the best spine around him that he’s had in his 11 seasons in Townsville, while the triumvirate of Test forwards – Matt Scott, James Tamou and Jason Taumololo – along with highly underrated backrower Gavin Cooper and a reliable three-quarter line gives coach Paul Green a well-balanced line-up to work with. The squad has been together for several years and played in plenty of finals matches alongside one another.
Weaknesses: Like the Broncos, the Cowboys are carrying scratchy recent form into the finals, winning just two of their last five games – prevailing against the battling Warriors and Titans, while going down to fellow top-eight teams Cronulla, Souths and Melbourne. Slow starts have hamstrung the Cowboys all season, and although they’ve produced a string of astonishing comebacks in 2015, quality teams are unlikely to cough up double-figure leads in September. The Cowboys also have to quell the demons of three straight controversial finals exits before they can contemplate playing in their first preliminary final in eight years.
Squad health: Crucially, Michael Morgan returns from an ankle injury for the qualifying final blockbuster in Brisbane after it was feared he may be gone for the season. The squad is otherwise in tip-top shape, although Scott and Thurston were supposedly not fit enough to attend Monday’s finals launch in Sydney.
Key player: He needs support, but it’s no secret that the Cowboys’ title hopes revolve around Thurston.
X-factor: Fullback Lachlan Coote has enjoyed a brilliant comeback season after missing all of 2014 with a knee injury. His zip in attack and courage at the back will be pivotal to the Cowboys’ finals charge.
What a season Lachlan Coote has had. He gets over with plenty of defence around him. #NRLCowboysTitans 20-12 after 44 minutes.
— NRL (@NRL) September 5, 2015
Needs to lift: Kyle Feldt has impressed since coming onto the wing for Matthew Wright, scoring four tries in the last three rounds. But his game is prone to unravelling if handling errors creep in – the robust flyer needs to keep his head.
Written off at the start of the year, and cast aside as title contenders again following Billy Slater’s season-ending injury, the Storm find themselves in the top four for the eighth time in 10 seasons. There’s not too many rival sides that will be looking forward to taking on the most dominant and successful club of the last decade this month.
Strengths: Coach Craig Bellamy and on-field conductors Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk automatically give the Storm a head-start over virtually every other team. As has been the case for the last decade, the modern greats’ support cast has bought into the Melbourne ethos – particularly in regards to the club’s trademark defensive steel. Cameron Munster has brilliantly stepped into the breach left by Slater, while the Storm are certainly more than a two-man team, boasting three members of the Kiwis’ revered Test pack and an incumbent Kangaroos centre in Will Chambers. Despite stumbling against some lesser lights over the closing weeks of the regular season, the Storm warmed up for the playoffs by defeating three of their fellow finalists in the last four rounds.
Weaknesses: Melbourne is the eighth-ranked attacking team in the competition and have struggled to rack up points against quality defences; the Storm face the prospect of having to grind their way to the title via a string of gruelling matches. Taking on the Roosters first up isn’t ideal, nor is a likely week two showdown with the Bulldogs, who bundled them out of the finals at AAMI Park last year. An illness cloud over Smith could douse any chance the Storm has of upsetting the minor premiers on Friday.
Squad health: Aside from Smith’s battle with a virus, lock Dale Finucane is unavailable thanks to a dislocated arm, while the Storm’s forward depth has been eroded by injuries to Slade Griffin, Dayne Weston and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs.
— Nick Smart (@NickSmart85) September 8, 2015
Key player: Cronk is the meticulous ringleader of the Storm’s ruthless and clinical game-plan. Most of the pre-finals hype is surrounding Thurston and Hunt, but the Test No.7 can have just as a big a say in the 2015 finals.
X-factor: Winger Marika Koroibete has enjoyed a breakout year, scoring 15 tries in 21 games and terrorising opposition teams with his defence-scattering charges. In a team that plays relatively conservative football, Koroibete brings game-breaking qualities to the table.
Needs to lift: Touted as an NSW Origin prospect in recent years, Ryan Hinchcliffe – who will wear the No.13 in Finucane’s absence – has been steady rather than eye-catching this season. A talented attacking player, the veteran needs to provide support for the Storm’s big guns, while he may be required at dummy-half if Smith’s illness is more serious than the club is letting on.