Matt Pritchard’s verdict on each of the eight sides involved in the NRL Finals Week 1.
1. Canberra Raiders
What a performance by the Canberra Raiders in Melbourne. It felt BJ Leilua’s fireworks incident would stall the Raiders hopes but it was a small bump on an otherwise brilliant night. They beat the Storm at their own game and deservedly will host a Preliminary Final for the chance to make their first Grand Final since 1994. John Bateman’s sensational NRL debut season continues as he crossed for the winning try. Before the opening game of the Finals there were three teams who were genuine title contenders – Melbourne, Sydney Roosters and Canberra. The Raiders have just proved they could take out the title.
2. Sydney Roosters
This was a typical performance by the Sydney Roosters at Finals time. They burst out of the blocks against South Sydney on Friday night and the game was over in the first forty minutes. Trent Robinson is a perfectionist and concedes his side should have gone on with it in the second half. James Tedesco had an off night at fullback. Their focus will be well and truly on week three where it’s likely they’ll take on Melbourne for a place at the big dance.
3. Melbourne Storm
One huge error from Melbourne’s star winger Josh Addo-Carr in front of the posts and Canberra won the game through John Bateman. There’s no doubt they were in the fight for the full eighty, only to be pipped at the post. There’s some vulnerability with Ryan Papenhuyzen, Justin Olam and Jahrome Hughes relatively inexperienced at finals level. Would Craig Bellamy look to bring back Curtis Scott and Brodie Croft for their must-win semi-final next weekend? Having said that, with Cameron Smith being the most influential player in the game in the modern era, Melbourne are still a big chance to take the title.
4. Parramatta Eels
An impressive victory by the Eels who played the full eighty but honestly the Broncos offered nothing. The Eels strategy to pepper the Broncos defence down both flanks worked wonders with Blake Ferguson and Maiko Sivo having a field day. Mitchell Moses was in white hot form which is a great sign ahead of their encounter with Melbourne next weekend. Clint Gutherson stamped his authority on the game in the second half with a couple of try assists. Good warm up for the real contest in week 2.
5. Manly Sea Eagles
They proved some of their fan base, yours truly and the wider rugby league community that they could overcome injuries and suspension to come away with the win. Addin Fonua-Blake was superb up front in a side missing the likes of Marty Taupau, Joel Thompson and their biggest strike weapon, Tom Trbojevic. If they can brush aside South Sydney next week, the Sea Eagles would be confident of knocking off the Raiders in Canberra. This is the side that could be the smokey from the bottom half of the top eight.
6. Cronulla Sharks
The simple conclusion to the Sharks performance against Manly Sea Eagles, their Grand Final was played a week earlier with a huge win over the Wests Tigers. Manly came out hungrier and took a very good lead early. Shaun Johnson had an off first half but picked up his game in the second half when it was all too late. No fairy tale for Paul Gallen but John Morris has done a great job as a rookie coach to propel this side to finals footy.
7. South Sydney Rabbitohs
South Sydney are at risk of being bundled out in straight sets this finals series. The usually reliable Damien Cook and Cameron Murray were well contained by the Sydney Roosters on Friday night. Adam Reynolds saved full embarrassment with a try sixteen from time. Maybe Wayne Bennett’s aura at Finals time is no longer. He’s lost four of the last five NRL Finals and in the last three has been beaten by more than 24 points (Storm 30-0 in 2017, Dragons 48-18 in 2018). It is a case of Bennett’s old style game plan irrelevant?
8. Brisbane Broncos
A lacklustre display from the Broncos, who didn’t even get a single opportunity to attack the Eels line in the opening forty minutes. It didn’t get any better in the second half as the Eels passed 50 points. At no stage did David Fifita or Payne Haas have any impact on the match. Darius Boyd not for the first time this year was missing in action. The only positive is that these young players in Jake Turpin, Patrick Carrigan, Gehamat Shibasaki and Thomas Flegler got some NRL Finals experience. A lot of thinking for Anthony Seibold over the summer months about his 2020 line-up.