It has taken two weeks of brilliant semi-final football for the fans to get excited about who will be Premiers in 2018 – in what has been the closest competition in recent memory.
There is no coincidence that the NRL has finally got some control back in the referee ranks and a significant drop in the number of penalties has contributed to the players determining the results of games – so far.
In the regular season – an average of nearly 20 penalties per game were being blown, which led to a chronic level of frustration for everyone concerned.
In the first two weeks of the semi-finals – the average has dropped to less than 15 per game – and we have seen some gripping contests including two games separated by one point last weekend.
The number of points scored – as the quality of the teams increases – has also decreased from an average of 48 points in Week 1 and 33 points in Week 2.
With the four best defensive teams playing in Preliminary Finals this weekend – penalties, possession and points will be at a premium for two teams to be successful.
As the pressure of this weekend’s games intensify – the challenge for the referees is to control the 10m and the ruck speed as current Premiers Melb take on the Sharks at AAMI Stadium in what will be a brutal battle of combat in the middle third.
And the Roosters will be keen to jump the gun in defence to control the go forward of the Rabbits’ big, mobile forward pack – led by the Burgess brothers.
Let’s hope we are talking about the brilliant performance of the teams again on Monday.
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Storm V Sharks:
Melbourne have enjoyed the benefit of a week off and welcome back into their team Will Chambers, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and veteran back rower Ryan Hoffman.
Add to this the emotional farewell for Billy Slater in his final game at AAMI Stadium and you can see why the Storm have been installed as warm favourites against their bitter rivals the Sharks.
They also have an outstanding coach in Craig Bellamy and the game’s best “on field” leader in Cameron Smith – which only adds to the theory that they should advance to this year’s Grand Final.
They have a formidable forward pack and the only weakness I can see is a lack of big game experience in the key halfback position with Brodie Croft claiming the No 7 jumper for the penultimate game of the season.
Meanwhile, the Sharks are battling to overcome a number of injuries – including their inspirational captain Paul Gallen who is carrying a nasty shoulder injury.
The have Josh Dugan returning from a shoulder injury and they have the type of grinding mentality that will be required to upset the title favourites this week.
They have the game’s most dangerous attacking weapon in Valentine Holmes, a couple of smart halves in Chad Townsend and Matt Moylan along with some hardened forwards including Matt Prior, Andrew Fifita and Luke Lewis who know what is required to win big games.
I reckon the betting is a little bit out of kilter in this game and the Storm are not in the same form they were in this time last year before they went on to win the premiership.
My tip – Melbourne by 4.
Roosters V Rabbits
Nothing less than a Grand Final appearance or a Premiership will be considered a successful season as the Roosters take on their arch rivals South Sydney this weekend.
They are putting their faith in their high profile, highly paid recruits James Tedesco and Cooper Cronk to ensure they progress one step further than they did last season.
The Roosters have focussed on improving their defence this season – conceding an average of 14.5 points per game – which is the best in the league.
However, this week they face the team with the best attack – scoring an average of 23 points per game
They also face a team that is at full strength who know they will need to be better than they were against St George to advance to the GF.
The Roosters are missing two key components of the jig saw puzzle when it comes to winning the title – they are missing their leading point scorer Latrell Mitchell (who scores an average of 10 points per game) and their aggressive, forward leader Dylan Napa.
They also have the game’s most improved coach in Anthony Seibold who could become only the sixth coach in history to win a competition in his first attempt – if they get past the Roosters.
My tip – the Rabbitohs by 2.