ANDREW JOHNS – NINEMSN COLUMN

Bulldogs to win battle of the best

By Andrew Johns – Wed Sep 26 2012

The final game of the 2012 season sees the competition’s two best teams, with the competition’s two best coaches, clash for the NRL premiership title. Bulldogs coach Des Hasler has taken his side to within one win of the premiership in his first year at the club, while Craig Bellamy continues to show his brilliant consistency with the Storm appearing in their fifth grand final in the past seven years. It should be a really entertaining match, going right down to the wire in front of a packed ANZ Stadium crowd.

The key to beating the Storm is short, sharp, passing exchanges around the ruck area, a skill the Bulldogs forwards have excelled at all year. The key to beating the Bulldogs is a fast-moving aggressive defensive line, which has long been a trait of Melbourne’s game plan. In a way they cancel each other out and the deciding factor could come down to something as simple as weight of possession.

In the lead up to the grand final Melbourne has had an easier run than Canterbury and should be less battered by their finals encounters. South Sydney were terrible against the Storm three weeks ago and Manly were absolutely disgraceful last week. The Storm hardly had to make any second half tackles as the Sea Eagles continually turned the ball over in a display that shocked everyone. Storm players should be fresher, but a light preparation isn’t always a good thing coming into the biggest match of the year.

The Storm have an advantage in the halves with Cooper Cronk among the best players in the world. His ability to control a match with his kicking game is second to none and if he plays at his best the Storm will be very hard to beat. Likewise, I think star fullback Ben Barba will be a key player for the Bulldogs. Barba has been electrifying all year and can cut through the tightest defences. Neither of these two stars will be able to shine if their forwards fail to dominate and this is where I see the Bulldogs having an edge.

The Bulldogs have a big, skilful, hard-working bunch of forwards capable of setting up a grand final victory. Up front they have Dally M prop of the year Sam Kasiano, the human wrecking ball, supported by Aiden Tolman and James Graham off the bench. They have Frank Pritchard in the second row playing better than ever after turning his career around under Hasler and at lock they have Greg Eastwood who was outstanding last week against South Sydney. They also have two young forwards who are destined to be stars of the future.

Josh Jackson, who will start his twelfth NRL match in a grand final, and Dane Finucane on the bench are dynamic players who have perfect work ethics. I’ve been told no one works harder than these two at training and their efforts have really paid off for themselves and the Bulldogs. Every good side needs its tireless work-horses in the pack, taking the first hit-up when everyone else has been run ragged and cleaning up in defence when the line is all but broken. The Bulldogs have these two as well as veteran David Stagg off the bench.

Melbourne’s strengths are obviously centred around Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater, but Bellamy’s ability to squeeze the best out of any player will play as big a part in any Storm victory. Relatively unknown players and those whose careers looked over elsewhere go to Melbourne and become part of the purple machine. The big three can’t win matches on their own and the combined effort of the whole Storm team is always greater than that of the individuals in it. It will be a close one, but I think Des Hasler can achieve the near-impossible of back-to-back premierships with different clubs.

Make sure you watch the Toyota Cup grand final between Wests Tigers and Canberra Raiders on Sunday as well. I’ve been really impressed with the Raiders all year and they have a size advantage in the forwards which makes a big difference in the Under 20s competition. It should be an entertaining match and the key to a Raiders victory will be their five-eighth Anthony Milford. He has been brilliant towards the end of the season and is definitely one to watch for the future having only just had his 18th birthday.

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