Manly plays North Queensland this weekend at the Sydney Football Stadium and once again the issue of crowd size has come up. Last season when these two sides met in the first week of the finals on the same ground, they attracted a disappointing crowd of less than 14,000. Manly fans are criticised for not travelling and they respond by saying that it’s not really a home final unless it’s at Brookvale. And they are right – playing anywhere other than Brookvale Oval is not giving them the home advantage that other teams receive for finishing up the top of the ladder at the end of the season.
I might be considered a dinosaur these days, but I believe all finals after week one should be played at the major venues in Sydney. You have to come to Stadium Australia to play the grand final, you might as well get used to it early on in the finals. Give Brisbane and Melbourne a final in week one if they have teams deserving, but after that make it an even playing field for everyone. Melbourne only had 20,000 turn up for their match against South Sydney, so it’s not as though they are packing them in down there.
In regards to the on-filed action I’m not sure whether it was the venue or the occasion, but South Sydney were disgraceful against Melbourne last week. They looked like they had a plan to intimidate, but they did it with very little discipline and gave away far too many penalties and turned over possession far too often. Melbourne took advantage and played solid finals footy, with an incredible 37/41 completion rate. The fact that they were kept to only 24 points shows just how well the Rabbitohs defended.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy sent Cooper Cronk out with a master plan to keep Rabbitohs fullback Greg Inglis quiet and it worked to perfection. Cronk had the prefect kick to suit every occasion and limited the opportunities for Inglis to make an impact on the game. Melbourne also employed the perfect kick chase with a lead player sprinting to cut Inglis down around the ankles as soon as he had the ball. It was a polished Storm performance and convinced me that having finals experience could be more important than I originally believed. Souths approached the game differently and in the end poorly – something they might have avoided had they been in a similar situation previously.
Manly have been in the finals plenty of times recently, but it didn’t help them against the Bulldogs in a match that would have disappointed both sides. Ball control was terrible and there were some really lazy mistakes from both teams, but the turning point came when Manly co-captain Jamie Lyon limped off in the first half. You can’t replace a player of Lyon’s quality, and the Sea Eagles struggled in attack from that point on. The Bulldogs forwards worked so well together once again, with James Graham and Aiden Tolman the perfect foils for big Sam Kasiano. They’ll need to clean up the error rate before their next big game in two weeks’ time.
This week’s games should be great entertainment with North Queensland and Canberra both in great form and on a roll coming up against the two losing sides from last week. Manly and South Sydney should be the stronger sides, based on how they played all season, but these two games are less then clear-cut. I think the Sea Eagles can beat the Cowboys if Lyon plays, but momentum is an incredible thing in footy.
The Raiders are a team which absolutely feeds on momentum, both during the season and during a match. When they get going they are very hard to stop and the halves Sam Williams and Josh McCrone have to take a lot of credit for their success. They have some freakish outside backs with Blake Ferguson capable of anything and Josh Dugan ready to return to his best form. They will miss Jarrod Croker and particularly his goal kicking. Dugan took over when Croker was helped off with his face fracture and it wasn’t pretty. Dugan would have to be the most stylish kicker I have ever seen, but his kicks all sounded like someone kicking a tin bucket. The results were just as ugly and I hope he has been working all week on it or it could prove costly. I think with the Rabbitohs suffering a few key injuries and still shaking their heads after what happened in Melbourne, the “Green Machine” could continue into week three of the finals.