Crystal ball predictions for the NRL finals

From a viewing perspective, this NRL season has been one of the most enjoyable in recent memory. Sure, it has had its low points; who can forget, for example, the game between Melbourne and Cronulla way back at the start of the season when over 30 penalties were blown, or just last week when the refereeing mess that has hijacked the majority of the season descended into farce?

Yes, controversy has dominated the rugby league agenda. But in amongst the chaos there have been some incredible moments that football fans will remember long into the future.

If you’re Panthers fan, you will never forget the day your team came from 18 points down to defeat Manly at fortress Brookvale. If you wear the Red V with pride, you will no doubt remember the spectacular finish against Parramatta, and the war of attrition on holiday Monday against the Dogs.

Those who live south of the border will look back on 2018 as the year a drought was broken and hope that it is a sign of things to come.

And who can forget that tight finish between the Broncos and Cowboys back in round 2 when the Lang Park goal posts acted as an extra man in defence, stopping a rampaging Scott Bolton on the bell.

For every moment of frustration, for every time you’ve screamed at the telly and threatened to put your remote through the lounge room wall, there have been hundreds of feel-good moments to remind you why you love the game.

It is with this new found optimism that I look ahead to how I believe the rest of the season will pan out and who, in this season of endless surprises, will take out the Provan-Summons trophy in October.

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The Top 4

According to most punters, the Roosters and Storm are the only sure things as far as the top four is concerned. Which teams will join them is difficult to pick. Souths and the Dragons are the obvious choices given their current position, but both sides have gone through a form slump of sorts over the last few weeks.

Failure to secure victory against the Tigers and a near miss against the struggling Eels on Saturday night has seen the Bunnies fall out of favour with many neutral fans, while the Dragons seem to still be suffering from a post Origin hangover. As far as I’m concerned, the Dragons are a long way from where they need to be at this point in the season. They’re falling back into bad habits in both attack and defence and, to be brutally honest, don’t look like they can mix it with the Roosters or Storm.

As a Dragons fan this is difficult to type because we have gone through the agony of falling away late in the season so many times over the last few years. Thankfully, a top eight spot is all but secured, so we needn’t worry about missing the eight altogether. But if the Red V are to avoid repeating their elimination final exit in 2015, they must secure a top four placing.

With a relatively soft draw including 4 matches against bottom eight sides, they should get the job done. The Panthers, Sharks and Broncos are nipping at their heels though, so there will be no shortage of drama over the next few weeks.

The dream is still alive for Dragons fans but it will quickly fade if they can’t win the majority of their five remaining games.

As for the Bunnies, there was a lot to like about their finish to the game against the Eels. They have too many gun players in good form to miss out on a top four spot. If the engine room of Sam Burgess, Crichton, Cook and Walker fires – as it has done for most of the season – it is hard to see them getting knocked out of the top four. They do, however, have a significantly harder draw than the Dragons which includes clashes with Melbourne and the Roosters.

For this reason, I believe the only change to the current top four is the Dragons sneaking into third spot.

Minor Premiers

It is hardly a surprise picking the Storm to win the minor premiership given most rugby league fans out there are tipping the same thing. But I’ll go with the flow because I don’t see anyone knocking them off now that they’ve hit their straps.

The most impressive thing about the Storm is their depth. They have a number of players outside their first choice 17 that would get a starting spot in most sides. Just listen to some of the names they have as back-up: Brodie Croft, Riley Jacks, Cheyse Blair, Brandon Smith…

It is truly remarkable what the Storm have been able to do over the last decade and I see them returning to the Promised Land once again in 2018.

Who plays in the Grand Final?

The Storm have played exceptional football over the last month and will be unlucky to miss out on a spot in the Grand Final. Their challengers came in the form of the Cowboys last year and I’m tipping a team in the bottom 4 of the eight to make it to the big dance yet again in 2018.

As much as I’d like to say it will be the Warriors, they’ve been too inconsistent for my liking. Mind you, a number of sides have been either rocks or diamonds this year so it is far too early to put a line through the men from across the ditch.

They take on the Dragons this weekend in Wollongong in a clash that will act as a form guide for the finals.

With the Warriors likely to be out of the picture, I think it will be the Sharks that beat out the other top eight sides to set up a rematch of the 2016 Grand Final.

The reason I’ve gone this way is because of the strike power they have up front and the speed on the edges. My only concern is the halves. Matt Moylan has been brilliant at times – as he was against the Panthers a few weeks back – and off the pace at others. Townsend has also been up one week and down the next throughout the year.

Their experience in key positions is what I like most. The majority of their roster has also played finals football before, so will know what it takes to win big games.

The premiers

I’ve already tipped the Storm to win the minor premiership. If this happens, I don’t think anyone will be able to stop Smith, Slater and Munster in the finals. They are big game players and the latter two will be especially hungry to add another notch to their belt before their remarkable careers draw to a close.

Most at stake

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve gone with the Dragons. Fans of the club will know the heartbreak of starting a season with bright-eyed optimism only to have their hopes and dreams crushed following a late season slide. It happened in 2015, it happened last year, and – if the last few weeks are anything to go by – it’s happening again in 2018.

There is plenty of pressure on coach Paul McGregor as well. Now in his fifth year in charge of the club, he must take the Dragons to at least the semi-finals to earn a pass mark. Anything less must be deemed a failure. The number of players selected for Origin this year suggests that the Dragons premiership window is wide open. If they fail to capitalise on this opportunity the door will quickly shut as ageing players begin to wane and young players are blooded in first grade.

What missing the top eight would mean for the Dragons

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McInnes and Widdop all smiles during the Dragons Round one clash with Penrith. Image source: The Leader.

Seeing the Dragons drop down the ladder is an all too familiar sight for fans of the club.

In 2015, the Dragons were sitting in first position heading into the Origin period. But things quickly turned sour and they ended up finishing the regular season in eighth.

It is a worrying trend that this new Dragons outfit – who were seemingly destined for the finals just a few rounds ago – are following despite having changed a significant amount over the same two year period.

The Dragons lost to the Bulldogs in a heartbreaking elimination final that year and if their season continues the way it is currently then they might just fold once again when the first round of finals comes around.

That is if they make it at all.

Their road to the finals looks an easy one from a distance, but for a side as inconsistent as the Dragons it is difficult to judge.

They have the third placed Sea Eagles this Sunday before taking on the Knights, who gave them a right old scare not that long ago, in round 21.

Two rounds later they take on the Gold Coast who not only handed them their backsides last time around but are playing each round like their lives depend on it, so tight is the cluster of teams vying for a top eight spot.

Their only relief will come against the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs who are both competing for the competition’s ‘most boring and predictable team award’ at this year’s Dally M Medal night.

Much like the Bulldogs though, the Dragons are struggling to score points. It is a monkey they have been unable to remove from their collective backs for the past few seasons.

Last year Widdop and Marshall were blamed for their lack of creativity and this theory seemed to hold true when the Dragons went on a point scoring rampage early in 2017 under a reformed halves pairing.

But the last five or so rounds have seen the Dragons slip back into some bad habits. And there can be no better example of this than on Friday night when the fast-finishing Raiders sunk Dragon heart’s in golden point.

Or on the Gold Coast in round 17, where they could only muster 10 points against a side that was well and truly out of the top eight at the time.

Friday night’s game was there for the taking but like the Dragons of old they reverted to relying on defence too early and let the Raiders dictate terms to them.

When they defeated the Cowboys 28-22 way back in round seven they were relentless.

Even in a losing effort against the Storm they managed to pile on 22 points against what you could argue is the competition’s best defence.

But the well has since run dry and there are worrying signs that the Dragons will rely on their old mantra of ‘defence wins football games’ through fear of losing – much like they did at Canberra Stadium last Friday.

If so, their points differential will go south quicker than the share price of a bankrupt mining corporation and they’ll be lucky to win more than two of their last six games, all but ruling them out of the hunt for a spot in the top eight.

More evidence of the Dragons change in attitude came on Friday night when they began running sideways rather than straight up the middle of the field.

Last season, opposition sides were able to shut down their attack quickly because the defensive line would shuffle across the field and wait for the Dragons to run out of space on the edges.

They look far more dangerous when they give the ball to the likes of De Belin, Packer, Frizell and Vaughan who punch holes in the middle of the ruck and allow the halves, as well as Cameron McInnes, time and space to run the football or steal crucial meters out of dummy-half.

Take the effort against the Tigers earlier this season for example. The Dragons were able to put 28 points on the scoreboard because the forwards gave the halves room to manoeuvre.

Nightingale crossed three times that afternoon thanks to the brilliance of Gareth Widdop who threw three rocket passes off the back of some well-timed block plays.

Without the go-forward of the meter-eaters up front, however, the halves wouldn’t have been given the opportunity.

And that was the Dragons biggest problem last year – the halves overplaying their hands and attempting to create try-scoring opportunities when they hadn’t strapped on the blue overalls and earned the right to do so.

Against Canberra there were signs the Dragons had dismissed this mindset from their thoughts – particularly when the forwards got the ball within meters of the line off the back of a 65 meter drop out – and others where fans were left wondering what exactly has been achieved over the past eight months.

All these questions will be answered over the coming weeks as well as others such as: ‘did the Dragons move too early on re-signing Mary McGregor?’ and ‘will Ben Hunt provide something that McCrone currently is not?’

Which leads me to my next point – why has McCrone, at times, been shunned by McGregor in favour of Kurt Mann in the halves when the former is quite obviously the more competent halfback and the latter a natural born centre?

It beggars belief McGregor is still toying with the halves combination at such a crucial point in the season.

He made this ill-fated move against the Titans and paid full price; there was no attacking creativity until McCrone was brought off the bench and injected into the action in the second half.

If McGregor continues to make these errors in judgement then the Dragons will continue to play like a nothing burger football side that are woeful on their worst days and commendable but nothing more on their best.

3 wins from their last ten games against opposition sides ranging from gettable to hopelessly out of touch is a testament to this.

The final straw will be if they lose to Newcastle in round 21 or the incredibly tame and structured South Sydney in round 22.

A loss to Manly this weekend is forgivable but losses beyond this clash will show the Dragons have come nowhere through two years of constant tinkering and remodelling.

The question then will be: where to next?