As the NRL emerges from winter shedding its unwanted kilos in the form of an under performing bottom 8, we take a look at the cream of the crop and separate the contenders from the pretenders.

CANTERBURY BULLDOGS
WHY THEY’LL WIN:
They are the form team of the year and with Ben Barba, they have the form player of the competition. In addition to Barba, the Doggies house Dally M Center of the year Josh Morris, and Prop of the Year Sam Kasiano. Their forward pack is big and mobile, with Kasiono and Frank Pritchard capable of playing like 110+kg five-eighths and their backline, which was already firing, received a massive boost with the mid season transfers of Kiwi internationals Krishnan Inu and Sam Perret. Talk about embarrassment of riches. To top it off, the bookies have been kind enough not to list them as favorites which will suit Des Hasler’s penchant for the err, underdog, down to a tee.

WHY THEY WON’T WIN:
If only the young lads from the Doggies were as weather beaten and battle hardened as Dessie’s face. And that’s not an insult to Hasler; he’s a man’s man…man. And he’s done a typically excellent job of whipping a talented team that was a bit soft around the edges into a premiership force but they are probably a team that needs to be burned before coming back stronger next year. Semi-final football is a different beast. Question marks still remain about Inu’s composure under pressure and how Kris Keating and Josh Reynolds will react if their pack doesn’t dominate.

KEY PLAYER – Josh Reynolds
Forget Barba, it’s Josh Reynolds who has come from the clouds this year to assume the role of general at the Doggies. Keating supports well and Barba eases pressure but it is Reynolds who directs their attack. He has risen to every challenge thus far this season and if he can keep his cool in the heat of semi final battle then the Dogs will go very close.

Pedestrian’s Guide To The NRL Finals

CENTERBET ODDS
Premiership: $4.5
Pedestrian Top Tip: Bulldogs vs Sea Eagles – Jonathon Wright for first try at $13

MELBOURNE STORM
WHY THEY’LL WIN:
Post origin blues aside, the Storm play hard consistent football and what sort of football do you need to be playing come September? You guessed it. And then there’s the big three, the ‘spine’ of the team. As if we haven’t heard that analogy for the Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith combo a thousand times this year but at least it’s apt. Whether it’s defence or attack, at least one of the big three will be in and around the action and pulling off the big plays.

WHY THEY WON’T WIN:
It’s all well and good to have the best ‘spine’ in the comp but it’s not much use if it’s servicing leprous limbs. Now that they have to abide by the salary cap, corners must be cut to keep the big three, and while the Storm excel at developing talent before they have a price card attached or re-conditioning older models for latter career form boosts, this years squad doesn’t seem to have the sparkle of other backlines in particular. The fact that Dane Neilsen is a fringe Origin player points to the surprising lack of depth within the QLD ranks and Justin O’Neill and Anthony Quinn are solid individual players but they hardly scream premiership backline.

KEY PLAYER –Gareth Widdop
In most other teams he would be the star of the show but the lime-lite is all but focused on the big three. So are opposition game plans. Widdop, an English international, has been fantastic for the Storm for the past couple of years, slotting in between fullback and 5/8th for the most part, with his classy touches going largely unnoticed.

Pedestrian’s Guide To The NRL Finals

CENTERBET ODDS
Premiership: $4.00
Pedestrian Top Tip: Storm vs Rabbitohs – Sisa Waqu first try + Storm to win at $15

SOUTH SYDNEY RABITTOHS
WHY THEY’LL WIN:
The Storm Connection of Captain Michael Crocker, Greg Inglis, and Matt King brings a finals experience and know how that has always been in pretty short supply around Redfern. Coach Michael Maguire has also instilled a hard, no bullshit edge to a team that was prone to believing the hype. Such is the love and support for the ‘Red and Greens’ that not getting belted by thirty points was enough to prompt fans to question, is this the year? Russell ‘Master and Commander’ Crow has put together good squads for the past couple of years but now they have the mindset to deliver on their potential.

WHY THEY WON’T WIN:
The Rabbitoh’s simply don’t have the halves to win the comp. Adam Reynolds has had a fantastic season. He has covered the hole left by Chris Sandow to the point where he is probably safer and more reliable than the often erratic Eels flop, but you can only expect so much from the Dally M Rookie of the year. The leap to finals football will be too great. If he had a quality, genuine 5/8 to share the load it may be a different story but, despite his improved consistency and form, John Sutton is not a genuine 5/8. Sutton has always been an exciting talent earmarked for potential rep honors should he get his shit together, but that’s as a ball playing back rower, not 5/8. Should Reynolds go missing for periods and struggle to adapt to the pace and intensity of football in September, then I can’t see Sutton grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck and directing the team around.

KEY PLAYER – Sam Burgess
On his day, he is the best forward in the world. His defence is brutal, he runs hard, and he goes all day. Momentum in semi-final football ebbs and flows and when South are in need of a lift, when the players need some inspiration, Burgess is most likely to deliver it.

Pedestrian’s Guide To The NRL Finals

CENTERBET ODDS
Premiership: $6.00
Pedestrian Top Tip: Storm vs Rabbitohs – Matt King as South Sydney’s first try scorer at $9.00

MANLY SEA EAGLES
WHY THEY’LL WIN:
Been there, done that, and have the premiership rings to prove it. And the players have every right to feel robbed with last year’s efforts marred by the sensational defection of coach Des Hasler to the Dogs and William Hopoate to the Eels (post Morman mission) in the week that followed. They probably have the best halves combo in the comp with Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans who have the kind of experience that belies their age and they are hitting their best form of the season. With both young test players feeding strike forwards Tony ‘T-Rex’ Williams, Glen Stewart, and Anthony Watmough on the edges and a backline stacked with speed and try scoring nous with Brett Stewart and David ‘Wolfman’ Williams it not hard to see how they’ve been dubbed premiership favorites.

WHY THEY WON’T WIN:
It’s Manly, the most hated team in the comp, and they simply can’t be allowed to go back to back. Surely there must be something we can do to appease the football gods? A sacrifice? A tired and saggy Rugby League themed light entertainment show burnt at the stake? So ingrained is the hatred (too strong? Probably not) for Northern Beaches silvertails, that when the chips are down teams will find that extra 10% out of pure spite.

KEY PLAYER – Jamie Lyon
Another elder statesmen of the competition whose form continues to improve as he fast approaches his 30’s. His brick wall-like defence leaks few points while at the other end of the field, his sublime and silky skills lead to points on a regular basis. He also kicks goals from all over the park.

Pedestrian’s Guide To The NRL Finals

CENTERBET ODDS
Premiership: $3.00
Pedestrian Top Tip: Last Try in Bulldogs vs Sea Eagles to Jamie Lyon at $13.00 . And seeing as though they are Premiership favorites, Churchill Medal for Kieran Foran at $16.00 .

NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS
WHY THEY’LL WIN:

With a Sydney-centric competition, Townsville is just a bridge too far and the Cowboys have flown under the radar for much of the season and come into the finals as the real dark horses. This is pretty ridiculous as any team with a fit and firing Jonathon Thurston calling the shots is always going to create problems. With a big forward pack led by Australian frontrower Matt Scott, rolling up the middle, and equal leading try scorer Ashley Graham lurking out wide, the Cowboys pose the biggest threat from outside the top four.

WHY THEY WON’T WIN:
It would most likely require them to win in Sydney three weeks in a row and that is a pretty big ask for a team that rarely plays its best football south of the border. Winning four games in a row, against the top quality opposition, is probably too much to ask as well as consistency has not been one of their strengths this season. They are capable of playing excellent football but maintaining that form for a month could be a stretch and will probably end up riding out of town with their heads slung low.

KEY PLAYER –Matt Bowen
The 30 year-old will be playing his 250th game in the first week of the finals and he is still one of the most exciting fullbacks in a competition stacked with exciting fullbacks. Whether it be his broken field running, his support play, or coming in to take the load off Thurston, whenever he is around the ball, he is dangerous. Chances can be hard to come by in semi-final football but Bowen specialises in creating them.

Pedestrian’s Guide To The NRL Finals

CENTERBET ODDS
Premiership: $13.00
Pedestrian Top Tip: Cowboys vs Broncos – HT/NT Double – Broncos/Cowboyso (Broncos leading at half time/Cowboys leading at Normal Time i.e. 80min) at $7.50.

CANBERRA RAIDERS
WHY THEY’LL WIN:
They have nothing to lose. When you’re a young team playing without fear and with form on your side, the ball has a habit of bouncing your way. Similar to the Eels’ dream run of 2009, the Raiders started awfully but have turned around in a big way. With a young and athletic backline led by halves on the rise Josh McCrone and Sam Williams, Canberra are capable of scoring a lot of tries and fast.

WHY THEY WON’T WIN:
It seems like the Raiders have been playing semi-finals football for the last two months just to nab a spot in the 8. They’ve played their grand final and will be happy just to make up the numbers. With a good young core, it’s imperative that they hold on to the team they have as attracting quality talent has never been their strong suit. Even with all the anguish that comes with collecting the wooden spoon, the Parramatta boys are still saying to themselves “At least we don’t live in Canberra”. No offense.

KEY PLAYER –Jarrod Crocker
The competitions leading point scorer will need to be doing what he does best because with the worst defence in the 8, Canberra will need to score plenty of points if they want to progress. Canberra have shown they can throw the ball around and it’s Crocker’s support play that ensure they are moving down the ground.

Pedestrian’s Guide To The NRL Finals

CENTERBET ODDS
Premiership: $26
Pedestrian Top Tip: Raiders vs Sharks – First try scorer and Match Winner as Blake Ferguson/Canberra at $15

CRONULLA SHARKS
WHY THEY’LL WIN:
It’s about time as there are still yet to clinch that maiden title. Surely there is some sort of NRL algorithm pointing to a Sharks title in the near future. As their form in the first half of the season proved, they have the caliber of players it takes to bring the trophy back to The Shire. Paul Gallen has shown in the past couple of origin campaigns that he can single handedly take it to an opposition. If their big and physical pack, with the likes of Jeremy Smith, Andrew Fifita and Bryce Gibbs, follow his lead then the Sharks can turn a few heads (and displace a few bulging discs).

WHY THEY WON’T WIN:
The shark is an apt mascot because if they were a TV show they would have surely jumped it post Origin when they were returned a broken down Gallen and a shell shocked Todd Carney and they have yet to recover. Finals football is no time to be rediscovering form and the Sharks are a ways of the kind of football that had them heading for a top 4 finish. The Sharks are one Shire export that will be back next year however. If Luke Lewis makes the impact that we expect and they can keep Todd Carney out of Northies over the off season, then expect that the Sharks will hit the finals series next year as a much more experienced unit.

KEY PLAYER – Jeremy Smith
Gallen will make his 1000 tackles, his 1000 hit-ups, and he’ll get in there and pretend he’s a halfback but it’s the sting in Smith’s defence that can turn a game. If he can knock a few blokes senseless then suddenly, even a dominant forward pack, begin to have second thoughts as they reluctantly cart it up as the momentum changes. It’s the Sharks forwards that then start making 10, 12, even 15 meters every carry of the ball which gives Carney the kind of time he needs to shred oppositions apart.

Pedestrian’s Guide To The NRL Finals

CENTERBET ODDS
Premiership: $41
Pedestrian Top Tip: Raiders vs Sharks – First Cronulla try for Colin Best at $7.00

BRISBANE BRONCOS
WHY THEY’LL WIN:
The Broncos and semi-final football go together like Phil Gould and ridiculous hyperbole. Having only missed the finals once in the last 21 years means that when September rolls around, everyone in the club know their role and how to execute it. No one will be better for the experience. They have the experience. The Broncos have a dynamic balance between youth and experience with old heads like Petero Civoniceva, Corey Parker, and Justin Hodges providing the kind of support and reassurance that allows the younger players to play their natural games

WHY THEY WON’T WIN:
History. No team has ever won from 8th position. The only team to come close were the 2009 Eels but they had form on their side and the unstoppable Hayne-train at their disposal. The Broncos have limped in with only 1 from their last 7 and that solitary victory was a pretty unimpressive display against a pretty unimpressive Panthers outfit. Not this year.

KEY PLAYER –Peter Wallace
To describe Wallace’s play as un-flashy, and workman-like doesn’t sound like a compliment but it’s his ability to keep cool and complete the simple plays under pressure that should have earned him more sky blue jumpers.

Pedestrian’s Guide To The NRL Finals

CENTERBET ODDS
Premiership:$26.00
Pedestrian Top Tip: Cowboys vs Broncos – First try scorer for Sam Thaiday at $26

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