Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Final Four.

The top 4 sides of 2016.
Welcome to the final-four. A place all dream about before season’s start, a place many think they are a chance of getting to during the season, but a place only a handful are ever really a proper chance of making. The 2016 NRL Season has seen some of the mightiest fall, the formers dwindle, and the freshest creep up from obscurity. But the fabled final four for this year see’s truly the season’s best surviving. Melbourne, Canberra, Cronulla, and North Queensland all ran one through four in the regular season respectively, with day light running 5th to 16th. It’s only fitting that those four sides remain.

Melbourne’s season has almost been galvanised by the loss of Billy Slater. It’s as if Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk have had something to prove without him, such has been their determination since his loss. To whom; no-one knows. Indeed, it would be a curious insight to find out what drives those two phenomenal-players, who could now be considered warhorses of the Storm. A club whose leadership qualities are without peer. 

Instigated and set by Craig Bellamy over a number of formidable years, those standards have been modelled and driven by Smith, Slater and Cronk for the best part of a decade. What their intrinsic work ethics and characteristics do are raise the level of performance of those around them who may never reach such heights if they were not part of the revered Melbourne Storm culture. While Craig Bellamy might be the master of getting the most out of the ones from the bottom of the bucket, he’s adversary for Saturday night – Ricky Stuart – has crafted a club culture that has undergone wild change.

Not many teams go to Melbourne and win. 'The Graveyard' of AAMI Park
Long considered a team that struggled to sign players because of their location, the Canberra Raiders have fast become hot property. A few years ago they were throwing the hat, or rather their chequebook, into the ring for any available NRL star. Today, they are a club who has reinstalled its foundational values by embracing the fact no one wants to live in the nation’s capital. And in doing so they have put themselves one win away from their first Grand Final in 22 years. English no-names, first-grade rejects and players who were on the outer from a host of teams around the rugby league land, the Raiders have become an imperial force this year.

Almost re-born, or perhaps just re-morphed under Head Coach and club-legend ‘Sticky’ Stuart, the sting has been put back in the mighty Green Machine. What’s remarkable is that in a year when a reduced interchange seemingly swung the game’s favour in the way of the little man, Canberra have retained a monstrous pack with considerable success. Ten wins on the trot saw them walk into the NRL Finals and secure second place on the regular-season ladder. While they might have looked down and out, the return of their key-men – Hodgson and Austin – enabled them to bounce back with purpose. They are riding a telltale wave of confidence and will head to AAMI Park knowing they enjoy one of the best records of coming out alive from ‘The Graveyard’. Three wins from their last four clashes, Canberra will now lead a crusade to overthrow one of the league’s most dreaded opponents.

One of the best form turnarounds in years.
Hopeless in 2015, destructive in 2016. - Joseph 'BJ' Leilua
If Canberra happen to pass the storm, they may well run into another franchise that has managed to change its standing in the code, Cronulla. Incredibly, the last remaining Sydney club in the competition just a few years after it was considered most-likely for the scrapheap; either by extinction or expansion. What a difference a couple of years can make. If winning 16 games in a row doesn’t prove you’re ready to end your 49-year wait for a maiden premiership title, nothing does. Ironically, Canberra were the team who finished that freakish run of form in August with – no surprises here – a dubious video-referring dilemma marring the match.

While Head Coach Shane Flanagan was left ‘confused’ after that night, his meticulous approach to the Sharks’ preparation and performance since returning from a 12-month ban at the end of 2014 has left no-stone unturned. With recruiting that could be considered a masterstroke, Flanagan’s ability to jump on the right-buy at the right-time has been spot-on. If he didn’t hold a plumber’s license, you could swear the bloke was a real estate agent. But while an estate agent might have to flog a dead-horse, there is no-doubting the look and foundations of the Cronulla first-grade line-up. What you see is what you get. The whole squad has come together like a house-on-fire. If this is the Sharks side that looked like they were going to go up in flames a few years ago, they are now on the verge of securing a vital memento that would douse the doubters forever. You seriously get the feeling Paul Gallen is going to be up for the game of his career this weekend. You can just smell it in the air. 

Michael Ennis has been instrumental to the Sharks' success. 
But if the Sharks are going to make their own history, they’ll have to deal with the current premiers first. And if there if there is one guy you wouldn’t want to run into at this time of the year, it’s Johnathan Thurston. What class. What toughness. What magic. What a competitor. This guy is legitimately involved in every Cowboys play. Whether its chasing a runaway try, putting the stamp on one of their own, or diving on a loose ball that no-one else will. The Cowboys look to be the best positioned team to win back-to-back titles since Brisbane in 1993. A heroic win over their biggest rivals on home turf on Friday just gone will have them brimming with motivation to continue their run.

Having lost virtually none of their Grand Final winning side from 2015, the Cowboys have managed to retain the form that took them to their own maiden NRL Premiership. But will it prove too hard to go all the way again? 

None have done it, or even really come close in over 20 years. They will also return to the scene of one of rugby league's greatest conspiracies, Allianz Stadium (Sydney Football Stadium).

The ground that once; no twice, no sorry – three times, saw them ‘robbed’ of progressing deep into the NRL Finals because of hapless officiating by the games men-in-pink. 

The infamous ‘Hand of Foz’ in 2012, the ‘Seventh-tackle try’ against Cronulla in 2013, and the forward-pass ruling against the Roosters in 2014 after coming back from 30-nil down to almost snatch one of the game’s greatest-ever comebacks. 

It’s been 11 years since the North Queensland Cowboys won of that turf and it’s clear one side will be making history on Friday night when they take on the Sharks in what has to be one of the most-anticipated NRL preliminary finals in recent memory.

Johnathan Thurston coming to grips with being 'robbed' for the 3rd time.

Four teams currently remain, but only two can survive. Who will it be?

Sharks, Cowboys, Storm, or Raiders? 

Bring. It. On.