Six topics of conversation from the NRL pre-finals

The two best teams have booked their places in the grand NRL final, with the week off working wonders. Here are my topics of conversation from the pre-finals.

Nathan Cleary’s kick game will hold the key next week
The Panthers reach the grand finals for the first time since 2003.

I don’t think this is a sentence anyone was expecting before the first ball in March went mad, but we’re sitting there in mid-October.

It’s been a chaotic season, and while some will shout an asterisk to anyone who could listen, the fact that the Panthers have overcome everything to reach the grand finale after 17 straight wins proves beyond a doubt that they deserve it, to be there.

Whether they can challenge the storm next week is a different question, and frankly, not a very easy one to answer.

You see, the storm is just a different animal (more on that in a moment). They beat almost everyone and when it comes to big games there isn’t a team you want to avoid anymore.

You only find one way to step up. Craig Bellamy makes them shoot, Cameron Smith manages the game on the field, and they roll according to a plan.

Most of these Panthers players have not played individually or together in an NRL final (although many have played with the Panthers in the junior finals), but they simply do not have the experience of a big game that will be played next Sunday.

If you want to win, you need a good start. You can’t collect the first try, especially not as early as Saturday night against Souths. The storm won’t be easy to get back.

Not only is a good start crucial, Nathan Kicky’s kicking game will also be paramount. He has a huge role to play in the territorial battle and if the strikers hold their own, Cleary’s influence could decide the game, as one could argue that it has played many times this year.

(Foto von Brett Hemmings / Getty Images)

Melbourne is the ultimate NRL club
When it comes to success, there is nothing like what the storm has achieved in the past decade and beyond.

Under Craig Bellamy, the club from a non-rugby heartland found a way to make themselves the best point.

Sure, people will point out, and acknowledge, successive premierships for the roosters as something special over the past two years. It hasn’t been done in more than two decades.

But the storm is just something else. This is their ninth grand final since 2006. In a league with limited salaries (and yes, I know what’s coming) that is a remarkable achievement. Even after the 2010 scandal, this is the fifth grand final in ten years.

In fact, 2010 is the only year they haven’t reached the finals since 2003. It’s a success we’ve never seen before, and not just in the NRL but in almost all of Australian sport. The only better record is the Perth Wildcats in the NBL, who reached the semifinals 35 years later.

It’s bringing the storm into elite society, and the structure they’ve built means it’s mostly done with a few superstars to go with players who bought them and who were outcasts or fighters in other clubs.

Their roster is full of them to work with the players they have brought into their own ranks to develop a talent scouting system that goes far and wide and there must be that Melbourne is not a rugby league hotspot .

Already they may have the next Cooper Cronk in the books at Noah Griffiths to go with the teenagers you’ve seen this year run around piloting a ship that just doesn’t look like it will ever sink .

If Cameron Smith leaves it will be another hurdle for the club, but for all the evidence available, you’d be a brave man to say they won’t make it.

(Foto von Ian Hitchcock / Getty Images)

Preliminary final? Wayne Bennett excels again
Craig Bellamy may have built his own dynasty in a rugby league outpost, but one of the greatest coaches of all time, Wayne Bennett continues to impress.

It doesn’t matter where Bennett goes, he’s doing his clubs better than they should.

Mid-season saw the chance of the Rabbitohs making a run in the finals next to nothing. Heck, reaching the finals would be a stretch at certain points.

But in true Bennett fashion, his team took their step at the right time of year and then stormed into the finals, knocking down a few teams before pushing the four-month undefeated little premieres to the finish line.

That deserves recognition. He’s somehow found a way to get the Cardinal and Myrtle to shoot, and it may not have been enough for a Premier League, but this man is a master at getting every drop of potential out of all of his players.

You just have to look at his career to know what he is capable of. Though the argument has been put forward, the game got past him where he led the Broncos to a grand final in 2015, the Knights to a preliminary final during his stay, and the 2010 Dragons to a Premiership, which is what it takes to be an elite coach to be.

Wayne Bennett

(Photo by Chris Hyde / Getty Images)

Why should Cameron Smith retire?
This is the topic that the rugby league universe has shared. Is Cameron Smith Selfish For Refusing To Announce A Decision? Is he being selfish if he even thinks about playing? Or should he be able to do what he wants?

After all, the future immortal made 430 games for the competition and is undoubtedly one of the greatest players in history. Not only in his intelligence on the field, but also in his longevity and the tenacity with which he plays the game.

Sure, he divides the rugby league audience over some of the methodologies he uses, but anyone who at least doesn’t show disapproving respect for the Storm captain is just pushing for an agenda.

And if you look at some of the pieces he did on Friday night, you’d swear he hasn’t been a day over 20 and is still trying to impress and hold onto his place for the following week.

Of course, Smith’s place is his as long as he wants it. The only reason he stopped playing representative footy is because he retired, and it will be the same if he gives up his club seat.

He’s an unreal talent, an almost one-of-a-kind player, and someone who is still at the top of his game. While the wait for his slowdown continues, the fact that he is holding back, or potentially costing, Storm Brandon Smith and Harry Grant is an issue for fans, but Smith the Cameron variety has the right to do what he wants to.

Cameron Smith

(Foto von Ian Hitchcock / Getty Images)

Penrith’s full-backs win games
The role of full-backs and wingers in modern play has changed incredibly. They are no longer just try scorers. Now they have to be good defensively, find ridiculous ways to score, make attempts and run back the ball of kicks like madmen.

In this new era of rugby league, where it’s so hard to gain momentum but so important, the full-backs play a tremendous role in the dominance of the competition.

Most of the time the Penriths were near perfect that year and they were back on Saturday.

While Dylan Edwards and Brian To’o had one try apiece, add Josh Mansour and the trio ran a staggering 604 meters between them, with 123 of them being kick-return meters and another 180 being post-contact meters.

It’s amazing stats shared by three players that have the potential to turn a game upside down in minutes.

Compare that to the efforts of South Sydney, where the last three trios of Corey Allan, Alex Johnston and Jaxson Paulo only managed 358 yards with 74 kick returns and 77 post-contacts between them, and you’ll get an idea why the Panthers were able to dominate the territory and the momentum battle.

It’s so, so important, and could have been the difference on Homebush.

Canberra’s Premiership window is not closed yet
The Raiders should never go as far as they did this year.

When Josh Hodgson went down in Round 9, last year’s great finalists were written off by a vast majority of the pundits added to their list of doubters.

More injuries ensued for the green machine, and like the Rabbitohs, there were times when they looked like they were just putting the numbers together.

They ended up doing anything but that with a valiant run to the pre-finals before facing the impossible challenge of playing a refreshed Melbourne Storm side after a physical win over the Roosters seven days earlier.

Josh Papalii leads the raiders

(Photo by Quinn Rooney / Getty Images)

The fact that both Melbourne and Penrith have won wins will prove that the week off was the most important factor in this year’s finals series, but the men of Ricky Stuart can keep their heads high.

It was a feat that might not be their best, and the doors were blown away early on, but with the only significant loss it was John Bateman and Josh Hodgson to get back to the side, a side now stacked with another year of experience and experience Thanks to the handy backup options, the Raiders are everywhere more balanced than ever to load up on the crown in a time that should slowly return to the normal 2021 season.

The team has a highly competitive striker pack that can be the most challenging in the competition and a backline that, when it gets going, is of beauty, led by ball run wizard Jack Wighton.

Again, he may not have shown that in the pre-finals, but if the Raiders get a decent hand with injuries next year there is no reason they won’t be fighting for the title again.

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