2015 NRL Finals Series: Contenders and Pretenders

September 7th 2015, 3:27pm, By: C.McGregor9

The long NRL regular season has finally reached its conclusion as the 2015 NRL Finals are set to begin. Only eight teams remain with the top four the only sides a certainty to make it to at least the second week of finals. We will take an in-depth look at each team and determine which clubs are “contenders” and which sides are “pretenders” and just making up the numbers.

Sydney Roosters - Contenders

Position: 1st
Record: 18 wins, 6 losses

The Roosters have won the last three minor premierships and they won the premiership in 2013. Last year they were knocked out in the preliminary final by the eventual Champions the Bunnies. They have been consistent throughout this three-year period and on paper they have the best side in the NRL with the majority of their roster having played rep football at either State of Origin or International level. This gives the tri-colours an added advantage of experience on the bigger stages, however their bench does have a few young forwards but they are currently performing at an incredibly high level.

Forwards
Despite the season-ending injury to front row forward Jared Waerea-Hargreaves at a time when he was being considered the best forward and possibly the most in form player of the competition, the Chookies still have one of the most imposing packs in the game. Sam Moa is a New Zealand international whilst Boyd Cordner and Aidan Guerra play for New South Wales and Queensland respectively. The replacement for Waerea-Hargreaves in the starting forward position Dylan Napa is also on the cusp of making his Origin debut for Queensland as he just missed out on selection this year to Brisbane’s Josh McGuire but he will certainly pull on the Maroon Jersey in years to come. - Rating: A

Backs
The Easts backline is ridiculous, as every player has either played for his state or his country. The only exception at the moment is the youngster Jackson Hastings who is replacing the injured halfback Mitchell Pearce. Fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has had his first full season in the number 1 jersey and he is the favourite to take out the Dally M fullback of the year award. He has averaged just under 230 metres a game whilst racking up 11 tries, 11 try assists and 15 line breaks. The backline gels with each other remarkably well as the majority of the players have been playing together for multiple years. - Rating: A+

Bench
The Roosters bench is strong with multiple young forwards that have proven they bring a lot of x-factor onto the field. They are big, fast and have great footwork and Kane Evans has impressed with his ability to offload and also produce a line break.  Mitchell Aubusson is one of the most underrated players in the game and his versatility could prove the most vital throughout the finals run as he can fill in at almost any position if the tri-colours were to come down with an injury. - Rating: B+

Attack
The Roosters have scored the most points this season and have been able to put points on the board with ease at times with their forwards getting the roll on required to create space for their star outside backs. They are equally capable of attacking down either flank and with Tuivasa-Sheck floating around out the back they are always looking dangerous. However, there were periods earlier in the year when they would look flat and be unable to create clear-cut chances throughout entire matches. That seems to be behind the side now and coach Trent Robinson should have them firing throughout the finals series. - Rating: A

Defence
The Roosters have the stingiest defence in the league as they only conceded 300 points all season. Their defence has leaked on average just over 12.5 points per match. Over their last ten matches they have only conceded more than 10 points on three occasions. - Rating: A+

Overall
After a slow start to the season, the competition favourites have kicked into gear after the Origin period and they have won 12 in a row to claim top spot for the third straight year. Last year they suffered a surprise loss to the Panthers in their opening finals match and it ultimately made them face the Bunnies in the preliminary final. They will be switched on this year and looking to correct their mistakes that cost them a place in the Grand Final last year.

The combination the side has across the park is one of the strongest in the competition with the majority of the team having played together for multiple years. The discipline of the Roosters has been their Achilles heel, however during their recent impressive run this has been removed from their game as they have won more than half of the penalty counts, if they can continue to win this then they will be nearly unstoppable as they will more than likely take advantage of the field position given to them. The side also has a big advantage over other teams as the team has premiership experience as they lifted the trophy in 2013.

Premiership odds: $3.00 @ UniBet

Sydney Roosters

Brisbane Broncos – Pretenders

Position: 2nd
Record: 17 wins, 7 losses

The Broncos had the best off season of any club as they linked back up with Super Coach Wayne Bennet and also added key players Anthony Milford, Darius Boyd and Adam Blair. All three of these players have been instrumental this season with Boyd returning from an achilles injury in Round 9. A lot of experts believed it would take time for the Brisbane side to click but after being flogged by the defending premiers on the opening day of the season, they would then go on a five game winning streak to find themselves on the top of the ladder where they would stay until Round 24.

Forwards
The forward pack is ageing but with it comes a lot of experience with Corey Parker, Sam Thaiday and Blair leading the way with all three having played for their respective countries. The hard runs of Thaiday and Blair teams up well with Parker’s constant work rate and his ability to offload the ball is a continuous threat for the opposition team as halves Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford are always looking to take advantage of a staggered defensive line through second phase play. Fringe players Alex Glenn and Matt Gillett are two damaging ball runners and they are known for bursting the line when getting one-on-one with a smaller defender. Gillett has notched up an impressive 12 tries so far this season and his combination with Hunt continues to grow. However, with the season ending injury to Josh McGuire their depth in the forward line has been evident as they fail to replace the impact off the bench that the Queensland representative brought. - Rating: A-

Backs
The backline of the Broncos combines both youth with experience. The form of Anthony Milford and Ben Hunt in the halves has been superb throughout the season and their play is strongly linked with the success of the club. Hunt received his first call up into the Queensland side for his efforts as he was picked before Daly Cherry-Evans. On the back of the playmakers running games, their outside backs are able to take advantage as the defence is left two decide whether they are going to be running or passing the ball. Their centres are two solid defensive players in Jack Reed and Justin Hodges and Hodges especially poses a threat in attack. He has notched 14 try assists so far this season in only 16 appearances and he is also constantly taking a load off the forwards backs with his scoots from dummy half. - Rating: A

Bench
This is the weak link as they have no big names coming off the bench to create a real spark or impact. Kodi Nikomira is a star of the future but he can’t be expected to come onto the field and change a game and he is likely to receive minimal minutes. Whilst their bench forwards are inexperienced and don’t offer anything fancy. The ACL tear to Josh McGuire will prove to be a huge blow throughout the finals. - Rating: C+

Attack
The Broncos attack is the fourth best in the competition as they have been able to run riot in a lot of their matches this season as they averaged just under 24 points a game. Their attack is mainly built off their defence as they take advantage of their opposition's mistakes and ill discipline. Darius Boyd at fullback has lacked the ability to look dangerous, as he has only managed two tries and six try assists in 14 matches but he has been instrumental in other areas. Ben Hunt has a lot on his shoulders but it could come down to the impact Anthony Milford is able to have because when he has played well this season the Broncos have won. - Rating: B+

Defence
The defence of the Broncos has been criticised in recent weeks as they have been regarded as allowing the opposition to march down the field too easily as their line speed is relatively slow. The ball runner is allowed to make a lot of metres before first contact is even made. Experts have also labelled the Broncos behind the eight ball in the wrestling department as they allow players to get straight to their feet for quick play-the-balls. However, once their defence finds itself in the danger zone – their own 20m area – they have conceded the least amount of tries as they put up a wall that is rarely broken. - Rating: A-

Overall
The Broncos have already exceeded all expectations this season as they finished in second place. Their best ever season throughout an Origin period has been let down due to their recent form as they have lost four of their past six matches. However, during that time they were able to demolish the eighth-placed Dragons and embarrass the defending premiers the Bunnies.

The Broncos have taken advantage of the best schedule in the NRL with the majority of their matches being played on a Friday night which gives the side a full week to rest and also stick to a similar routine every week. Their lack of impact off the bench could hurt them against stronger sides as it has in recent weeks against the Bulldogs, Storm and Roosters. If the Broncos are going to contest for the premiership it will be on the back of their defence and not their attack.

Premiership odds: $4.50 @ William Hill

North Queensland Cowboys – Contenders

Position: 3rd
Record: 17 wins, 7 losses

In their 21st year, the Cowboys are still looking for their maiden premiership title. After being eliminated due to controversial circumstances over the last three years, North Queensland are looking to put that behind them and give Johnathan Thurston the premiership as a halfback that he deserves.

Forwards
The Cowboys forward pack will be tested throughout the finals with Matt Scott heading into his twilight years and James Tamou under an injury cloud with his neck. They will require both players to be at their best as Ben Hannant is their only other big name forward in their line up. Ethan Lowe started the season in career best form but he his involvement in attack has been lowered as Glenn Hall continues to be the vocal back rower. The wrecking ball Jason Tuamalolo has had a relatively quiet season and he will need to step up during the finals to add an extra spark as he can be damaging when he is switched on. Jake Granville has been a shining light this season and is a contender for buy of the season as the Cowboys have finally found a player to fill the void that has been lacking at hooker. His darts from dummy half and ability to control the forwards has been a load off of Thurston’s back and it is evident with JT having arguably his best season and he is practically guaranteed the Dally M award. - Rating: A-

Backs
Any backline that has JT pulling the strings is going to be solid but without his sidekick Michael Morgan the Cowboys have looked vulnerable. They have lost three of their last five matches and they haven’t beaten a top 8 side since round 17.  Their outside backs are solid first graders but they don’t have any superstars of the game that can produce something magical, however if Morgan becomes fit throughout the finals series they will have their spark back as their improved spine this year has seen a lot of the load removed from Thurston’s shoulders. Coote has recovered well from his ACL injury he suffered last season and has had his best year of first grade football. - Rating: B+

Bench
The Cowboys bench has a mix of experience and young players that are ready to make their mark on the NRL. Hannant has been a solid forward for the past decade and has played his fair share of international matches whilst Scott Bolton will always put in 100% and do the job that is required of him. Rory Kostjaysn has been providing a break for Granville in the middle of the match, which allows him to be at his attacking best when he is on the field whilst John Asiata is a ball playing forward that gives the defence something extra to worry about. - Rating: B

Attack
The Cowboys have scored the second most points this season and have never lacked in that department. They are the best team in the league at holding onto the ball as they have the highest completion rate. When they find themselves in the oppositions 20m zone they come away with points on more occasions than not and that is heavily linked with Thurston, Morgan and Coote. - Rating: A+

Defence
This is where the Cowboys could have trouble during the finals. They have leaked over 450 points this season and which has them 5th in defence out of the top 8 sides. They need to improve their starts to matches as over the last six games they have conceded the first try on every occasion. They can’t afford to be behind on the scoreboard as scoring points in the finals will be harder than the regular season. - Rating: B-

Overall
This is the best opportunity the North Queensland side has had to win a premiership despite making it to the Grand Final in 2005. It is the best spine Thurston has had for support and their forward pack is more than capable of taking on the best sides in the league. If Thurston can capture his form from earlier in the season when he was dominating sides than the Cowboys could be impossible to stop. He is by far the most influential player in the competition and a side with him in it can never be written off – this is evident in the finals series from last year when the Cowboys were trailing 30-0 and it looked like the Roosters were going to put 50 on them before Thurston took over and almost stole the match if it wasn’t for another controversial ending.

Premiership odds: $5.00 @ Sportsbet

North Queensland Cowboys

Melbourne Storm – Contenders

Position: 4th
Record: 14 wins, 10 losses

The Storm are another side to exceed expectations this season as a lot of people predicted they would miss out on a finals spot this year. To finish in a top four position without Billy Slater is a real credit to the side. They have been able to produce their best against the top sides whilst they have suffered disappointing losses to the bottom teams of the competition.

Forwards
Jesse Bromwich has been a dominant force all season long and back rowers Kevin Proctor and Tohu Harris are a constant threat on the edges as they combine with halves Cooper Cronk and Blake Green. The best hooker in the game and captain Cameron Smith leads the big fellas around the park, which improves the rest of the forward pack. - Rating: A-

Backs
Australian and Queensland halfback Cooper Cronk is the stand out figured in the Storm back line as his control of the game outweighs any other in the competition. He constantly looks calm and under complete control throughout the match and his ability to pick out the right man or produce the right kick makes the rest of his team look better. Queensland centre Will Chambers is another solid contributor as his attack and defence is as solid as anyone else in that position. Cameron Munster has filled the shoes of Billy Slater relatively well and he has grown in confidence with each match that he plays. - Rating: B+

Bench
The Storm Bench is their weakest point as it has a lot of inexperience, however they make up for it with size. Jordan McLean is one of the biggest forwards in the game and is a damaging ball runner whilst Kenneath Bromwich, brother of Jesse is the type of player every team needs to win a premiership as he will put in 100% and make every tackle required of him. - Rating: B

Attack
At times the Storm attack can struggle, but it will always be hard for sides to prevent them from scoring if they are given the opportunities. They have been there own worst enemy at times with basic handling errors letting there outside backs down but with Smith and Cronk pulling the strings and the speedsters Chambers, Munster and Koroibete out wide they can put points on the board. - Rating: A-

Defence
The Storm have shown over the last two weeks they have one of the best defences in the league as they only conceded a combined three tries against the Cowboys at home and then the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium. There have been other matches throughout the year where there defence has allowed them to win tight matches. - Rating: A

Overall
The Melbourne side will face the premiership favourites in the opening week of the finals which means a loss will give them home advantage the next weekend whilst a win would give them the same advantage in a preliminary final. An upset against the tri-colours would be a huge step towards a Grand Final. They might not have a side as strong as in previous seasons, however they have experienced campaigners that know how to win matches and coach Craig Bellamy will no doubt come up with a perfect game plan to get the most out of his side.

Premiership odds: $9 @ Unibet

Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs – Pretenders

Position: 5th
Record: 14 wins, 10 losses

The loss of Trent Hodkinson will be felt more than a lot of people realise despite Josh Reynolds being there to replace the injured halfback. Hodkinson is the incumbent New South Wales half and the control he has in matches is key to the style of the Bulldogs. He works perfectly with the forwards whilst his defence easily the best by any half in the game whilst Reynolds struggles in this area of his game.

Forwards
The Doggies have arguably the strongest forward packs in the game and they excel at making the most metres whilst also having big men they can ball play. James Graham is instrumental in their attack as he is often found at first receiver and this keeps the defence in two minds as to whether he will be making a strong hit up or taking the ball to the line to hit one of the halves out the back. Sam Kasiano is another huge man that has started to find the form he had from a couple of seasons ago whilst when David Klemmer is fired up he is one of the more feared big men in the league – as shown during his first two State of Origin matches. Josh Jackson is another State of Origin forward and is solid in both attack and defence and Frank Pritchard is on the other edge looking at this damaging best. - Rating: A+

Backs
Their backline is also filled with stars with Brett and Josh Morris both playing for Australia and their state. Whilst new signing Curtis Rona has been a revelation for the Dogs as he has scored – tries this season. Their halves will be cause for concern though with Reynolds known for his brain snaps and Moses Mbye very inexperienced. One thing is for sure they won’t lack energy or effort as Reynolds throws everything into everything he does. - Rating: B+

Bench
One of their strongest areas is also their bench as they have four big men ready to come onto the field and make an impact. The injury to Hodkinson has prevented coach Des Hasler from having a wanted head ache of either having three forwards and a utility player or continuing on with the four forwards. Having a full bench of big men allows the side to be constantly on the go-forward as their forwards are always fresh. - Rating: A

Attack
Despite having such a good backline on paper, the Bulldogs have struggled in certain periods throughout the season to score points. In some contests they have had all the possession, field position and opportunities but have failed to make the most of their chances. This was largely due to James Graham being out for the majority of the season until the last few months as he is so instrumental despite being a forward. Reynolds should add extra spark in the attack but he can will need to find the right combination with Mbye and restrict his errors. - Rating: A-

Defence
The inconsistencies of the Dogs have been the biggest disappointment throughout the year. They can have the best defence in one match and the following concede 22 points in the opening 20 minutes against the Roosters. Although they were able to come back in that match, they would eventually leak over 40 points. As touched on previously, Reynolds will be extremely vulnerable in defence and he will need to be protected by the two men next to him however this just puts added pressure on the defending players beside him. - Rating: B

Overall
Whilst on paper the Bulldogs have an incredibly strong side they haven’t been able to gel properly this season. They were able to make the Grand Final despite finishing in 7th position last year, however the cool head of Hodkinson in pressure moments will be missed in this year's final series as it was his field goal last season that got them over the line against Manly.

Premiership odds: $9 @ Sportsbet

Cronulla Sharks – Contenders

Position: 6th
Record: 14 wins, 10 losses

The Sharks fans have been waiting a long time for a premiership as they were founded in 1967 and still have an empty trophy cabinet. The mix of experience and youth in the side could make for a combination that will see them push for a grand final berth. They have had a remarkable year against the top 8 sides and have beaten the Cowboys and Roosters on both occasions this season. Finals footy is all about grinding out a win and no one does that better than the boys from Shire.

Forwards
The Sharks have one of the best forward packs in the league, as it is full of experienced players that have played at the top level for a long period of time. The back row of Luke Lewis, Wade Graham and Paul Gallen adds both ball playing ability out wide and hard running as Lewis and Gallen have had the experience of representing their state and country. The return of Andrew Fifita during the finals series will be a massive boost too, the only issue will be his fitness. - Rating: A

Backs
The Sharkies backs have experience with Michael Gordon, Gerard Beale and Jeff Robson and the youth provided by Valentine Holmes, Jack Bird, Ricky Leutele and Sosaia Feki has seen their attack bolstered. Holmes and Bird have shone this season as the winger has scored 16 tries whilst Bird took over from Ben Barba at five-eighth and never relinquished his position despite training in the centres during preseason. - Rating: B+

Bench
The blue, white and black will rely heavily on their bench for impact as the big men come onto the field to add extra punch whilst Barba will be required to add extra spark into their attack if the side is trailing. It will be interesting to see if Andrew Fifita will return to the starting line-up or be added to the bench, I’d like to see him coming off the bench as he is a versatile forward that is known for using his footwork close to the line around tired forwards and sneaking over the line. - Rating: A-

Attack
The Sharks attack has improved in recent weeks as they scored the most points in a match since 2012. However, it was against sides that are out of the top eight and they generally grind out matches. Their attack involves a lot of play from their forwards and surprisingly Michael Ennis is leading the side in try assists as he finds his big men close to the line. - Rating: B+

Defence
The Sharks have leaked a lot of points this year but that doesn’t reflect on their defence appropriately. There has been matches when the Sharks have been blown out as they weren’t mentally prepared for the contests however when they turn up they have been able to shut down the best attacks in the matches when they beat the Roosters and Cowboys. - Rating: A-

Overall
The Sharks style of play is suited to finals footy and as they have been able to upset some of the topsides so far this year, you can’t write them off when it comes to the important part of the season. Their forward pack can match it with any other team in the competition and if their backs can take advantage of this then they could finally give their fans something to celebrate.

Premiership odds: $29 @ Sportsbet

Cronulla Sharks

South Sydney Rabbitohs – Pretenders

Position: 7th
Record: 13 wins, 11 losses

After the first three weeks of the competition the defending champions had won the Auckland nine’s and were undefeated in their first three matches and experts were beginning to discuss if it was possible for the Bunnies to complete the season undefeated. Since then, their season has been a disappointment despite reaching the finals.

Forwards
It is obvious the red and green are missing their best player from last season Sam Burgess. His runs, offloads and defence are hard to replace as he was relentless throughout the entire time he was on the field and he led by example for his team mates. However, it is often easy to forget the work done by Ben Teo and how he should be missed almost as much as Burgess since his departure. The forward pack this year has been unable to pick up the load left by these two men despite the signing of Glenn Stewart. - Rating: B+

Backs
A backline of Greg Inglis, Adam Reynolds, Dylan Walker and try scoring machine Alex Johnston should suggest that the side is full of points. However, there are two many question marks surrounding the rest of the backline and whether they are strong enough to compete with the top sides outside backs. Inglis has also looked a shadow of himself throughout the season and it will be difficult to tell how much impact he will have during the finals after undergoing knee surgery just two weeks ago. - Rating: B

Bench
The Bunnies bench has lost its punch this year as Tim Grant has failed to live up to expectations and he hasn’t been able to recapture the form that saw him earn a spot in the NSW side two years ago whilst Jason Clark punches above his weight in the forward pack. However, Chris Grevsmuhl has been a shining light for the Rabbits this season as he has been damaging with the ball in hand and does his task in defence. - Rating: B-

Attack
The Rabbitohs attack hasn’t been strong since the beginning of the season and they have scored the least amount of points of any side in the top 8. Their recent run has been even worse as they have averaged only 10 points over their last three matches and they were all against teams they could meet during this finals series. Walker hasn’t been able to have the same impact this season and he is often caught running too sideways. - Rating: B

Defence
The Bunnies defence is also in shambles lately as they have leaked 30 points or more in their final three games of the regular season. This is not a good statistic to have heading into the finals where defence is key for any side to make a run for the title. Their line has been broken far too easy and this was highlighted the most with the Broncos scoring from a kick off with two simple passes leading to a break and a length of the field try. - Rating: C+

Overall
The Bunnies have fallen apart throughout the season and they have absolutely no momentum heading into the finals. Any chance of going back to back has surely passed, as they won’t even be able to have a “home” semi final this year. The question marks surrounding Inglis’s health only makes matters worse and their confidence would be next to zero and with Issac Luke sidelined through suspension for the first week of the finals, it could be all over in week one.

Premiership odds: $26 @ Palmerbet

South Sydney Rabbitohs

St George Illawarra Dragons – Pretenders

Position: 8th
Record: 12 wins, 12 losses

The Dragons have managed to scrape into the top eight but it is highly unlikely they will make it past the first round. Gareth Widdop was unable to play on the weekend against the Tigers and if he isn’t fit for next weekend they can kiss any chance of making week 2 goodbye.

Forwards
The Dragons forwards are the backbone of this side as when they were able to make the run of six straight wins earlier in the season it was their big fellas who stood up in defence and also made the metres in attack. Leeson Ah Mau and hooker Mitch Rein have had breakout season’s this year as Ah Mau has been one of the most consistent players for the Dragons whilst Rein was in discussion for a spot on the New South Wales Origin team. Tyson Frizell and State of Origin player Trent Merrin have been constant contributors all year with Frizell a constant worry for defences on the right edge. - Rating: A-

Backs
The strength of the Red V’s backline all comes down to the performances of their halves Benji Marshall and Gareth Widdop. When these two are firing so is the back line, however up until the final rounds of the season their attack was faltering and they were winning matches on the back of their defence. Since then their attack has opened up a little but this has contributed to their defence being worse. Josh Dugan is always dangerous at the back but his run first attitude can often be a curse for his side as he has only managed to try assists in 20 appearances this season. - Rating: C+

Bench
The interchange of the Dragons isn’t very intimidating however the work horse Jack De Belin will never shy away from a contest as he constantly chops people in defence whilst always puts his hand up to make a tough carry. He is partnered with Ben Creagh who offers a lot in experience. - Rating: B

Attack
As stated earlier, the Dragons had one of the worst attacks until the last month and a half of the regular season, up until that point they were only averaging just over 12 points per match which is remarkable for a side that has now made the finals. - Rating: C+

Defence
The Red and White’s defence is how they made it to this year’s finals, however over the last four matches they have conceded on average 25.5 points per match. This is way too much for a side that wants to challenge for a premiership, especially when you take into consideration three of those matches were against sides on the bottom of the ladder. They need to be able to recapture the defence that saw them beat the top sides earlier in the season. - Rating: B+

Overall
The Dragons will need to be at their best if they are to cause any damage in the finals as they have been poor for the second half of the season. Their defence has crumbled whilst their attack has slightly improved. It looked as if they would finish the season with some momentum after leading 30 – 8 against the Wests Tigers with 20 minutes remaining, however they would concede 22 points unanswered and if it wasn’t for wayward kicking they could have easily lost the match. They also haven’t beaten a top eight side since round 12, which isn’t a good sign for supporters.

Premiership odds: $81 @ Sportsbet

Grand Final Prediction

Sydney Roosters to defeat North Queensland Cowboys

 

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