Last year’s runner-up Canterbury, plus Manly and South Sydney will enter the 2013 finals series off a last round lose, but which one was more significant? The Rabbitohs lost to the Roosters, who were hammered in the penalty count 11-5, in an emotional and fiery match for the minor premiership. The Bulldogs were beaten by a side farewelling a brace of key players in a match which didn’t in the end have a major impact on the location of their finals eliminator game. Finally Manly admittedly ‘checked out’ (at least according to Daly Cherry-Evans when speaking to Jimmy Smith on Fox Sports post-game) in a game against a solid Penrith outfit. Souths look to be coming off the biggest let-down of that trio.
Outsiders in the finals series, the Newcastle Knights, have one factor in their favour, having humbled a woeful Parramatta outfit 54-6. It was only the second time in the last 10 rounds they had pasted 26 points, the other a 32-14 away victory in Penrith during round 19. Despite the standard of opposition it’s a positive for the Wayne Bennett-coached side against teams like Manly, the Roosters and even Canterbury who have regularly topped 40 points in the final few months of the season.
Ten-try wins aside, it will be defence which wins the finals and only Manly, Melbourne and North Queensland have displayed near lockdown efficiency in the last month of the competition against fellow finals outfits: the Sea Eagles held Melbourne to eight points at Brookvale in round 25, the Cowboys held the Knights to six in round 24 up in Townsville and back in round 22 the Storm held Souths to eight points at AAMI Park.
Despite the multiple attempts to win the match, Cooper Cronk’s 88th minute field goal could be beneficial for the Victorian franchise in the next month. Having played in a finals intensity match against a Titans side, who at the point still had a chance to make the finals could be just what the Craig Bellamy-coached team needed on the eve of the playoffs. With some other sides having rolled through their final round opponents, the Storm had a tough match-up to fine tune them for the deciding weeks of the competition. .
Looking to 2014 for teams not in finals contention, this week we will take a brief look at the Panthers. The return to the NRL of Jamie Soward after his brief interlude with the London Broncos will be significant, however the shift of back-rower Elijah Taylor to the foot of the mountains could be just an influential. The 23-year-old workhorse will need to break into a combination of Lewis Brown, Sika Manu and Ryan Simpkins who finished the season in a side who won three of their last four games. But the St Paul’s College product could be in for an improved season back under Ivan Cleary’s tutelage.