Ahead of Week One of the NRL Telstra Premiership Finals, The Obstruction Rule breaks down all the teams remaining in the competition, and explains why they can, and can’t, win the whole thing.
Offense VOA: 25.74% (3rd), Defense VOA: -61.41% (1st)
Why they can win: Because they’re the best team in the competition. The Storm have been the top side in the league since the Warriors played them into form back in Round 8, and they’ve shown few signs of slowing down since then.
They feature the league’s best defense (the Great Wall of Melbourne, if you will), and complement it with the most well executed structured offense in the league. The Storm attack and defend almost like robots, with their entire team understanding their roles and performing them with precision. They’re nearly impossible to score against, never conceding more than 20 points in a game until their Round 23 clash with attacking powerhouse, Canberra. And when the Storm can keep their opponent to under three scores, they can feel very confident that Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith will guide them home.
Why they can’t win: Because they’re human. Being the best team in the league doesn’t guarantee that you’ll win the competition (just ask the 2015 Roosters. Or the 2014 Roosters, for that matter). They still need to win three more matches, including at least two in a row against some of the best sides in the NRL, and that’s not a forgone conclusion. The Storm hosted a preliminary final last year, only to be knocked out by eventual premiers, North Queensland, so they’ll be all too aware that they’re no certainty to win the title. They are however, in the box seat.
Offense VOA: 14.05% (5th), Defense VOA: -47.32% (2nd)
Why they can win: Because the 2016 Cowboys are better than the 2015 Cowboys, and the 2015 Cowboys got it done. This year’s Cowboys are a vastly better defensive outfit than their 2015 counterparts, while still featuring all the key offensive players (like Johnathan Thurston, Michael Morgan and Lachlan Coote) who got them over the line last year. Their offense has looked a bit patchy recently, turning in a few weak efforts against Wests and Sydney in particular, but they’ve turned it around the last few weeks, and are starting to look more like the Cowboys side we expect. (Plus, who could forget their Round 20 demolition of Canterbury?)
Why they can’t win: Because they have the most brutally difficult draw imaginable. They head south to Melbourne in Week One (where Minor Premiership contenders Cronulla were belted 26-6 a week ago), and should they lose that they’ll face sudden death matches, first potentially against Brisbane before an away trip to Canberra or Cronulla, if they get that far. The Cowboys are the next best side to Melbourne, but if they lose in Week One, the road to the Grand Final looks like a bumpy one.
Offense VOA: 28.58% (2nd), Defense VOA: -31.88% (4th)
Why they can win: Because besides Melbourne, Brisbane are the next most well-balanced side in the competition. Their structured attack is every bit as good as Melbourne’s , with the added threat of scoring tries from the individual brilliance of players like Anthony Milford. Their defensive numbers are among the best in the competition, and this is despite a roughly two-month window during which their patchwork edge defense was torn to shreds (which only goes to show how unbelievably good their defense has been the rest of the season).
Why they can’t win: Because history says they can’t. The Broncos’ mid-season defensive woes ultimately cost them a Top 4 position, and no side has won the competition from outside the Top 4 since the NRL switched finals formats in 2012.
Beyond that, the Broncos face the same horror draw as North Queensland. Assuming they put away the Titans, the Broncos would earn a date with one of the two best teams in the competition, and still face a trip interstate for a preliminary final after that. It’s not impossible, particularly not for a team as classy as Brisbane, but it’ll certainly be difficult.
Contenders, but need it to break their way
Offense VOA: 41.91% (1st), Defense VOA: -5.51% (6th)
Why they can win: Because they’re the most exciting offense in the league. The Raiders aren’t just the best offensive side in the competition, they’re miles better than any other team running around today. Ricky Stuart’s refreshing 90s style of attack, with edge runners hitting different angles and letting ball-players like Josh Hodgson and Aidan Sezer play what’s in front of them, has given opposition defenses fits all season long. And that’s before we mention the wrecking ball right edge of BJ Leilua and Jordan Rapana. Let’s just say that it’s not a fluke that the Raiders have scored over 100 more points than any other team in the league.
Also, who wouldn’t love to see the Raiders win? Though the mainstream media tried to paint Cronulla as the feel-good story of the year (an idea that was universally rejected on account of the Sharks’ grubby playing roster and punishingly boring style of football), the Raiders are the real underdogs-come-good, and are an absolute joy to watch. Sentimental favourites.
Why they can’t win: Because defense wins championships, and they’re not too crash hot at that. We don’t want to sound too critical of them, because their defense is slightly above average relative to the rest of the league, but in the pressure cooker of finals football, defenses tend to stand up, and we’re not sure if the Raiders have the defensive quality to hang with the better sides.
Also, their free-spirited style of attack lends itself to a lot of errors, and every so often their passes don’t stick and they turn in a real offensive stinker (like against St George in Round 10, or Brisbane in Round 14). The issue then being that if their offense misfires, their defense isn’t good enough to dig them out of it. This isn’t a criticism of their attacking style, since their open style of play is exactly what makes them so dangerous in the first place. We’re saying that you have to take the good with the bad, and just hope that the bad doesn’t surface at the worst possible time.
Offense VOA: 9.79% (6th), Defense VOA: -35.94% (3rd)
Why they can win: Because their defense is that good. The Sharks strung together an incredible 15 wins in a row earlier in the season, largely on the back of their superb defense. Throughout their winning streak, they conceded over 20 points just three times, keeping themselves within striking distance to give themselves a chance every week despite an inconsistent offense (this was typified by their Week 14 win over North Queensland, where they won despite failing to register a single line break). A team with an elite defense is always a chance, and if they can defeat Canberra in Week One, they’ll find themselves just one game away from the Grand Final, and at that point, anything can happen.
Why they can’t win: Because if history is against Brisbane, it’s really against Cronulla. This is a team who’ve been well placed to win the competition plenty of times throughout their history, only to flame out in spectacular fashion. This is a club whose history is built on choking (it’s surely not co-incidence that Greg Norman is nicknamed “the Shark”).
Beyond their historical losing, their recent losing is even more concerning. For a team whose identity is built on defense, they’ve been leaking an awful lot of points during the last 6 weeks of the competition, the low-watermark being their effort in conceding 32 points to local rivals and offensive cabbages, St George-Illawarra in Round 23.
Offense VOA: 18% (4th), Defense VOA: -1.24% (7th)
Why they can win: Because they’re arguably the form team in the competition. The Panthers enter the finals having won their last 5 games on the trot, with an average scoreline of 34-11. The Panthers snuck under everyone’s radar, largely due to the brutally difficult schedule they faced during the first half of the competition. However, since they ran into the weaker sides in the competition, they’ve been punishing them in a manner similar to the Raiders.
Secondly, the Panthers have one of the more favourable draws they could have hoped for. They face the out-of-sorts Bulldogs in Week One, before meeting the loser of Canberra/Cronulla in a possible Week Two clash (having already beaten the Raiders earlier in the year, and going within 2 points of Cronulla in Round 8). The Panthers potentially would only be forced to travel interstate in the event of a preliminary final berth, and in the unlikely event that they should win that, they’d likely head into the Grand Final as deserved favourites.
Why they can’t win: In one word: defense. In three words: defense, defense, defense. To their credit, the Panthers’ defense has improved substantially over the back half of the season, however it still looks awfully brittle in patches. The Panthers are prone to defensive lapses, and in the sudden death cauldron of finals football, their young side may not be able to recover if they find themselves behind on the scoreboard.
So you’re saying there’s a chance?
Offense VOA: -46.2% (8th), Defense VOA: -17.65% (5th)
Why they can win: Because Des Hasler. The Dogs coach has been there and done that plenty of times before, having guided the Bulldogs to two Grand Finals, as well as winning a further two at Manly. This experience is sure to be invaluable for the Bulldogs, as they sit on the same side of the draw as infrequent finals visitors Penrith and Canberra, as well as frequent finals losers, Cronulla. You can be sure that Hasler will have the Bulldogs as well prepared as they can be, and if they can improve their offense their defense might be good enough to get them home.
Why they can’t win: Because their offense is absolutely hopeless. The Dogs finished the season ranked dead last in Offensive VOA, behind even the hapless Dragons and Knights. Their attack is unimaginative and lacks options outside of Moses Mbye. Their tries have come almost exclusively from weight of field position and desperately hoping for individual brilliance from the Morris brothers, and it will take much more than to crack some of the league’s elite defenses.
Gold Coast Titans
Offense VOA: -28.36% (7th), Defense VOA: 24.49% (8th)
Why they can win: Because they have a better chance than the eight teams who finished below them. The Titans may not be the best team in the league on paper (or on grass, for that matter), but they just find a way to compete, and it’s an enormous credit to their coach, Neil Henry that they’re still alive in September. They’ve notched up wins over Top 8 sides Canberra and Penrith along the way, so it is possible that on their day they can beat this class of opposition.
Also, the Titans are surely the luckiest team in the league. They’re the only team in the league to have scored more tries than they’ve made line breaks, and the sequence of events that have landed them here in the finals are really quite uncanny. To begin with, the Eels were stripped of 12 competition points for salary cap rorting, without which the Titans would have finished 9th and been on vacation right now. Then, they further benefited by landing Eels’ hooker Nathan Peats in the fallout. Add to that the mid-season release of Konrad Hurrell and Jarryd Hayne appearing at a time when no other club had the money to afford him, and the Titans must have surely found the end of a rainbow.
Oh, and that Jarryd Hayne fellow can play a bit, too.
Why they can’t win: Because they are so comprehensively outclassed by every other team remaining in the competition that the possibility of them stringing together 4 wins in a row (something they haven’t achieved all season against weaker opponents) is just about unfathomable. We’d almost say that it’s more likely that the Titans get lost on the way to the game on Friday than them winning the Grand Final (but we won’t say that, because it’s nasty). This is a team who statistically have exceeded any expectations we could have had for them this year, and any more wins from here on out are a bonus.