Elliott Richardson – The Race To The Top

26 weeks have passed and the competition has been halved. For the next month we will be entertained by the best 8 teams in the competition, all vying for the Provan-Summons trophy.

So, what might be in store for the most competitive competition in the world? On Friday we see the Rabbitohs take on the Storm. The Rabbits have used their big men up front to belt their opposition before unleashing Greg Inglis. Rabbits fans will be hoping for a big performance from the former Melbournian.

The Storm have been their consistent selves, flying under the radar. They’ve executed their plans to pin point accuracy and have been led by the best spine in the competition. Melbourne will be looking forward to welcoming back Gareth Widdop from a dislocated hip.

On Saturday we’ll see the double-header at Allianz Stadium. First up will be Cronulla facing off against the Cowboys. Cronulla have had nearly the season from hell but still find themselves in the finals.

They’ll look to shift the ball wide early and use their fringe forwards to target Johnathan Thurston. However, the men to watch for Cronulla will be Todd Carney and Jeff Robson. Robson has big game experience, having played a Grand Final and will be the chief organiser.

Carney too has big match experience. He can be a hot and cold player but at his best he can rip even the best teams apart. Paul Gallen will be his usual hard-working self.

Since Neil Henry was sacked the Cowboys have played an exciting brand of football. Johnathan Thurston has led the team as you’d expect and his forwards, namely Matt Scott, have punished teams up the middle. Matt Bowen has shown shades of his youth and will be a target for Thurston’s deft kicks behind the defensive line.

The second match of the double header could quite be the match of the week. The Roosters will face the Sea Eagles. Two talented sets of halves with equally talented back-lines will face off.

The Roosters will definitely be looking at shifting the ball to Sonny Bill Williams early. With any type of space SBW can rip apart the best defences. The Roosters have a fast, mobile pack and will be looking for a high paced match. Getting Jennings in space will be a key element in their attack.

Manly have shown they can play both a grinding style of football but have the flair to pile on points. The Sea Eagles will hope to welcome back Brett Stewart and Anthony Watmough. Stewart’s combination with his brother Glenn and centre Jamie Lyon will be a pet play of Manly.

Kieran Foran and Daley Cherry-Evans will look to control the match with their kicking game but will be ably matched by Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney.

Sunday will see the Bulldogs take on Newcastle. The Knights, despite their negative press at the beginning of the season, have managed to sneak into the eight. Supercoach Wayne Bennett will enter yet another finals series, his 22nd in 23 seasons.

Newcastle finished the season on a high, blasting wooden spooners, Parramatta, off the park. Danny Buderus will be looking to end his career on a high and the Knights are looking as if they’ve been played into form.

Although he’s 35 years old Buderus will be a key man for Newcastle. He runs the ruck for them and is one of the most experienced players in the team. Out wide Newcastle have plenty of speed in Dane Gagai and Akuila Uate. Look for their early shifts wide to attempt to give “Aku” room to move.

The Bulldogs, whilst not in the same form that saw them dominate the 2012 season are in the finals for their second year running under Des Hasler. The big blow for the Bulldogs is the injury to fullback Ben Barba.

Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson have struck up an effective partnership with Michael Ennis providing quality ball from dummy-half. Props Aiden Tolman and James Graham will try to get the Dogs on a roll early and give their halves time and space.

Bulldogs fans will be hoping that Tony Williams decides to turn up for this match. His presence on the left edge will be used to create space for Krisnan Inu and Sam Perrett. If the Dogs make it to the grand final Inu will be hoping it’s fourth time lucky.

My tips? I’m going for Souths over the Storm. I think the Bunnies can surprise Melbourne and ambush them in Sydney. I see the Cowboys defeating the Sharks. They have the momentum and have already said they want to emulate the Eels’ season of 2009, this time with a grand final win.

I’m struggling to pick a winner between Manly and Easts. But I think Manly’s big game experience will be the winner here. As for the Dogs and Knights; I believe Newcastle can get the win with Ben Barba’s absence impacting heavily on the Bulldogs.

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