Stadiums will be at 50% capacity during the NRL Finals. (Photo: Matthew F, Flickr)

NRL finals: anyone’s game

Finals are here for rugby league. With crowds capped at 50%, and one of the top eight teams forced to play away from home, the NRL promises it’s “anyone’s game” as it hypes up one of the more interesting line-ups in recent history. Hatch’s James Thompson previews the first week of the 2020 NRL Finals Series and the Women’s Premiership.

All games are available to watch live and free on Channel 9. All times are in AEST.

Panthers v Roosters – Oct 2, 7:50pm (Panthers Stadium)

This is the blockbuster game of the week. The surprise minor premiers up against the two-time defending champions.

The Penrith Panthers have been an unconquerable force for 15 rounds straight under the leadership of coach Ivan Cleary and the stellar performance of his son Nathan at halfback. They head into the game with an intact, tight-knit squad who just keep turning up and finding spectacular ways to win.

History is against the Roosters, who are already chasing the first rugby league three-peat since Parramatta in the early 1980s. Now there’s the added pressure of aiming to win it in the same year they lost a game by more than 50 points, a feat yet to be achieved. Last week’s drubbing should have been a timely wake-up call though, and despite missing Sonny Bill Williams and Jake Friend this week, the Chooks are a sure chance of bouncing back.

The teams meet for the first time since Round 1, when Sydney lost to the Panthers in a slow start to the season. The stakes are much higher this time, and the reward of a weekend break will have both sides hungry for the win.

Thomo predicts: Despite last week’s results, this is the only game I reckon could go either way. I’ll have a stab with Penrith, by a field goal in Golden Point. By far the game of the week.

Raiders v Sharks – Oct 3, 5:40pm (GIO Stadium)

The Saturday afternoon triple-header culminates in the Canberra Raiders and Cronulla Sharks facing off for the second week in a row.

For a team that just missed the top eight on differentials, the Raiders are surprisingly well-positioned to go all the way. They comfortably beat Cronulla last week with most of their best players rested, so wait and see what they can do at full strength. The Raiders have just about all the field covered with an exemplary spine, plus the raw power that is Josh Papalii.

Cronulla have plenty of work to do to turn the tables on the Raiders. The Sharks have not beaten a top eight side all year and did not rest as many players as Canberra for last week’s game. The return of Chad Townsend from injury will be a much-needed boost, but more effort across the board is needed to topple Canberra.

Both sides boast strong forward packs, so expect plenty of big hits after another outstanding Viking Clap.

Thomo predicts: I cannot see the Sharks winning this in any way. With a fresh complete squad, Canberra will blow them out of the park by 20 points.

Storm v Eels – Oct 3, 7:50pm (Suncorp Stadium)

With all three Queensland clubs out of the eight in a shocker season, the Sunshine State gets to ride the Storm bandwagon as they play Parramatta Eels in a “home” qualifier at Suncorp Stadium.

Don’t let last week’s loss to the Dragons fool you – Melbourne made the right decision resting most of their stars for a clash that couldn’t change their second-place standing. Cameron Smith returns and will expertly control much of the game as usual, and while he remains tight-lipped about his future, the Storm’s outstanding lineup can be expected to get the win and make him proud.

The Eels have limped into the top four off the back of largely disappointing form in the back end of the regular season. They did well to come back last week and win over Wests, but they can’t make the same early mistakes this time. Parra need to keep their heads in it for the full 80 minutes against a team that doesn’t waste early leads.

This one will be won in the playmakers. Both sides have quality players in the 1,6, 7 and 9 jerseys, and there’ll be plenty of tricks up their sleeves.

Thomo predicts: Recent form isn’t everything, but some of the Eels’ performances leave me unsure as to how they’ll stand under extra pressure. Storm by 16.

Rabbitohs v Knights – Oct 4, 4:05pm (ANZ Stadium)

We finish Finals Week 1 with the one match-up that was already determined coming into Round 20. The surprise was the home team.

The Rabbitohs do seem a bit up and down, having gone down to the Bulldogs the week before. Whether they’ve expelled most doubts by flogging old foes the Roosters 60-8 is questionable, but the performances of leading try-scorer Alex Johnston and five-eighth Cody Walker could take them all the way if repeated.

That win saw them overtake Newcastle, who blew their chance to secure a home final when they lost to the resurgent Titans. Their first finals appearance risks being a one-game affair unless their backs can make the most of opportunities to accelerate. Kalyn Ponga and Edrick Lee are among those who need to show what they can do.

When last they faced, the Knights beat Souths by 2 at Bankwest Stadium.

Thomo predicts: This should be a fun one between the Pride of the League and the Novocastrians. Last week’s performances are a strong indicator. South Sydney have this one with a 10-point margin.

NRLW – Round 1 (GIO Stadium)

For the third year in a row, four women’s NRL teams are competing for Women’s Premiership in curtain-raisers to the men’s finals games. This year, they will take the form of triple-headers, with both games of Round 1 to be held at GIO Stadium on Saturday before the Raiders-Sharks elimination final.

First up, the Sydney Roosters and St. George Illawarra Dragons. The Dragons have held onto the core of the pack that fell short of last year’s title and won the Nines competition back in February, while the Roosters boast plenty of metre-makers and the notable signing of Rugby Sevens convert and Olympic medallist Charlotte Caslick. This match-up has in past years determined which of the two goes on to the Grand Final.

The Brisbane Broncos’ second straight title defence campaign kicks off against the New Zealand Warriors. The Broncos have let go of some players but lay claim to a stronger middle pack and arguably the competition’s best player in captain Ali Brigginshaw, while the Warriors are a new-look side with only a handful of past players committing to coming over from New Zealand, and hope to achieve something special after COVID threatened not only their season, but the entire competition. The Warriors are the only team to have beaten the Broncos in the Premiership’s history.

Thomo predicts: While all eyes are on men’s Finals, the NRLW season will still be worth watching. The first two wins of the round go to the usual suspects: the Dragons by 8 and the Broncos by 12.

Feature image by Matthew F/Flickr