While I have been cynical about the standard of football to this point of the 2006 season, I must admit this finals series has me intrigued more than most over the years.
The big guns will be back on the paddock - Andrew Johns, Willie Mason and Ben Kennedy. And with matches in four separate cities in Week One, evidence is rife that we now have a successful national competition in the making.
Before I assess each team�s chances of taking the prize on October 1, I must vent frustration at the current finals system we have. I know it comes up every year, but the AFL system gives better reward to the sides that finish higher up the ladder.
While team one and two benefit greatly from the current system, I feel that the only advantage gained by finishing third or fourth is a home final. If team three defeats team six by a huge margin in week one, the match would mean little if, as expected, team one beats team eight and team two dispatches team seven. Although we must point out that strangely, more often than not with this finals system, team seven has defeated team two.
The AFL�s system assures that team three or four will play at least two matches in the finals series, and that�s the way it should be. It also means that it�s cut-throat right from the start for teams five to eight. Again, that�s the way it should be. Those sides should be at a distinct disadvantage to the top four sides because they haven�t been as consistent throughout the season.
Another problem with the NRL system is that sides are too reliant on other results. With the AFL system you can control your own destiny as a side once you step out onto the paddock. It�s much easier for coaches to prepare a side this way, and avoids sleepless nights for supporters of the clubs.
But anyway, we�re still using the McIntyre system and it looks as though it could be here to stay. Here�s how your team might fare over the next month in the race for rugby league supremacy.
1 � Melbourne: Still title favourites but have certainly looked better at different stages throughout the season than they do now. They might still be good enough but Brisbane are looking threatening. A few question marks over their ability to win big games in Sydney.
2 � Canterbury: Should be pleased with their season given their lacklustre finish last year. But they�re in big trouble now with stars Reni Maitua, Tony Grimaldi, Roy Asotasi and Willie Tonga all absent through injury. Will be a tall order but while they still have Willie Mason, Mark O�Meley and Sonny Bill Williams they stand some sort of a chance. Crucial game against Canberra this weekend.
3 � Brisbane: Have had an up and down year but I think in Brisbane�s case, that means absolutely nothing now. They are the form team of the competition and have hit a purple patch at just the right time. Finals series are all about momentum - Brisbane have it in spades. The difference between they and Melbourne is that they�ve still got improvement left in them. They are as good a chance as Melbourne of taking the title at this stage. 4 � Newcastle: Andrew Johns holds the key for the Knights. If they are to stand any chance of winning the competition, he will need to be at his best. A good way to describe the Knights would be to say that they�ve got two great players and an average team beside them. The break may have benefited Johns and if he brings his best game to the finals, they can beat any team on their day.
5 � Manly: See above and just replace Andrew Johns� with Ben Kennedy�s. The Sea Eagles are another side which has hit a purple patch at the right time. But Matt Orford is unproven in big matches and this could work against the Sea Eagles at the business end. Their recent inexperience in finals campaigns won�t help either. Minimal injuries will help their cause but you just get the feeling that Brisbane or Melbourne would have too much for the Sea Eagles.
6 � St George Illawarra: No one would doubt that the Dragons have the most potential out of all the finals sides. The main issue being that they haven�t utilised that potential for some time now. There are lingering doubts over their ability to handle pressure in the big games. They will probably need to win four successive matches to win the title, starting on Saturday night against Brisbane. There�s no way they can rely on the Bulldogs beating Canberra, so they must beat Brisbane. Missing fifth place by just a few points on differential could come back to haunt them.
7 � Canberra: It�s unlikely that they�ll go close in terms of winning the title, but they can certainly ruffle a few feathers. Canterbury must be very wary of this Raiders outfit; an upset is certainly on the cards in that game. I doubt that they have the consistency to win the competition given their up and down season, but it�d be a foolish opponent to take them lightly.
8 � Parramatta: In all honesty this side is probably making up the numbers in the finals series but not before a terrific fight-back to qualify for this year�s playoffs. Melbourne are raging favourites, but with Nathan Cayless and Michael Vella back on the paddock and Melbourne�s flimsy finals record, this game is not a formality. But an Eels victory is unlikely.
That�s all for the rant this week. Enjoy Week One of the finals and I hope your team is successful.
Until next week, enjoy your footy!