Matty Johns looks at the run to the NRL finals.
Matty Johns looks at the run to the NRL finals.

Matty Johns’ run to the NRL finals

Eight weeks until the finals. As the season heads toward the high rollers, let's run the rule over the competition.

 

This bloke doesn’t seem to be getting any worse. Image: AAP Image/Daniel Pockett
This bloke doesn’t seem to be getting any worse. Image: AAP Image/Daniel Pockett

 

MELBOURNE STORM

Once again, they will take out the minor premiership. It's amazing, for all that Cameron Smith and Craig Bellamy have achieved, the fire in the belly just won't subside.

But Melbourne still have some tinkering to do. They still have to get more out of their right side in attack, so don't be surprised if Bellamy starts to experiment with a few combinations in the run to the finals.

Ryan Papenhuyzen and Brandon Smith give the Storm the ability to play around with the look of the spine, and I think Bellamy will look to experiment. Maybe Cameron Smith playing some minutes in the halves, Brandon Smith in dummy-half and young gun Harry Grant getting an opportunity off the bench?

The Storm have put themselves in a position where they can try some things and expect them to do so.

KEY MEN

Cameron Muster and Cameron Smith. No Origin football has been a godsend for Melbourne as far as Smith is concerned. 400 NRL games and still the most influential player in the NRL.

TAB ODDS: $3.50

MATTY ODDS: $3.25

 

Expect Souths to rise if Walker can recover his early form. Image: AAP Image/Darren England
Expect Souths to rise if Walker can recover his early form. Image: AAP Image/Darren England

 

SOUTH SYDNEY

The Origin period was difficult for Souths. Key men injured and key men losing confidence made June and July difficult, but you can see them coming out of it.

Wayne Bennett knows how to get his teams primed for September and with his leader, Sam Burgess, returning in coming weeks, I expect the Bunnies to get back to their April/May form.

They have a good run home which should see them avoid having to face Melbourne in Melbourne week one of the finals.

KEY MAN

Cody Walker was the competition's best player early in the season, with State of Origin disappointment taking some of the wind out of his sails in recent weeks.

With the finals drawing closer, watch for Walker's best football to return. The immediacy of his combination with Damien Cook will be lethal in high-tempo finals football.

TAB ODDS: $6

MATTY ODDS: $5.50

 

Tedesco is finally reaching his full potential. Image: AAP Image/Steve Christo
Tedesco is finally reaching his full potential. Image: AAP Image/Steve Christo

 

SYDNEY ROOSTERS

Ignore the Roosters' dip in form, and watch their football get better from here on in.

If you want to back the Roosters, now is the time to get on, they'll progressively get shorter as September draws closer.

The spine - Cooper Cronk, Luke Keary, Jake Friend and James Tedesco - is now back in place and I expect some big wins in the next month.

KEY MAN

James Tedesco. Learning to combine with playmakers has taken his game to a whole new level and those combinations will only get better. Will be a huge figure in the finals.

TAB ODDS: $3

MATTY ODDS: $2.75

 

Can Hodgson spark Canberra to glory? Image: Alix Sweeney
Can Hodgson spark Canberra to glory? Image: Alix Sweeney

 

CANBERRA RAIDERS

The Raiders' performance against the Dragons last Sunday was superb. They attack with a point of difference, driven by the old-school instincts of their English players.

I was in Canberra last week and there is a buzz around the Raiders that hasn't been there for a long, long time. The improvement in their attack is noticeable and they now deserve to be looked as a serious title contender.

KEY MAN

Josh Hodgson. There are some signs he is about to hit top form. As important to Canberra as Cam Smith is to Melbourne.

TAB ODDS: $13

MATTY ODDS: $9

 

Manly are capable of anything with Tom Trbojevic. Image: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Manly are capable of anything with Tom Trbojevic. Image: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

 

MANLY SEA EAGLES

Des Hasler is enjoying one of his finest seasons of coaching. The improvement of this team collectively, and individually is phenomenal.

Twelve months ago Moses Suli looked a lost cause, now he's flying.

Manly have some difficult games on the run home but on form, they'll win enough to play finals. If Des can get this team a top-four finish, it will be his greatest coaching achievement.

KEY MEN

The Turbo Brothers. Jake provides the inspiration, Tom the attacking genius.

TAB ODDS: $19

MATTY ODDS: $20

 

Pearce would love to lead the Knights into the finals. Image: Tony Feder/Getty Images
Pearce would love to lead the Knights into the finals. Image: Tony Feder/Getty Images

 

NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS

After one of the best few months in decades, the Knights are experiencing a flat spot. They have a good run home, but need to get back to winning ways.

Huge game against the Roosters on Friday night. The return of Kalyn Ponga should spark the Knights.

KEY MAN

Mitchell Pearce. When he's up and energised so are the Knights. Last week he was flat after the State of Origin, and so were his team. The leader and the pulse of the team.

TAB ODDS: $23

MATTY ODDS: $20

 

Stop Fergo, stop the Eels — if you can. Image: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Stop Fergo, stop the Eels — if you can. Image: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

 

PARRAMATTA EELS

When they get their focus right they are a terrific football team. The trick is to find the balance between the graft and the glitz.

At times they go into games determined to move the ball from sideline to sideline and it brings them undone.

When they base their game on direct power running, headed by Blake Ferguson and Maika Sivo, they are a handful for any team.

KEY MAN

Blake Ferguson. His ability to lead the yardage and score a try out of nothing has been the key element in the Eels' big improvement.

TAB ODDS: $21

MATTY ODDS: $23

 

Cronulla hopes hang on Graham’s fitness. Image: Matt King/Getty Images
Cronulla hopes hang on Graham’s fitness. Image: Matt King/Getty Images

 

CRONULLA SHARKS

A team capable of winning the whole thing, but has been weighed down by a horror season of injuries and the inability to find the right selection formula.

A few weeks ago, this team was being viewed as a genuine dark horse, now I'm not so sure. Huge month coming up.

KEY MAN

Wade Graham. His hamstring injury is a huge blow, the Sharks need him to fire on return.

TAB ODDS: $21

MATTY ODDS: $27

 

Cleary fitness and form is essential. Image: Brett Costello
Cleary fitness and form is essential. Image: Brett Costello

 

PENRITH PANTHERS

After a horrendous early season, the Panthers have found their game. The problem is their slow start has them needing a big finish to play finals. Even if they get there, they may have spent their pennies in doing so.

KEY MAN

Nathan Cleary. He's had a difficult season but watch for Nathan to have a big finish to the year, before his ankle injury there were signs that he was heading into good form.

TAB ODDS: $21

MATTY ODDS: $30

 

It’s too early — and too late — for Jake Clifford to save the Cowboys. Image: Tony Feder/Getty Images)
It’s too early — and too late — for Jake Clifford to save the Cowboys. Image: Tony Feder/Getty Images)

 

NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS

Terrific win last week over the Roosters. Jake Clifford's man-of-the-match performance is a great sign. Paul Green needs Clifford to become the dominant playmaker.

I don't see the Cowboys figuring in the finals, even with their good run home.

KEY MAN

Jake Clifford. A big finish to the season would be a great building block for 2020.

TAB ODDS: $101

MATTY ODDS: $80

 

There is plenty for Brooks and the Tigers to do for next season. Image: Phil Hillyard
There is plenty for Brooks and the Tigers to do for next season. Image: Phil Hillyard

 

WESTS TIGERS

Michael Maguire has done a good job with this team, they are disciplined and hardworking.

The challenge for Maguire is trying to reinvigorate a roster which is presenting huge problems salary cap-wise.

For 2020 the Tigers need one or two class attacking players but can they clear some cap space to get them?

KEY MAN

Luke Brooks. Still struggling for week-to-week consistency.

TAB ODDS: $151

MATTY ODDS: $100

NZ WARRIORS

After a strong season in 2018 the Warriors have fallen backwards. I'd hate to see where they'd be without Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.

KEY MAN

RTS. He ran for an incredible 321 metres last week.

TAB ODDS: $67

MATTY ODDS: $300

 

Tom Dearden is one for the Brisbane’s future. Image: AAP Image/Dave Hunt
Tom Dearden is one for the Brisbane’s future. Image: AAP Image/Dave Hunt

 

BRISBANE BRONCOS

The Broncos need a top-shelf playmaker more than any team in memory. Their pack can dominate all they want but it's like having a car with a V12 engine, but no steering wheel. Big things are expected of young Tom Dearden in 2020, but for a year or two an older, experienced half alongside him is needed.

KEY MAN

Tom Dearden. Coach Seibold will be hoping he finishes 2019 strong.

TAB ODDS: $67

MATTY ODDS: Name your own price.

ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS

Coach Paul McGregor said his team can still win the competition after their loss to the Raiders last Sunday, I don't share Mary's optimism.

KEY MAN

James Graham. They miss his leadership.

TAB ODDS: $151

MATTY ODDS: London to a brick.

 

Canterbury do have some hope — in Jack Cogger. Image: AAP Image/Darren Pateman
Canterbury do have some hope — in Jack Cogger. Image: AAP Image/Darren Pateman

 

CANTERBURY BULLDOGS

This young squad have really improved, Dean Pay would be proud of the way his team fights every week. Hopefully they can continue to get better.

KEY MAN

Jack Cogger. A young playmaker whose improvement mirrors the team.

TAB ODDS: $501

MATTY ODDS: Don't bother, wait till next year.

GOLD COAST TITANS

They should be doing better.

KEY MAN

Ash Taylor. Needs to come back, work hard and rebuild his career.

TAB ODDS: $751

MATTY ODDS: Your money is no good here.