Playoff Preview: Hull KR vs Wigan Warriors

September 26, 2009

R2_KR_Wigan

Previous Meetings: Both sides won the away game by eight points this season. Since the Robins’ return to the top flight, they’re almost equal. Interestingly, the away side seems to win more often…

Form: Hull KR have lost their last two games straight and not looked particularly energetic in doing so (although both were away games). Wigan won last week against Cas in a game they really should’ve won by more than six points, and apart from an aberration of a collapse at Huddersfield have had a really strong final third of the season. 

Personnel Concerns: Obviously, Chev Walker will be missing from last week’s side for KR. On the plus side, many of the key plays who missed last week’s game (Shaun Briscoe, Ben Galea, Scott Murrell, Jake Webster) should return. Wigan should be the same as last weekend.

Thoughts: KR have looked really flat in attack over the past few weeks, but you have to wonder how much of that was due to missing key players like Briscoe (who went off early in the defeat to Wakefield). Also, it’s hard to know what to make of last week’s loss when most of the damage was done in the final quarter of the game when the Robins were clearly tired and affected by Walker’s horrific injury. It’s possible that the squad will galvanize behind the returning players and a sense of ‘doing it for Chev’. 

They will probably need to, because Wigan aren’t going to be sympathetic. They’ve entered the playoffs in form and looked pretty good against Cas (even though they ended up making life harder for themselves than they needed to). The Wigan prop rotation has really come into its own in the last few weeks, and stopping Iafeta Paleaaesina doing too much damage from the bench will really help the Hull side. The Wigan halves have had far too much time to organize things over the last few months, and Hull will need to knock them off balance. 

In Conclusion… The key in this game is whether Hull KR can regain their attacking spark. If they play flat and lifeless for the third game in a row they will lose because Wigan are strong in the forwards and definitely have the backs to finish the job. Wigan do have all the makings of a side that could get an away win upset, but whether they can actually do this depends on which Hull KR side turn up. If it’s the one which has been outmaneuvered over the last few weeks, then Wigan will definitely fancy their chances. It’s up to KR to front up again.

Huddersfield Giants 6 – 16 Catalan Dragons

September 26, 2009

Urgh.

That’s the only word to describe that game, especially if you’re a Giants fan. The atmosphere was flatter than Paris Hilton and the game did litle to change that. Although the Dragons really didn’t help the game’s flow with an ill-disciplined opening, the majority of the game should fall with the Giants who resorted to the most tedious, one dimensional gameplan which quite frankly deserved to get beaten. A lot of the Giants’ attacking play this year has revolved around the inside ball, particularly freeing up Brett Hodgson. Last night, the inside ball kept leading players into running into a red and gold wall. The Dragons completely dominated the arm-wrestle element of the game, and the Giants didn’t look like scoring at all.

It was a game populated with stupid plays. The Giants refused to deviate from the inside ball, and it never seemed to occur to the Giants to try and find a weak spot out wide (although some credit for this must go to the Dragons, because their defensive pattern was spot-on). when they actually got close to the Dragons’ line, they often tried a powerplay instead of just kicking into the corner. Even the little bit of magic that Luke Robinson provided for their try wasn’t enough to get them going. The Dragons weren’t exactly exemplary either, what with their ill-discipline (Jean-Phillipe Baile’s grab on Brett Hodgson to deny Clint Greenshields his second try deserves particular ire) and their fiery temperaments, but at least they tried to display some flair. The League Gods obviously approved, because once the Dragons hit the lead for the second time it became clear that the Giants had no way back into the game. 

Anyway, it all led to Huddersfield’s season ending with a whimper. They started off as The Next Big Club, but now serious questions have to be asked. They only won two of their final six games and three of those defeats (the Cup final, both playoff games) were their biggest games of the season. The way their attack suddenly turned anemic in the playoffs will be a major concern as well (to only concede 31 points in two games and still lose both games is a difficult one to understand). As for the Dragons, that’s three big away wins in a row and now they’re 80 minutes from the Grand Final. Not bad for a side who seemed hopelessly underperforming a few months ago. It will be very interesting to see if Leeds do the logical thing and pick them with the Club Call, because it doesn’t necessarily seem like a good idea now, does it?

Playoff Preview: Huddersfield Giants vs Catalan Dragons

September 25, 2009

R2_Hudds_Cats

Previous Meetings: Huddersfield won both games convincingly this year, including a 30-8 season-opener that told us all to expect different things from both these sides this season. Their records against each other in Super League are split fairly evenly, although Huddersfield have big advantage at home (Les Cats have only won once at the Galpharm Stadium). 

Form: Huddersfield have lost three of their last five, although two of those were close-fought games at St Helens. The Dragons appeared to be stumbling to the finish line, but have won fairly convincingly in their last two games to indicate that they’re a force to be reckoned with again. 

Personnel Concerns: None for the Giants, now Scott Moore and Keith Mason have served their internal bans for misconduct. The Dragons hope to have Jamal Fakir back from injury.

Thoughts: The Giants seemed to lack any attacking threat against Saints last weekend, although it did sort of seem like one of those games, and after the opening twenty minutes they stood up and did their fair share of work defensively. They won’t want a repeat of that opening though, because the Dragons are not the sort of side who give up large leads.

The Dragons look to have regained some attacking mojo in the last few weeks, and they’ll need it because the Giants are a very strong defensive team. Both Dimitri Pelo and Vincent Duport looked lively in the Wakefield game and you suspect that the Dragons might need to take it to the Giants out wide. Both these sides have monster packs who could neutralize each other, but if one side gets on top in the forwards don’t doubt for a second that they’ll try to capitialize on the space out wide. 

What will really help the Giants this week will be having Scott Moore back. They were lacking direction in attack at St Helens and it is very important that he adds playmaking support from dummy-half to take some pressure off Luke Robinson and Liam Fulton. Thomas Bosc has been looking sharp of late and the Giants will need to shut him down. 

In Conclusion... If any team looks prepared to pull off an upset, it’s Les Cats. I still think Huddersfield will win, but I suspect it will be a very close game. If the Giants can keep the Dragons under wraps then that will go a long way to winning them the game. If they let them score frequently though, it will be interesting to see if a misfiring Giants attack can keep up.

Season Review: Wakefield Trinity Wildcats

September 25, 2009

wakefieldPoints For: 685

Points Against: 609

Home Record: W8 L5

Away Record (including Magic weekend): W8 L6

Longest Winning Streak: 5

Longest Losing Streak: 4

Top Points Scorer: Danny Brough (178)

Top Try Scorer: Ryan Atkins (13)

Top Tackler: Jason Demetriou (738)

A tough season for Wakefield ended on a sour note as the Wildcats rather tamely fell out of the playoffs. It’s a shame, because with the gruesome season that Wakefield have endured (a player dying in preseason, another academy player dying on the pitch) reaching the playoffs is a massive achievement and one of the shining examples of John Kear’s coaching ability. 

Wakefield tended to succeed on the back of outstanding play from Danny Brough, and it was no coincidence that when he didn’t play in the playoff game against Les Cats that the Wildcats looked flat and dull. It was odd because throughout the season scoring has not been Wakefield’s problem (fourth most points in the competition). Rather, the problem was a simple one of consistency, because on their day Wakefield were as good as anyone.

Read the rest of this entry »

Season Review: Castleford Tigers

September 24, 2009

castleford203

Points For: 645

Points Against: 702

Home Record: W4 L9

Away Record (including Magic weekend): W10 L4

Longest Winning Streak: 4

Longest Losing Streak: 5

Top Points Scorer: Kirk Dixon (170)

Top Try Scorer: Kirk Dixon (17)

Top Tackler: Joe Westerman (728)

A season that should be judged as successful ended with a bitter twinge, but overall Castleford had a year of real progress. The bottom side twelve months ago, the Tigers forced their way into the top half of the table this year and into the playoffs, where they narrowly lost their elimination game to Wigan. Although they weren’t the most consistent side, they did play with a real sense of exuberance when they were on form, and their crop of young players meshed well with some wily veterans to create a side that was entertaining to watch (if a little inconsistent). 

The young guns all kicked on this year, all except for possibly the brightest potential star. Joe Westerman didn’t quite reach the heights he achieved last year, although he did more than his fair share of tackling in the middle of the park. But Michael Shenton pushed on towards international honours, Kirk Dixon and Richard Owen also both reminded everyone that there’s more to the Cas production line than the main two (Owen should consider himself disappointed not to at least get a call up to the England train-on squad). The veterans also helped out as well, with Brent Sherwin proving himself an adept on-field general, and Dean Widders 

Read the rest of this entry »

NRL Playoffs: Week 2 Thoughts

September 24, 2009

The matches last weekend weren’t lacking in story lines, but they did end up lacking in drama as the two home sides drove their advantage home to book their place in this weekend’s Preliminary Finals. Whilst two sides move on and look like they’re exceeding expectations, the two losers must reflect on opportunities missed as they both bowed out this weekend rather tamely. 

Parramatta Eels vs Gold Coast Titans

For a team who managed to sneak their way into the playoffs, Parramatta are looking really, really good right now. Admittedly Gold Coast didn’t look that good at all, looking flat and deflated from the effort put into their aborted near-comeback the previous week, but the Eels exploited it perfectly. They took advantage of some lax defending and also put on some sweet moves to overcome the Titans 27-2, and the fact that they kept the Titans tryless (and scoreless for the final 65 minutes) should tell you something about the defensive effort they put in as well. Daniel Anderson has got his charges peaking at the right time and they have the best chance to win the Grand Final of any lower-placed side that I can remember. 

Fuifui Moimoi was excellent in the forwards for the Eels once again, and if the back three wasn’t quite as electric as the week before they were still good enough to teach a young Titans back three a lesson in attack and support play. The Titans just looked flat and unable to build any momentum. It was as if the loss to Brisbane the week before had destroyed their season. Parramatta are heading to a Preliminary Final against the Bulldogs in front of a huge crowd with real momentum, attacking threat in both the forwards and the backs, and a top player in Jarryd Hayne in the form of his life. At the very least, they’re not going to die wondering. 

Brisbane Broncos vs St George-Illawarra Dragons

Ultimately, Wayne Bennett was defeated by himself. The Brisbane Broncos machine that he created, where they kick into another gear come playoff time, was able to overcome a Dragons outfit which he hasn’t been able to mould that way yet. Darren Lockyer? Karmichael Hunt? Sam Thaiday? All men molded by Bennett into the top players they are today, and all players who helped bring their former boss down. Although Bennett was able to secure a minor premiership for the club, he wasn’t able to do anything about their finals mental block in his first year in charge. Bennett hasn’t been able to bring the culture of victory and success that he helped to instigate in his years at the Broncos down south with him to Sydney.

On a more fundamental level, the Dragons suffered in almost exactly the same way as the week before – their attacking play was mediocre for pretty much the entire evening. They were unable to break the Broncos for the most part, and offered very little threat. Jamie Soward and Ben Hornby moved the team around the field, but they were unable to open up holes for their players to run into. The Broncos by contrast must’ve done their homework because their inside passes by Lockyer and Peter Wallace were threatening all night, and Hunt showed he’ll be missed next year with his ability to exploit those chances. They also opened the game with perhaps the most efficiently brutal display of defence I have ever seen, as every hit Ashton Sims and Dave Taylor put on seemed designed to hospitalize the Dragons within the parameters of the game’s laws (Taylor, incidentally, had his second blinder in a row). The Broncos now have to go down south to Melbourne and try to overcome the Storm, but if they can defend like that again it’ll go a long way to getting them to another Grand Final. As for the Dragons, they have an offseason to endure, in which time they will hope that Bennett can conjure up some of that Brisbane bottle in Sydney.

Wigan Warriors 18 – 12 Castleford Tigers

September 21, 2009

A rather fiery game at the DW Stadium last night, as Wigan held off a spirited Castleford comeback to move on in the Super League playoffs and eliminate the Tigers in the process. A fair number of missed high shots and a lot of hard-hitting drives and tackles meant that this had all the makings of a brutal classic. Wigan undermined that somewhat by cruising out to an 18-0 lead thanks to tries from Harrison Hansen, George Carmont (both assisted by Pat Richards from high-bombs) and Amos Roberts (after nice work by Sam Tomkins). Craig Huby and Joe Westerman scored late on to add a frisson to the final proceedings, and in the end a speculative cross-field kick by Michael Shenton just bounced into touch before Kirk Dixon could get to it, and with it went the Tigers’ hopes of a comeback.

Wigan won this game because of two reasons. Firstly, thier forward pack completely dominated for the most part, especially when Iafeta Paleaaesina and Stuart Fielden came onto the field. Fielden offered stability whilst Feka did his usual cannonball impression, which was exactly what the Warriors needed at the time. Secondly, the Wigan kicking game was superior all night, especially towards Pat Richards who helped contribute to the opening two tries for Wigan. Rather like Wakefield the night before, by the time Castleford found their mojo, it was too late. I won’t lie, my first thought about Wigan’s first try was that George Carmont knocked it on, but Wigan had building building up the pressure and made it pay.

Castleford’s players took too long to get into the game, which was a shame because late on they were playing pretty smoothly. Mitchell Sargent and Craig Huby definitely offered their best go-forward, and the backs often looked good when they got decent service (which unfortunately for them happened far too little). Richard Owen may have just played himself into the England squad with his performance (he’s got to worth looking at in the train-on squad at least). Had Owen not been denied by the tackle of the playoffs from Carmont early on, it might have been a different game. It’s a shame that this young, talented side couldn’t maintain more consistency this season, which showed very much in this game, but it’s been a good learning experience for them, and they should ones to look out for next year. After all, they were a funny bounce of the ball from leveling this game late on. 

As for Wigan, it’ll be interesting to see how they fare away from the DW Stadium. I imagine Craven Park will be a hostile environment next Saturday, but then Hull KR have been fairly weak lately and Wigan could definitely shut the crowd up early. Their forwards have got themselves some push at the minute, their backs have been scoring machines all season, and they have an exciting combination in the halves. They’re a surprisingly youthful side but I don’t think they’ll be overwhelmed by the occasion. If Hull KR aren’t on form then Wigan are more than capable of capitalizing. Even if Hull KR are playing well, Wigan might be able to keep up with them. Either way, it should be fun.

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats 16 – 25 Catalan Dragons

September 20, 2009

At two points during the second half last night, I experienced two very different emotions. About ten minutes into the second half, I felt a twinge of disappointment at how this game looked like was about to turn into a blowout. Catalan Dragons led 22-2 and Wakefield had been awful. Fifteen minutes later, I had a sudden adrenaline rush, and thought that Wakefield might acutally be able to pull this one out of the bag, after tries to Luke George (twice) and Ryan Atkins had given Wakefield hope and crucial momentum heading into the final moments. 

Alas, it wasn’t to be, but at least Wakefield managed to gain some pride back. For the majority of the game however they looked flat, lifeless, and frankly overawed by the stakes. They also looked rudderless and clearly missed the stabilizing influence of Danny Brough. Luckily for them Luke George looks like he’s going to be a stud, as he scored two tries (including one fabulous solo effort around Clint Greenshields) and showed awareness to set up another for Ryan Atkins when it looked like he might get selfish. George’s performance added a spark hitherto lacking by the Wildcats and almost brought them back into the game. 

In the end though, Wakefield had just dug themselves into too big a hole and Catalans were able to capitalize. Where the wildcats looked listless, the Dragons looked fiery and passionate, and their forward domination led to a killer performance by the backs. That’s two impressive away performances in a row for Les Cats now, and I think teams will be wary of playing this newly-confident side in knock-out football from here on in.

St Helens 15 – 2 Huddersfield Giants

September 20, 2009

St Helens are increasingly becoming a bizarre and downright difficult team to follow. They stink up the joint for a few games (even in victory) but then look good in defeat to Leeds, only to follow that with a crapfest against the Catalan Dragons. Come their first playoff game against an in-form Huddersfield Giants, they suddenly start the game looking like a monster team and threaten to completely rip apart the Giants after twenty minutes, only to retreat into their shell and narrowly hold on for the remaining sixty minutes.

Well, actually ‘narrowly hold on’ isn’t really fair, because the Giants didn’t really look all that threatening. They kept making too many mistakes at crucial times and that cost them dearly. Nathan Brown must be getting a little worried, because the Giants haven’t exactly performed admirably in their last two high-pressure games (this and the Cup final). They seemed more than capable of holding their own during the attritional forward battles that dominated the majority of the game, but they lacked a cutting edge. Worse, in the opening quarter they were ripped apart by St Helens as Kyle Eastmond and Leon Pryce troubled them with runs at the line and nifty footwork.

As for Saints, it’s hard to know what to make. If they attack like they did in the opening quarter, they could quite easily win this competition, which of course leads to the question as to why they couldn’t maintain it for a whole game. However, the one thing that will worry opposition teams is that their defence looked pretty much impregnable. It’s often understated how important defence was to the St Helens sides that dominated in the recent past, but if they have confidence that the opposition can’t score, it in turn gives them more confidence to try more outlandish attacking and consequences be damned. Saints looked like they might be gaining some confidence back, which is a worrying thought for the teams left in the playoffs.

Playoff Preview: Wigan Warriors vs Castleford Tigers

September 20, 2009

R1_Wigan_Cas

Previous Meetings:  They’ve split a game each this season, Cas winning their meeting at the start of the season and Wigan winning a few weeks ago. Both games were close, decided by six points or fewer. These clubs have generally had close encounters over the past few seasons. It’s worth pinting out that Castleford’s best run in the Super League playoffs involved winning at the DW Stadium (then the JJB) in 1999.

Form: Wigan had been in good form until their visit to the Galpharm last week. They will no doubt hope that was an aberration. Conversely, Castleford had been in a mini-slide until they crushed Harlequins and surged past Celtic Crusaders. Even so, the scrappy nature of their win against the bottom side last week isn’t necessarily the lasrgest confidence boost going into this game. 

Thoughts: Of all the potential upsets this weekend, I can’t help but feel that Castleford have the best shot. They’ve got a full strength side, talented players, a smart coach, and they’ve already won at this ground this year. They also have some unfinished business to attend to over their narrow loss a few weeks ago. Castleford won’t be lacking for motivation. 

Nonetheless, Wigan have an interesting statistic going in their favour: Brian Noble has never lost his opening game of a playoff series as a coach. He also happens to be the most successful coach in the Super League playoff era and even if I think it’s unlikely this Wigan side will add to that tally, I do think that his experience will count for something (as will home advantage).

His experience may very well be needed as well to balance out the youthful exuberance that Sam Tomkins will bring to his first playoff series. If Castlefod can get to him and unsettle his nerves, then that might serve as the foundation for a winning gameplan. I’m not sure how many chances the Tigers are going to get, so they will need to execute with precision on the occasions they do get a chance. It’s also worth noting that several of their key players (Michael Shenton, Joe Westerman etc.) are also Super League playoff rookies, although they did win the Nation League One playoffs a few years ago.

In Conclusion… A very tight game to cal, but I think the home advantage may just help sway this Wigan’s favour. I very much doubt either side will manage to blow the other one out of the water, and it may turn out that a rugged forward battle allows some nice tries to be scored. As long as Wigan can show that last week was a mistake, and that the form they’ve been building before that is more reflective of their current state, then they should be okay. If it’s not, then I don’t think Cas will refuse the chance to put them away.