If you can extract yourself from reading Mark Latham’s
“diaries” over the weekend, then both NRL semi finals will provide you with at
least as much entertainment – and that’s saying something. And the one not to be missed is the Tigers vs Broncos
match on Sunday afternoon. It’s a classic contest – the out of form finals
veterans against the enthusiastic new boys who have performed beyond
expectations this year.

If the Broncos lose (the more likely outcome in my view)
then season 2005 will be widely seen to be yet another disappointing one for the
Broncos – and probably rightly so. And the rumblings about highly paid players
underperforming will become ear shattering. But if the Tigers lose then they will be rightly
applauded for having exceeded the best expectations for 2005 and congratulated
on their enthusiastic style of rugby league.

And what contrasting “form” the teams take into this
encounter. The Broncos have lost their last FIVE games, whereas the Tigers have
won three of their last five, including last weekend’s qualifying final, a 50-6
thrashing of the Cowboys.

If the Broncos lose, then there will be added
pressure on the one coach in the NRL seen to be “untouchable” – Wayne Bennett.
The pressure is on already judging by the comments on various websites, and on open
line radio programs. But it’s not Wayne Bennett who
has been underperforming on the field, is it? Far too many Broncos players have
had disappointing seasons, and, it must be said, captain Darren Lockyer, is on that list.

Broncos
supporters simply cannot blame the State of Origin for the Broncos troubles. The Dragons
had almost as many players in the Origin series this year as the Broncos and
look where they are today. The problem for the Broncos this weekend is that they
are up against a team that absolutely believes in itself regardless of the
apparent “odds.” Not many stars, certainly not as many as the Broncos, but heaps
of enthusiasm and not a bad blend of youth and experience.

I am tipping the Tigers. You just can’t overlook winning
form.

The earlier semi final could hardly be a greater
contrast – and the greatest contrast will be in crowd numbers. The Tigers vs Broncos match will almost certainly be
played before a capacity crowd on Sunday. But the North Queensland Cowboys vs
Melbourne Storm match will almost certainly be an embarrassment, crowd
wise.

Not only are they out of town teams, they are out of
state teams as well – so one might ask why isn’t the game being played in
Townsville or Melbourne? Well, for two teams that have common ownership through
News Limited, the Cowboys and the Storm are hardly complimentary about each
other. This week has been dominated by accusations and counter-accusations over the grapple tackle and other forms of
foul play. So don’t be surprised if it’s a spiteful
encounter.

The Cowboys cannot possibly play as badly as they did
against the Tigers last weekend, but they need to lift more than a few rungs up
Mark Latham’s “ladder of opportunity” if they are to match the Storm who have
been running into form in recent weeks. While the Storm will miss Billy Slater, who is out for
the season with injury, his replacement, Greg Inglis
might well be one of the stars of the future.

For my money it will be a narrow win for the
Storm.

I cannot conclude this preview without having a dig at
the small number of AFL supporters who regularly tell me that, even in Brisbane
and Sydney, rugby league is on the wane at the expense of their
game.

Well, last weekend, when the NRL and AFL went “head to
head” the Tigers vs Cowboys game easily out rated the Swans vs Cats match in
Sydney and in Brisbane, the league game attracted around 220,000 viewers
whereas the rules match attracted around 70,000 viewers – putting it behind the
league game, the cricket on SBS, Strictly Dancing on the ABC, and the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing on Seven. (In other words, rules ended up in last place.
Ouch!)

Rugby league
has its problems but the Sydney and Brisbane fan bases are as strong as
ever!

Peter Fray

A lot can happen in 3 months.

3 months is a long time in 2020. Join us to make sense of it all.

Get you first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12. Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

12 weeks for $12