After the first weekend of the NRL finals, after all the speculation, media coverage and planning, not much has changed – the Melbourne Storm remain the firm premiership favourites, but contentious refereeing decisions hang like a dark cloud over the game.
And the NRL absolutely trounced the AFL in the head-to-head ratings in Sydney and Brisbane on Saturday night. Unsurprisingly, across the nation, the AFL won simply because Nine neglects the southern state markets.
The showcase Swans v Collingwood match on Seven drew an average of 200,000 viewers in Sydney. The NRL finals between the Cowboys and the Bulldogs and the Seas Eagles v Rabbitohs match had an average of around 600,000 viewers.
The NRL will no doubt be pleased that the Swans are out of the finals – not that their presence has made much difference to NRL television ratings all year. And it will help that while the Storm look like being a shoe-in for one grand final spot, the Manly Sea Eagles and the Parramatta Eels (and maybe even the Sydney Bulldogs) are well placed to win the other.
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A repeat of last year’s “out of town” grand final (Brisbane Broncos v Melbourne Storm) is possible, but not probable.
The Storm eliminated last year’s premiers, the Broncos, yesterday, in a 40-0 whitewash, and will now meet the winner of next weekend’s Eels v Bulldogs game at Telstra Dome on Sunday week. An NRL preliminary final in Melbourne is unprecedented, and the Storm can enhance their credibility in the NRL by drawing a 30,000 plus crowd when there will be no AFL competition.
The team most likely to derail the Storm are the Manly Sea Eagles. They eliminated a gallant South Rabbitohs on Saturday night and continue to be serious premiership contenders.
Outside the top two teams it becomes a bit of a raffle. The Parramatta Eels caused the only upset of the weekend when they defeated the New Zealand Warriors in Auckland, something not too many teams have done. The Eels meet the Bulldogs next weekend but the Bulldogs will have their best player, Sonny Bill Williams, back after a one week suspension.
The Cowboys get another home final next Sunday when they meet the Warriors. Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen were as good as ever — and that is saying something — against the Bulldogs. If they give a repeat performance they will advance to the preliminary final.
But the weekend’s four games really only confirmed two things — the Storm are worthy premiership favourites, and the standard of refereeing (and video referees and touch judges) remains arguably the games number one problem. It is surely time the games administrators at least admitted it!