The NRL 2022 finals start this week in what is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing series in many years.
Each year, a group of finalists reaches September with the ambition to go further in the knockout series which is the NRL 2022 finals series. A number of fixtures will soon establish who will go further, and those who are yet to peak for the ‘winner takes all’ phase of the year.
Yes, a couple of teams are secure in their positions; earning automatic entry into the semi-finals, however, nothing is secure in the last weeks of the year. The only certainty is, what you have done. And which teams do you have a strong history against?
So follow our Last Word on Rugby NRL league preview of the end of yet another first-class season Down Under.
Regular season finish: 1st (Premiers)
Record v top 8: Won 9, lost 3
2021 Grand Final winners
The record books will show a second minor-Premiership for the Penrith Panthers, with just three losses yet, this has been far from a straightforward year for Ivan Cleary’s men.
At both the start and end of the regular season, they have had to deal with the injuries and suspension of arguably the best halfback in the game; Nathan Cleary (see the main picture), and his halves partner Jarome Luai.
But the reigning premiers barely missed a beat with Dolphins-bound Sean O’Sullivan impressing, alongside Kurt Falls and Jaemon Salmon.
Rookie Taylan May is another example of Penrith’s impressive age-grade sides, cementing a position in the starting side with 16 tries, beginning with a hat-trick against Newcastle! During the year he also formed a lethal left wing-centre partnership with fellow local rookie Izack Tago.
In a repeat of last year’s qualifying final, Penrith will host Parramatta with the winner being just 80 minutes away from the Grand Final.
Critically, they will welcome back Nathan Cleary from suspension [which occurred in their last meeting with the Eels] and will have a more traditional look to their side having rested 13 players for their final regular season match against the Cowboys.
Regular season finish: 2nd
Record v top 8: Won 4, lost 5
2021 Finals: N/A
Cronulla is one of the surprise packages of the season, led by rookie coach Craig Fitzgibbon who finished with 11 wins in their last 12 matches, to earn a coveted home qualifying final.
As well to a new coach, the men from the Shire had a new halfback leading them around the park in Nicho Hynes with the 25-year-old proving an exception that players who leave the Storm don’t reach the same levels.
— NRL (@NRL) July 31, 2022
In tandem with a rejuvenated and thankfully injury-free Matt Moylan, the Sharks also had two of the most underrated wingers in the competition, with Ronaldo Mulitalo and Sione Katoa (ruled out until next season with a shoulder injury) crossing the stripe 16 and 14 times respectively.
A comfortable 38-16 victory over the Newcastle Knights to close out the regular season secured second place for the Sharks and a home semi-final at PointsBet Stadium against the Cowboys.
North Queensland Cowboys
Regular season finish: 3rd
Record v top 8: Won 4, lost 5
2021 Finals: N/A
Like the Sharks, no one would have predicted North Queensland to finish in the top four, with many even tipping them for the Wooden Spoon. Yet through the impressive man management of coach Todd Payten, they are playing ‘finals football’ for the first time since 2015.
It is a testament to Payten that the Queensland State of Origin squad saw six Cowboys picked; with Reuben Cotter, Tom Dearden, Murray Taulagi, Jeremiah Nanai, and Tom Gilbert earning representative honours for the first time, alongside Maroons veteran Valentine Holmes.
Dearden is finally fulfilling his potential in Queensland, away from the pressure cooker of Brisbane in some of the most tumultuous years in the Broncos’ history.
Add in the experienced Chad Townsend to give a steady hand at the tiller, as one of the few current Premiership-winning halves and a strong claim for the signing of the season.
In the pack, the workhorse Rueben Cotter has been a revelation and, after a few rocky initial games full of errors, Nanai has become one of the most damaging back-rowers in the NRL. At only 19 years of age, scoring a remarkable 17 tries in 2022.
The major difference for the Cowboys has been their defence. A real problem in 2021, has now become a hallmark of their game, as they leaked more than 24 in a match just twice in the first 14 rounds.
Unsurprisingly, North Queensland eased to a win against an understrength Penrith side and have eight wins away from home, with their only meeting this season with Cronulla ending in a disappointing home defeat.
Regular season finish: 4th
Record v top 8: Won 5, lost 5
2021 Finals: Lost semi-final to Panthers
The hardest to read of all the finals sides, the Eels swing from the sublime to ridiculous seemingly on a week-to-week basis.
Yes, Brad Arthur’s men have beaten Penrith home and away and, knocked over the Storm but, have lost to the Tigers and the Bulldogs – so read from that what you can.
When Mitchell Moses and Dylan Brown are at their electrifying best, they are a match for anyone but have yet to find consistency, having only claimed three successive wins on one occasion this season.
Shaun Lane has been one of the most consistent front-rowers in the competition, forming a lethal partnership on the left edge with Dylan Brown.
With their realistic grand final hopes on the line, the Eels produced another excellent ‘big game performance’ to beat Melbourne 22-14 and claim the coveted fourth spot.
Their reward is a visit to minor premiers Penrith at BlueBet Stadium where they ended the Panthers’ 21-game winning streak at home.
However, their last trip to the finals came last year where they were edged out 8-6 in a classic.
What magic can the Eels pull out of their hat this week?
Regular season finish: 5th
Record v top 8: Won 5, lost 7
2021 Finals: Lost preliminary final to Panthers
Usually a relentless machine, the Melbourne Storm have suffered their fair share of adversity this season, with the nadir being four consecutive losses for the first time since 2015.
In a campaign that will be the last at AAMI Park for the likes of Kenny and Jesse Bromwich, and Brandon Smith – on top of the contract saga of Cameron Munster – this has been one of the most challenging seasons in Craig Bellamy’s career.
An inspired run from round 4 saw them score 270 points with the spine of Ryan Papenhuyzen, Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes, and Harry Grant running riot.
Halting that form; due to a variety of injuries, their four-pronged attack was not together for the next few rounds before the biggest blow of all, when Papenhuyzen suffered a season-ending fractionated kneecap in a loss to Canberra.
As expected though, ‘Bellyache’ found a solution with Munster excelling at fullback. But in truth, they have not looked the same side since their star fullback’s injury.
#NRL | MUNSTER MADNESS
The Melbourne Storm returned to the winners circle last night with a comprehensive 28-8 victory over arch rivals, Manly.
— The Sweep League (@TheSweepLeague) May 26, 2022
Defeat in their win or bust match against Parramatta meant the Storm finished outside the top four for the ‘first time in eight years’ so they will face an elimination final against Canberra where they will be looking to keep their hopes alive and avenge their round 18 loss.
Regular season finish: 6th
Record v top 8: Won 6, lost 6
2021 Finals: Lost semi-final to Sea Eagles
Only twice has a team from outside the top four won the Premiership (Brisbane 1993 and Canterbury 1995) but if anyone was to do it this year, it would be the Sydney Roosters.
Trent Robinson’s side is coming in hot with eight successive wins including against fellow finals sides North Queensland and Melbourne.
This comes off the back of a testing period of four straight defeats to finals contemporaries Canberra, Melbourne, Parramatta, and Penrith.
With such a talented squad boasting the likes of James Tedesco, Joseph Manu, Sam Walker, and Joseph Suaalli, Robinson had trouble fitting them all into one cohesive outfit.
However, with a switch in the halves with Walker now playing at halfback and Keary, thankfully back from concussion issues, at five-eighth, the Tricolours have a new lease of life.
With Daniel Tupou as consistent as ever and Suaalli somehow even better than the hype suggested (if that’s possible), the Roosters have also leaned on impressive seasons from Nat Butcher and Angus Crichton with Matt Lodge an inspired mid-season pick-up from the Warriors.
The Roosters crowned the first game at the redeveloped Allianz Stadium with a 26-16 win over fierce rivals the Rabbitohs to secure home advantage in the rematch next week.
It came at a cost though with Manu a doubt for the finals after suffering a calf injury and Sam Verills and Jared Wared-Hargreaves also to be assessed.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Regular season finish: 7th
Record v top 8: Won 5, lost 5
2021 finals: Grand Final runner-up
Having lost the talismanic Adam Reynolds in the off-season and rookie coach Jason Demetriou filling the sizable shoes of Wayne Bennett, it was always going to be a tough task for the Bunnies to back up from 2021.
This was evident in three losses from their opening four games and after an inconsistent opening first half of the season, their fortunes turned after a round 15 loss to the Dragons.
Lachlan Illias, the man tasked with replacing Reynolds for the Rabbitohs, was hooked after 30 minutes with many in the media claiming other more senior players should have been replaced, amid fears this could knock the 22-year-old’s confidence. However, it has since been the making of the young man.
Super impressive in their end-of-season run of seven wins in nine games, which also coincided with the return of Latrell Mitchell from a hamstring injury. Coming right at the busy end of the year is good news for this Sydney-based team.
— South Sydney Rabbitohs 🐰 (@SSFCRABBITOHS) September 3, 2022
To the delight of the majority of the 41,000-strong crowd at the Allianz Stadium, South Sydney couldn’t end the Roosters’ winning run so will have to travel again next week in their elimination final.
History will have to be overturned also if South Sydney are to extend their season, having never beaten the Roosters away in an NRL finals match [losing in 2014 and 2019].
Regular season finish: 8th
Record v top 8: Won 5, lost 6
2021 Finals: N/A
Coming off a difficult 2021 season with the acrimonious departure of George Williams and other off-field issues, winning just two of their opening seven matches to start the new campaign spelled disaster for Ricky’s Raiders.
However, with one of the best forward packs in the competition with the likes of Joe Tapine and Hudson Young in career-best form, Canberra has turned their season around in remarkable fashion.
Round 18 saw the return of the 2019 Green Machine with a gritty triumph in Melbourne before second-half comebacks against the Warriors and Knights put them on a path to the finals.
That was after the Brisbane Broncos’ loss to the Dragons confirmed their place, before the Raiders’ last game of the regular season where they ended it in commanding style, by thrashing Wests Tigers 56-10.
Canberra Raiders captain Elliott Whitehead happy to be flying under the radar in finals… while Corey Harawira-Naera hopes chaos stuns Melbourne Storm. The latest finals news round-up: https://t.co/rkyP7x7FNZ#NRL #WeAreRaiders #wearecbr #rugbyleague #NRLFinals pic.twitter.com/fI0Dclke9h
— The Greenhouse (@TheGHRaiders) September 7, 2022
The one team who would not be concerned with going to Melbourne for a first-week finals encounter are the Canberra Raiders, who were victorious there in Round 18, and have won on their last four visits to Victoria!
Know your NRL 2022 finals draw:
— NRL (@NRL) September 4, 2022
With so much on the line for teams placed three to eight, you know they must ‘pull some magic out of the bag’ in Week 1. That is where you can live or die in any playoff competition. So good luck to all involved, and look ahead to some of the best rugby league during the NRL 2022 finals.
“Main photo credit”
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