Masters and Prichard on finals

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First Grader
With eight teams left, Herald league experts Roy Masters and Greg Prichard examine eight questions critical to the finals.

1 Can the Eels win the premiership without Nathan Hindmarsh?

Roy Masters: No. He is the highest work rate 80-minute forward in the game. His contribution to the Eels compares to lock Bradley Clyde's input with the Raiders. He is their best cover defender, No.1 protector of small players, greatest off-loader, best line-breaker, smartest reader of play and most experienced man.

Greg Prichard: Yes. They would be much better off with him, of course, and hopefully Hindmarsh will make it back before the end of the season, but as great a player as he is Parramatta would be worse off if halfback Tim Smith suddenly got injured, because their attack is so reliant on him. Smith getting hurt would probably stop them.

2 Is there any point in the Sharks even turning up for tomorrow's game against the Dragons?

RM: Definitely. The Dragons have weaknesses in defence, with Colin Best's problems reading the play, Ben Hornby's inexperience in the front line and Trent Barrett's habit of being caught in no-man's-land. The Sharks have big ball-runners such as Phil Bailey, Paul Gallen and Paul Mellor who can exploit this, plus good support players.

GP: Not really. I can't see anything else but a big win to St George Illawarra. The Sharks have lost their past seven away games and five of their past seven games overall. They enter the finals coming off back-to-back losses and they are without props Jason Stevens and Hutch Maiava. I just can't see where they are going to get the confidence and ability to compete beyond perhaps the early stages. The Sharks haven't got much more than a waltz left in them. The Dragons are ready to rock and roll.

3 What is wrong with the Storm's out-of-form fullback Billy Slater?

RM: He is a confidence player and his self esteem is way down. Billy is a "bounce of the ball" fullback. If he intercepts the ball at top speed and it is travelling his way, it's try time. If it doesn't bounce his way, he's a goose. The former trackwork jockey doesn't like big physical collisions. He's a three-try man or a bust.

GP: There are a few interesting theories flying around. One is that the pressure of expectation on a guy who is still only 22 has begun to affect him. Another is that rival teams saw he had a problem with kicks along the ground and began attacking him that way. Whatever the case, his confidence is down and he badly needs some good things to happen to restore it.

4 The Broncos keep folding at the end of the season. Will this year be any different?

RM: Yes. They have rested eight players over three weeks, plus they had a rare break after the Origin series. They also had only six in the Queensland team, compared to the standard dozen. They also have a hooker-half combination for the first time since Kevin Walters-Allan Langer to take pressure off Darren Lockyer.

GP: I think they've got at least one, possibly two, wins in them, but I don't think they can make it past the third week of the finals. Parramatta and St George Illawarra are both better than them. I don't think you can simply dismiss the trend the Broncos have established for finishing off poorly in recent years. I can't be confident about them going deep into the finals again until they show they can.

5 Can opposing teams keep both Dragons centres, Mark Gasnier and Matt Cooper, quiet?

RM: Opposition teams can match them in size but it is near impossible to keep them quiet. The Sharks will have to work on silencing the Dragons pack first. Because the Sharks can abandon caution, they can race up and hit Gasnier and Cooper as they receive the ball. It's risky but effective. Cutting down their time and space is essential.

GP: Not for a whole game. Parramatta did a good job of reducing Gasnier's influence when they played the Dragons three weeks ago, but they had the relative luxury of being able to concentrate on him because Cooper didn't play that day. Gasnier and Cooper should get a few tries between them in the finals series, but here's a tip: Parramatta centres Ben Smith and Timana Tahu will give them a run for their money in the try-scoring stakes.

6 Are the Cowboys as good this year as they were last year?

RM: Potentially yes, but not at the moment. They started off the season better than 2004 but have not been consistent over the past eight weeks. The absence of Carl Webb will hurt them. He would have smashed some of the smaller Tigers. The good news for the Cowboys was the return to top form last week of fullback Matt Bowen.

GP: They are just as dangerous as they were at the start of last year's finals, but in a different way. Last year they were the new kids on the block and other finals teams probably didn't give them the respect hindsight says they deserved. Opposing teams will give them that respect now, but the Cowboys will also be more in tune with the occasion. They are a threat.

7 Does the presence of Ben Kennedy make the Sea Eagles dangerous against the Eels on Sunday?

RM: Yes. he is the best forward in the competition right now. He hurts more than Hindmarsh in big games. He is absolutely fearless in the big arena and will punish Parramatta's key players. He gets more injuries than Ray Price but never needs the stretcher.

GP: It should motivate the rest of the Manly team and it will certainly earn them respect from the opposition, but as great a player and as fierce a competitor as Kennedy is it will only put a Parramatta win at risk if the Eels are significantly off their game. Team eight has never beaten team one under the McIntyre system and that trend is set to continue here.

8 Can Tigers dynamo Benji Marshall produce the magic in his first finals series?

RM: It depends on his pack and patience. This is not a match in which scoring 48 points is important. It is more important to score the winning tries. Marshall is the most thrilling player to watch in any brand of football. If his pack holds the Cowboys and the backs don't panic, he can take his magic deep into September.

GP: We should see some of it, but I'm not expecting to see many examples of the genuinely outrageous Benji brilliance we saw in the regular season. Tigers coach Tim Sheens would be telling Marshall to be patient, try to pick the right time to cut loose and keep his powder dry if there is too great a risk of things coming undone. Benji will show up, but more conservatively.


7 Does the presence of Ben Kennedy make the Sea Eagles dangerous against the Eels on Sunday?

AW: Yes. Those eels scum are going down.
Team P W L PD Pts
10 9 1 124 20
11 8 3 75 18
10 7 3 70 16
10 7 3 69 16
11 7 4 59 14
11 6 5 -9 14
10 6 4 -10 14
12 6 5 36 13
11 6 5 107 12
11 5 6 47 12
12 6 6 2 12
11 5 6 -88 12
11 4 6 -7 9
10 3 7 -103 8
10 2 8 -91 6
11 2 9 -95 6
10 1 9 -186 4
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