We're about to see a whole new ball game in these NRL finals.
In the past the teams with the best defence and structure have usually come out on top. The ability to out-grind the opposition has been the key to taking out the title. But I've got a feeling it is going to take a bit more than that to get the job done this year. The game has changed.
The Bulldogs break the mould. With the ability of their forwards to pop passes and use tip-on plays right at the line, they're playing a style we've not really seen before - and it's working a treat. Their halves wouldn't rank among the top combinations in the competition but that doesn't seem to matter. Most of the ball-playing comes from their extremely skilful props and back rowers. It's great to watch and a masterstroke from coach Des Hasler to get his team playing in a way that really maximises their strengths.
But as good as the Bulldogs are, I still can't go past Manly. The Sea Eagles are an incredibly tough outfit but they also play an exciting brand of footy. They're never scared to chance their arm and so often come up with a big play when it is most needed. They've got so much experience that they always back their ability and when they attempt the daring play from just about anywhere on the field, it usually comes off.
It's that ability I believe will prove the difference in the finals.
Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran are great halves. Throw in the strikepower of the Stewart brothers, the class of Jamie Lyon and the freak factor of the massive Tony 'T-Rex' Williams and Manly are a complete side. It wasn't the smoothest regular season campaign for them, but it is all coming together at the right time.
I'm not convinced about Melbourne but it would be foolish to write them off. After a really rough patch they seem to be getting their act back together. If Billy Slater is back to full fitness and the Big Three - Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk - are all firing, then the Storm will be dangerous.
The Rabbitohs and Cowboys are travelling under the radar a bit but when you look at some of the stars in those sides - game-breaking players like Greg Inglis and Johnathan Thurston - they will be dangerous. I can see both of those clubs getting up for a match or two and doing some real damage, but I struggle to see them going the whole way.
The Raiders are the real dark horse. Having won their last five matches heading into the finals they will be supremely confident they have the ability to make a run. Their ability to retain the ball is the key issue, always has been for the Raiders. If they can hold possession they have a monster pack, and some real strikepower out wide.
The Raiders are the team in the bottom half to look out for, no doubt. Neither the Sharks or Broncos look like they have much left to offer this season.By Richie Barnett