Richie Barnett on league

Opinion and analysis from former Kiwis captain Richie Barnett

Richie Barnett: Cowboys' blazing as Manly struggle

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Jason King of the Sea Eagles tackles Bulldogs player Aiden Tolman. Photo / Getty Images
Jason King of the Sea Eagles tackles Bulldogs player Aiden Tolman. Photo / Getty Images

Finals matches - and finals campaigns - can turn around very quickly.

A week ago Manly were in great shape, but heading into tonight's match I make them underdogs against the Cowboys.

The Cowboys may have been towelled up by Manly in the finals last year but this time the match-up has a different look about it. Last year it was the Cowboys who were struggling with injuries to key players. This year Manly are under the pump.

With Steve Matai suspended and Jamie Lyon injured, Manly may struggle. Lyon may not have been ruled out but I can't see him playing - and if he does he won't produce a quality performance. Players don't go off with a calf injury like that and then come back fine the next week. The fact that Manly are leaving the decision to the "last minute" says it all.

That said, you can't write off the Sea Eagles. I can see them channelling a lot of play through T-Rex, while the Stewart brothers are still a major threat.

They'll need a big effort from halves Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran, but Manly still have enough class players to turn any match on its head.

Last year it was the Cowboys who went into the finals busted. Johnathan Thurston was playing on one leg, Matt Bowen was far from his best and Matt Scott was also playing with injury. This time around the Cowboys look healthy and full of life. Their key contributors are all turning in big performances, they appear to be brimming with confidence and they've got the added bonus of a fully firing Brent Tate in the ranks.

The Cowboys don't travel all that well and have a poor record in Sydney, but then again the Manly fans don't travel either so the "home" crowd may not be much of an advantage.

The Rabbitohs are the other club that really looks to be struggling. They just don't look like they have the self-belief to do much in this finals series. The weight of history - those 41 years without a title - could be weighing them down. They've talked about improving their discipline but I'm not convinced. They look like they're struggling to deal with the pressure.

The Raiders, by contrast, are thriving. They look like the best-conditioned team remaining. A run into the finals where they won six games in a row has really set them up well. They've had key players coming back from injury at just the right time and they have a real buzz about them.

For a coach who looked like a dead man walking a few weeks ago, David Furner has done a remarkable job. After that record defeat by the Tigers mid-season people were baying for his blood, so it has been an amazing transformation.

It has taken a bit of time but they've learned to play without Terry Campese. Sam Williams and Josh McCrone have formed a good halves partnership and they really play to the team's strength, which is their powerful edge runners.

Josh Papali'i's confrontation with Paul Gallen last week was awesome. To see a 21-year-old stand up like that and give it to one of the game's hardest players was incredible. You just don't see that sort of stuff. It's pretty clear Papali'i has what it takes to go all the way. You could say that about the Raiders, too. The best two teams are already through to the grand final qualifiers but it's no surprise the Raiders are being talked up as a serious dark horse.

- NZ Herald

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