Richie Barnett on league

Opinion and analysis from former Kiwis captain Richie Barnett

Richie Barnett: Battle of the fullbacks will be decisive in grand final

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Ben Barba of the Bulldogs. Photo / Getty Images
Ben Barba of the Bulldogs. Photo / Getty Images

Whichever team deals best with the opposition's brilliant fullback will win Sunday's grand final.

I'm expecting the Storm to test out Ben Barba with a barrage of bombs early on. Teams haven't done that to the brilliant Bulldogs match-winner much this season, but we've seen in the past he can be susceptible to pressure under the high ball.

Getting to Barba early and eroding his confidence will help to limit his threat, so I'm sure that will be a big part of the Storm's game plan.

On the other side of the equation, if they are to nullify Billy Slater's threat from those brilliant Storm set pieces the Bulldogs must control the speed of the ruck and win the field position battle. If the Storm get a good roll on and play at the right end of the field then Slater is deadly.

Cameron Smith is the architect of everything for the Storm. He and Cooper Cronk are the best kickers in the NRL.

Shutting down that kicking game is incredibly hard. In grand finals territory is always crucial. To negate the Storm's kicking advantage the Dogs must command the ruck and win the wrestle. Their best chance of doing that is to stick to the way they have been playing all season.

The ability of the Dogs' forwards to pass at the line is huge when it comes to countering the Storm's wrestling ability. Sam Kasiano and Frank Pritchard are the keys. Whether or not they get the ball, when they run they draw defenders to them, making it hard for the Storm to get enough players into a tackle to command the wrestle. When the Dogs shift the ball at the line they tear off huge yards and create gaps for Barba, something we've seen him exploit in deadly fashion all season. It's a brilliant style that comes from a brilliant coach in Des Hasler.

To counter it, the Storm will rely on their incredible defensive line speed.

I wonder what will happen to the Dogs if the Storm get in their faces and really put the pressure on. Will inexperience start to tell? Will the Dogs deviate from their game plan?

I'm expecting the Storm to channel a lot of play right and target the Dogs' left edge defence, where Jonathan Wright looks a bit flaky. Wright's decision-making looks questionable, and Justin O'Neill and Will Chambers have the speed and skill to exploit it.

The penalty count will be another key factor. Grand finals tend to go set for set relentlessly so the side that gets the penalties to gain some free field position will have a huge advantage.

There's no doubt the best two sides are in the final. It's going to be an incredibly tight match - one that will be decided by the battle of the two best fullbacks in the game.

- NZ Herald

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