By Natalie Shoebridge in Sydney.
September: the month when legends are born, loyalties are tested and quirky fan superstitions are at an all time high. Also the month the Guts sports promotion is bursting, so get in! As the winter chill begins to lift in Australia, tempers and passions are similarly spiking on the field as we charge towards the Grand Final. Certainly
The final round of the regular season saw Josh Dugan and Tyrone Roberts sin-binned in one of the biggest biffs since the strict ‘no punch’ rules were implemented last year, and losses to the New Zealand Warriors and the Parramatta Eels rendered these teams out of contention for this year’s finals series.
Along with tacky car-flags and bandwagon-jumping fans, September marks the return of NRL hysteria as the top eight teams battle it out for the title. And there’s no better way to celebrate the run to The Big One than to have a quick look at the top four contenders ahead of the first week of the finals.
We may have had the official farewell celebrations for departing stars Anthony Minichiello and Sonny Bill Williams – complete with cut-out face masks and impassioned video montages – but these two stars are still a long way from hanging up their boots for the year. After an arguably slow start to the season, last year’s premiers managed to retain the Minor Premiership, snatching it from the clutches of Manly in a fierce contest of for-and-against. The Roosters have peaked at the right time and seem to be a certainty to make a real impact on the contest for the 2014 title.
While coach Geoff Toovey may be known for his referee rants and coach’s box reactions, the tight ship he runs at Manly has set up a possible grand final rematch this season. After narrowly missing out on the Minor Premiership, only injury concerns could inhibit their appearance at the business end of September. There’s certainly no reason why Manly should book any Mad Monday celebrations just yet.
Russell Crowe’s Rabbitohs are often touted the Pride of the League, and look a real chance to break the hoodoo that has plagued the side since the late 80s. With the biggest fan base in the league and the experience of the last two years in the finals, Souths look to be a permanent fixture in September footy for many years to come if they can consolidate the form they have shown under captain John Sutton.
As one of the big surprises of the season, the Panthers have stepped out of the shadows and look to be the team to beat in the coming weeks. After buying up big for the last few years, the team curated by Phil Gould is a pleasure to watch, and the Western Sydney fans will be a big drawcard for this finals run.
The first game kicks off on Friday night, where the Sea Eagles take on the Rabbitohs, with the winner one game away from a Grand Final appearance.
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