The 2018 NRL finals series looms as the hardest to predict in many a year but in the pressure cooker of September the big games are decided by players with a proven record of standing up in the moments that count.
In naming the player from each team I believe will be crucial to their respective premiership hopes I have taken that into account.
There are several standout, proven finals performers among them but also players who have shown this year they are ready to take the next step and lead their clubs to grand final success.
Roosters – It took Cooper Cronk a while to settle into the way the Roosters play but he is coming into his own now. He's been there and done that in finals football so many times that you know he will deliver when the pressure is on. It's almost like he blots out the occasion and concentrates on the process. He gets in that zone, and everything is just so precise. Cooper can control the way a game is played and is a calming influence on the entire side. Most importantly, he thrives in September football and nothing ahead of the Roosters will daunt him.
Melbourne – It is all comes back to Cameron Smith. Without him they are rudderless. The great advantage they have is the best player in the finals series is lining up for them. He calls the shots, leads them around and the little things he does that a lot of people don't notice are just amazing. He'll create a three on two, make a dart himself where it looks like he's got spiders on him or throw that inch-perfect pass to create a line break. Cameron is the master of controlling the tempo of the game and there is not much the opposition can do about it. The Storm have a future Immortal in their team and that is priceless.
South Sydney – hooker Damien Cook has had a great year. He was brought into State of Origin series and was dominant and I don't expect anything different in this finals. When the Burgess brothers get a roll-on, Cook gives them that spark out of dummy half that lights up the whole side. He has got so much speed around the middle but doesn't overplay his hand. Cook presses the button when it is needed. There is more to his game than just pace and he has the game smarts to feed his halves when he needs to. One thing sure about Cook is that the opposition will always be guessing.
Cronulla – With the Sharks you know what you are going to get out of their experienced pack, but Valentine Holmes can be the difference for Cronulla in the close games because of his ability to create something out of nothing and his finishing ability. You don't have to give him an opportunity and he will take it, but he makes opportunities just with his running, his support and his awareness. When a try needs to be scored, Val always seems to be there and he can create them for others. He's a smart footy player and he can play anywhere too.
Penrith – Just the presence of James Maloney makes his teammates feel 10-foot tall. He is dominant and he directs the team in that wily way. It is no coincidence most teams where Maloney plays are successful and that is due to his class and that sense of confidence and belief he projects. He's won grand finals with the Roosters and the Sharks and reached another one with the Warriors, he's a proven big-game performer. He can control a game from start to finish and when he is playing well, so are Penrith.
Brisbane – Anthony Milford is playing better than he did in 2015 and when his is on song the Broncos are at the top of their game. His kicking game has been brilliant lately. He's also running the ball and making good decisions. What I like about Anthony is he can control a game on his own and break it wide open. His forwards are also playing well but Anthony has built the confidence in his own game to make a difference even when they aren't on song.
St George Illawarra – When the Dragons are at their best they work together as an aggressive pack and the leader is Tyson Frizell. Every run and every tackle he makes is full of energy and intent and that is going to be crucial to getting the Dragons on the front foot. We know his defence is willing but he is even aggressive in his attack, where he breaks through just by running straight over blokes. It often happens out of the blue. It is all about strength with Frizell but he has it mentally as well. We've seen that in the Origin and Test arena.
Warriors – Shaun Johnson is a freakish talent and he has real flair, but what is often overlooked is he also knows how to direct the team now. We've seen a maturity in his game in that regard this year and I'm sure Blake Green has helped him. He keeps the opposition guessing each time he touches the ball and we've seen this season how he can win games when they are on the line. He can be the difference in a tight game just with his individual brilliance. It can be through a smart kick or attacking the line on his own. Give him the ball 30 metres out and he could so anything. Any team that comes up against Johnson knows they have to stop him, but doing it is another story.
Don't miss out on seeing your team chase premiership glory. Make sure to get your tickets to week 1 of the 2018 NRL Telstra Premiership Finals Series