OPINION

Laurie Daley runs his rule over the NRL's final four

Laurie Daley believes the Canberra Raiders have what it takes to beat the Melbourne Storm. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Laurie Daley believes the Canberra Raiders have what it takes to beat the Melbourne Storm. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

And then there were four. After one of the most difficult and challenging seasons in the history of our game, the race for the premiership is down to two games that will decide the grand finalists, with Melbourne Storm playing Canberra in Brisbane and minor premiers Penrith trying to halt the run of South Sydney at ANZ Stadium.

They say the cream always rises to the top, and it's impossible to argue the four teams left have been dominant when it has mattered at the pointy end of the season.

So, how will it play out and who wins? Who are the key players, the most influential, the most feared? Here is my take on both games.

STORM v RAIDERS

This one could be history making. If the rumblings are right - and only the select few know whether they are or not - it could be Storm skipper Cameron Smith's last game at Suncorp Stadium, and possibly the final game of his career.

If it is, he will be going out still at the peak of his powers. Without question, he will be one of the most influential players on the field in this one. If the Storm are to win and progress to another decider, you can bet your life Smith will play a significant role.

The Raiders' chances will be greatly enhanced if they can restrict the Melbourne maestro to just a good performance rather than a great one. But he is not the only key Storm player.

Cameron Munster is obviously influential as well, but there has to be some sort of doubt about just how fit he is and how restricted he'll be with that knee problem.

The player I believe the Raiders need to rein in and be on high alert for is their fullback, Ryan Papenhuyzen.

The Storm's forward pack is big and strong with the capability for off-loads and Papenhuyzen sniffing around makes him a real dangerous commodity.

For mine, the key player for the Raiders is their big prop Josh Papalii. How good was he against the Sydney Roosters last week? It's hard to remember a more dominant performance from a prop in a big game against high-quality opposition like the defending premiers.

A lot of the Raiders' good stuff comes off the back of the example he sets with his go-forward.

But he brings so much more than that. There's his footwork at the line, his off-loading ability and his big engine.

The quality of his work is second to none, and he's been playing like it for the last few seasons now.

Papalii, along with the strike of Joseph Tapine in the forwards, will be crucial for last year's grand finalists with the likes of Jack Wighton and George Williams playing off the back of it.

If the Raiders halves get on the front foot, they will be hard to contain.

I reckon of the teams left in the competition, the Storm fear the Raiders most. Although Melbourne got them earlier this season in a tight one, the Raiders won their previous three encounters.

Canberra will get in the Storm's face, try and upset their rhythm, frustrate them and try and grind their way to victory.

They are tough mentally and hardened by what happened last season. In a real tight one, I think they can win and progress.

MY TIP: Raiders

PANTHERS v RABBITOHS

They are two of the best attacking teams in the competition, but the winner of this one will be whoever defends the best over the 80 minutes.

On the strength of what they have shown this season in that department, it's hard to go past Penrith.

The inexperience of the Panthers in big games and their ability to handle the occasion is still creating some question marks.

Maybe they are not hardened enough after losing just once all season.

What will help them, though, will be the experience of their semi-final win over the Roosters and the fact they led 28-10 but had to fight tooth and nail to win after a great fightback from the defending premiers.

If there was any complacency there, then that should have knocked it out of the Panthers.

Losing backrow spearhead Viliame Kikau to suspension won't help their cause, but in Nathan Cleary, his halves partner Jarome Luai and Api Koroisau, they have enough strike weapons to get the job done.

The key to the Panthers is the relentless pressure they apply in the middle of the park.

They just keep coming at you with young forwards with big motors who are full of running.

The three playmakers I just mentioned off the back of that are going to really test the Rabbitohs' defence.

I've got no doubt that the new rules have helped Souths.

The likes of their dynamic hooker Damien Cook and brilliant, in-form halves Cody Walker and Adam Reynolds have thrived behind a mobile forward pack.

If the Panthers find themselves on the back foot at any stage with Cook coming out of dummy half, good luck with that.

And if Cook is not the one making inroads, it will be the scheming and sleight of hand of their halves working on both sides of the ruck that undoes the Panthers' defence.

My issue with Souths is the lapses they have and their ability to stand up and repel the relentless attack that Penrith is going to keep throwing at them over the course of this game.

It's going to be a great game that may even be decided by who wins the tactical kicking duel between Cleary and Reynolds.

MY TIP: Panthers