Hookers determining competitions more than ever

After Week 1 of the NRL finals I'm tipping Melbourne to be the first club to go back-to-back in the salary cap era.

That has as much to do with the guy wearing the No.9 jersey as anyone – Cameron Smith.

He's a special player who exerts such control and is constantly enhancing the ideology that a hooker can be equally, if not more, important than a halfback in today's game.

We've seen some of the top teams in recent times really struggle when they lose their regular dummy-half.

The result in consequent games is usually a noticeable drop in rhythm, communication and composure.
In past decades that sense of panic usually only descended over a team if they lost their star halfback.

That always used to be the focus of newspaper headlines: 'Oh no, Johns is out'. Or Thurston or Johnson.

But as the play-the-ball has become more and more central to the rugby league universe, it's the man who handles the ball most often from the floor who shapes the game.

Who can see any of the remaining six teams winning the NRL if they lose their starting hooker?

The thing with the modern-day NRL is that it is so structured, that your No.9 has as many play variations to deal with in his head as the half.

He has to know how all his forwards like to run onto the ball, where their preferred target zone is, how far in front he needs to hang the pass, who is running decoys, how deep the half or alternative option is standing.

That's a lot to consider when you are usually stood head-down behind a mangle of bodies in the ruck and your eyes are facing forwards away from your remaining teammates.

When people say Cameron Smith has great vision, it's no exaggeration.

What he physically sees in a match is completely different to the overall view you get on TV, yet he rarely ever takes the wrong option or fails to capitalise on an opportunity.

In the Intrust Super Cup last week, we saw the Ipswich Jets fall from the clouds without their usual hooker Jayden Connors.

They had a fair replacement in NRL-experienced Kierran Moseley, and Easts were the stronger team on the day, but there's no denying Jayden's absence was an unsettling force.

Like Damien Cook for the Rabbitohs, he defines so much about the way the Jets play the game, surging off the back of his run-and-gun style, creating staggered defences and confusion in the opposition.

If he played, I still reckon the Tigers would have won, but Jayden would have made it a much closer affair than the 50-20 scoreline it blew out to be.

Particularly just before halftime, when it was only an 18-8 lead to Easts, is when I think Jayden would have come into his own.

Anyhow, that's for us Monday experts to debate over the off-season, while the teams that are left go head-to-head for premiership glory.

This season I have backed Burleigh all the way, but there is no bigger danger than this Saturday's preliminary final at Pizzey Park.

The Melbourne Storm have earnt a weekend off in the NRL, which means sister club Easts may have a few more players at their disposal than they anticipated.

Conversely, Burleigh didn't receive too many players back from the Gold Coast Titans for last weekend's unsuccessful grand final qualifier against Redcliffe.

They will get Dylan Phythian back from suspension, but otherwise it looks much like a case of them forging ahead with their core squad that has held them in good stead throughout the regular season.

Momentum is such a huge thing in rugby league.

Easts have hammered Northern Pride and Ipswich in successive weeks.

Burleigh has had a week off, then endured a brutal showdown with Redcliffe which they lost 13-6.

When you've only scored one try in your last two weeks and not quite clicked, that starts to mess with your head.

I'm finding it increasingly difficult to pick a winner from the Bears and Tigers in what should be a cracker of a game – with the winner progressing to face Redcliffe in the big show.