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Auswide Bank Mal Meninga Cup semi-finals preview

Mal Meninga would always unleash his best for finals.

The big Souths Magpies or Canberra Raiders centre played in nine grand finals from 1979 to 1994 and when finals came around, Meninga was ready to roll.

The Auswide Bank Mal Meninga Cup 2023 finals series is here and now four teams get to show they’re ready to roll too. The big guns are coming out to play, just like Meninga himself used to.

Townsville, Redcliffe, Wynnum Manly and Ipswich have all progressed to the semi-finals.

Townsville are the kings of the under 18s competition with five wins since 2009. Redcliffe last won the competition in 2013 while Wynnum Manly lost the grand final to Tweed in 2019.

And Ipswich are playing finals for the first time.

This season, Wynnum Manly lost just one game, ironically enough to their foe this week in the Redcliffe Dolphins, going down 38-36 in the final regular round.

Redcliffe also lost just one game all season and will look to bring their try-scoring finesse to this finals clash. Bernard Smith was a massive part of the Dolphins' win over the Seagulls with 19 tackles and 174 metres.

And their front row was in everything, as they have been all year.

Michael Waqa and Smith will be vital to everything the Dolphins do this week.

Dolphins coach Scott Tronc is ready for finals.

“It’s finals, it’s a short competition and it’s exciting,” Tronc said.

“These boys have so much going on at the moment and they’re working so hard.

“I don’t think it matters having to go to Ipswich, it’s finals and you go anywhere to play. We are still playing and everyone else is done.

“I think our forwards are a strength but everyone else still has to do their job. Wynnum’s consistent spine is a threat and they’re all good footballers.”

Wynnum's loss two weeks ago will have taught them plenty and allows them to reset and be ready for this week.

The Seagulls didn’t do a whole lot wrong except get in a try shootout with the Dolphins and come up short.

They had 55 per cent of the ball, had six line breaks and scored six tries.

Halfback Coby Black was outstanding for the Seagulls with two tries and six from six conversions - that’s finals form you want from your playmakers.

Wynnum’s strength is how settled their spine is at the moment, with Jeremy Trappett, Cameron Bukowski and Black holding the key to a grand final appearance.

Bukowski controls the tempo of the game and keeps the middle third really tight - he’s topped the Seagulls tackle count three times this season.

Wynnum coach Jesse Maclean learnt a lot from that last round.

“Losing last round showed us plenty ... the Dolphins are a big athletic team, good forwards and good outside backs that bring the ball back," he said.

“We are constantly learning and this week we get to play finals.

“There were lots of tries and to be honest you’re not going to stop a side like Redcliffe scoring. They’re so athletic but you have to limit it.”

Wynnum fullback and five-eighth Trappett will play a big role in whatever happens on Saturday.

“I just want to take my chances and not sit back," Trappett said.

"I will be playing six, so in the front line, and just want to make sure we don’t leave opportunities out there.

“I think our spine combines really well so Cameron, Coby and me will be looking to connect."

In the second semi-final on Saturday, northern leaders Townsville will take on Central frontrunners, Ipswich.

Townsville are fearsome and their form just can’t be ignored.

But what have the Blackhawks learnt from last season after coming runners up?

You can’t talk about the Blackhawks without talking about captain and front row juggernaut Jamal Shibasaki.

He has topped the tackle count twice for the Blackhawks, made 195 metres against the Cutters and led strongly as captain.

“I am really looking to make sure I can right some wrongs from last year,” Shibasaki said.

“I want to start well and not give Ipswich a start. That’s what I learnt last year from losing to Souths Logan ... you can’t be there at halftime ready to play football now.

“It’s too late.”

One match up fans will be watching with anticipation is that between experienced Townsville back Tekelu Mene and Ipswich try-scoring machine Alton Naiyep.

Blackhawks coach Zeb Kyle is looking to Shibasaki and Mene to lead the way.

“It would be nice to play the (southern) teams before finals but it’s just what it is,” Kyle said.

“We think our attack can score points and we are also wary of their attack.

“They have a very strong back three that bring the ball back for them and we will have to be onto that.

“I am looking forward to Mene v Naiyep, I think that’s a great match up. Mene and Shibasaki will be strong for us and provide plenty of football, they’re both backing up from the final last season.”

Alton Naiyep: A try-scoring machine

Ipswich meanwhile are the new boys to the finals and will be playing with the  enthusiasm and zest that they’ve shown all season.

Jets have lost just one game to the Western Clydesdales.

The Jets have allowed 124 points at 20 points a game and earned back 187 points.

The Jets haven’t played Townsville in the Auswide Bank Mal Meninga Cup since 2020, when they won 38-18.

Ipswich will also have the home ground advantage with Townsville having to travel down to North Ipswich Reserve to win their spot in the final.

The Jets however will be without suspended hooker Tyler Peckham-Harris for this game and that will leave a big hole. The new hooker has been one of Ipswich’s best in 2023.

Naiyep meanwhile has been a try-scoring revelation for the Jets and the Ipswich State High student will be looking to continue his streak.

Captain Jack Laing will be at lock for Ipswich and can’t wait for the big show.

“At home, our ground, our town and finals,” Laing said.

“It’s going to be great, I can’t wait.

“I want to do my job. We have our hooker out so we have to step up in the middle and hold firm.

“Townsville are undefeated for a reason, they’re a good side.”

Ipswich Jets coach Shane Harris is embracing the finals.

“It’s strange getting to finals and not having played a team but that just means we both have a bit of mystery about us,” Harris said.

“We have to be respectful of Townsville but not fearful.

“They’re a great team at defending and are very physical, but I think we have averaged 28 points a game so I wouldn’t be shocked if this is high scoring. Our back three have been great for us.

“Dominique Sandow, Alton Naiyep and Saifiti have done the hard work when we exit and then have been able to get on the back of good work in attacking areas because they’ve done that hard work earlier.”

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