This is no two-horse race Phil Gould | February 22, 2009 http://www.leaguehq.com.au/articles/2009/02/21/1234633129933.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1 People assuming Manly and Melbourne will again fight out this year's premiership had better tread carefully. If history is any judge, these two teams will not meet each other again in the grand final despite the pair having a stranglehold on betting markets around the country. Not since the halcyon days of the mighty St George Dragons and their 11-year reign as premiers back in the 1950s and '60s have the same two teams met in the grand final three years in a row. The Dragons and Western Suburbs faced each other in 1961, '62 and '63. It hasn't happened since. On only seven occasions in the past 40 years has one team played in three consecutive grand finals. South Sydney played in five deciders from 1967-71, Parramatta 1981-83, Canterbury 1984-86, Canberra 1989-91, Manly 1995-97, Roosters 2002-04 and the Storm 2006-08. Plenty of teams have qualified for two grand finals in a row - then vanished. History also shows teams can fall from their lofty positions seemingly without warning. Over the past 40 years, 10 premiership winners and 12 grand final losers have failed to qualify for the finals the following year. All these teams headed the betting markets leading into the following season but their campaigns suddenly turned sour and they missed the cut. The big questions: Have Manly and Melbourne run their race? Is their best football behind them, or still in front of them? If not Manly or Melbourne, then which teams are ready to stake a claim for the game's greatest prize? At first look, genuine challengers appear pretty thin on the ground. Manly are deserved favourites for the title. Our memories of their grand final performance last season are still fresh. They obliterated Melbourne with a stunning display of power and speed. The time was right for Manly. They were the team on the rise, and the stars aligned. All things being equal, you'd expect them to be there for the decider to defend their trophy. But beware. Qualifying for three grand finals in a row isn't easy. It's a long time to keep playing at your peak. Look at the Storm, for example. Their grand final victory in 2007 was just as dominant as the Sea Eagles' effort last year. Throughout the premiership rounds last year, everything looked on track for another success. However, they hit the wall about August and limped their way to another decider, but were running on empty by the time they got there. Manly could easily experience a similar fate this season. Remember, they'll have far more exposure to representative football this year compared with last year. While their loss to Melbourne in the 2007 grand final provided great motivation last season, the Sea Eagles need to prove they can handle being champions as well as they handled being challengers. Already we're seeing some cracks in the walls over at Brookvale. The reported boardroom fracas recently played out in the public arena is not a good sign so early in the new season. They need to nip this rubbish in the bud and get back on track before it affects the rest of the club. I'm confident Manly will be there again. However, I have huge doubts about the Melbourne Storm. For a start, the salary cap punishes success and the Storm are gradually being pummelled into submission. Their ranks have been diluted over the past two years and this year's version of the Storm will be a fair way short of the team they've boasted in the past. They've lost some big names and haven't replaced them. Kids will need to be blooded and they'll suffer the pressure of defending a reputation they themselves did not earn. That's never easy. Just ask the Australian cricket team. Secondly, they've been up a long time. There were real signs of wear and tear at the end of last year. Added to this, a number of their players were heavily involved in the World Cup right up until November 22; their preparation for this season might be short of what's required to steel them for redemption. To my eye, the Storm need to adjust their style of play. They've been the most watched and studied team of all NRL sides over the past three years. The opposition is onto them. More of the same will not cut it against the well-prepared hunters. They don't require massive change, but should change nevertheless. Even if they were motivated to do so, I'm not so sure this off-season was long enough for them to be productive. The bottom line: Melbourne are the lay of the day at their current price. As for possible contenders, the Sharks are the team on the rise. They'll be motivated by their embarrassing finals campaign last year. They scored fewer tries than any team in the NRL last season but still made the top four. They've addressed their deficiencies by recruiting four great attacking footballers to bolster their ranks: Anthony Tupou, Trent Barrett, Reni Maitua and Corey Hughes. Three of them are internationals. The Sharks have the defence and the steely attitude to see them through a tough 30-week campaign. They should improve on last season, and represent the biggest danger to Manly's title defence. I've backed them at the $11 in early markets. I'm happy with that price. The Brisbane Broncos interest me a little at the $13 on offer. Most experts have discarded this team because they lost their long-time coach in Wayne Bennett. Hmm Ã¢Â€Â¦ maybe Ã¢Â€Â¦ maybe not. Have a look at their back line. Peter Wallace, Darren Lockyer, Israel Folau, Justin Hodges, Karmichael Hunt. I can't imagine a club team with such a representative-class back line losing a game, let alone not being a genuine contender. Obviously, forward depth and the added burden of representative football will work against Brisbane - but if they can hit August in reasonable shape on the premiership ladder and at full strength on the field, the other sides will definitely know they're around. Of the rest, only the Warriors and Dragons have claims for title consideration - albeit minor claims. The Warriors were strong in the final stages of last season. There's not a team in the NRL that feels comfortable playing against this lot. Much will depend on the gamble to bring halfback Stacey Jones out of retirement. The Wayne Bennett factor will mean the Dragons bear watching as the season progresses. I wouldn't get too carried away with the trial form, though. Let's wait and see for a while before we commit our hard-earned on them. Conclusion Ã¢Â€Â¦ I think the winner will come from either Manly or the Sharks. I give some hope to the Broncos. The Warriors and Dragons need to be monitored. Melbourne are the lay of the day. For mine, the rest will do it tough.