September came early in the penultimate round of the premiership as the NRL’s front-runners blasted desperate teams off the park and other title hopefuls grinded out tough victories in high-quality clashes.
Brisbane slaughtered South Sydney 47-12 in one of the most blistering performances by any side this season. The Broncos scored eight tries, five of which started from inside their own half – including back-to-back length-of-the-field touchdowns in a stunning three-minute period. Halves Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford were untouchable, scoring five tries between them and chalking up multiple assists each.
The Rabbitohs’ premiership defence looks almost dead and buried. The absence of injured Greg Inglis was clearly a factor, but the rest of the near full-strength squad offered little. Compounding their second straight heavy defeat, John Sutton was assisted off with a leg injury and Issac Luke is almost certain to miss a couple of games for a blatant shoulder-charge.
Souths plummeted from fourth to seventh on the ladder after other results went against them.
Sydney Roosters held onto top spot ahead of the Broncos on for-and-against with a scintillating 46-10 win over Manly, barely missing a beat without injured stars Mitchell Pearce and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.
The performance of replacement half Jackson Hastings was extremely encouraging, while fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s breathtaking form continued.
Cronulla, Canterbury and Melbourne all leapfrogged Souths with Saturday victories – but all three were forced to work hard for the results. The Sharks led out-of-contention Parramatta 20-10 at halftime, but trailed 28-22 inside the final 10 minutes to put their charge into the top four in jeopardy. A brilliant Sosaia Feki try levelled the scores, however, and his boom wing partner Valentine Holmes slotted his third field goal of the season to put the Sharks back in front. Michael Ennis clinched the 35-28 win with a late try.
The Bulldogs were pushed all the way by a plucky Newcastle side at Hunter Stadium, holding off a stirring rally led by departing Knights skipper Kurt Gidley and relative first grade novices Jake Mamo and Nathan Ross. Hooker stand-in Damien Cook played a starring role for the second week in a row with a brilliant solo try, but the Dogs’ title hopes suffered a couple of body blows with Trent Hodkinson suffering a serious wrist injury and Frank Pritchard looking at a stint on the sidelines for an ugly high shot on Mamo.
If the 11th-placed Eels and the 14th-placed Knights had played with the same commitment and spirit throughout 2015, they would both be in line for finals football instead of battling to stave off the wooden spoon.
In a hard-fought, tense contest, Melbourne rolled North Queensland 14-6 at AAMI Park courtesy of a supreme defensive display. The Cowboys lost fluency and confidence without injured pair Michael Morgan and James Tamou, and the competition’s best attacking outfit heading into the round only breached the Storm’s try-line in the dying minutes.
The Cowboys are guaranteed to finish third, while the minor premiership will come down to the Broncos-Storm and Roosters-Rabbitohs blockbusters, which also have a major bearing on the make-up of the 4th-7th puzzle.
The Sharks are two points clear of the Storm, Bulldogs and Rabbitohs, but have the worst for-and-against of any side in the top eight and could slide a few places if they can’t beat Manly and their rivals jag an upset. The Bulldogs take on the Warriors next weekend in the final regular-season match of the year, in which they could be playing a spot in the all-important top four.
The door remains ajar for Manly after eighth-placed St George Illawarra were edged out 28-26 by the lowly Gold Coast – although the Sea Eagles need a 61-point for-and-against swing in upsetting the Sharks and seeing Wests Tigers roll the Dragons.
Wests Tigers, Newcastle, Gold Coast and the loser of Mondays Canberra-Penrith encounter will head into Round 26 in a four-way scrap to avoid the wooden spoon.
First published by AU Tribune