Sunday 24 September 2017 / 06:04 AM

GOLDEN POINTS: NRL FINALS WEEK 1

Admirable stand on sore-loser coaches

Todd Greenberg may have enjoyed his finest hour as NRL CEO when he called for the game to “grow up” following the torrent of referee criticism that tainted one of the great weekends of finals rugby league.

Under immense pressure with a crazy number of tight calls to make, the whistle-blowers and even the maligned Bunker did a sensational job. Debate over the process is redundant at the minute – the video men followed current protocols and arguably got every call right.

The on-field refs called it as they saw it, and while there were many disputable moments, there were certainly no howlers as a couple of aggrieved coaches (and ‘Buzz’ Rothfield) would have us believe.

If Shane Flanagan spent as much time working out a game-plan to close out a seemingly unlosable match as he did compiling his list of refereeing ‘mistakes’, perhaps his Sharks side would still be alive in week two.

Flanagan’s press conference rant after the Sharks’ golden point loss to the Cowboys ranks as one of the most embarrassing tirades from a coach the code has witnessed, reeling off a series of 50-50 calls that went against the defending champs.

Conveniently, he left out the highly dubious try that put Cronulla on the board after just two minutes, while Flanagan’s hypocrisy-soaked outburst was put in an even more embarrassing light when his more circumspect presser after the Sharks’ wildly controversial win over the Cowboys in the corresponding game in 2013 was unearthed.

Flanagan took a little bit of the heat off Trent Barrett, who was only marginally less ridiculous following Manly’s defeat to Penrith. Given new video evidence has revealed the decisive and contentious Tyrone Peachey try was in fact legitimate, Barrett should do the right thing and publicly apologise.

The bare facts are that the Sharks and Sea Eagles players weren’t good enough to get the job done, let down by errors and misjudgements of their own – not the refs.

But the likelihood of Barrett or Flanagan eating humble pie is akin to Jono Wright winning a Clive Churchill Medal before he retires.

Storm legends’ magnificent milestones

The magnitude of Cameron Smith’s achievement in becoming the NRL’s all-time appearances record-holder cannot be understated. It was just the fifth time the record has changed hands in my lifetime: Bob Fulton (263 games) to Bob O’Reilly in 1981, O’Reilly (284 games) to Geoff Gerard in 1988, Gerard (325 games) to Terry Lamb in 1995, and Lamb (350 games) to Darren Lockyer in 2011.

Now, courtesy of his 356th appearance, Smith has overtaken Lockyer at the top of the pile – with all signs pointing towards 400-plus games by the time he finally hangs up those prolific boots. Incredibly, despite carrying a massive representative workload every season, Smith has appeared in 20 or more games every year since 2003; if the Storm reach the grand final, that will make it 23-plus games in 14 of the past 15 campaigns.

Smith’s ironman feats – which also include a record 42 Origins and the potential to better Lockyer’s tally of 59 Tests (he has played 50 to date) – may never be replicated.

Meanwhile, Billy Slater’s return to the finals arena for the first time since 2014 saw him take sole ownership of the all-time record for the most career tries in finals games, eclipsing the great St George winger Eddie Lumsden with his 18th touchdown in 27 post-season appearances.

Finals debutants stand tall

The poise, confidence and tenacity of the contingent of youngsters playing in their maiden post-season games was a standout feature of an extraordinary weekend of footy.

Latrell Mitchell, Ryan Matterson, Mitchell Moses, Semi Radradra, Curtis Scott, Tom Trbojevic, Dylan Edwards, Tyrone May and Jayden Brailey all produced magic moments of varying degrees, showing few signs of nerves despite lining up in the biggest games of their respective careers to date.

Mitchell headed for greatness

The undisputed star of the finals virgins, Roosters three-quarter Latrell Mitchell confirmed he is set to have a massive say in the 2017 post-season with a spectacular match-winner, brutally shrugging off James Roberts and speeding past Kodi Nikorima with stunning ease.

The Greg Inglis comparisons are impossible to avoid – Mitchell’s fend was more GI at his peak than GI currently is, and Mitchell looks set to follow in his footsteps as a sophomore season Kangaroos debutant.

Mighty Morgan

If 2017 has been a window into the Cowboys’ not-too-distant future without Johnathan Thurston, the club appears to be in good hands with Michael Morgan at the helm.

The Queensland Origin utility has grown into the linchpin role as the season’s worn on under exceedingly difficult circumstances, and he was magnificent inspiring his teammates to a miracle, typifying the team’s super-gutsy performance. Deserved to be the match-winner.

Morgan’s individual battle with Mitchell Moses should be enough to fill ANZ Stadium on its own.

JT: Just Terrifying

Jason Taumalolo challenged Morgan for best-on-ground honours with a trademark powerhouse performance that was breath-taking in its intensity and stamina.

When he scored his game-swinging try, the Kiwi Test lock had tallied 103 minutes; when the book closed on a remarkable match 27 minutes later, he had a mammoth 256 metres to his name.

The best forward in the world – and a massive handful for Parramatta this week.

The poison Penn

Memo Scott Penn: It’s 19.3 kilometres from Lottoland to Allianz Stadium, so if Manly’s fans can’t be bothered making that short journey, the club doesn’t deserve to playing a final at its substandard home ground anyway.

The Sea Eagles couldn’t draw a home of 15,000 all year – even for their season-defining clash with Penrith in Round 26.

But the turnout in all three games at Allianz was a sad indictment on the apathy of Sydney’s rugby league supporter base, with the AFL again landing a humiliating blow on the NRL.

The attendance for the Geelong-Richmond blockbuster alone dwarfed the NRL’s total crowd figure for the weekend, while the Swans’ SCG crowd wasn’t far short of the total of three league finals played next door in week one.

Warriors buying back the farm

Despite fans’ and pundits’ calls to draft in more Australian hardheads to solve their woes – a proven formula that has brought the club plenty of success – the Warriors are bullishly attempting to assemble a New Zealand Test team in Auckland.

Aussie-reared Kieran Foran and Origin reps Jacob Lillyman and Ryan Hoffman headline the departures column, while Kiwi stars Peta Hiku, Gerard Beale and Adam Blair are all but confirmed to join Tohu Harris and Leivaha Pulu as 2018 squad additions.

Though Blair will be signed for too long and for too much money, that’s five quality, versatile performers more or less in the prime of their careers heading back to their homeland – but doubts over the Warriors’ prospects of a revival with Blake Ayshford the only Australian in their ranks will remain until they get the wins on the board.

The list of Kiwi guns returning to Auckland and improving the Warriors’ standing (Dean Bell, Stephen Kearney, Ruben Wiki, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck) is far outweighed by the prodigal sons who delivered little (Matthew Ridge, Grant Young, Kevin Iro, Quentin Pongia, Tyran Smith, Issac Luke).

Finals Week 1 Impressions

BRONCOS: A superb fight-back in the final quarter to grab the lead, but missed tackles were ultimately the story of their night, allowing the Roosters to race out to a big lead and then sneak home late. Not enough impact or authority from their front-rowers, while the Benji gamble finished on the debit side of the ledger.

SHARKS: Only had themselves to blame for leading just 8-2 after dominating the first half before James Maloney’s brain snap cost them dearly. Should have also been able to close it out at 14-6, but the premiers were run down by a hungrier, more composed team. The disjointed performance – despite some good periods – embodied their season.

SEA EAGLES: Played their best game of the season a week earlier and couldn’t back it up against the same opposition. Fought back bravely in the second half to lock up the scoreboard but flubbed several opportunities to go ahead, while crucial defensive errors down the stretch brought them undone. The club can be proud of its 2017 efforts, however.

STORM: Got the win, but it was far closer than most expected. Paid for Cameron Munster’s sin-binning but responded superbly to snatch back the lead in the second half and hang on for a hard-fought victory, and it was probably a test they needed. Nothing less than captain Smith deserved in his record-breaking appearance – but the Storm may get a little bit nervous seeing the Eels on the other side of halfway in the grand final.

COWBOYS: One of the gutsiest finals victories in recent memory. Rarely looked capable of pulling off an upset until Taumalolo’s powerhouse try, but showed breath-taking fortitude, desperation and poise to force the game into extra-time and edge ahead for the first time in the 85th minute. Up there with the 2004 finals upset of the Broncos and the 2015 grand final as one of the finest wins in the club’s history.

EELS: Proved themselves as genuine title contenders. Had the benefit of the Storm playing 10 minutes with a man short – which they fully capitalised on – but the rub of the green went against them for the most part and they still almost snared a massive boilover. Now on the ‘right’ side of the finals draw and have a big opportunity to make a run to the grand final.

PANTHERS: Perhaps their grittiest performance of the year, particularly in light of the Matt Moylan controversy hanging over the team. The Panthers’ scrambling defence was a key feature, weathering Manly’s second-half dominance before coming home with a wet sail to secure their passage to week two.

ROOSTERS: Still searching for an 80-minute performance in 2017, but they’ve got their preliminary final berth and will be satisfied with the win after looking to have butchered it inside the last 10 minutes. Luke Keary was brilliant, while Latrell Mitchell’s match-winning effort felt like a superstar-is-born moment. Will be tough to beat in the prelim and grand final if Blake Ferguson doesn’t scatter his brains all over ANZ Stadium.

Add Comment

About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

More nrl News

Special Features

PARTNERS