Monday 18 December 2017 / 02:55 AM

GOLDEN POINTS: NRL FINALS WEEK 3

GF a neutral’s nightmare

When your team misses out on the finals or flunks out in the playoffs, it’s always good to have a team to barrack for in the grand final. So who are you going for this Sunday? For the average neutral supporter, it’s not the greatest match-up.

Although the Sharks are chasing their first-ever premiership in their 50th season, the presence of villains Paul Gallen, Michael Ennis and Andrew Fifita turns many fans off the side from the Shire – not to mention the peptide saga of 2013-14.

The Storm’s lack of appeal, meanwhile, stems from their regular success, and the hangover of their 2010 salary-cap breaches and frequent controversy surrounding their wrestling tactics.

There is one Sharks player that might tip impartial viewers the way of the Storm, however…

Fifita undeserving of game’s biggest prize

Just when you thought Andrew Fifita couldn’t get any dumber or more infuriating, the Sharks prop comes out during grand final week – ahead of the most important match in his club’s history – to say he has “no regrets” about publicly supporting one-punch killer Kieran Loveridge. The furore had subsided after coming to light in the lead-up to Round 26, with Fifita remaining tight-lipped through the finals. Until now.

“I was helping out a mate,” Fifita said. “That’s all that matters. He wasn’t doing too good at the time. I gave him the boost that he really needs. I know he is doing well.”

Fifita’s arrogance and insensitivity in attempting to justify his actions are an absolute disgrace – though hardly surprising given his form – and the NRL should have had the balls to rub him out weeks ago.

Ninety-nine percent of league fans would prefer to see Sam Tagatese, Kurt Capewell or Jesse Sene-Lefao collected a premiership ring rather than Fifita, who will leave a black mark on Cronulla’s greatest-ever day if the Sharks happen to salute on Sunday.

All aboard the Maloney Pony Express

James Maloney solidified his reputation as one of the finest big-match players of the modern era on Friday night, steering his third club to a grand final in six seasons. The wily five-eighth was the linchpin of the Warriors’ charge to the 2011 decider, while he was unlucky not to receive the Churchill Medal in the Roosters’ 2013 triumph.

Now, in his first season with Cronulla, he has guided the long-suffering club to its first grand final in a unified competition in 38 years. Superb all season, Maloney was masterful in the preliminary final thumping of the Cowboys, constantly threatening on the Sharks’ right edge and bagging a memorable second-half double.

No player is more important to the outcome on Sunday. If he has a quiet game, the Sharks definitely lose – and they just about need him to be the best player on the field to grab a history-making win.

Maloney joins Phil Sigsworth (Newtown, Manly, Canterbury), Glenn Lazarus (Canberra, Brisbane, Melbourne), Anthony Mundine (St George, Brisbane, St George Illawarra), Kevin Campion (St George, Brisbane, Warriors), Joe Galuvao (Penrith, Parramatta, Manly) and ex-teammate Krisnan Inu (Parramatta, Warriors, Canterbury) as the only players to appear in grand finals for three different clubs.

Thurston’s special treatment

Referee Ben Cummins should have taken action against Johnathan Thurston for his foul-mouthed spray in Friday’s prelim loss. For all his incredible virtues, JT is the game’s biggest sook when things aren’t going his way, and he threw his toys big-time when a couple of penalties were awarded to the Sharks.

Thurston does so much for rugby league and, along with Cameron Smith, is the NRL’s greatest authority amongst the playing ranks. When he talks, people listen. And every kid looks up to him, which makes it especially disappointing neither Thurston nor the Cowboys thought it necessary to address the co-captain’s rant in the aftermath of their exit.

It’s little wonder referees struggle for respect on the field, and explains why Cummins was reticent to give the code’s top player the 10 minutes in the bin he deserved.

Prior’s conviction

What a finals series Matt Prior is having. Following on from a career-best, man-of-the-match performance in week one against Canberra, the veteran outpointed Australian Test props Matt Scott and James Tamou with 16 carries for 160 metres and 23 tackles. Fifita may be the Sharks’ front-row game-breaker, but while the controversial Origin star is lurking on the fringes, Prior is holding the middle together. A Kangaroos call-up beckons if he can get the better of Kiwi captain Jesse Bromwich this weekend.

Lee recalls ghosts of finals past

Oh, Edrick! It wasn’t in the Paul Carige or Steve Mavin category, but the lanky Raiders winger turned in an infamous second-half display to cruel his team’s chances in Melbourne. A missed intercept chance, a fumbled cross-field kick on the Storm’s line, and even being two metres behind where he should have been after Aidan Sezer created an overlap for him could be forgiven, but his drop with the try-line wide open in the 72nd minute will forever hover over his career.

Comparisons to Parramatta winger Neville Glover – who flubbed an almost identical tryscoring opportunity in the 1976 grand final – flooded in immediately, while he also joined burly centre Jason Bulgarelli in the Canberra finals Hall of Shame. The rookie, in just his 10th first-grade game, couldn’t hang onto a grubber kick on the Warriors’ try-line late in the 2003 semi-final with the scores locked 16-all; the Warriors marched up-field and potted the match-winning field goal.

Wighton with a ways to go

Jack Wighton made big strides as a fullback in 2016, ranking among the most dynamic in his position – but his game sense is still well short of where it needs to be. His sin-binning was costly, though his actions were perhaps understandable with the Raiders on the ropes. But taking the ball dead in the dying minutes of the match when it was set to trickle over the dead-ball line for a seven-tackle set was baffling. Unfortunately, the hapless Lee foiled Wighton’s bid for redemption minutes earlier after the No.1 had produced a breathtaking piece of play to set up what should have been a vital try.

Munster’s ball

Cameron Munster’s form in 2016 means that, incredibly, Billy Slater’s retirement would be (sentimentality aside) met with a mere shrug of the shoulders from many Storm fans – they already have potentially the best fullback in the game in their midst. Arguably the safest No.1 in the NRL, Munster is the antithesis of Wighton when it comes to game sense; the Storm custodian is one of the smartest players in the game.

But he can also produce his share of brilliant moments, as he showed by firing a sensational pass under pressure to Marika Koroibete, releasing the winger into space deep in Storm territory. It was the turning point of a prelim final that hung in the balance, and was a mark of the youngster’s class. James Tedesco and Matt Moylan may be all the rage right now, but Mal Meninga may be forced to find a place on the plane for the softly-spoken Rockhampton product, who is one of the game’s nicest young blokes to boot.

Marika makes amends

Electrifying winger Marika Koroibete was the villain of Melbourne’s preliminary final loss to North Queensland last year, getting himself 10 minutes in the sin-bin for punching midway through the second half. The Cowboys stretched a tenuous 16-12 halftime lead to an unassailable 14-point lead.

So the irony would not have been lost on the flyer when his long break led to Jack Wighton’s sin-binning at virtually the same stage of Saturday’s corresponding match. The Storm scored their only points of the second half in the wake of Koroibete’s big play, and the Super Rugby-bound powerhouse will be a key figure in the grand final as he attempts to leave rugby league with a premiership ring.

Hutchison stakes his claim

Benji is on his way out and the club were unable to lure Kieran Foran, but the answer to the Dragons’ halves woes may already be under lock and key in the form of Drew Hutchison. The 21-year-old Wollongong product, who has played four NRL games, booted the lllawarra Cutters to a 21-20 InTrust Super Cup grand final victory over favourites Mounties on Sunday, and will feature in the State Championship clash with Burleigh Bears in the curtain-raiser to the NRL grand final. Level-headed, robust, confident and classy, Hutchison looms as the ‘local boy made good’ story the ailing Saints have been crying out for.

Foran won’t solve all Warriors’ problems

Kieran Foran’s arrival is a massive coup for the Warriors. He instantly takes pressure of Shaun Johnson, and brings a much-needed direct approach to their attack, not to mention rugged defence and a win-at-all-costs mentality that has been lacking at the club for many years. The Kiwi Test veteran is arguably a bigger signing than Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke.

But while Foran and Johnson form potentially one of the best club halves combination ever, that won’t turn the underachieving Warriors around on its own. It should be remembered that Ivan Cleary’s sides that finished fourth in 2007 and reached a prelim final in ’08 had Michael Witt, Grant Rovelli and Nathan Fien in the halves.

In 2010, when Cleary guided the side to fifth, troubled journeyman Brett Seymour and James Maloney – in his first full season of NRL footy – were steering the ship. It was Maloney and a rookie Johnson who pulled the strings on the way to a grand final appearance in 2011.

More fire, impact and variety in their forward pack, and stability and reliability in the three-quarter line are two areas that desperately need shoring up before Foran and Johnson can perform at their peak.

Dally M predictions

Player of the Year: Cooper Cronk
Rookie of the Year: Ashley Taylor
Coach of the Year: Neil Henry
Captain of the Year: Jarrod Croker
Rep Player of the Year: Cameron Smith
Fullback of the Year: Ben Barba
Winger of the Year: Jordan Rapana
Centre of the Year: Joey Leilua
Five-eighth of the Year: James Maloney
Halfback of the Year: Cooper Cronk
Prop of the Year: Ryan James
Second-rower of the Year: Matt Gillett
Lock of the Year: Jason Taumalolo
Provan-Summons Medal: Johnathan Thurston
Female Player of the Year: Kezie Apps
Holden Cup Player of the Year: Kalyn Ponga
Headline Moment of the Year: Jarryd Hayne’s return (Round 22)

Try of the week

Maloney produced one of the great intercept tries on Friday, showing incredible anticipation and hands, along with a clean pair of heels to race 70 metres for the try that broke the Cowboys’ back.

[YouTube – Nrl Highlights]

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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.

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