Wednesday 21 March 2018 / 08:01 PM



SHARKS 18 d. COWBOYS 14 @ Southern Cross Group Stadium

The NRL’s comeback narrative continued as Round 11 got underway, with Cronulla overcoming a 14-0 halftime deficit to run down North Queensland in the Shire.

THE MATCH: After both teams had tries disallowed by the Bunker in the early stages, Antonio Winterstein put the Cowboys on the board first in the 12th minute. The Sharks absorbed a mountain of pressure on their own line, but they finally cracked again in the 33rd minute as Ben Hampton finished off a long break by Kyle Feldt to make it 10-0.

Feldt gave the visitors a commanding halftime advantage when he climbed to take a Michael Morgan cross-field kick and planted the ball in the corner despite the attention of opposing winger Sosaia Feki.

The Sharks finally troubled the scorers 11 minutes after the resumption, James Maloney carving through off a deft Chad Townsend pass. Townsend then put the hosts within striking distance, backing up a rampaging run and offload by Andrew Fifita to dot down in the 63rd minute.

The Cowboys were unable to gain any traction, and the premiers hit the front through Feki – who also scored last week’s match-winner when Cronulla downed St George Illawarra by an identical scoreline – tiptoed down the sideline to score in the corner with 11 minutes on the clock.

Any opportunities the Cowboys had came unstuck through handling errors, consigning them to their third loss in five games without skipper Johnathan Thurston.

THE MAN: Andrew Fifita led from the front with 175 metres from 16 carries, 29 tackles, three offloads, a line-break and a try-assist – the perfect primer for a State of Origin assault.

THE MOMENT: Fifita’s magnificent break and superb offload to set up Townsend’s try brought the Sharks back to within two points, and from there it felt inevitable the home side was going to finish over the top of the wilting Cowboys.

ORIGIN WATCH: Valentine Holmes landed a blow in the race for Queensland wing spots, running for 190 metres and setting up Feki’s match-winner with an excellent pass. Jack Bird ensured he remains a front-runner for a spot in the NSW 17 with 162 metres and 14 tackles in a busy game at centre that netted Nine’s man-of-the-match gong.

Justin O’Neill was solid enough for the Cowboys, but not enough to oust the likes of Gagai, Chambers and Holmes for a Maroons backline berth. Scott Bolton remains an outside chance for a Queensland debut after racking up 38 tackles and 152 metres in the front-row. Coen Hess probably needed to do more to ensure a Maroons’ debut, making 90 metres from 10 carries and 23 tackles in 49 minutes off the bench. Gavin Cooper had a modest 56 metres and 27 tackles in 80 minutes to put his hopes of retaining a place in the Queensland squad in doubt; Ethan Lowe was more impressive as a back-row starter, tallying 149 metres and 24 tackles.


DRAGONS 30 d. WARRIORS 14 @ Waikato Stadium

The Warriors picked up where they left off in the second half at Penrith, while the fired-up Dragons barely missed stars Dugan and Widdop in a win where the scoreline flattered Stephen Kearney’s pancake-flat outfit.

THE MATCH: After a high-quality opening from both sides, the Warriors took a 6-0 lead in the 13th minute through milestone man Ben Matulino, who marked his 200th game for the club by pouring through a hole off a Kieran Foran pass.

Then it all fell apart for the defacto home side.

The Saints broke tackles and offloaded at will from that point on, terrorising the Warriors’ brittle and disorganised right-side defence for Kalifa Faifai Loa (20th minute), Joel Thompson (24th) and Tim Lafai (33rd) to charge over for tries.

Rookie winger Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad capitalised on a Dragons error near their own line to dive over in the corner just before the break to restrict the damage to 18-10, but the carnage continued as soon as play resumed in the second half.

The Dragons tore through the Warriors’ middle defence repeatedly, producing tries for Nene MacDonald, Faifai Loa and Taane Milne to power out to a 30-10 lead with 14 minutes left.

It could have been a lot uglier if Lafai’s boot (three from seven) had been more accurate and the Dragons had finished off more of their breaks on a greasy night in Hamilton.

The Warriors had the last say when Nicoll-Klokstad brilliantly won the race to a kick in the 76th minute, but the youngster’s second straight brace was buried under his team’s shocking ineptitude in virtually every department of play.

Of the more alarming stats from a one-sided affair: the Dragons made nine line-breaks to the Warriors’ one; the missed tackle count was a mind-boggling 57-22 against the Warriors; the Dragons made 20 offloads to the Warriors’ two; all five of the Dragons’ back-five ran for 139 metres or more.

Kearney’s focus on completions and structure (they actually finished on the positive side of an 11-7 error count) is strangling the Warriors, while their lack of commitment and desperation was palpable. Shaun Johnson had little to play off the back of, but it was the halfback’s most pedestrian performance in recent memory – though there were poor performers right across the park. With a 4-7 record one game away from the competition’s halfway mark, the club is at a familiar midyear crisis point.

If you’re making Kurt Mann and Kalifa Faifai Loa look like Brett Kenny and Eric Grothe, you know you’re in deep trouble.

It was also the Warriors’ 21st loss in 28 games at alternate New Zealand venues, one of the most baffling records in the premiership.

For the Dragons it was a landmark performance, breaking a three-match losing streak despite the absence of their two most influential players. They have a dynamic pack that can match it with any in the competition, while the entire line-up plays for each other in a manner that carried the unfancied Titans to the finals in 2016.

THE MAN: All the Dragons deserve a wrap: Josh McCrone and Kurt Mann punched well above their division; Russell Packer and Jack de Belin were tough and busy in the middle; and Lafai (who also ran for a game-high 239 metres), MacDonald and Faifai Loa all made two line-breaks each. But again it’s hard to go past Paul Vaughan. The buy-of-the-year contender made 216 metres from 20 carries and reeled off 24 tackles in 47 minutes on the paddock to leave the ball very much in Laurie Daley’s court.

THE MOMENT: The Warriors showed a schoolboy-level lack of ability to shut the ball down as the Dragons produced their first try, with MacDonald, Faifai Loa and Lafai all coming up with offloads before Faifai Loa finished off a 60-metre adlib effort. The Saints did as they pleased for the rest of the match.

BRONCOS 36 d. TIGERS 0 @ Suncorp Stadium

Unlike the Warriors, it was hard to fault the Tigers’ effort – they were just comprehensively outclassed by a super-slick Broncos outfit who have now won six in a row.

THE MATCH: The Broncos looked switched on from the outset and landed on the scoreboard in the 14th minute as superb lead-up work from Kodi Nikorima and Corey Oates saw Tautau Moga go over. Alex Glenn scored his first try of the season off an Anthony Milford pass nine minutes later.

James Tedesco threw an intercept pass to Jordan Kahu before running down the Broncos winger, but was sin-binned for hanging on too long in the tackle. Korbin Sims powered over a minute later with Milford chalking up another assist, then Kahu scored three minutes out from halftime for a 24-0 lead.

James Roberts sparked a 101-metre try five minutes into the second stanza, collecting a grubber in the Broncos’ in-goal and setting off down-field before eventually linking with Nikorima on the Tigers’ 40-metre line.

Nikorima then turned provider again to put Joe Ofahengaue through a hole, and Milford backed up the front-rower to get his name on the scoresheet.

The depleted Tigers did well to keep their try-line intact for the remaining 23 minutes, but Tedesco’s second disallowed try of the match ensured they stayed on the donut.

THE MAN: Ben Hunt is set to make his return next week, and it’s a travesty that Kodi Nikorima won’t be a starting half – barring injury or Origin selection – again in 2017. The diminutive Kiwi was superb again, with two of his line-break assists leading to tries while backing up to score one himself and finishing with 127 running metres and 25 tackles. He’s a class act and there’s a few clubs that should be opening their cheque-books to try and wrest him away from Brisbane – but Wayne Bennett may have twigged that Nikorima is the best option to wear the Broncos’ No.7 jumper from 2018, despite Jack Bird’s arrival.

THE MOMENT: James Roberts made a late bid for a NSW Origin debut with his searing run to set up Nikorima’s try. Continuing a fine season, the controversial centre is undoubtedly one of the game’s most dangerous ball-runners and would cause the Maroons no end of problems. With right-centre incumbent Josh Dugan failing to return in Round 11, Roberts shapes as an enticing option to slot in.


SEA EAGLES 30 d. TITANS 10 @ Cbus Super Stadium

Manly shrugged off injury woes to carve out an impressive victory on the Gold Coast, with the Titans plummeting back to earth after last week’s momentous defeat of Melbourne.

THE MATCH: Akuila Uate opened the scoring with a blistering 50-metre try after Daly Cherry-Evans released him into space in the 12th minute, but Blake Green’s wayward pass in the Sea Eagles’ next possession allowed Ashley Taylor to reply for the home side.

Another beautiful DCE ball saw Uate steam down the right-hand touchline again before Dylan Walker backed up to score, while in-form hooker Apisai Koroisau’s dummy-half dart gave the visitors an imposing 18-6 halftime lead.

Curtis Sironen set Jake Trbojevice up to land a crucial blow five minutes into the second half, but Anthony Don kept the Titans alive with a brilliant put-down of a Taylor grubber in the 56th minute.

Already without Tom Trbojevic, Manly lost Nate Myles and Jorge Taufua to injury during the second half, while Walker played on bravely with a leg cork. But despite a wealth of opportunities, the Titans could not make any further inroads to the deficit.

Walker sealed the result by charging onto a Cherry-Evans pass and dotting down for his second with seven minutes remaining.

THE MAN: Jake Trbojevic was an 80-minute machine again for the Sea Eagles, making a game-high 180 metres from 16 runs, reeling off 42 tackles (second only to Koroisau) and scoring a vital try. Should be enough to book a Blues debut.

ORIGIN WATCH: While Trbojevic now seems assured of NSW selection, Cherry-Evans and Walker kept their names in the frame with superb performances. Uate is also a smoky for a Blues wing spot at some stage of the series, but Myles – who has been cleared of serious injury – will be relying on the Maroons’ famed loyalty to be retained after playing just 21 minutes off the bench.

On the Titans’ side of the fence, Jarryd Hayne was exposed badly in defence which may prompt the Blues to name him on the wing rather than at left centre. Anthony Don again suggested he would let no one down if picked on the NSW flank, but Nathan Peats would have preferred a stronger game in his bid to clinch the No.9 jumper. Blues hopeful Ryan James and Maroons tyro Jarrod Wallace kept their hopes afloat with hard-working performances up front.

THE MOMENT: Cherry-Evans’ cut-out speculator to put Uate away again in the lead-up to Walker’s first try really seemed to knock the Titans’ confidence. It was DCE at his instinctive best, and the Sea Eagles’ in-form outside-backs are capitalising on their skipper’s rare vision.

RAIDERS 22 d. EELS 16 @ ANZ Stadium

The Raiders came from behind to score an important away win as midseason recruit Mitchell Moses endured a mixed Eels debut.

THE MATCH: Teenage winger Nick Cotric continues to firm in the Rookie of the Year market, producing an incredible finish to put Canberra on the board in just the fourth minute. The visitors pushed out to 10-0 with quarter of the match gone after Joey Leilua barged over from close range.

Parramatta responded impressively to level the scores by halftime – Manu Ma’u coming up with a remarkable kick-and-chase effort, before some brilliant lead-up play by Semi Radradra saw Michael Jennings go over – with two tries in the last seven minutes of the opening stanza.

The Eels hit the front for the first time in the 47th minute as everywhere-man Clint Gutherson sent Siosaia Vave over with a slick pass, but Blake Austin’s try nine minutes later locked up the scoreboard again.

After a lengthy impasse, a beautifully-executed sweep play gave Raiders game-breaker Jordan Rapana enough space to get past opposing winger Radradra and plant the ball in the corner with inches to spare in the 73rd minute, and the Eels’ valiant attempt to find a late leveller came up just short.

Catapulted into the Eels’ line-up for injured linchpin Corey Norman, Mitchell Moses came up with more good than bad in his first outing for the club. He was busy, but produced a number of loose passes and was terrorised in defence by Josh Papalii.

THE MAN: Canberra fullback Jack Wighton came up with some big plays at the back under the high ball, ran for 178 metres on 20 carries and produced two try-assists – including the money ball for Rapana’s match-winner.

ORIGIN WATCH: Junior Paulo outshone teammate and fellow NSW hopeful Shannon Boyd with a 200-metre performance, while Jarrod Croker and Joey Leilua were good without being outstanding in their late bid for a Blues debut. Certain Queensland selection Josh Papalii had a blinder. Michael Jennings’ claims to a 19th Origin appearance are in doubt after he left the field with a leg injury during the second half. No other Eels players were considered genuine contenders for Game 1.

THE MOMENT: Rapana’s rare finishing ability ultimately got the Raiders’ over the line – and touch judge Belinda Sleeman back herself to make the call, with the Bunker not required to confirm the winning try.


PANTHERS 30 d. KNIGHTS 20 @ McDonald Jones Stadium

Penrith proved second-half specialists once again, overturning another big lead to run out impressive winners.

THE MATCH: Newcastle rocketed out of the blocks, building a 12-0 lead inside 10 minutes after tries to Brock Lamb and Daniel Saifiti. A Lamb penalty goal extended the Knights’ halftime lead to 14 points.

The Panthers belatedly landed on the scoreboard through Matt Moylan in the 49th minute, sparking an avalanche of tries as Leilani Latu, James Tamou, Dallin Watene-Zeleniak and Moylan again crossed to take the match away from the Knights.

A late Peter Mata’utia four-pointer was pure consolation for the Knights, who were left sympathising with the Warriors after the Panthers piled on 30 unanswered second-half points for the second week in a row.

The Panthers’ big win was tempered by an injury to Peter Wallace, seemingly dashing the hooker’s chances of an Origin recall.

THE MAN: An unpopular choice as Test lock, Trent Merrin pushed his case for a NSW recall with a man of the match performance on the eve of Game 1 selection. Merrin made a game-high 210 metres from 21 carries, reeled off 37 tackles, and produced five offloads and an assist to send Matt Moylan over for the Panthers’ first try in his best performance of 2017 by a mile.

ORIGIN WATCH: Beside Merrin’s stellar audition, fringe Blues candidates Moylan, James Tamou and Tyrone Peachey all kept their names in the mix with strong displays. Though again featuring at fullback, Dane Gagai surely did enough to confirm he deserves a Queensland centre spot ahead of Justin O’Neill.

THE MOMENT: Matt Moylan sparked the Panthers’ remarkable comeback against the Warriors with his high involvement, and the skipper reprised his role in Newcastle by powering over for the try – through pure determination – that kick-started another revival.

ROOSTERS 24 d. BULLDOGS 18 @ ANZ Stadium 

After their multi-pronged attack dominated the first half, the Roosters were forced to withstand a stirring Bulldogs fight-back in the second stanza before holding on to claim the two points.

THE MATCH: The Roosters were caught on the back foot as Josh Morris opened the scoring for the Bulldogs in just the sixth minute, but the brilliance of the Tricolours’ backline produced tries for Daniel Tupou, Jake Friend and Latrell Mitchell, opening up a 20-6 halftime lead.

The blue-and-whites returned from the sheds rejuvenated, however, targeting the Roosters’ right-side defence to cross twice through Kerrod Holland and Matt Frawley in the space of six minutes.

The deficit cut to just two points, the Dogs were unable to find the go-ahead score, and the high-flying Roosters secured the win when Mitchell Pearce charged over with less five minutes remaining.

THE MAN: Michael Gordon continues to prove a top-value buy for the Roosters and the perfect foil behind a youthful backline. Against the Bulldogs he ran for a game-high 191 metres, made a line-break and came up with a superb try assist in a high-quality all-round game, while also slotting four from five with the boot.

ORIGIN WATCH: After another strong display, the entire Fox Sports team was happy to declare Mitchell Pearce a shoe-in to reclaim the NSW No.7 jumper. He will be joined by Boyd Cordner and Blake Ferguson, who were both solid, while Latrell Mitchell, Daniel Tupou and Luke Keary proved themselves worthy of consideration if injuries should hit the Blues’ ranks. Dylan Napa produced an authoritative display to all but confirm his Queensland debut, but Aidan Guerra will be lucky to keep his Maroons spot. Brett Morris clouded his rumoured recall with a mixed bag on the Bulldogs’ flank, but Josh Jackson was outstanding and David Klemmer did enough; the forward duo should be somewhere in Laurie Daley’s 17.

THE MOMENT: The Roosters’ match-sealer ended a 46-minute scoring drought, and it showcased the side’s ability to keep the ball alive. Daniel Tupou flung the ball in-field as he was headed over the sideline, before Blake Ferguson showed good vision to put Pearce into a half-gap for the try.

STORM d. RABBITOHS @ nib Stadium

Melbourne was forced to work until the 80th minute in a gruelling clash with Souths in the Western Australia wet.

THE MATCH: The early signs in Perth were ominous for the Rabbitohs as Will Chambers crossed for the Storm in just the fifth minute, but John Sutton levelled up for the underdogs 10 minutes later.

Josh Addo-Carr put his name on the scoresheet in the 25th minute to give the Storm a 10-6 lead, but Souths dug in and were unlucky not to go into the break in front after creating a few opportunities.

A long impasse ensured, but the Rabbitohs couldn’t find a way through the Storm’s defensive wall as the conditions made ball-handling difficult.

Suliasi Vunivalu’s barnstorming 74th-minute try finally extinguished the Rabbitohs’ brave resistance.

THE MAN: Cameron Smith tuned up for Origin by orchestrating a trademark Storm win. The skipper made 49 tackles and produced a try assist in yet another ultra-professional performance.

ORIGIN WATCH: Smith, Slater and Cronk emerged unscathed from the match, while Cameron Munster put his name forward for a spot in the Maroons’ 17 with another eye-catching display at five-eighth. Jordan McLean, Dale Finucane and Josh Addo-Carr kept their names in the NSW mix, but Adam Reynolds and Robbie Farah weren’t able to muster much of case for their retention in the Blues’ squad.

THE MOMENT: Suliasi Vunivalu was outstanding, running for a game-high 198 metres before scoring the match-sealing try with brute strength and excellent awareness.

[YouTube – Mr Hypersonic 25]

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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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