Grand Final rematch a Grand Final preview?
Manly and the Sydney Roosters staged a high-quality heavyweight battle on Friday night, with the Sea Eagles snaring their second eight-point win of the season over their 2013 Grand Final conquerors. But based on what the archrivals produced at Brookvale, they are a good chance of again lining up at opposite ends of ANZ Stadium on October 5.
The Sea Eagles and Roosters are streets ahead of the competition in regards to talent, toughness and big-game temperament. As with all of their matches last year, the result swung on a couple of big plays and critical moments. While they may rank as two of the most unpopular clubs in the NRL among fans of other teams, the Sea Eagles and Roosters will at the very least provide another gripping decider if they both make it that far.
Brilliant plays mark weekend of cliff-hangers
The standard of NRL matches has been bagged in some quarters during another arduous and truncated representative period, but the critics were answered emphatically in Round 16. All six matches over the weekend were decided by 10 points or less, with three games featuring one- or two-point margins. And it wasn’t just close – it was high-quality.
Some of the crucial plays were breathtaking: Brett Stewart’s try from a double-switch set play, and the Manly fullback’s one-on-one tackle on Anthony Minichiello to set up the match-sealing score; Curtis Rona’s phenomenal athleticism to tap the ball back in for Matthew Wright and score a vital try for the Cowboys; Shaun Johnson’s lightning-quick intercept to wrap up the match for the Warriors; opposing No.1s Jarryd Hayne and Darius Boyd setting Hunter Stadium alight with length-of-the-field kick return tries; Braith Anasta turning back the clock with a match-winning field goal. All outstanding.
Sharks produce comeback for the ages
The Todd Carney furore has totally overshadowed Cronulla’s Friday night triumph – in which Carney played an integral role – at Suncorp Stadium, with the last-placed side overcoming a 22-point deficit during the second half and an unprecedented scoring drought to beat Brisbane 24-22.
It was the kind of comeback that would make David Middleton’s head explode, such was the volume of statistical and historical anomalies at play:
- The Sharks had won just two of 13 games this season, while they had been held scoreless in their last three straight matches – an all-time premiership record.
- Cronulla did not land on the board until the 54th minute, stretching the scoreless run to over 320 minutes, or more than four entire games of football.
- The comeback was the equal-seventh biggest in the history of the competition.
- It beat club records for the Sharks’ biggest comeback and the Broncos’ worst collapse by four points apiece.
Brave Tigers’ season hangs in the balance
Wests Tigers produced one of the most courageous wins of their history, pipping Canberra 19-18 via a Braith Anasta field goal after losing James Tedesco in the opening seconds, before fellow backline stars Tim Simona and David Nofoaluma, and forward mainstay Saoso Sue also departed due to injury. The heart-stopping win lifted the joint venture back into a share of fourth spot. But Tedesco’ broken kneecap could have far-reaching implications for the plucky Tigers. The fullback was at the forefront of their blistering start to 2014, before they hit a mini-slump when he was sidelined. Back for only three weeks, Tedesco is likely to be ruled out for the season and the team will battle to make the finals without him, while the Tigers will have to forge on in the short- to medium-term without Simona and Sue.
Warriors start their charge
As always, it was a wild ride – but the New Zealand Warriors have claimed a big scalp ahead of their second bye, outlasting Penrith 30-20 in a seesawing contest in Auckland. Konrad Hurrell’s purple patch continued with a two-try effort opposite late inclusion Jamal Idris, while Shaun Johnson’s brilliant intercept try sealed the result with five minutes to go. Back in the top eight temporarily – pending the result of Monday’s St George Illawarra-Melbourne clash – the Warriors boast a positive win-loss record for the first time since their 2011 Grand Final season. The pieces of the puzzle are there for Andrew McFadden’s squad if they can hold their nerve and put them together. Five wins in their remaining nine games will be enough to snare a finals berth, and the Warriors have the benefit of a pretty handy draw.
Panthers fall short in first real test
Many pundits were quick to laud Penrith as a genuine title contender after Ivan Cleary’s side surged to the top of the NRL ladder on the back of five straight victories, blissfully ignoring the mitigating factors. Prior to Round 9, the Panthers had not won back-to-back games, culminating in an ordinary defeat at the hands of battling Cronulla. Their five consecutive wins come during an unmistakably easy part of the draw, downing cellar dwellers Newcastle and Canberra, a Parramatta side minus Jarryd Hayne, and Gold Coast and St George Illawarra outfits in the midst of dramatic slides. All of this with the added benefit of being the only club to not provide a player to either of the first two Origin matches.
Sunday’s showdown in Auckland against the Warriors was the Panthers’ first big examination in over two months – and they were unable to come up with the goods. Penrith competed well and were in the match until the final five minutes, while Jamie Soward failed to return after halftime due to injury. But with the NRL ladder incredibly congested, the Panthers are only a couple of losses from tumbling out of the top eight altogether. A tough remaining draw that includes away games against the Roosters, Manly and Canterbury, and home showdowns with Brisbane, Melbourne and the Warriors will decide whether Penrith’s much-discussed five-year plan is really ahead of schedule.
Souths a step behind fellow heavyweights
While their main rivals for the title produced a finals-quality duel, Souths flaked out 20-18 against a North Queensland side low on confidence and decimated by injury. The star-studded Rabbitohs fell behind 20-6 by halftime and could not land the go-ahead blow after clawing back during the second stanza. Despite the phenomenal numbers being produced every week by Sam and George Burgess, the mercurial talents of Greg Inglis and John Sutton, and the burgeoning young brigade headlined by Dylan Walker, Alex Johnston and Kyle Turner, the Rabbitohs appear to be lacking something compared to the side that went so close to the club’s first Grand Final in more than four decades in 2012-13. Time is running out to rediscover that spark, and at this stage Souths would be cannon fodder for the likes of Manly and the Roosters under the finals blowtorch.
Cowboys snap up Moga
Buoyed by their upset of South Sydney on Saturday night, the injury-hit North Queensland Cowboys have signed Roosters prodigy Tautau Moga on the eve of the June 30 transfer deadline. Moga has been recruited in the wake of Brent Tate’s season-ending knee injury. Plagued by knee problems himself during his short career, Moga scored seven tries in 14 games as an 18-year-old rookie in 2012, but has not been sighted in first grade since. The highly-rated youngster would have seen the writing on the wall when the Roosters signed Blake Ferguson into a backline contingent that already contains three Kangaroos and two Kiwi internationals, along with impressive Papua New Guinea Test winger Nene MacDonald. Matthew Wright has been solid filling in for Tate in recent weeks, while rookie sensation Curtis Rona has held down a wing spot via a string of brilliant displays, and Nines star Kyle Feldt remains in the first grade picture.
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