Well, this column has been served up yet another massive helping of humble pie courtesy of the valiant Penrith Panthers, who continue to defy their injury list and the critics to remain in the top four. Toppling the in-form North Queensland Cowboys 23-22 – despite a couple of major second-half setbacks – ranks near the top of the Panthers’ achievements in a year packed with stirring highlights.
Jamie Soward has revived his 2009-10 Dragons form, while last night’s match-winner Matt Moylan is providing brilliant, level-headed playmaking support from fullback. Rookie five-eighth Will Smith, effectively Soward’s fourth-string halves partner, is also proving a dangerous livewire.
The Panthers’ injury curse is showing no signs of abating, with hooker James Segeyaro potentially gone for the year with an ankle injury. His zip and second-phase play from dummy-half is a huge part of Penrith’s success, but former skipper Kevin Kingston is an able replacement. The resilient squad has already confirmed its place in the finals, while a solitary win in the remaining three rounds against Melbourne, Manly or the Warriors will stitch up a top-four berth.
Heavyweights flex muscle
A couple of weeks ago, everyone was wondering how any team was going to challenge Manly for the title. But the usual suspects started their charge in Round 23, with South Sydney, Melbourne and Sydney Roosters racking up huge victories as the championship stages of the 2014 season loom.
The Greg Inglis-inspired 42-16 thrashing of a desperate Brisbane side briefly propelled the Rabbitohs to top spot on the ladder; the Storm gave their for-and-against a much-needed boost and kept their top-four hopes afloat with a 48-6 drubbing of Cronulla; and the Roosters spanked the embattled Tigers 48-4 courtesy of a seven-try second-half blitz in the wet at Leichhardt Oval.
The three heavyweights have endured patchy campaigns, but are all hitting their straps as the NRL regular season heads into the straight. Meanwhile, the Sea Eagles followed up their comprehensive loss to Souths with a scratchy 15-12 eclipse of the undermanned Gold Coast. The premiership race is still wide open, but it’s the ‘Big Four’ that are cracking the whip at present.
Two heads are not better than one
If there was ever an advertisement for the necessity to go back to the one-referee system, it was the Knights-Warriors encounter on Sunday afternoon. Besides the inconsistencies and indecision that permeated the Hunter Stadium clash, this game – among countless others in 2014 – highlighted that the NRL does not have 16 competent whistle-blowers to call upon each week, let alone eight.
Referee Gavin Morris’ clumsy obstruction of Shaun Johnson (which allowed Newcastle to score a 90-metre try from a blindside scrum play) aside, diabolical – and late – rulings on obstruction, high tackles and knock-ons defied logic and the rulebook; the Warriors had every right to be seething in the aftermath, despite the Knights’ sensational all-round effort in the 28-22 win.
It’s undoubtedly the most thankless job in rugby league, but inept referees such as Morris do little to cause us to give thanks. It was telling that one of the best-officiated games of the year was the trans-Tasman Test – played under international rules with just one ref; the NRL needs to stop burying its head in the sand and revert to having just one man in the middle.
The St George Illawarra Dragons snapped the NRL’s most notorious hoodoo on Saturday afternoon, subduing the Canberra Raiders 34-16 to secure their first victory in the capital in 14 years – and just their second win in their last 18 clashes with the Green Machine. The result also kept the Saints’ tenuous top-eight bid alive, with wins in the remaining three rounds against Gold Coast, Brisbane and Newcastle a strong chance to propel the joint venture into the playoffs.
Anasta la vista, baby
Few players in the code’s history have been as maligned as Braith Anasta, who announced his retirement on the weekend. An easy target for fans and the media, the veteran playmaker was a perennial winner of the controversial ‘most overrated player’ category in Rugby League Week’s annual players’ poll. But the frequent criticism – and his disappointing form during the last few seasons for the Roosters and Tigers – sweeps Anasta’s impressive list of achievements under the carpet.
The 2001 Dally M Rookie of the Year, Anasta became the first player to represent the Junior Kangaroos and make his Australian Test debut in the same year that season. He made 10 Origin appearances for NSW from 2002-10 despite often being made a scapegoat for Blues losses. Anasta was a vital cog in the Bulldogs’ 2004 premiership triumph (after unfairly copping much of the heat in the wake of the ’02 salary cap fiasco), and was named Dally M Captain of the Year in 2010 before leading the Roosters to that year’s Grand Final.
He played 288 first grade games for the Bulldogs, Roosters and Tigers, scoring 614 points from 88 tries, 122 goals and 18 field goals. Anasta’s clutch field goal kicking became a feature of his career, most notably his freakish effort to send a finals match into golden point in 2010. Farewell to one of the NRL’s good guys.
Speaking of maligned players, Manu Vatuvei has been in sensational touch this season and is a genuine trump card in the Warriors’ bid for the finals, rather than the liability he is often painted as. Besides his customary tryscoring proficiency – 16 in 20 games this season – no player in the NRL takes as many tough carries as ‘The Beast’, while his error rate and defensive decision-making has improved drastically in 2014. Vatuvei was man-of-the-match in back-to-back wins over Canberra and Cronulla, and he was the Warriors’ best again in the loss to Newcastle. To top it off, he is a tremendous ambassador and one of the game’s true nice guys, winning the NRL’s Favourite Son award earlier this year.
There was a nice moment in Thursday’s clash between Souths and Brisbane, which was largely punctuated by spite and niggle. Rabbitohs hooker Isaac Luke gently cradled Broncos fullback – and New Zealand Test teammate – Josh Hoffman after the latter went down in agony with a leg injury during the second half. Luke was Public Enemy No.1 a couple of years ago after a string of grubby incidents, but has redeemed himself since and showed real compassion for his countryman. The same can’t be said for Ben Te’o, who was preoccupied with cheap-shotting his former club-mates and current Origin buddies, culminating in a costly suspension for a chicken-wing tackle on Sam Thaiday.
The top-eight equation
Barring a major disaster, the current top six sides are effectively assured of partaking in the finals. That leaves the Cowboys, Warriors and Eels, all tied for seventh on 26 points, and the Broncos and Dragons, who are one win back, to clamour for the remaining two spots.
Despite a terrible for-and-against, it’s Parramatta that is arguably the best-placed of the aforementioned five sides to claim a finals berth. After this week’s ominous showdown with Manly, the Eels play bottom-three sides Newcastle and Canberra.
The Cowboys (Rabbitohs, Sharks, Sea Eagles) and Warriors (Roosters, Titans, Panthers) both have two games against top-four sides to come, along with one game they should win. They’ll need an upset to play on into September.
For Brisbane and St George Illawarra, the equation is simple: both teams have to win all three of their remaining games, and hope a result or two goes their way. The desperate clubs clash in Round 25, while they both have a game to come against in-form Newcastle. The Broncos’ other game is a last-round road trip to Melbourne; the Dragons take on the battling but plucky Gold Coast this weekend.
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