EIGHT GAMES, EIGHT MOMENTS: The Storm, Bulldogs, Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles all show their muscle as the finals edge closer.
Roosters 26 def. Dragons 10
It's been a tough year for Roosters halfback Mitchell Pearce whose form at representative level has drawn more flak than the Aussie Olympic team. But his emphatic three-try haul at club level to essentially sink the Dragons' semi-finals boat showed why Ricky Stuart stuck firm with 'Junior Junior' through Origin. Pearce's second of the evening was the knock-out blow – although team-mate Roger Tuivasa-Sheck deserves the lion's share of the praise for the 100-plus-metres carve-up. The rookie retreated to field a Nathan Fien clearing kick in the tri-colours' in-goal with the game in the balance at 14-10 to the Roosters and nine minutes to play.
It looked certain the Dragons' chasers would earn a vital repeat set, especially when Tuivasa-Sheck slipped to the turf – but with a jink he evaded Brett Morris' jumper grab, scooted down the right touchline, eluded a few more Dragons before linking with Pearce 40 metres down-field. Pearce hit the afterburners to accelerate away from Morris, Jason Nightingale and Daniel Vidot, the gap between ball carrier and chasers widening with every stride. As for the NRL's call that Tuivasa-Sheck's grounding was 'accidental' in the lead-up, with the refs correct in letting play proceed… we can't find anything in the official rules to that effect under the heading 'Grounding The Ball'. It's an area that could be tightened up, rather than left to interpretation. Watch Pearce streak away from the Saints Storm 46 def. Panthers 6
: Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater are like that medieval 'cups and ball' magic trick – there's not so much going on that you think you're going to be hoodwinked as the ball is shuffled around, but that's invariably what happens. So it was on just the third play of this match when the Storm's three 'cups' transferred the ball between one another 30 metres out from their goal line before Slater sent winger Sisa Waqa away on halfway for an uninterrupted passage to score.
The Panthers fell for a variation of the same up-the-guts ruck deception just 10 minutes later from 35 metres out, with Smith passing to Cronk who passed back to Smith who found Slater who passed to Cronk to score to leave the Melbourne crowd in no doubt their five-game rot was at an end. Watch Smith, Cronk and Slater setup the Storm Bulldogs 26 def. Knights 10
No riveting suspense here given the 'Dogs leapt to a 24-nil lead inside 18 minutes, but two flashes of brilliance from the blue-and-whites stood out. First Ben Barba delivered a blade-of-grass perfect grubber into the Knights' in-goal area for Jonathan Wright to ground (sort of) for their second try in the sixth minute. It was an exquisite kick, booted straight down the field off the outside of his right foot as he ran an angle towards the left corner post. You could give any other player in the NRL 10 attempts at doing it and they might come up with one or two successes.
Second, Josh Reynolds showed Shaun Johnson-like pace off the mark to embarrass the Knights' goal-line defence for the Bulldogs' fourth try of the evening – after he slipped over six metres out from the try line, retreated 12 metres then tried again. No question the Knights' 22 missed tackles in the first section cruelled their chances. You don't have to guess what Wayne Bennett said to his players at halftime – they missed just three tackles as they 'won' the second half 6-2. Too little, too late. Watch the Bulldogs score from a Babra kick Sea Eagles 8 def. Cowboys 6
Only sloppy execution (15 errors and a 70 per cent completion rate) prevented the Cowboys from shooting huge holes in the Sea Eagles, who racked up a staggering 57 missed tackles yet incredibly still found themselves on the right side of the ledger after 80 minutes. No doubt Kieran Foran took a massive confidence boost from the win; down on form after an injury-interrupted year the five-eighth bamboozled the Cowboys with a scintillating left-foot sidestep to open the scoring in the 26th minute.
Meanwhile halves partner Daly Cherry-Evans is the early favourite for 'Falcon of the Year' after his embarrassing glitch when attempting to assist Dave Williams to defuse a Johnathan Thurston bomb in the 52nd minute. DC-E retreated back to run cover for his team-mate but lost all bearings on the flight of the ball; in comic scenes the Steeden bounced off his curly top onto the boot of Cowboys winger Antonio Winterstein before being scooped up by Kane Linnett who scored. D'oh! Watch Foran step through the Cowboys Sharks 45 def. Warriors 4
Sharks colossus Andrew Fifita showed why he's on the short list of contenders for buy of the year with a wrecking ball performance that yielded two tries from close range under the defensively challenged Warriors' goal posts. First John Morris slipped Fifita a lovely short ball 10 metres out from the try line three minutes after halftime, with the interchange steaming through a bunch of bedraggled challengers to score.
Tim Sheens discard Fifita made it a double when he charged onto a Todd Carney pass from dummy-half with three minutes left to close out an afternoon of elation for the recharged Sharkies – and one of abject embarrassment for Brian McClennan's limp Warriors. There's one Warrior who can hold his head high though – Nathan Friend made 65 tackles and registered just two misses. Feleti Mateo must be playing injured; in his previous 19 games in 2012 he'd totaled 40 missed tackles – here alone he missed 10! Watch Fifita slide through the Warriors Raiders 28 def. Broncos 12
Ben Hunt's failure to find touch with a penalty kick in the 55th minute with his side down 10-6 cost the Broncos dearly. Instead of starting a set in attack near halfway they had to regroup and defend again after Reece Robinson fielded the Steeden just centimetres inside the field of play and launched a stinging counter-attack. Two tackles later No.7 Sam Williams put lock Shaun Fensom through a hole on the right edge and the Raiders had plundered a 16-6 lead.
The other turning point came when fullback Josh Dugan pinball-bounced off five Broncos to score the match-winner in the 74th minute. It was a welcome return to form by the No.1 who was unstoppable with 12 tackle busts. Meanwhile the Broncos' defensive woes continue, with 40 missed tackles throughout the afternoon. That's an improvement on the average 52 misses from their previous three games – but still light years away from what's required to be considered a serious contender for the title. Watch the lead up to the Fensom try Rabbitohs 22 def. Titans 18
Given the Titans' four-point losing margin, two plays either side of halftime that cost the home side 10 points proved the difference here. First Rabbitohs winger Justin Hunt was given the green light for a try by video referee Sean Hampstead in the 34th minute despite replays offering what we view was irrefutable proof of a knock-on by Chris McQueen in the lead-up. Second-rower McQueen had leapt for a last-tackle cross-field bomb from unlikely provider Sam Burgess, with the ball slipping through his raised hands and, as far as we are concerned, propelled forward before John Sutton's whippet-fast bouncing ball offload wide to Hunt.
That made it 10-6 at the break – and Titans fans' heads dropped further 10 minutes after the resumption when Andrew Everingham latched onto Scott Prince's all-or-nothing cut-out pass and raced 85 metres to bank six crucial points against the run of play. That made it 16-6 the bunnies' way – but it could so easily have been 12-4 in favour of the Gold Coast had fortune smiled upon them. Watch the controversial Rabbitoh's try Wests Tigers 51 def. Eels 26
Fans of the bottom-dwelling Eels would have been eyeing another stirring upset victory when the blue and gold appeared to be running away with the contest on the half hour, cruising to a 16-point lead. But a mixture of taking their foot off the gas and the Wests Tigers changing gears saw the home side cross for two late tries to bridge the gap to just four points at oranges.
Thereafter the evening belonged to Benji Marshall and winger Marika Koroibete, with the wily playmaker conjuring a season-high four individual try assists and the towering rookie Fijian equaling Kevin McGuinness' club record for most tries in a game. The turning point came in the 49th minute with Parramatta clinging to a 26-22 lead. Marshall drifted towards the left sideline 40 metres out from the Eels' goal, feigning inside passes to a host of would-be runners before eventually running out of room and having to hand off to Koroibete. Displaying more instant speed over 35 metres than we've seen from any player all year the 20-year-old sliced through the middle of the Eels' cover defence on a diagonal run that ended with him planting the Steeden under the goal posts for his first four-pointer in the big league.
The Tigers' nine try assists on the evening were the most by any team in a game in 2012. If they can just improve on their defensive deficiencies (average 37 missed tackles per game – the most in the comp) they might just worry a few contenders should they advance to the semis. Watch the Wests Tigers v Eels highlights
• The views in this article are the author's and not necessarily those of the clubs or the NRL.