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Troubling times for the top eight

Nigel Wall NRL.com Tue, Jul 31, 2012 - 1:15 PM

The Eels showed they are keen to make things difficult for the teams above them on the ladder, winning their first back-to-back games since 2010. Copyright: NRL Photos

EIGHT GAMES, EIGHT MOMENTS: Morris streaks the Storm, Panthers golden point victory and the Eels go back-to-back.

Dragons 26 def. Storm 18
The Moment: There have been many, many times in 2012 when the Dragons have been cringe-worthy in attack; here they were impressively singe-worthy, racking up 18 unanswered points in a sizzling opening 34 minutes. Although subtract Brett Morris’ two length-of-the-field tries against the run of play and this was anyone’s game. Just like two weeks ago when they toppled the Sharks in Wollongong, a ‘B-Moz’ turnover try was the catalyst to victory. Six minutes in, Morris streaked 93 metres to score after sticking out his mitts in no-man’s land and snaffling a Billy Slater cut-out pass that, had it found unmarked team-mate Sisa Waqa, would have resulted in the opening try of the evening to the visitors. Buoyed by that slice of fortune the St George Illawarra left edge clicked into gear, with a slick sweep from near halfway delivering them a double-whammy strike in the 16th minute. And it was Morris in the thick of things again, inventively kicking ahead from 20 metres out for makeshift centre Beau Scott to recover and score. Morris finished with a hat-trick (and a whopping 267 metres) – he has now crossed for 26 tries from 23 games in Wollongong. 

Watch Morris streak the Storm

Titans 36 def. Roosters 16
The Moment: We wouldn’t be surprised if the last five minutes of this clash proved pivotal to the ultimate make-up of this year’s top eight. So congested is the race for eighth place that it’s likely it will all boil down to points differential, just as it did last year when Canterbury and Newcastle tied on 28 competition points with the former failing to advance by a margin of 75 points. Titans coach John Cartwright must have been cock-a-hoop when his side put on a late spurt of 12 against the chooks that reduced their season’s for-and-against to just two points in the negative. First fullback William Zillman accelerated around the Roosters on the right edge to score in the 75th minute, before hooker Matt Srama and halfback Scott Prince combined to add six more vital points two minutes before the siren. In a simple play Srama fed Prince, who dummied past Mitchell Aubusson then offloaded back to Srama on the trail to score. Incredibly the Titans are now in the eight for the first time this season, the highest-ranked of four teams on 22 competition points. Meanwhile the Roosters gave a stark reminder as to why they are the most ill-disciplined side in the NRL – they conceded eight penalties to the Titans’ two during the final 48 minutes of the game. Any wonder their early 10-nil lead evaporated?

Watch Srama sneak through the Roosters

Bulldogs 32 def. Cowboys 18 
The Moment: Another week, another paragraph of praise in the career scrapbook of Ben Barba, whose hat-trick of tries leapfrogged him over team-mate Josh Morris to the top of the NRL try-scorer’s list with 17 to date. Barba’s carbon-copy double strike in the opening 28 minutes, off superb offloads from Josh Reynolds and Josh Jackson respectively, gave the home side breathing space they would require late in the game. It was a rare missed tackle from usually watertight Cowboys second-rower Glenn Hall in the 12th minute (his only one of the night) that triggered the Bulldogs’ onslaught, with five-eighth Josh Reynolds brushing off Hall 35 metres out from his own goal line before advancing to deliver a stand-in-the-tackle offload to Barba on halfway. The 80-metre try was the 13th occasion in 2012 the blue and whites have made an opposition pay from a move initiated in their own half; Barba’s second try made it an NRL-benchmark 14 from super-long range.

Barba shows more brilliance

Sea Eagles 24 def. Warriors 22
The Moment: Up 18-nil for the second week running the Warriors looked specials to make amends for their embarrassing capitulation to the Knights in Round 20. Everything appeared to be ticking over nicely under stand-in captain Manu Vatuvei. But no. With coach Brian McClennan standing anxiously on the sidelines pulling hair that he doesn’t have from his head, the Warriors had no answer to the Sea Eagles’ urgency to reel in their 12-point deficit inside the final 12 minutes. Daly Cherry-Evans’ second try three minutes from fulltime, supporting winger Jorge Taufua after the flyer received a ridiculously convenient bounce off Kieran Foran’s speculative chip kick on halfway, was the flashy play for the highlights reel. However the game-changer occurred when Steve Matai stood up rookie Konrad Hurrell with a mesmerizing show of the ball and lightning-fast left-foot sidestep eight minutes from fulltime before offloading to DC-E who crossed centimetres inside the left corner post. Odds are that those final 12 minutes put paid to the Kiwis for 2012. 

Watch the Sea Eagles start their comeback

Panthers 21 def. Sharks 20
The Moment: We feel for the Sharks, who had victory snatched from their grasp in the final moments amid much controversy. If the Panthers’ short kick-off a minute from fulltime had travelled 10 metres before exiting the field of play over the touchline, and all their players had been onside at the kick-off, we would be in Bill Harrigan’s camp that a correct call was made. But they weren’t. Replays clearly show Penrith prop Tim Grant at least a metre offside at the kick-off (James Tamou was pinged for this offence at a critical time in the Bulldogs-Cowboys game so there was precedent for such a penalty this very round). How referee Steve Lyons missed this beggars belief. Forget about whether or not the Panthers’ restart travelled 10 metres, either through the air or along the ground, and whether or not interchange Matt Robinson got a touch before the Steeden bounced into touch; it’s immaterial. It should have been a penalty to the Sharks back on halfway, end of story. Footy-wise the game boiled down to two contrasting defensive rushes on field goal attempts in golden point: Penrith’s Lachlan Coote, Matt Robinson and Michael Gordon showed total commitment to earn a charge-down off Chad Townsend, while Luke Walsh was able to peg the match-winner when the exhausted Sharks were too slow to come up with a pressure play. Last, gotta love beaten coach Shane Flanagan, who remarked at the post-match presser: “I’ve got mixed emotions at the moment – and none of them are good.” Legend.

Watch the Panthers kick re-start

Knights 36 def. Raiders 6
The Moment: Like the Titans, resurgent Newcastle boosted their finals chances with an attacking blitz that hauled their points differential back to just an unconverted try in the red. There were ominous signs all around, with Akuila Uate back to his blockbusting best, Darius Boyd crossing for his first four-pointer in the NRL in 2011 and Tyrone Roberts continuing to shine in the No.7 jersey. The 21-year-old scored a sensational 70-metre solo try for a 12-nil lead in the 37th minute, dummying firstly to get through the Raiders’ defensive line on his own side of halfway before placing opposition fullback Josh Dugan in two minds with a second dummy 25 metres from the Green Machine’s try-line, then beating the custodian all ends up in the sprint to the line. The former Junior Kangaroo’s scintillating form is a godsend for coach Wayne Bennett as the Knights make their charge to the semi-finals – but we wonder about the conundrum he’ll face when Kurt Gidley returns from injury in 2013. Darius Boyd, Jarrod Mullen and Gidley would appear first-pick fullback, five-eighth and halfback. What then for Roberts, who re-signed with the Novocastrians for two more years as recently as May? A nice problem, nonetheless.

Watch Tyrone Roberts make his mark

Rabbitohs 32 def. Wests Tigers 6
The Moment: No Issac Luke… no Greg Inglis… no worries! So balanced are the bunnies in 2012 that even without their two pivotal attacking cogs the remainder of their troops are shouldering the load without a problem. Like five-eighth John Sutton, who shredded the Tigers’ defensive line in the 32nd minute, rushing 30 metres before sending Nathan Merritt on a 40-metre sprint to the try-line for an emphatic 20-nil lead. No five-eighth is running more often (12 runs per game) or as far (average 93 metres) than Sutton in 2012. Special mention to Nathan Peats for his two tries from dummy-half: his barges weren’t flashy but they were worth the same number of points as his team-mates’ pretty plays. Incidentally Souths are runaway leaders in scoring from dummy-half, with 12 so far (four more than the Tigers).

Watch Merritt march through the Tigers

Eels 42 def. Broncos 22
The Moment: Hands up if you thought Brisbane’s two tries in the five minutes after halftime that halved the Eels’ 24-point lead were a fair indicator the home side would swamp the blue and golds in the second stanza and record a memorable comeback win? Ditto… but instead of rolling over like they have for most of 2012 Parra struck back with a game-changing try to Fuifui Moimoi in the 59th minute. The lead-up work from team-mates Joseph Paulo and Chris Sandow was crisp as Kettle chips, with Paulo evading a posse of Broncos to offer a skillful overhead pass to Chris Sandow, who swept a no-look short pass to charging rhino Moimoi on his right. Hitting the pass with more leg speed than he has displayed all year, the exhausted Broncos defenders had little chance of stopping him from 10 metres out. (Exhausted? You bet – the Broncos conceded 13 line-breaks all night, the most by any team all season.) Still, we can’t help wondering what emotions were going through ex-coach Stephen Kearney’s mind (should he have been watching) when he saw Sandow gallop into space, goose-step and beat Gerard Beale to score the Eels’ final try three minutes from fulltime. Great to see, but where the hell has it been for the past five months?   

   
The views in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the clubs or the NRL.