EIGHT GAMES, EIGHT MOMENTS: Two sensational comebacks, more magic from Lockyer and Marshall, and the Bulldogs' back three crack under the high ball.
Broncos 46 def. Sharks 16
The Moment: Seven of the Broncos’ eight tries in this mauling originated inside the Sharks’ 10-metre zone. So thank heavens for the genius of Darren Lockyer, whose line-bust and delicate cross-field kick in the 64th minute brought the fans to their feet for all the right reasons, celebrating creativity rather than just another flimsy Sharks defensive effort. Receiving an inside ball from Ben Hunt, Locky shrugged off a feeble grab and motored to the 20-metre line before dabbing his trademark left-foot kick wide. As is seemingly always the case with Lockyer, the ball obeyed the master, propping acutely into the arms of centre Justin Hodges who crossed for his third try of the evening.
Wests Tigers 14 def. Sea Eagles 12
The Moment: Enough has been written and said about Benji Marshall’s blistering line-break and no-look pass for centre Chris Lawrence to score the match-winning try in the 63rd minute. Yep, bravo Benji; have a peep to ensure Lawrence is on your outside, look back at Brett Stewart and dare him to make a move, then, eyes front, loft the ball to the flank… end of penny section, as Rabs likes to say. So let’s concentrate on the play that ignited the Tigers’ spectacular three-tries-in-seven-minutes comeback. And although that man Marshall was the instigator (again), the bulk of the credit must be heaped on halfback Robert Lui who charged straight and hard at the glimpse of a hole in the Sea Eagles’ defensive line 10 metres out in the 56th minute. Lui knew that Marshall was looking for a runner and that his sprint would attract the Kiwi’s attention. With a full head of speed Lui did magnificently to grasp Marshall’s bullet pass above his head, splitting Kieran Foran and Shayne Rodney to score. The guy’s a halfback; he’s the one who normally offers the try assists for outside runners. How many times have you seen a No.7 run a hard, committed charge out wide like that? Elsewhere, two poor calls by the officials cancelled each other out but demand mention. Beau Ryan’s ‘no-try’ grounding in the 7th minute looked okay given the current rule. And Robbie Farah’s final ball to Blake Ayshford for his 60th-minute try was f-o-r-w-a-r-d! (Roll the Game Analyser tape, people, and keep an eye on the 30-metre line. What? Hands went backwards? Pfft!)
Roosters 32 def. Bulldogs 28
The Moment: Irrespective of whether they make the finals or not, the Bulldogs have a huge problem with their back three that will need to be addressed before the start of 2012 by coach… whoever he is. No question Ben Barba is an attacking machine (reaffirmed by yet another length-of-the-field solo try from nothing) but under the high ball he’s a klutz. And he’s often MIA. Wingers Steve Turner and whoever happens to be in the No.5 jersey (this week it was Johnathan Wright) are without a clue, too. Their Keystone Cops-like response to kicks, leaving the opposition to contest the ball in the air, resulted in three Roosters tries that any other NRL side with a capable back three would have snuffed out with ease. First came Phil Graham’s chip ahead from 20 metres out in the 20th minute – Turner, filling in at the back late in the tackle count in order to take the pressure off Barba who was shifted to the wing, was caught in no-man’s land and unable to contest the kick; a dream bounce saw BJ Leilua score. Next came Aiden Guerra’s first try from a Mitchell Pearce cross-field bomb right of the goal posts in the 36th minute; again Barba was nowhere to be seen. But the moment that probably cost the ’Dogs a tilt at the finals came in the 65th minute with a 24-all scoreline. Up went another Pearce cross-field bomb for the right fringe, again no Barba, again no Bulldogs urgency to contest the kick, again the Roosters came up with the ball, and a simple offload to Sam Perrett saw the game (and maybe the season) lost. Memo Jim Dymock: if you think the key to maintaining Ben Barba’s form is to keep him away from situations that have the potential to strip him of confidence, you’re actually tearing the fabric of your whole squad.
Cowboys 30 def. Panthers 18
The Moment: It took just 41 seconds for the Panthers’ semi-finals hopes to go from cruise control to off the rails. Leading 12-6 and peppering the Cowboys’ line inside the final minute of the first half, the Panthers’ debutant five-eighth Harry Siejka grubbered through on the fourth tackle for supports including lock Luke Lewis. The Blues’ representative made a desperate dive to bat the ball back before it fell to ground dead in-goal; the fearless move meant Lewis was unable to brace himself for impact and he was knocked senseless as he smashed into the turf. Making matters worse, he emerged with a badly grazed and bloodied face to boot. The upshot was no points, and a wounded warrior who would take no further part in proceedings. Then Panthers’ fullback David Simmons fielded the second-half restart and threw a woeful pass for Dayne Weston coming off his try line. The Cowboys seized possession and with just 26 seconds on the clock Ashton Sims crashed over for his first try in Cowboys blue. That’s a 12-point turnaround in less time than it takes to boil a kettle. (We wonder what effect Lewis’ injury had on team-mate Ryan Walker’s curious feet-first slide to attempt to deny Ray Thompson his at-the-death try that gave the home side a 12-point winning margin and elevated them above the Broncos in fourth place on the NRL ladder…)
Knights 50 def. Titans 20
The Moment: What is there to say? The doctors who removed Titans’ coach John Cartwright’s appendix in hospital on Saturday might want to check him for a stomach ulcer too after his side’s season low point. The Titans missed a massive 56 tackles (seventh most all year) as the Knights recorded a 2011 record-equaling nine tries and seven line-break assists plus the second-most try assists all year (seven). Their comedy of tackling errors commenced when the trio of winger David Mead, fullback Jordan Rankin and five-eighth Beau Henry overshot Knights winger James McManus sprinting across in cover in the 11th minute. All were too committed to showing McManus the sideline, allowing the speedster to step the throng with ease to get his side back on level terms at 6-all. It was an ominous sign of things to come. Worse, the Titans’ record six-game losing streak looks like it may run into next year…
Warriors 29 def. Raiders 10
The Moment: Any anxiety coach Ivan Cleary may have had when his side trailed 10-8 at halftime dissipated immediately after the break with rapid-fire tries to Sam Rapira and Joel Moon that saw the Warriors skip out to a commanding 18-10 lead by the 47th minute. Rapira’s four-pointer illustrated the value of using the goal posts as a distraction/obstacle, with Shaun Johnson’s pinpoint grubber causing confusion between Jarrod Croker and Josh Dugan as they converged to defuse the kick. The ball spilled free as the Green machine pair collided, with interchange Rapira benefiting from the misfortune. It was the moment that the game – and once and for all the season – slipped away from the Raiders.
Rabbitohs 34 def. Dragons 24
The Moment: You know how Wayne Bennett said the Dragons’ past fortnight made him sick in his stomach? Here’s where a huge wave of nausea must have struck the supercoach, as well as all Red V fans. The premiers showed great composure to claw back the lead when Matt Cooper crossed for his second try of the afternoon with just six minutes remaining. It was a no-panic, professional response to the Rabbitohs’ stirring second-half rally. So why did winger Jason Nightingale and second-rower Beau Scott – Test player and State of Origin representative respectively – then allow Chris Sandow’s restart to bounce? They catch the kick-off, work off a few tackles, toss it to Jamie Sandow and he punts it halfway to Thirroul; game over. But nope. Sandow’s kick takes one bounce into touch, they gain possession from the ensuing scrum and five tackles later Dylan Farrell beats Matt Cooper and Ben Hornby to seal the deal and keep the Rabbitohs alive in 2011. Unbelievable.
Storm 22 def. Eels 18
The Moment: A defensive gamble when leading 18-12 in the 65th minute probably cost the Eels this game, with Storm winger Justin O’Neill instead cashing in and racing 75 metres to score. On a Melbourne scrum feed 20 metres out from their try line, Eels’ fullback Luke Burt packed down at lock, allowing his side an extra defender in the backline. Unfortunately though the Eels stacked the wrong side, with Billy Slater chiming in down the right-hand corridor to create a four-on-three overlap and put O’Neill into space. Burt sprinted across gamely in cover, but the damage had been done. That’s got to hurt.
• The views in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the clubs or the NRL.