EIGHT GAMES, EIGHT MOMENTS: Sensational Slater, ageless Mad Dog, long-range scorchers and the best pick-up of 2011.
Bulldogs 14 def. Cowboys 6
The Moment: Maybe it was the desire to keep their slim semi-finals hopes alive, or maybe we should put it down to captain Andrew Ryan’s midweek announcement that he’s retiring at the end of the year. Whatever, the Bulldogs turned up with a dedication and vigour unprecedented in 2011. You only have to look at the six – count ’em, six – support players who backed up Trent Hodkinson’s line bust in the 47th minute that ended with winger Steve Turner crossing under the posts for a decisive 12-nil advantage. (Sterlo reckons there were seven, but we’ve marked the ’Dogs down as one was too far from the play to have been an active support.) The raid illustrated how well rookie Pat Reynolds will fit into their squad in coming years. Starting at five-eighth after playing his previous five games at hooker or off the bench, Reynolds scored his third career try with a clever dash from dummy-half in the 25th minute, and it was he who was responsible for sending Hodkinson clear after making another jack-in-the-box dummy-half dart. The try reaffirmed how dangerous the Bulldogs are from long range – it was their 20th from over halfway, the most by any side in 2011.
Wests Tigers 16 def. Dragons 14
The Moment: We’re not convinced Gareth Ellis didn’t make a play for Benji Marshall’s magical cut-out pass that sparked the Tigers’ match-winning try in the 74th minute. Look closely and you’ll notice the back-rower thrusts his arms skyward as the ball flashes past his head – surely he wasn’t adding dangerous illusion to the play, as a touch would have been disastrous. In any event, the planets aligned spectacularly for the black-and-golds. Coach Tim Sheens noticed opposition back-rower Beau Scott hobbling in the condensed Dragons’ defence and sent a message to his playmaker to attack the left edge. From a play-the-ball 70 metres out on tackle four, Robbie Farah feigned an inside ball to decoy runner Keith Galloway, then pumped it to Marshall. The No.6 looked likely to be instantaneously slammed by Mark Gasnier who’d rushed up quickly but Marshall was just deep enough to waft a long ball left, across the face of Ellis, for centre Chris Lawrence. Ellis’ presence sucked Jason Nightingale off his wing, which gave Lawrence several strides of free space to gain momentum as Scott struggled across in cover. Meantime Beau Ryan angled infield to position himself for the final pass, which Lawrence duly offered when confronted by Dragons’ fullback Darius Boyd 20 metres out, and the Tigers had a memorable win. It was the fifth time in their past eight games that the Dragons have lost after leading at halftime. Tired legs. Mentally sapped. Worrying times for the premiers. Meanwhile the Tigers, in danger of imploding just a month ago, have all the momentum at the right end of the season.
Storm 26 def. Panthers 6
The Moment: The minor premiership favourites head to the Gold Coast on Saturday gunning for a club record-equalling 11 consecutive wins after Billy Slater blasted the Panthers’ 2011 finals hopes once and for all. In a high-calibre performance ‘Billy The Kid’ was simply everywhere in both attack and defence. In addition to his sideline-to-sideline, play-to-play try saves in the sixth minute Slater scored from a bomb and showcased his superb vision when setting up the closing four-pointer with eight minutes remaining. The No.1 fielded the ball chiming in at second receiver on the right fringe and confounded opposition defenders Luke Lewis and Trent Waterhouse with his two-handed carry. In the blink of an eye he dropped the ball onto his left foot and dribbled it between the pair, with back-rower Kevin Proctor charging through to gather and score. Salary cap scandal? What salary cap scandal?
Titans 20 def. Sharks 16
The Moment: Gold Coast winger David Mead pulled off one of rugby league’s greatest finishes to score as the Titans pushed towards a full-of-pride victory that leaves them a chance of avoiding their first wooden spoon. Leading 6-4 shortly before halftime, Titans’ skipper Scott Prince elected to kick wide for his speedster midway through the tackle count. His cross-field floater from 20 metres out had a stride too much weight on it, with the ball bouncing just in front of Mead and barely landing inside the touchline. Mead hung out his right arm as the ball threatened to leave the field of play, gathered on the half-volley and plunged over for a truly remarkable four-pointer. The game was also memorable for the abundance of players walking off the mark in their efforts to get fast play-the-balls. Seems the whistle-blowers have all-but forgotten their bosses’ pre-season directive to clean up the ruck and penalise hasty attackers. Sharks skipper Paul Gallen’s frustrations boiled over in the 30th minute when he took matters into his own hands (well, feet) and lashed out at defender Beau Henry. His moment of madness saw him charged with dangerous contact, which he’ll fight at the judiciary on Wednesday night.
Broncos 21 def. Warriors 20
The Moment: Yes Peter Wallace gave Darren Lockyer the result the great man deserved in his record-equalling 349th first grade game when nailing the match-winning field-goal in the 79th minute. But the Warriors showed more than enough to suggest they are a legitimate premiership threat, with two long-range first-half tries that were simply as good as it gets. First halfback Shaun Johnson beat seven of the game’s best defenders in a 75-metre run to the try line (triggered by a deft Simon Mannering offload). Next, five-eighth James Maloney chip-kicked over the Broncos’ frontline from 65 metres out, caught the ball near halfway and lofted a pass wide to fullback Kevin Locke who bamboozled Lockyer and Josh Hoffman to dive over in the left corner. Such off-the-cuff raids suggest they’ll be tough to coach against in the finals.
Knights 40 def. Raiders 8
The Moment: Is Adam MacDougall mad to give it all away at the end of the season? The oldest player in the NRL at 36, ‘Mad Dog’ marked his territory at Ausgrid Stadium with two tries, a try assist, two stunning line-breaks and game-highs in territory (163 metres) and tackle busts (10). He’d bagged his two tries within the opening 30 minutes but it was his barnstorming break to set up Akuila Uate that was most reminiscent of the style of play we’ve cheered since he burst onto the scene in… 1995 (whoah!). MacDougall took a cut-out ball from halfback Jarrod Mullen flatfooted near the halfway line. Seemingly covered by opposition winger Daniel Vidot he jinked, pumped his legs like pistons, skipped out of the tackle attempt, then accelerated through bemused pair Sam Williams and Jarrod Croker as Uate loomed up in support. All that was left was to draw Josh Dugan and gift the Fijian flyer a clear 20 metres to the line. So simple. Also, we can’t let slide Neville Costigan’s classic butchering of a certain four-pointer in the 41st minute. The back-rower charged down a Josh Dugan clearing kick and chased as it rebounded near the Canberra try line. The hard work done, all he had to do was plant for the try but the ball spilled from his grasp like a wet cake of soap. Groan.
Sea Eagles 36 def. Roosters 8
The Moment: The Roosters’ 90-metre team effort in the dying seconds was without question the try of the year so far (see this week’s Tries & Hits vision). But in the context of this game rookie Daly Cherry-Evans’ own 90-metre try was the turning point. The Sea Eagles led 8-nil on the half hour but were under the pump as the Roosters pressured their try line. On the fourth tackle the Tricolours looked to spread the ball wide to the right, with fullback Anthony Minichiello sprinting up and signaling his keenness to get involved. But the rushing Sea Eagles’ defence caused the play to stutter and push back to the left fringe, where Todd Carney dabbed through a speculative grubber. Cherry-Evans trapped the ball, calmly picked it up and bolted down the field. With no Minichiello at home at the back for the Roosters, DC-E outpaced all-comers to break the visitors’ spirits.
Rabbitohs 56 def. Eels 6
The Moment: Positives for Parramatta out of this record-score train wreck? Only that the next time they set eyes on Chris Sandow he’ll be squeezing into an Eels jersey. Everything turned red-and-green hot for the bunnies, with Nathan Merritt becoming just the eighth player in Souths’ 103-year history to bag five tries in a single game. (And, fittingly for Close The Gap Round, nine of their 10 tries were scored by players from indigenous backgrounds.) Sandow glimpsed Stephen Kearney what he can expect in attack next year, scything through the Eels’ hardmen 10 metres inside the Souths’ side of halfway approaching halftime. It became a one-on-one contest with opposition fullback Luke Burt. Make that no contest – Sandow bodyswerved in and away to leave Burt stranded and humiliated. Where to now for Parramatta? Can they regroup and avoid the wooden spoon? Have they the cattle to compete in 2012? Will the knives come out for Kearney? Stay tuned.
• The views in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the clubs or the NRL.