EIGHT GAMES, EIGHT MOMENTS: Stewart to the rescue, McCrone goes it alone, Marshall's audacious pass and the other big plays from Round 23...
Sea Eagles 23 def. Rabbitohs 6
The Moment: The eagerly anticipated head-to-head clash between last year’s rookie of the year Daly Cherry-Evans and this year’s shoo-in heir Adam Reynolds ended in a points decision to the Manly halfback – but it was team-mate Brett Stewart who taught the rising Rabbitohs star his biggest lesson on the night. Trailing 13-6 in the 55th minute Souths broke away down the right edge thanks to a Dave Taylor offload, with Reynolds advancing the ball well into Sea Eagles territory before being confronted by ‘Snake’. His mind frantically sizing up options, Reynolds relaxed his grip on the ball just long enough for Stewart to snaffle it and defuse a potentially damaging situation.
However, it was the creativity of five-eighth Kieran Foran and centre Jamie Lyon on the left and right sides of the field respectively that illustrated why Manly will be difficult to unseat from their premiership throne. First Foran literally turned the Souths defence inside and out when setting up Jorge Taufua for Manly to assume the lead for the first time in the match six minutes before halftime. Then Lyon bamboozled experienced opposite centre Matt King with some neat, stuttering footwork before inside-flicking to David Williams for a 17-6 scoreline in the 71st minute. Souths didn’t play badly but even their well-drilled defence had no answer to the blur of maroon and white that rushed eight line-breaks past them throughout the contest.
Storm 24 def. Titans 16
The Moment: They were light years away from their best but an urgent, committed second 40 minutes from the Storm ensured they got the measure of the brave Titans who despite losing inspirational prop Luke Bailey inside the opening 10 minutes surprised the home side to lead 10-nil at halftime. Billy Slater started the Storm’s 26-points second-half blitz after he accelerated through a swarm of Titans in a 20-metre burst to the try-line that also saw ref Alan Shortall a collateral-damage victim of the Gold Coast’s attempts to halt the Storm star.
Replays hinted the official may have inadvertently blocked Luke O’Dwyer’s attempt at a tackle – although clearly he would have struggled to halt Slater’s momentum from just a couple of metres out. One thing’s for sure: ref Shortall wouldn’t have been feeling in the pink after this crunching collision.
Eels 36 def. Roosters 22
The Moment: It’s taken him 23 Rounds but Chris Sandow finally delivered a match-winning performance relative to his sizeable pay cheque as the blue and gold swamped the butter-fingered Roosters at Parramatta Stadium. Three tries in eight minutes – the final scoring plays of the game – sealed the deal for the Eels (who with victory drew alongside Penrith at the bottom of the ladder).
With the tri-colours leading 22-18 with 23 minutes remaining Sandow rolled the dice from 12 metres out, dabbing a short kick into the in-goal, then regathering to score without a Roosters hand laid on him. Next Nathan Hindmarsh was an unlikely provider for Ryan Morgan, lobbing a floating cut-out pass for his centre to score, before Sandow clinched the competition points for his side with an electrifying burst on the right edge that left Braith Anasta pounding the turf in frustration. Handling told the story for the visitors, who completed just 54 per cent of their sets throughout the 80 minutes.
Wests Tigers 22 def. Dragons 12
The Moment: It’s a crying shame Brett Morris won’t be playing in the semi-finals given his uncanny brilliance week to week. ‘B-Moz’ had Dragons fans in rapture when he delivered his side the early advantage with an inventive play down the left edge in the 10th minute. Receiving a double-cutout pass from halfback Ben Hornby 40 metres out, the winger streaked to the 20 then neatly chipped over the top of Tim Moltzen and regathered to score.
What a relief Benji Marshall will get to dazzle some more in the playoffs (at least that’s how it looks to us) – his try assists for Liam Fulton and Tim Moltzen, which took his tally for the year to an NRL-high 33, were simply sublime. Both involved inside passes after wonderful sleight of hand. First Benji quick-fire dummied outside to back-rower decoy Adam Blair before delivering on a plate to Fulton on his right for the Tigers to seize the lead for the first time in the match. Then he sealed victory for his side with an audacious – even arrogant – look-left, flick-right ball that provided Moltzen with his hat-trick for the night with nine minutes remaining. That play leaves the Tigers at the crossroads in 2012 – they have now scored as many points as they have conceded. So, where to now?
Cowboys 52 def. Warriors 12
The Moment: Down 12-nil after just 14 minutes, stand-in skipper Manu Vatuvei looked set to resurrect the Warriors’ hopes when he fielded James Maloney’s cross-field bomb near the Cowboys’ try-line and powered towards the stripe. Hindered by the cover defence ‘The Beast’ threw a speculative offload infield – straight into the arms of opposition fullback Matt Bowen who raced to the halfway line before being felled. Before you could say ‘what happened there’ the ball swept to the left edge, with Antonio Winterstein scooting 20 metres to score. It was a 10-point turnover play that sucked all the wind out of the Warriors’ sails.
Five weeks ago it was a matter of how high they would climb up the top eight. Now it’s a real possibility they’ll finish third from the bottom. Suffice to say Cowboys coach Neil Henry won’t want his troops getting too carried away with this victory despite the heady scoreline – the Warriors missed 49 tackles and completed barely a pass mark in completions (53 per cent).
Raiders 20 def. Panthers 10
The Moment: Green Machine fans can thank Josh McCrone for keeping them in the semi-finals picture following his involvement in each of Canberra’s three tries. McCrone’s boot set up Jarrod Croker’s contentious equalising four-pointer straight after halftime, as well as Joe Picker’s clincher on the hour.
But it was his 54th-minute, 65-metre solo try against the run of play that gave the visitors the edge on a windy afternoon at the foot of the mountains. The Panthers looked menacing when halfback Luke Walsh dabbed a grubber kick through the centre of the ruck; Raiders interchange Jarrad Kennedy made a desperate retreating dive for the pill, which bounced fortuitously into the arms of McCrone. The No.6 put his foot down and sliced through some surprised Panthers forwards, then held off Brad Tighe’s determined chase to score.
Bulldogs 22 def. Broncos 14
The Moment: A brace of magic touches from Dally M Medal favourite Ben Barba ensured the Bulldogs would prevail and notch their 11th straight victory after the Broncos galloped to an early 14-nil lead. In particular Peter Wallace will be having nightmares about the diminutive No.1 after he stepped out of the Brisbane halfback’s seemingly effective tackle to score the match-winning try from a standing start 35 metres out in the 75th minute.
And you can throw in an outstanding ball-and-all tackle to deprive Wallace of a crucial try under the goalposts, as well as his determined chase and grounding of a Josh Reynolds grubber to seize the lead for his side in the 59th minute, as further evidence of his diamonds display. However, we think the Bulldogs may have been a touch fortunate to have Martin Taupau’s try from close range awarded in the 52nd minute – there’s a case to be made that Aiden Tolman, who played the ball on the Brisbane goal line, obstructed the Broncos defenders as Taupau darted back to the ruck. Certainly Sam Thaiday needed to give Tolman a shove to try to get a shot on Taupau, by which time it was too late. Not deliberate, but a hindrance nonetheless.
Knights 26 def. Sharks 4
The Moment: Knights five-eighth Jarrod Mullen really stepped up against representative opposite Todd Carney with a match-winning performance to keep the Knights in the premiership picture. It was Mullen’s 45-metre sprint, slicing between Jeff Robson and Colin Best before firing a pass to Dane Gagai to score in the 27th minute, which lifted the Knights to 12-nil lead – as well as the confidence level they needed to go on with the job. And when you’re hot, you’re hot: Mullen’s chip kick into the in-goal beneath the Cronulla goal posts for Darius Boyd to get the green light was just their seventh successful scoring play off the boot all year (easily the fewest by any team).
• The views in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the clubs or the NRL.