EIGHT GAMES, EIGHT MOMENTS: Slick Eagles, Raiders go wide, Penrith's star of the future and a super Storm comeback.
Sea Eagles 16 def. Broncos 6
The Moment: Brisbane showed remarkable grit to outpoint the home team over the closing 50 minutes of this match – especially seeing they had a whopping 12 fewer full sets in possession! However, their brave effort wasn’t enough to stop bookmakers twirling in the numbers on the reigning premiers defending their title on the last Sunday in September. Manly’s elastic attack stretched the visitors to snapping point in a telling 10-minute period midway through the first half, with the usual suspects to the fore. In particular Brett Stewart’s first four-pointer of the evening summed up what a bogy opponent Manly will prove in the playoffs.
With 20 minutes gone, rejuvenated five-eighth Kieran Foran took the ball on the fifth tackle 30 metres out and dabbed a precise short kick into no-man’s land between the Broncos’ frontline and their last line of defence in Gerard Beale and Corey Norman. Stewart snaked his way through the Broncos and received a dream bounce 10 metres out to post his 65th try in his 69th game at Brookie (he finished with 66). As for Foran’s challenge to ref Tony Archer about a Broncos obstruction play in the 63rd minute… thankfully no damage was done. We shudder to think about the backlash had there been.
Raiders 34 def. Bulldogs 6
The Moment: Playing to their strengths – speed out wide – paid off handsomely for the Green Machine, with wingers Sandor Earl and Reece Robinson bagging five tries as Canberra ended the Bulldogs’ winning streak at an even dozen. In particular Robinson’s first try in the 13th minute for a 12-nil lead was decisive – followers of NRL.com’s Stats Insider would note his research earlier this season that uncovered an 80 per cent success rate for sides making an early ‘double strike’. Former Panther Earl’s second try was arguably the defining moment; the Bulldogs had struck back to trail 12-6 in the 24th minute when Earl showed great composure and skill to complete a difficult grounding of a Sam Williams grubber.
It was one of four tries Canberra scored from attacking kicks (two from grubbers, one from a bomb and one from a cross-field floater) – with 28 to date they’ve leapfrogged the Bulldogs as the most dangerous side when putting ball to boot. Earl couldn’t get across the stripe in three games for Penrith this year but he now has five from nine games in the lime green jersey.
Meanwhile with so much attention afforded possible obstruction plays it was disappointing to see a howler of a forward pass overlooked – Josh McCrone’s delivery for Reece Robinson to finish the night’s scoring in the 72nd minute must have floated three metres forward yet inexplicably was not picked up by the ref or touchie. You know the litmus test: what if that play were to occur in the grand final with the premiership on the line?
Panthers 36 def. Titans 22
The Moment: An energised Penrith handed non-playing former skipper Luke Lewis a winning home send-off as they crushed the Titans’ dreams of progressing to the semi-finals. It was a blistering display of attack that must have had the Centrebet Stadium fans wondering what might have been in 2012.
Their champagne moment came when they led 18-16 approaching the hour mark, with Michael Jennings and Josh Mansour combining for a scintillating 60-metre short-side play. Jennings fielded a bouncing pass on the left edge, evaded Titans skipper Scott Prince and passed to Mansour who skirted the touchline. As Jamal Idris came across in cover on halfway the rookie dropped the ball onto his right foot in a delicate dab infield for his team-mate, who snatched the bouncing ball then drew opposition fullback William Zillman before delivering the final pass to Mansour to score. The kid’s a star of the future for sure: in his first NRL season he ranks second to Paul Gallen for average metres each game (with 164). He made 212 metres here.
Dragons 38 def. Warriors 6
The Moment: This one’s easy… it has to be Matt Cooper’s 79th minute try off a flashy behind-the-back flick pass from second-rower Ben Creagh which, when converted, gave the Dragons their 38 points for the night. That’s the most points they’ve tallied all year after the 36 they laid on when smashing the Wests Tigers in Round 3 (a long time between drinks). In fact it was just the seventh occasion in 2012 that the Red V have scored 20 points or more in a game.
Three Dragons were especially elated as the fulltime siren signaled the end of captain Ben Hornby and lock Dean Young’s careers in Wollongong – Will Matthews, Chase Stanley and Josh Miller each dotted down for their maiden try of the season, ensuring they will avoid the dreaded ‘nudie run’ the likes of Young and Jack De Belin are still in the running for.
Cowboys 22 def. Knights 14
The Moment: The Johnathan Thurston factor was responsible for ending Wayne Bennett’s 21-year finals streak, with a splashing of moments from the Kangaroos No.6 contributing to the Knights’ exit from 2012 premiership calculations. First JT caught the Knights napping 12 metres out to score the home side’s first points in the seventh minute; later a Darius Boyd late shot gifted Thurston a penalty goal to edge to a six-point advantage on the hour; finally the Cowboys’ skipper suckered another penalty, exposing the opposition’s disorganised marker defenders with seven minutes to play, with his GPS-accurate boot banging the Steeden over for the final scoreline.
Massive wow factor from evergreen centre Brent Tate too, who showed remarkable vision to alter course and swerve to the inside of Anthony Mitchell, thus ensuring free passage up-field to complete the Cowboys’ length-of-the-field third try in the 27th minute. Meanwhile Wayne Bennett would be livid at some of the Knights’ paper-thin defence, with the side missing 47 tackles – simply not acceptable for a unit contemplating the playoffs. Surprisingly the major offenders were the forward pack who missed 31 tackles between them, with Kade Snowden (seven) and Danny Buderus (five) the biggest culprits.
Roosters 44 def. Wests Tigers 20
The Moment: This one’s easy, too… Mitchell Pearce’s selfless – if a little audacious – out-the-back-flick pass to fullback Anthony Minichiello in the Tigers’ in-goal for ‘Mini’ to score in his 250th NRL game. The 66th-minute play summed up the mood in the tricolours’ camp as they buried the woeful Tigers under a mountain of hurt. Halves Pearce and Braith Anasta did the damage, with the halfback scoring a try and adding three try assists and captain Anasta chiming in with two try assists. Spare a thought for poor Benji Marshall who added three try assists of his own to take his tally to the year to a whopping 36! That’s the NRL benchmark and eight more than next-best Cooper Cronk! Bet he can’t wait for Anasta to help him out in the gold-and-black jersey in 2013…
Rabbitohs 38 def. Eels 6
The Moment: Greg Inglis fired an ominous shot across the bows of all semi-finals candidates with two blockbusting tries and three silky try assists as the Eels limped away with their first wooden spoon in 40 years. The manner of Inglis’ involvement was particularly impressive: his four-pointers in the 17th and 69th minutes came from back-rower-like charges from close range, while his assists involved precise cut-out balls and overhead basketball passes that simply toyed with his opponents. The hopelessly outgunned Eels will still be having nightmares about his 13 tackle-breaks, too.
Plus ‘GI’ was pivotal to the internal battle between wingers Nathan Merritt and Andrew Everingham in their quest to become top bunny try-scorer for 2012. Merritt drew alongside Everingham on 14 for the season when he crossed in the 72nd minute – before Inglis helped out his right wingman with a lofted ball with a minute to play to give him the edge with just a game against the Knights in hand. Victory over Newcastle on Friday night could see Souths finish as high as third on the ladder – while defeat could see them relegated to fifth place should other results go against them. The big question is: What will coach Michael Maguire do with spurned hooker Issac Luke? Certainly Nathan Peats filled the role perfectly here, making 117 receives, a try assist and 20 tackles – while not missing one – in a polished 80 minutes.
Storm 20 def. Sharks 18
The Moment: Okay, ’fess up: who thought the Sharks were safe when they led by eight points with 10 minutes remaining? What about five? Nope – not when Melbourne had a sniff of the minor premiership still in their nostrils. Although Cameron Smith must have experienced chest pains when, with just 26 seconds left on the clock and with the Storm trailing 18-16, he glanced across and saw winger Sisa Waqa run to the right out of dummy-half 10 metres out when 10 Storm players were spread out to the left in readiness for one final strike. No matter; Waqa must have picked up a telepathic vibe from centre Will Chambers, who was loitering on the edge. With everyone else on the field, including Sharks marker Paul Gallen, expecting the ball to head left, Waqa calmly ran a diagonal line that sucked Cronulla winger John Williams off his mark and left the door open for Chambers to score and deliver a miraculous comeback win.
Incredibly, after being touted as a top-four chance just three weeks ago, the Sharks will finish seventh on the ladder should they lose to the Cowboys and the Raiders defeat the Warriors on what’s shaping as a massive final Sunday in the regular rounds of 2012.
• The views in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the clubs or the NRL.