Competition split in new finals system
IT'S a tired old cliche that the finals are "another competition" - but there was ample evidence at the weekend that the first weekend of the play-offs comprised two completely separate leagues as well.
On the one hand there were the two qualifying finals, where attendances were solid if not dazzling and the focus was on injuries and players placed on report. On the other were the elimination finals, where tickets and hotel rooms were at a premium, crowds were boisterous and even the language of the participants afterwards was more visceral and desperate.
Matt Bowen, the star of North Queensland's 33-16 win over Brisbane on Saturday at Dairy Farmers Stadium, found out first-hand how hard it is to get a bed when the Broncos are in Townsville.
"Every second week, mum and dad come down," Bowen said after 21,307 saw the Cowboys progress to Friday's Allianz Stadium appointment with Manly. "This time there was a truckload (of family).
"I don't know where I'll be sleeping tonight. We'll be all dogging up on the floor somewhere."
While a mobile Telstra mast allowed excited, vocal fans at Dairy Farmers Stadium to update social media with news of North Queensland's triumph, Canberra Stadium was a blackout zone with 24,450 inside for yesterday's tumultuous 34-16 elimination of Cronulla, which set up a clash with South Sydney at ANZ Stadium on Saturday.
There were lines over the grass hill in front of the Mal Meninga stand and back to the Australian Institute Of Sport when the gates opened just after 1pm. By kick-off it was hard to even get a text out of Bruce. The secret for Raiders CEO Don Furner is to get those people coming back regularly next year.
"Winning," is his one-word solution. "That's what they play for, that's what we work for. Our office was buzzed up during the week, we'd love to have them back here next week.
"From where we were eight weeks ago to where we are now ... if someone had have said that, I wouldn't have believed it, but we've won sudden death now six weeks in a row."
The comments of the losers, their seasons over, also reflected the finality of this "third competition".
Cronulla captain Paul Gallen said of his younger rival Josh Papalii: "I really don't care about Papalii. He hit me with a dog shot with a swinging arm and once in the back without the ball."
Beaten Broncos captain Sam Thaiday was equally emotional in discussing the end of esteemed team-mate Petero Civoniceva's career. "It's all done and dusted for him now," said Thaiday. "It's a disappointing way to ... send him out but ... it's a bit heart-breaking, eh?
"Personally, I'm happy with the season and the way the boys stood up and showed a lot of people. At the start of the year we were talked down. We had a young side and we lost Darren Lockyer.
"There're a lot of blokes in that team this year that really stood up and I'm happy to play footy with them for many more years to come because I'm sure they'll be the next Darren Lockyers and the next Petero Civonicevas."
For Manly - 16-10 losers to Canterbury at ANZ Stadium on Friday - and Souths - beaten 24-6 by Melbourne at AAMI Park on Saturday - there is always next week. Souths centre Matt King (broken arm), sadly, is the exception.
Manly's Jamie Lyon, Tony Williams and Joe Galuvao are racing the fitness clock while Steve Matai and Jason King have to wait on judicial proceedings.
But Ben Teo and Todd Carney were injured and Jeremy Smith was reported and no-one cares - because they lost. For two sides next week, it will be the same story - the second comp is now over.