Monday Morning Halfback: Round 22
After 22 rounds of the NRL Telstra Premiership you would think we would have a pretty firm grasp on the teams likely to contend for the title by now.
But after a dramatic weekend of footy, the race for the Provan Summons trophy is as wide open as it has ever been.
The Broncos – who once looked every bit premiership contenders after being just one tackle away from the trophy last year – struggled to put away the Dragons and look to be a shadow of their former self. They now look destined for an elimination final in September where anything could happen. There is no doubting the side's potential, but time is quickly running out for them to rediscover the form that had them at the top of the table after 10 rounds.
The Bulldogs did enough to put away a valiant Newcastle side, consigning the Knights to their 14th loss in a row. The win moved Des Hasler's men into the top four with a nice two-point buffer on the fifth-placed Cowboys who lost a dramatic contest at Leichhardt Oval on Sunday afternoon. After a decade of perfecting his technique, Hasler has finally managed to fly under the radar and now his side is in the box seat for a top four berth and a home final.
The Raiders emphatically announced that they are every bit title contenders when they ended the Sharks' much vaunted undefeated streak. It was an absolute display of power that will have everyone in the competition nervous of what they are capable of in September. This Green Machine just could go all the way, they are that good.
Then we had the Storm looking every bit a beaten side at home by a besieged Rabbitohs outfit until a clutch Cam Smith penalty goal sent the game into golden point. Smith would again step up to break South Sydney hearts with a neat field goal to push the Storm to outright leaders of the competition with just four weeks left of the regular season. They are going to take some beating.
The Warriors, buoyed by their dramatic last-start golden point win flew into the Gold Coast almost unnoticed with all the attention on the return of Jarryd Hayne. And didn't they spoil the party. It was a strong performance – especially in defence and resolve – and one that showed how far this team has come this season. They still have a lot of work to do to seal a top eight berth, but with three of their last four games at home, they could be a real dark horse in the competition.
The loss dropped the Titans out of the eight, but there were enough signs from Hayne that they won't go quietly in the last four weeks.
The Wests Tigers knocked off the reigning premiers with a resounding show of passion and controlled aggression. Much has been made of the Jason Taylor-Robbie Farah relationship, but the team is responding the best way they can, by winning games and moving into the top eight.
With four weeks to go, the race for the premiership is wide open. Over to you Penrith.
Smith's clutch plays
Cam Smith's decision to ignore Cooper Cronk in golden point turned out to be a masterstroke, but certainly had the Melbourne halfback second guessing his skipper for a couple of seconds. Cronk was set in perfect position to kick the game-winning point and is a noted iceman in those situations, but Smith ignored Cronk and skipped left out of dummy-half. Both markers had committed to chasing down Cronk. As Smith dropped the ball ready to snap his attempt, Cronk could be seen with arms outstretched, wondering why he hadn't received the ball. Lucky for the Storm, Smith nailed only his third ever field goal to cap an incredible finish. It's not the first time Smith has tried the play.
In Round 7 against the Wests Tigers, Smith attempted a similar play, but his field goal attempt never got off the ground as Cronk looked on unimpressed. A sheepish Smith had to laugh off his shanked kick post-match. Lucky for the Storm this week's attempt was a beauty. It'll be interesting to see who takes the lead in the bigger matches to come.
Hayne captures imagination
The lure of the celebrity, the superstar, say what you like about Jarryd Hayne, having him back in rugby league is a boon for the NRL. Hayne's over saturation has made him somewhat of a polarising figure in the game, but there is no doubting his mass drawing appeal.
One look at the crowd and the ratings is all you need to know. He has the ability to transcend the sport.
And for a player who has been out of the game for two years, his first game back was pretty remarkable – outside of one intercepted pass.
A lot of fun was had on social media at the expense of the gimmicky 'Hayne Cam' as a camera followed Jarryd's every move as he sat on the sideline. But that all changed the moment Hayne took the field. The experiment is the tip of the iceberg of what fans can expect in coming years when it comes to consuming sport.
The 'second screen experience' has long been a buzz word for media and content industries, and the ability to watch your favourite player as well as the game is going to become part and parcel of the match day ritual.
The thought of watching the game's greats like Johnathan Thurston or Cam Smith up close as they pick opposition teams apart and organise their troops is really appealing. As technology evolves, this will go from one-off experiment to becoming the norm.
NSW Women show their passion
This column has talked a lot about the Women's Origin last month and the historic win for NSW – their first in 17 years over Queensland.
If you want to know how much it meant to the players, you need only look at second row forward Vanessa Foliaki who got a tattoo to commemorate the victory. Numerous NSW players have since got in touch saying they too would follow suit and celebrate the historic win with ink.
It must be noted that stories across NRL.com about the Women's Origin received unprecedented traffic, proving how far the game has come. Long may it continue to grow.