Monday Morning Halfback: The circus never stops

Welcome to the world of rugby league, a place of massive hits, thrilling twists, ultimate exhilaration and soul crushing despair - and that's just off the field.

The intrigue, the speculation, the analysis, the drama. It's the everyday soap opera of rugby league. Equal parts drama and sitcom, it is the only thing in this world that can lay real claim to reality TV. 

But just when you've had enough of the carnival ride, rugby league has a habit of delivering on the field when it matters most. 

After a week of headlines focused on everything but the game or even season 2017, Manly headed to Canberra and the two sides put on an epic encounter with two brilliant tries in the final 10 minutes and an even more compelling finish that saw Dylan Walker atone for two earlier misses to slot a penalty goal in extra time. Walker had become pantomime villain No.1 on a dramatic night in the Nation's capital. 

‌It was a timely reminder of everything we love about rugby league, 80-plus minutes of exhilarating drama on that majestic field of dreams where heroes and villains are created in an instant with memories that last a lifetime. All the drama and controversy had been forgotten. 

Then just minutes later, the Rabbitohs hosted the Broncos and rugby league said – 'hold my beer'.

The second Friday night game was a powder keg of controversy and drama, with the fallout expected to last for days as a controversial Anthony Milford field-goal put the exclamation point on an already divisive contest.

It was quintessentially rugby league. There's no sport like it.

The game has been delivering on the field all season. No matter how many off-field issues arise, the 16 hours of NRL played every week always manages to respond with vigour. 

What about the Knights and Titans, if only you could bottle their heart and commitment. The Titans had only one healthy player on the bench in the second half against the Sharks, I'm not sure why they even bother putting out four chairs on the bench – so frequent have their injuries been this season. But that didn't stop them coming back against the reigning premiers and pipping them in a dramatic finish at Shark Park. Reward for incredible effort. Jarryd Hayne making his comeback – on the eve of representative season - may have been the spark, but it was the work of others that formed the backbone of their gutsy win. 

Ryan James 50 tackles, 133 metres. Nathan Peats an incredible 57 tackles, Jarrod Wallace 176 metres, 39 tackles. Then there is Anthony Don. The underrated winger who managed the impossible to get out of his own in-goal, refusing to give up hope and coming up with a match-winning run to save a drop out. Don ran 35 metres sideways, tiptoeing his own deadball line to make six, and it was game changing with only two minutes left on the clock. It was the personification of the Titans. All heart and determination.

‌What about those Dragons and how their forward pack is playing through teams with a simple but highly effective game plan. The re-emergence of Gareth Widdop – once part of the worst attack in the competition - as one of the game's most in-form halves. His resurgence as a dominant half has brought into focus the arrival of Ben Hunt on massive money. But that's another story. 

What about the fabulous Raiders' right edge? Joey Leilua, all tackle-breaking, offloading, bustling enigma and his chance to push for a representative jersey, be it Green and Gold, or sky blue. And if not him, why not his captain, Jarrod Croker – who freakishly stopped Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from scoring a certain try with one of the tackles of the season - a man who may yet go on to break all the point scoring records in the NRL and never wear a sky blue representative jumper to show for it. Isn't that something.

What about Mitch Pearce, who is playing out of his skin, with an attacking step off either foot into the teeth of defensive lines in the attacking zone that screams he is at the top of his game. His running game has returned – and so too have the Roosters – one that is full of confidence and self-assurance. On form the Blues No.7 jersey should be his again – although he still may miss out. Or perhaps even a Dally M Medal awaits. 

 

 
Then there is the Sharks, those Cronulla boys who couldn't possibly be the first team to go back-to-back, not without Michael Ennis and Ben Barba. Their first title in the club's history was thanks to a soft competition, don't you know, and no-one wins two on the trot. But then they beat the Raiders in Canberra and the Storm in Melbourne. A stumble to the Titans notwithstanding, the porch might remain a very dark place in the Shire.

What about Matt Frawley and those Bulldogs. He has to be the starting halfback, that much is clear. Although wily Des Hasler has other ideas. Frawley provides the Bulldogs with something they have lacked in recent times, direction and organisation. That is not a slight on any of the players in their organisation, it's just a skillset that he brings that is not a forte of Moses Mbye and Josh Reynolds. Both brilliant instinctive players, but Frawley completes the jigsaw at Belmore. Or so it would seem. 

Then there is Manly, those Sea Eagles boys who have gone from pathetic, to unstoppable and back in the space of a month. Can the real Sea Eagles please step forward? They've beaten the Raiders in Canberra, the Cowboys in Townsville, the Roosters at Allianz but are just 1-4 at 'fortress Lottoland'. Just last week they conceded 30 points in a half to the Storm and still almost won. Strange times indeed. 

The Cowboys – what about Jason Taumalolo, the statistical freak, running for more metres after contact than most forwards make in a game. Or big lump Coen Hess, the Ivan Drago lookalike who has been destroying left-edge defences and making them look like ants. He skittles defences like ten pins, but just wait until he actually grows into that massive frame – he's only 20. 

The Broncos – playing all Rocky Balboa – you know their games are going the distance one way or another, you might as well throw in a music montage. The speed of Jimmy the Jet and Milford, the exquisite cut-out passes of Darius Boyd and the tireless Andrew McCullough and Matt Gillett controlling the middle of the field. Who could forget McCullough's ridiculous game-changing ankle tap, or Gillett's match winning charge down? Giant plays from even bigger engines.

What about young gun Corey Harawira-Neara who has been killing it for the Panthers in the backrow (and in NRL Fantasy) on the left edge. He has been a bright spot in an otherwise troubling start from the mountain men.

Bring on Anzac Day and two footy games that remind us how lucky we are to do what we do. 

Rugby league is but a game, but what a game it is.

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