You just gotta love finals footy! If you weren’t entertained by the action, the drama, the pressure, the controversy and the tribal atmosphere then find another sport because rugby league isn’t for you. The four games had just about everything and all went down to the wire. In results the Roosters escaped against the Broncos and the Storm held off the Eels to both earn a week off. In the elimination finals the Panthers sunk the Sea Eagles in a controversy laden match and we’re going to have new premiers this year as the Cowboys knocked off the Sharks in extra time. So it is farewell and the end of the road for the Sea Eagles and the Sharks. I hope Mad Monday down the Shire isn’t as eventful as last year. The only dust in the air will be left from the stampede of Cowboys leaving Sydney’s Shire in a trail of tears.
The Water Cooler – Playoff Talking Points
Never Say Die
They breed ‘em tough in North Queensland, resilience is in their DNA and I think the most courageous play for the Cowboys. After facing adversity all season they once again stared into the abyss and refused to fall. The battle hardened Cowboys fought back and eventually proved too tough and outlasted the Sharks in a grind fest. This was not footy for the feint hearted and it certainly wasn’t pretty but it was pure playoffs pressure at its finest. The key moment was Ricky Leutele duping the referees into penalising the Cowboys on fifth tackle as the Sharks were struggling to get out of their own quarter. When Jack Bird went over on the back of that poor call to stretch the lead to 8, it would have sapped most teams of the will to fight but these Cowboys have been running on empty for so long they’re now thriving on it. Jason Taumalolo turned Beast Mode to 11, took on the whole Sharks pack and found the stripe. Game on! The Cowboys kept coming at the Sharks in waves, dug deep, found the energy and Michael Morgan the composure to pot the point that keeps the dream alive for at least another week. Extra time was the last thing the Cowboys needed but this side hangs tough and won’t give you the match you’re going to have to earn it the hard way.
It will be a shattered Shire. The Sharks believed they had the side to go back to back and to be honest, I think the Storm will be pleased they’re out. Shane Flanagan made it two out of two for eliminated coaches to moan and groan and blame everyone bar their players. I must have watched a different game. They had everything in their favour yet couldn’t find the finesse to finish the Cowboys off. Mistakes at vital moments cost the Sharks and it was a match that typified the Sharks season, patchy and struggling to find the fluency to fire on all cylinders. It all started well, typically aggressive defence forced the error that gave them the opening try early but the Cowboys were like a barnacle on the side of a shark tank, they just clung on. As the Cowboys came at them the Sharks faltered. The finals walk the finest of lines between agony and ecstasy as every moment is magnified and every error the Sharks made just piled on the pressure. The Cowboys were dropping anvils on them from every angle. The bumbling was shared around but the doozy was Paul Gallen fumbling a yard out as the Sharks were preparing for the winning field goal in regular time. The Sharks just learned how hard it is to go back to back and why few clubs manage the incredible feat in the NRL.
A penny for your thoughts Baz or play the blame game Trent it will cost ten grand! The Sea Eagles season ended in controversy and the acrimonious feelings will linger all Summer long. Manly feel aggrieved with the Bunker and the officiating – Manly fans look away now – but I believe they got every controversial decision correct. Dylan Walker was offside, there was no way he had both feet behind the ball and until we have cameras directly in line across the field the Bunker will have to make judgements calls to the best of their ability. At 10-all with seven minutes remaining, came the biggest and easily most controversial call of the season. Did Tyrone Peachey touch the ball with his fingers? I have seen multiple replays, angles and still cannot tell. A red raw exposed to immediate emotion Barrett complained about the Bunker costing them their season, no replay revealed anything that definitively showed Peachey’s finger touch the ball. The referee, who was in pole position, sent it up as a try so it had to come back down a try. If people like playing history wars they’ll see it as payback from Kieran Foran’s finger that poked the Cowboys season in the eye in 2012. It’s a bitter pill for Manly to swallow and a harsh way to be punted from the playoffs but the Sea Eagles didn’t replicate the devastating display from last week’s ambush. The big guns didn’t fire apart from Blake Green who had a blinder. The Sea Eagles had a side who could do damage and go deep and that’s what will burn them as much as they felt the Bunker did. A coach accepting defeat without pointing the finger would warm my heart even more.
The Panthers were ready this week. They knew what Manly were going to throw at them. Last week they turned up with a slingshot but were confronted with a pack of ballistic missiles. The Panthers turned on the aggression and turned the tables. The forwards mauled Manly and were superbly led by the props up front. Reagan Campbell-Gillard and James Tamou had their pride pricked a week ago and slammed any Sea Eagle in their sights. It was a relentless assault and the heat was on. There was plenty of emotion in this one and it wasn’t the touchy feely tree hugging type, more your ‘burbs versus beaches slug-fest! Every tackle was tasty and it was no surprise that the Sledge Master himself Dylan Walker was at the epicentre of the snarling Panther hurricane of hate. Rookie Panther fullback Dylan Edwards is the polar opposite to Walker, quiet and let’s his football do the talking. Edwards made an unexpected but welcome return which shifted Dean Whare to centre and the Panthers were far tighter defensively which kept the Manly machine at bay by the tips of their claws. Bryce Cartwright upped the ante in his output and his try scoring double might be the invite for the Carty Party to light up the playoffs.
The Chooks earned a week off in what was one of the wackiest playoff matches witnessed in years. The Roosters flew out of the blocks and their opening thirty minutes were superb. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Isaac Liu bent the Broncos completely out of shape and it was 14-0 and looking like ‘by how many’. Unfortunately the Roosters trend is to drift in and out of matches and yet again the Chooks clocked off. Roosters crow when the sun comes up, maybe they should ask the NRL to schedule some dawn kick offs. The Roosters missed opportunities looked like haunting them. Isaac Liu lost the ball millimetres short, Latrell Mitchell dropped the ball over the line, Boyd Cordner tripped ankle tapped by an earth worm with the line wide open. The Roosters had dominated and should have had the game in the bag but when Blake Ferguson’s brain snap in trying to stop a 40/20 gift wrapped a try to Corey Oates with five minutes remaining they were staring a deflating defeat in the face. Enter Latrell Mitchell. The Greg Inglis doppelganger with matching fend singlehandedly blasted his way over to score the match winner and sending the Broncos home having to scrap to stay in the fight while the Roosters are now one win away from the Grand Final.
The master coach Wayne Bennett will earn his bikkies this week as he must re-shoe his broken Broncos. There were some worrying signs. The forwards were dominated especially in the early exchanges. The hole Andrew McCullough has left cannot be filled in and the Broncos are leaky around the ruck. The injuries are taking their toll, Korbin Sims’ power and combativeness and Darius Boyd’s calming presence and brilliant ball play was notable in its absence. It was an error-prone performance but the good news is the character of the side isn’t in doubt. The Broncos were far from their best but still found the gumption to stay in the contest, take their chances and somehow found their way into the lead only to lose it almost immediately and the match. The vision of a shattered Ben Hunt with a morose Wayne Bennett in the dressing room said it all, though Bennett looks that way after most wins.
Usually the Storm handle milestone games with magnificent majesty. Cameron Smith’s record breaking game 356 in the NRL and a home playoff was the recipe ripe for a Melbourne masterpiece. The following 80 minutes has given Craig Bellamy food for thought and the remaining five teams plenty of hope. The Storm lacked composure and played the match at a frenetic pace but in a frantic manner bordering on panic. It just shows what playoff pressure can do. The Storm waltzed through 26 rounds like a Lamborghini cruising on an autobahn yet spluttered through this game like a blue and gold banana had been shoved in the muffler. The Eels put the Storm right off their game and the video review session at Storm training this week will rival a Quentin Tarantino script for expletives as Craig Bellamy lets fly. The Storm are a different beast this season and Bellyache needs to loosen up as some of the Storm’s ball movement is breathtaking. The try Kenny Bromwich scored was an absolute pearler and will never appear in any rugby league manual especially one with a foreword written by one C. Bellamy. The next try scored by Billy Slater was nearly better. Take a chill pill Craig, yes it’s risky but when performed perfectly it’s rewarding.
Real Deal Eels
Parramatta went down to Melbourne with no one giving them much hope as they were seen as an accessory to the celebration of Cam Smith’s milestone match. The Eels gave it a red hot crack and pushed the Storm all the way. Brad Arthur has his men believing they can go all the way and the belief is infectious. No one who watched the Eels stick it to the Storm can doubt their potential to lift the trophy. They are as good a chance as anyone left swinging. The forwards got right in the faces of the Storm and put them off their rhythm, while the halves played some excellent footy. Mitchell Moses sumptuous pass to Will Smith carved the Storm open and it’s this type of sleight of hand skill that Parramatta possesses combined with their tough pack that gives them the X factor to trouble anyone. They’ll gain great confidence despite this loss and will return to Sydney with a spring in their step after they nearly sprung an upset. In their mind, the Storm were just a bump on the road to the Big Show and they’d love another crack.
The Last Word
Quite simply that was one of the best finals weekends for many years. The disappointing aspect was the poor crowds on show to witness the wonderful play. The NRL has got to spend the offseason working out why attendances are dropping. Match ups like we just witnessed deserve full houses not stadiums where empty seats are the back drop. Whether it’s the excellent TV coverage, frustration with refereeing, prices of tickets and food, travel, scheduling the NRL needs to work it out and fix it because this is a great game and product that is going backwards at a rate of knots. The quality produced week in, week out on the field is of the highest standard. It would be marvellous if that was matched by the people making the decisions at League Central.
Pick your act up and make rugby league great again… has Donald Trump trademarked that yet?!?
Credit where it’s due: Big ups to Todd Greenberg for telling losing coaches to grow up and not blame the officials. Take it on the chin like a man! Sometimes you just get beaten and need to look in the mirror.
Main Photo: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images