The final truncated four-match round of the NRL has finished – thankfully. Precious points are won and lost during this phase that can make or break seasons for those on the edge. The Bulldogs season was going, going and just about gone until two tries in the final five minutes saved the club from massive embarrassment, escaping with a two point victory against Newcastle in front of the faithful at their spiritual home of Belmore. Poor Nathan Brown and his young men can’t take a trick as the Knights were all but home and hosed. Just as Brown was thinking about sending Knights chairman Brian McGuigan a bottle of McGuigan’s own finest with a note saying “Stick these grapes in your cork and screw it” the Bulldogs came from the clouds and stole the win. The other split round games saw the Roosters hold on to beat the Bunnies, the Panthers upset the Sea Eagles and the Eels dispose of the understrength Storm.
The Water Cooler – Five Talking Points
After two gallant golden point games during the Origin period, the split round finally caught up with the Storm. The Eels ventured to Melbourne expected to put away the youthful purple pride and they did so with aplomb. Parramatta blew out of the blocks and before Craig Bellamy could work out which expletive to unload first, the Eels were long gone. The Eels were on, the forwards dominating, offloading at will and playing at speed. The Storm are the masters of controlling the ruck but without the maestro, Cameron Smith, they were trampled. The slick Eels backline then took over with Mitchell Moses starring, he has fit into the Brad Arthur’s system beautifully. The cult hero, jack of all trades, Clint Gutherson was again superb at fullback. The combination between Moses, Gutherson and Corey Norman is humming and with the speed men on the wings, the Eels are looking more and more likely, to be playing finals footy come September.
The battle between the Fijian flyers, Semi Radradra and Suliasi Vunivalu was highly anticipated but turned out to be a one sided affair with the knockout blow landed early on. Radradra had been numero uno in the Fijian flank rankings since he burst onto the scene, but Vunivalu has performed so consistently freakishly this season, he has inspired a Fijian coup d’etat and usurped the French-bound star from his throne. Radradra was primed and intent on proving to Vunivalu and the NRL who is the best. The Semi-trailer hit the field at top speed and within the first 15 minutes had broken multiple tackles, scored a try and made three line breaks one of which led to the sin binning of Vunivalu which broke the Storm as it was during this period the Eels skipped away. The contest between both the sides and the wingers was over. It was like a Semi-trailer taking on a moped. Vunivalu had an off night, caused by Radradra’s brilliance, but never threw in the towel and kept coming but the judges scored this one 3-0 to Radradra. Vunivalu asked for a recount using the judges from the Pacquiao Horn fight – who somehow awarded it to Vunivalu but may have been pressured by Craig Bellamy standing ringside on the sidelines escaping the claustrophobia of his coaching box, or driven to ground by the haunting echo of his ranting.
Top Drawer Defence
Manly may have gone down to the Panthers but the manner of the defeat has only added to the belief within the club that this is a very good football team who can go all the way. The Sea Eagles fought the whole way, the Penrith attack, a heavy penalty count and referee Henry Perenara, who Daly Cherry-Evans had a running battle with for most of the game. DCE protested politely but was pushing a barrow uphill – I’ve never seen a ref change his mind. Trent Barrett then dumped on the officiating no doubt a fine from the NRL will be sitting in his inbox when he opens his emails tomorrow morning. Barrett all but channelled Bozo Fulton and his cement truck tactic from 1987, the Sea Eagles will hope it bears fruit. We’ll keep an eye on those Manly penalty counts for the rest of the season. On field, the Manly goal line defence was tested time and time again and only a mixer with a full load called James Tamou could find a way through, the Panthers only other try coming from a bomb and highly suspect grounding by Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, which infuriated Manly adding to their grievances. The future looks bright for the Sea Eagles as the few times they did manage to get into the Panthers red zone, they were dangerous, looking like scoring every set they had, minimal though they were. DCE and Blake Green had the ball on a string and with a fair share of possession the score line and final result could have been different. A fuming Trent Barrett praised his players in the presser and so he should, Manly are the real deal and a top four side and a definite title threat.
Missing four players for Origin III and playing the desperate red hot Rabbitohs hoping to continue their roll for finals footy, the high flying Roosters took an alternative route to bounce the Bunnies. Trent Robinson threw the Rabbits a curve ball and plucked Mitch Cornish from feeder club the Wyong Roos to play halfback. Cornish has not had many opportunities at this level but thrived and repaid Robinson’s faith with a polished performance. He controlled the Roosters well and his kicking game was spot on, pinning the Bunnies back with pin point accuracy. Cornish complimented Luke Keary well, Cornish’s control allowing Keary to float around and bob up both sides of the ruck to frighten the Rabbit raisins out of the Bunnies. With quality halves scarce on the ground, it was also a great chance for Cornish to showcase his wares and remind not only Robinson but the NRL (and Super League) that he has the skills that can be handy in any side. He may be contracted for next year but that doesn’t matter in the rugby league world.
Bunnies Blow It
The Rabbitohs season may have unravelled in the narrow loss to the Roosters. You couldn’t fault the effort but the end result will be a bitter pill to swallow. They were favourites playing an Origin hit opponent and in the context of their season, winning was the only satisfactory outcome. The Bunnies bounded out of the burrow but the Roosters held firm. A second half rally fell just short and it would have been a very damp dressing room, possibly from a Michael Maguire spray but probably due to the blood, sweat and tears placed into that match. Sam Burgess was tremendous again, how he manages to consistently produce his absolute best every moment of every match astounds me. He is a supreme athlete and the ultimate professional. Clone him and the Bunnies would be challenging for the highest honours, unfortunately the closest you can come to cloning Slammin’ Sam are his twin brothers but even a double whopper Burgess deal can’t replicate big brother’s brilliance. Others had their moments such as Angus Crichton, the one Rabbit who comes closest to matching Sam’s output but the Bunnies just couldn’t find the form and flow of the past fortnight. The sensational in-form Alex Johnston barely saw the ball which says a lot about the Rabbitohs play and maybe the difference of the two coaches and sides. The loss combined with the Eels win, while not fatal to the Rabbitohs season has it placed on life support.
The Last Word
Does anyone at League Central have any idea about scheduling? The Origin period is admittedly hard to work around, and sorting out its disruption to the NRL must be one of their top priorities. Some games are scheduled at unnecessarily terrible times, reeking of the ridiculous and sheer stupidity and ignorance. Last week’s placing of the Sea Eagles v Warriors match on at the same time as the All Blacks v British and Irish Lions match was the height of lunacy. No one in the land of the long white cloud would have watched other than Shaun Johnson’s mum, and even she used the picture-in-picture function! The Roosters and Rabbitohs, one of league’s oldest and greatest rivalries, should have had Allianz Stadium near to capacity but the combination of a split round understrength Chooks side and Origin inspired fan lethargy led to a paltry Chook pen. Though acerbic NRL fans will claim that was the largest crowd the Roosters massive fan base can manage, it’s hard to leave your warm beach front house to attend a match in air so cold it turns a piping hot latte into a frappe in milliseconds.
Crowd figures are a massive worry for the NRL especially in the supposed heartland of Sydney, send more games to the bush or interstate – in the right time slot – and shake the apathetic Sydneysiders right up, move the Grand Final to Brisbane! Go on I dare ya!