And then there were nine… on a weekend where seasons went on the line, teams staring into the abyss fell on their swords and tumbled over the edge. Controversy reigned supreme in the nation’s capital as the Raiders went down swinging literally. Coaches, players, officials, fans, everyone is feeling the pressure – the finals are nearing the heat is on! The winners were the Broncos belting the Bulldogs, the Roosters accounted for the Knights and the Sharks shredded the Rabbitohs. Super Saturday ended up shocking Saturday for the teams on 18 points as their playoff dreams dissipated. The Panthers gutted the Gold Coast, the Storm survived a severe test against the Raiders and the Cowboys coolly disposed of the Warriors. Sunday saw the Dragons smash the Sea Eagles and the Eels slip past the Tigers but lost Clint Gutherson for the season in the process!
The Water Cooler – Ten Talking Points
See Ya Soliola
The Raiders season of frustration boiled over at a heated GIO Stadium. It all came to a head when Sia Soliola all but dislodged Billy Slater’s noggin from his neck! In a flimsy defence for Soliola, Slater did slip, he had skates on all night on the slippery surface, which meant Soliola connected with Billy the Kid’s lid instead of his shoulder but that is inconsequential as it was late, it was a swinging arm and it was extremely dangerous contact. We need to protect our ball players and superstars from thuggery. The NRL took the unusual step of releasing a statement admitting the officials got it wrong, always a first time for everything, and that Soliola should have been sent off. Making the non-send off more ridiculous was Cameron Munster being sin binned with a minute to go. Munster leaves the field for a minor indiscretion, while Soliola stays on after nearly decapitating Slater, but hey that’s NRL logic. Go figure. Soliola will feel the feel force of the judiciary and be made an example of hung out to dry. Sia will be swinging from the chandelier for the rest of the season.
Ricky Wrong Rant
The fallout from the Raiders loss continued in the post-match presser as Ricky Stuart went postal on the officials. A mega-frustrated and fuming Sticky was berating Matt Cecchin about a decision that was sent upstairs as a try and came back down correctly over-ruled as no try. Ricky your side got the right call in the end, why the carry on mate? If I was you I would have kept my trap shut, saved some dosh and unloaded on your bumbling team. The Raiders have had a season of errors, ill-discipline and a lack of composure that placed them in this precarious position and it continued on Saturday night. No Cameron Smith for half the game, no Billy Slater for the last quarter and yet they still couldn’t finish over the top of the courageous Storm. Canberra have had a clutch of close losses but as their season fades before their eyes, before playing the blame game they need to look in the mirror first.
Headache for Bellyache
The Storm displayed great gumption to grind out the win against the Raiders but it may have come at quite a cost. In shocking news for the Storm skipper Cameron Smith tore a chest muscle that will have him struggling to return for September. If it is only a month it may actually be a blessing as he’ll gain invaluable rest after a gruelling Origin campaign. The Storm are fortunate in that they only require a couple more wins to confirm a top 4 finish and in coach Craig Bellamy, have the best coach who runs the smoothest system in the NRL. Smith is a vital cog in the purple machine if it’s only a month they can weather the storm, if scans show bad news then Melbourne, we have a problem. Billy Slater should be okay, the thumbs up he gave from the medi-cab showed he was conscious though not enjoying his day out in Disneyland. In the absence of these two legends, Cooper Cronk, Dale Finucane and Cameron Munster stepped up and steered the Storm home. Bellamy will be confident he has the squad to stay ahead of the chasing pack.
Now that’s how you get out of a slump! After a horrific couple of months the Dragons came out firing and gave their funk a huge slam dunk. By halftime the game was all over, the Saints were singing. The forwards led by Tyson Frizzell blew right through the Sea Eagles like the sea breeze a 3 iron away from the stadium at Wollongong. Off the back of the forwards domination the Dragons backs had a day out. Gareth Widdop had a blinder, scoring a try, setting them up with pin point kicks, converted 8 from 9 and even threw in a 40/20 for good measure. It was a complete performance from the English wizard and the side. The Dragons regained their mojo just at the right time. They’ve kept the wolves from the door for now, actually one wolf, the Panthers. The rest of the pack is now too far back. We’ll find out over the next month whether the Dragons house is made of bricks or straw.
Sea Eagles Wings Clipped
Is that the loss the Manly had to have? After much back slapping and good press the Sea Eagles flew into the ’Gong with confidence sky high and left in a haze of feathers after being battered on the receiving end of a one-sided pillow fight. No side likes making excuses, and Manly won’t, but with no Blake Green and no Brenton Lawrence, the Sea Eagles looked pretenders not contenders. Green’s absence was tangible, his calmness and kicking game sorely missed, the Sea Eagles were a shadow of the side that had been sweeping all before them. Manly’s disastrous defence made the Dragons resemble the Harlem Globetrotters, the Eagles played the part of the Washington Generals. Trent Barrett hopes this defence doesn’t go on tour and that it was a one off shocker, the magnitude and ineptitude of the defeat spurring the Sea Eagles to greater heights. I don’t think Manly will worry too much about this loss, they’ll write it off as a bad day and move on, which they must do quickly as the Storm are up next!
Take A Backseat Matt
The Panthers win over the Titans continued the clawing towards the finals. They’re still not quite clicking but something is becoming quite clear. The Panthers play their best football when Nathan Cleary takes control. Matt Moylan is a fantastic five-eighth but needs to let Cleary run the show. Last week when Moylan was missing, Cleary whipped the Warriors with a masterpiece. Against the Titans the Panthers were struggling to find cohesion until Moylan left the field after twinging his hamstring scoring a crucial intercept try. With clear air, the Panther half turned general and the Cleary-led side immediately looked better. Moylan is a tremendous talent, he just needs to stand back a bit and allow Cleary to strut his stuff. If the Panthers halves can elevate their combination, they can not only rise into the finals but do some damage.
North Queensland are proving to be a very well coached professional outfit. Their disposal of the Warriors was a very confident display by a group of men who are enjoying their time in the sun as they step out from the large shadow cast by the talisman Jonathan Thurston. They’ve adjusted beautifully to life without Thurston and his replacement Te Maire Martin is getting better each week. Martin was fantastic against the Warriors, his footwork dazzling. Gavin Cooper has grown since his Origin involvement and is a real leader of the team. Jason Taumalolo was immense as usual, wedging huge holes in the Warriors midfield for the ever-impressive Michael Morgan and Martin to work off. Paul Green has his Cowboys cooking and when they stare into embers of the camp fire at season’s end they may have some grand stories of glory to share. Don’t count them out.
Bye Bye Bulldogs
With it all to play for the Bulldogs bowed out without a whimper. The frantic first half throwing the ball around with flippancy smacked of desperation and a side that don’t have any idea how to play expansive football. The second half capitulation was pathetic, the missed tackles wouldn’t pass muster in park footy. There was no bark and definitely no bite. The lack of fight is a major worry for Des Hasler’s future as the players didn’t show any desire to dig in for Des. His email inbox will be on red alert for a message containing the sentence “full backing of the board”. As for the future, the Dogs need a re-boot, the playing group and style needs an overhaul. Some of the Dogs need to be put in the pound, while Des is headed for the dog house.
As we head towards the finals and the stampede of sides seeking the top 4 safety net, the Broncos belting of the Bulldogs was breathtaking. It was a brilliant performance led by the tough and under-rated, by all bar his team mates, Andrew McCullough. No one prepares a side for the finals like Wayne Bennett and the old master would have loved what he viewed especially as he still has his favourite Darius Boyd to slip back into the side. Kodi Nikorima did a great job at fullback and has turned into the Broncos jack-of-all-trades he plugs gaps better than spakfilla! Matt Gillett and Josh McGuire returned from Origin duty on a high, bringing back the Maroons quality. The best news was the razzle dazzle of Anthony Milford, the zip was back and if he continues to make moves like this there’ll be murder on the finals dance floor.
Sharks Need Spark
The Sharks racked up another two points and in trademark fashion ground it out against the outclassed Rabbitohs. They are making a valiant defence of their crown but a couple of the jewels need a polish. The defence is a wall but the attack is lacking some rhythm. With Origin taking so many players out of the side the Sharkies are probably a bit mentally tired but are well placed to make a move when the whips are cracking. Shane Flanagan timed the Shire’s finest run to the title with sheer perfection last campaign and he’ll aim to do the same again. James Maloney needs to discover some discipline and run the ball more. Maloney is most dangerous when he’s direct, after breaking a bone in his hand he now has three weeks off to rest and reset his compass. Andrew Fifita looks a bit flat and fatigued but if the Sharks wrecking ball can swing into action at full tilt the Sharks can take a huge step towards the title.
The Last Word
If you want to gain an insight into the pressure the NRL coaches are placed under, this round was a prime example. Des Hasler looked dishevelled in the box and shredded on social media for the Dogs insipid display. Anthony Griffin usually displays the emotion of an Easter Island statue yet was more animated than Frankie Dettori riding home Matt Moylan’s intercept try that put the Panthers out of reach. Trent Barrett was stunned like he’d been smacked in the face with a smoked trout after the Sea Eagles debacle. Mary McGregor relieved the anvil had been lifted off his back, for a week at least. Stephen Kearney has to deal with a whole nation’s disillusionment. Craig Bellamy invests every ounce of his being into every moment and felt the pain of his fallen legends. While the daddy of the dummy spit, Ricky Stuart delivered a doozy as his frustrations spilled over.
The coaches are involved in their own personal Game of Bones each week. They place their job, their future, their energy into every match knowing they’re potentially just one bad performance away from being boned and thrown on the scrap heap. They prepare their soldiers with intricate detail and send them off to battle it out for the ultimate prize, NRL champions. It’s a tough job, some already have fallen by the wayside and others are clinging on to power fighting wars on multiple fronts, internally and externally.
Take a deep breath and watch your back lads. Good luck with that. There are six rounds to go.
The Finals are coming!