NRL buoyed by Anzac Day clashes
Reeling from dismal early-season attendance figures, the NRL received a timely boost as fans turned out in force along the eastern seaboard for three wonderful Anzac Day clashes. On the most hallowed day of the premiership’s regular season, 38,784 supporters attended the 13th edition of the traditional Dragons-Roosters showdown at Allianz; the fifth instalment of the Melbourne-Warriors Anzac Day fixture attracted a Storm record 28,716-strong crowd at AAMI Park; and a bumper Suncorp Stadium crowd of 44,122 showed for the maiden Broncos-Rabbitohs Anzac Day encounter.
The quality of the football matched the atmosphere and sense of occasion. Stuttering premiers the Roosters announced their return to form with an ultimately commanding 34-14 victory over the Dragons, streaking away late in a high-intensity clash that was in the balance until the final 10 minutes.
The Warriors enhanced their reputation as Melbourne’s bogey side with a character-laden 16-10 triumph. The Storm looked certain to overrun the visitors in the second half, but magnificent scrambling defence preserved the Warriors’ halftime lead before maligned No.7 Shaun Johnson’s brilliance delivered the decisive try of a gripping encounter.
The Broncos and Rabbitohs capped a glorious day with one of the finest games of the season to date. Racing to a 14-0 lead in even time, Souths were hauled in by the home side, who displayed tremendous composure to snare a half-time lead. A pulsating and see-sawing second stanza witnessed another heart-stopping, albeit controversial, finish as the gallant Broncos went down 28-26.
Refs can’t avoid unwanted spotlight
After taking a buffeting all week in the wake of a string of match-deciding howlers, the NRL’s match officials produced another batch of contentious calls in round eight. A disgraceful stripping penalty against Brisbane halfback Ben Hunt in the 79th minute saw Adam Reynolds kick Souths to a 28-26 victory, bringing a classic contest to a disappointing conclusion.
Penrith coach Ivan Cleary claimed Cronulla’s Wade Graham took a dive as a last-minute leveller to Panthers centre Dean Whare was knocked back by the video referee for an obstruction against Adam Docker. While the decision appeared to be the right one, the on-field referees’ failure to send an earlier try claim by Whare upstairs – ruling David Simmons went into touch, a call that appeared to be incorrect – was utterly bewildering.
In other instances across the weekend – most notably a no-try ruling against Parramatta’s Chris Sandow – the embattled men in the box appeared to ignore the ‘conclusive evidence’ requirement for overturning the whistleblowers’ original decision.
GI is No.1, but rep jumpers still Billy’s
If there was any doubt beforehand, Greg Inglis’ blistering performance against Brisbane – highlighted by a simply mesmerising individual try already regarded as one of the greatest of all-time – confirmed the Souths superstar is the undisputed best fullback in the world. His superlative form has amplified calls for Inglis to replace Billy Slater, who has endured an indifferent start to 2014, in the No.1 jumper in the Queensland and Australian line-ups.
Dumping Slater, touted by many as the greatest since Churchill, would be incredibly harsh.
But dumping Slater, touted by many as the greatest since Churchill, would be incredibly harsh. The out of sorts Melbourne maestro – who made five errors in the upset loss to the Warriors – has perpetually delivered on the representative stage. And while the Kangaroos (who have picked Slater for next Friday’s Test) have a wealth of centre options should Inglis be moved to fullback, the Maroons do not enjoy the same luxury – taking Inglis out of their three-quarter line would leave a sizeable hole and eliminate one of the biggest strengths of their eight-year reign.
Alex’s inspirational visit
Just a day after his first interview and the heartening news of his progress, Alex McKinnon made a surprise visit to the Newcastle changing rooms prior to the Knights’ Saturday night clash with Canterbury in Sydney. While they didn’t get a much-needed win, the battling Knights were clearly inspired by the presence of the injured backrower, who watched the game alongside Wayne Bennett from the coach’s box as his side fought valiantly in a 16-12 loss to the table-topping Bulldogs. It says an enormous amount about the 22-year-old’s courage and character that the NRL’s most tragic story is simultaneously becoming the season’s most heart-warming.
A week to remember for …
Several struggling sides rejuvenated their finals hopes with desperately needed premiership points as three of the bottom four sides produced impressive wins. The Warriors halted a three-game losing run by subduing the Storm 16-10, the Cowboys bagged just their third victory of the season with an emphatic 42-14 result (including a 24-0 second half shutout) over in-form Parramatta, and the Sharks prevailed for just the second time in 2014, showing remarkable resilience to twice overhaul Penrith in the final 13 minutes to record a 24-20 triumph.
A week to forget for …
Canberra’s mystifyingly inconsistent form continues, battered 54-18 by heavyweights Manly on a painful Sunday road trip to a muddy Brookvale Oval. After eclipsing Melbourne last start, the Raiders were rated a good chance of a boilover against the injury-hampered Sea Eagles, but atrocious defence allowed the home to race to an extraordinary 42-0 lead after half an hour. Canberra stemmed the tide thereafter to avoid any unwanted entries in the record books, but it was nevertheless a dismal effort from Ricky Stuart’s erratic charges.
Play of the week
No contest – Greg Inglis’ 90-metre try against the Broncos, in which he beat seven defenders with his unique blend of speed, power, athleticism and a punishing fend, will be spoken about in terms of reverence for decades to come. The breathtaking try will take its place alongside the famous efforts of Harold Horder, Eric Grothe, Scott Gale and Ty Williams previously regarded as contenders for the ‘greatest individual try ever’ mantle. Check out this story in which I rate those tries.
Blunder of the week
Late inclusion Lachlan Maranta would have been pining for the relative anonymity of the Queensland Cup when he spilled the ball cold on his own try-line from a regulation pass in the early stages of Friday’s blockbuster. The robust Brisbane winger’s gaffe allowed Souths to post their second try, but he dusted himself off to score an excellent four-pointer that gave the Broncos an unlikely halftime lead.
Best individual performance
Returning from injury and shrugging off innuendo over his reportedly tenuous relationship with teammates Brett and Glenn Stewart, Manly halfback Daly Cherry-Evans produced a five-star display in the Sea Eagles’ dismantling of Canberra at Brookvale. Whether running, passing or kicking, DCE ripped the hapless Raiders’ defence apart, featuring heavily in most of the rampant home side’s nine tries – of which burgeoning utility back Peta Hiku scored four – in the 54-18 drubbing, further enhancing the rep interchange’s claims as the game’s top No.7.
Australian coach Tim Sheens and the Kangaroos selectors sprung a couple of surprises for the trans-Tasman Test in Sydney next Friday. Jarryd Hayne was ruled out injured, and Canterbury’s Josh Morris subsequently ousted long-time automatic selection and recent injury returnee Justin Hodges for the right centre role. In a form-based call, World Cup final interchange forwards Andrew Fifita and Josh Papalii were dropped in favour of Nate Myles and Boyd Cordner, with Aaron Woods’ overwhelming claims ignored. Uncapped Bronco Matt Gillett has been named as 18th man.
But Australia’s mild selection shocks pale in comparison to the ragtag nature of their opponents’ line-up. New Zealand boasts just six survivors from the World Cup final, who will be joined in the 18-man squad by six Test debutants – Martin Tapau, Peta Hiku, Kenny Bromwich, Ben Henry, Isaac John and Siliva Havili. John is only a back-up half at Penrith, but likely starting hooker Havili now ranks as one of the great Test bolters of all-time, called up after just three NRL games for the Warriors – as an interchange backrower – after the Kiwis’ five-eighth and hooker stocks took an injury-enforced pounding. It is unclear at this stage whether injuries or form have dictated the absence of seemingly automatic selections Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Ben Matulino, Manu Vatuvei and Shaun Kenny-Dowall.