Canterbury may hold a share of fourth spot with a month of the regular season to go, but a thick red line can be drawn through the blue-and-whites’ title aspirations after their diabolical 41-10 loss to Brisbane – the Bulldogs’ fourth in succession.
The Dogs were the NRL’s defensive benchmark after a string of gritty, tight wins earlier in the season, while they downed Melbourne 6-4 to sit in equal-first as recently as four weeks ago. But another big defeat – in which the out-of-sorts Broncos poured through tackles at will – has seen Canterbury sink to eighth spot on for-and-against.
Despite the alarming 31-point margin, tempestuous Bulldogs five-eighth Josh Reynolds stole all the headlines after a series of brain explosions. The NSW pivot lashed out with his boot and caught Sam Thaiday in the face, while he was eventually sin-binned in the latter stages after a high-tackle penalty.
But the incident that could see him banned for the remaining four rounds was a reckless and blatant trip of ex-teammate Ben Barba. A contrite Reynolds apologised for his hot-headed display, but that is unlikely to garner any leniency at the judiciary.
The all-round performance of Reynolds and fellow Blues halves hero Hodkinson is at the heart of Canterbury’s slide; the rep stars are offering no direction or attacking impetus.
The Bulldogs’ pop-gun backline is struggling with limited opportunities, and their dynamic forward pack can’t pick up the slack. Canterbury needs to win at least two of its last four matches against the Eels, Tigers, Rabbitohs and Titans to have any chance of scraping into the eight – and on current form, that will be a tall order.
Boring, but effective
Just a week ago, Wayne Bennett declared South Sydney too one-dimensional after the Rabbitohs swamped his struggling Newcastle outfit. Undeterred, Souths threw the 2014 title race wide open with a comprehensive 23-4 defeat of Manly at the SCG, assuming equal-premiership favouritism alongside the Sea Eagles in the process.
The Rabbitohs have some finals demons to overcome in September, but the nature of their disposal of the rugged Manly outfit confirms they will be there when the whips are cracking, while they remain in the hunt for the minor premiership. Sam Burgess was a rampaging man-of-the-match, but the most encouraging aspect of the win was the class and toughness displayed by young halves pairing Adam Reynolds and Luke Keary, outpointing vaunted opponents Daly Cherry-Evans and Keiran Foran.
If Souths go all the way and break the club’s 43-year drought, they will look back to Round 22 as the week they laid the platform for their surge to the ultimate prize.
Gallant Knights perform Hunter miracle
Newcastle has been bludgeoned by ownership dramas, Russell Packer’s jail term, poor on-field results, Wayne Bennett’s resignation and, of course, the Alex McKinnon tragedy in an agonising 2014 season.
But the battered, weary and heartbroken Knights produced a season highlight in front of a rapturous home crowd on Saturday night, pulling off the miracle win of the year.
The Knights had played well just to stay in touch with the in-form Storm, before scoring two tries inside the final two minutes to overturn a 10-point deficit. Kurt Gidley produced one of the great clutch kicks after the siren to steal a 32-30 triumph, while the Newcastle team’s pile-on after the sideline conversion was simultaneously one of 2014’s most stirring scenes and an emotional release of eight months of frustration.
Unlikely five try-scorers race to catch the Hayne train
The battle to be crowned the NRL’s top try-scorer is the most even and exciting in recent memory – and all of the contenders would have been at long odds to be the competition’s try king at the start of the season. Jarryd Hayne surged into the lead on 17 touchdowns with his third consecutive double – and his 100th career try – in Parramatta’s scratchy 18-10 win over Canberra, one ahead of an unlikely five-man chasing pack.
Fellow Eel Semi Radradra has crossed 16 times in his first full season of first grade; underrated Melbourne winger Sisa Waqa scored four tries against Newcastle to take his season tally to 16; after missing all of 2013 with injury, Brisbane three-quarter Dale Copley’s breakout season continued with another try against Canterbury; Jarrod Croker manages to keep jagging tries despite Canberra’s woes, grabbing his 16th against Parramatta; and versatile Manly back Peter Hiku, who scored just three tries in 13 rookie season appearances last year, dived in for his 16th of 2014 against Souths.
The six aforementioned try-poachers have all bettered or equalled their career-best season totals with four regular season rounds, and a finals campaign, still to come. Meanwhile, Souths’ rookie sensation Alex Johnston is right in the mix after crossing of his 15th try in just 11 games at the Sea Eagles’ expense, and Warriors powerhouse Manu Vatuvei remains on the fringes following his 14th try of the year against Cronulla.
A week to remember for …
A shocking injury toll has had all and sundry predicting a swift tumble down the ladder for high-flying Penrith – but Ivan Cleary’s plucky charges refuse to stop believing. The Panthers’ 16-4 defeat of desperate St George Illawarra was brimming with character, composure and defensive grit. A tough draw awaits the decimated squad, but the Panthers’ gutsy performances have them sitting in the box seat for a top-four finish.
A week to forget for …
Finals contenders only a couple of weeks ago, Wests Tigers’ spectacular off-field implosion culminated in the second-worst defeat in the joint venture’s history – a humiliating 64-6 result at the hands of North Queensland. Likeable coach Mick Potter’s fate has effectively been sealed; not by his own ability, but by a gutless board that is not fit to run a book club, and a playing group with questionable loyalty and commitment to the cause.
Play of the week
He may have been a fraction offside, but Newcastle hooker Travis Waddell’s one-on-one strip on Billy Slater – before diving over for a try – with two minutes remaining – gave the battling Knights the opportunity to pull off an extraordinary win, which they grabbed with both hands.
Sam Burgess seems hell-bent on leaving the code with a premiership ring and the mantle as the game’s best forward. The rugby union-bound Englishman has rarely been short of magnificent in 2014, and Burgess’ dynamic impact and involvement in Souths’ watershed win over Manly has fired him into Dally M contention. He made 34 tackles, 22 runs for 231 metres and two line breaks, and scored a try in yet another barnstorming display.
The Sydney Roosters are eager to solidify their position in the top four and build some momentum in what has, to date, been a stop-start title defence. The patched-up Gold Coast Titans have competed most weeks, but don’t have the firepower or key-position direction to provide anything more than nuisance value at Allianz.