Suddenly, Eels and Cowboys in the hunt
The familiar heavyweights appeared to have put some distance between themselves and the chasing pack in recent weeks, but a pair of stirring victories by desperate finals hopefuls – at the expense of equal-premiership favourites Manly and Souths – has rattled everything we thought we knew about how 2014 title race.
Parramatta virtually entered must-win territory after its disappointing narrow loss to Canterbury last week, but rebounded to roll the Sea Eagles 22-12 in a potentially season-defining display.
Far from being the Jarryd Hayne-inspired one-man band they had been labelled as, the Eels showed September-quality composure and steel to overturn a 12-0 halftime scoreline in the greatest occasion Parramatta Stadium has experienced in years.
Given the ladder proximity of a host of rivals, North Queensland’s showdown with red-hot South Sydney – with the added handicap of a five-day turnaround between two away clashes – was equally vital.
But the Cowboys’ infamous road trips woes seemed like an eternity ago as they shattered the Rabbitohs’ five-match winning streak, racing out to a 22-0 lead before holding on a for a commanding 12-point win.
With Hayne and Johnathan Thurston locked in a two-horse race for the Dally M Medal and receiving first-rate support from burgeoning ensemble casts, the Eels and Cowboys have emerged are genuine title threats, while also exposing flaws in the Sea Eagles’ and Rabbitohs’ seemingly irrefutable premiership claims.
A pulsating finals series looms, with form – and not finishing position – likely to be the most important factor to reaching the October 5 decider.
Ragged Warriors all but done for 2014
Following the Eels’ and Cowboys’ heroics, the heat was on the New Zealand Warriors to complete a trio of boilovers and remain in the top-eight hunt.
But despite fielding a full-strength side in front of a bumper Mt Smart home crowd, the Warriors crumbled to the tune of 46-12; their performance was sloppy, and devoid of energy and spark, while their defence was wooden-spoon quality.
Not only was it the Warriors’ worst performance since Andrew McFadden took over, it was as bad as anything they dished up under Matthew Elliott or Brian McClennan.
Of the sides placed sixth to 11th, the Warriors were the only one to lose this weekend – a sign they were the only outfit fighting for their finals lives that did not display the requisite desperation.
The Warriors’ fate is no longer in their own hands; they must win their remaining two games and rely on at least a couple of other results going their way.
Stubborn NRL buries its head in the sand
After a season plagued by refereeing blunders, the NRL was provided with a gift-wrapped opportunity to build up some goodwill heading into the finals in the wake of ‘ballboy-gate’. In pigheaded – but unsurprising – fashion, the game’s decision-makers refused to take it.
The NRL’s Competitions Committee, rather than scrap an unnecessary rule that has been denounced far and wide, instead reiterated its support for the 40/20 quick-tap changes brought in at the start of the season.
That came with another ambiguous addendum of the referee needing to be in place to authorise the restart; the ridiculous pressure on the pre-pubescent ballboys has not been eased at all.
Furthermore, it would be a tragedy if the Grand Final was decided by a try scored from a rickety new rule seemingly nobody wants.
Week to remember for …
Ben Barba’s first season in Brisbane has largely been a disappointment, shuffled out of his preferred fullback spot after a string of confidence-sapping displays and rumoured to be on his way out of Red Hill if the Broncos recruit Darius Boyd.
But the pivot’s 11-minute second-half hat-trick sealed the Broncos’ 48-6 demolition of giant-killers Newcastle, while an assist for a long-range try in the final minute was Barba at his best.
The victory provided the Broncos with a much-needed for-and-against boost and kept them right in the frame for an unlikely finals berth.
Week to forget for …
The lenient ASADA plea bargain offered to a host of current and former Cronulla Sharks players was too good to pass up, but it has almost certainly consigned the club to its first wooden spoon in 45 years.
Following the late withdrawal of suspended duo Paul Gallen and Anthony Tupou, the Sharks sunk to a 22-12 loss to fellow cellar-dwellers Canberra – a match that effectively doubled as a playoff for last place.
Play of the week
No contest: Parramatta freight train Semi Radradra’s 90-metre try was simultaneously one of the most memorable individual tries of 2014, and a match-turning play in a stunning Eels boilover.
The big Fijian has taken the outright lead in the NRL tryscoring race with 19 – and Friday’s special was arguably the best of a season packed with crowd-pleasing highlights.
Isaac De Gois was bumped out of struggling Cronulla’s first grade squad a few months ago, but the veteran hooker has become a valuable mid-season acquisition for finals-bound Parramatta.
The unassuming 29-year-old’s man-of-the-match display in the Eels’ triumph over Manly was described as the best of his career by his coach Brad Arthur, while his level-headed play at dummy-half shapes as a key ingredient in the blue-and-golds’ promising campaign.
Penrith has defied a shocking run of injuries to remain in the top four and now host heavyweights Melbourne in a Monday blockbuster without livewire hooker James Segeyaro. Many a tipster has been stung by writing off the depleted Panthers in recent weeks, but it’s impossible to go against the Storm at this time of the season.