Almanac Rugby League – NRL Week 1 Finals and NRLW Round 1 wrap: Quick starters run down by the favourites

 

The past week has certainly been an unusual one, with the US President contracting COVID-19 while South Sydney Rabbitohs legend Sam Burgess had a number of serious allegations levelled against him. All this in the hours leading up to the start of the NRL finals series.

 

The top two teams on the ladder are now just one win away from a Grand Final appearance, while the two lowest placed teams from the top eight are out of the premiership race. The NRLW also kicked off, with the Roosters and reigning two-time premiers the Broncos recording a victory each.

 

Remarkably, the lower ranked team established a lead ranging from 8 to 14 points but went on to lose in all four NRL finals matches. There was a mixture of sharp pendulum swings and one-way traffic as each match was high scoring, featuring between 52 and 66 points. The first match was a fascinating one as the minor premiers pipped the reigning back-to-back premiers by the tiniest possible margin. Following a horrific 60-8 defeat against the sixth-placed Rabbitohs a week earlier, the fourth-placed Roosters seemed back on track as they jumped to a 10-0 lead in the first ten minutes. But with Nathan Cleary continuing his sparkling form and scoring three tries himself in the space of 15 minutes, the Panthers bolted to a 28-10 lead. The fickle nature of the game was evident, however, as the Roosters cut the margin to a converted try. A field goal to Cleary with three minutes left boosted his individual points tally to 21 and seemingly sealed the deal, but a foolish penalty against Penrith from the re-start led to another Roosters try to reduce the margin to a single point with less than two minutes remaining. The Panthers nervously hung on to win and earned a week’s rest, leaving the Roosters needing to win two sudden-death matches in their quest to remain a contender for three straight premierships. Defence will be an area of concern for both the Panthers and Roosters after conceding nearly 30 points each.

 

In the first of the do-or-die contests, the eighth-placed Sharks looked the goods as they led the fifth-placed Raiders 14-6. For not the first nor last time, an intercept proved game-changing. How uncanny is it that an intercept so often changes a game so drastically? The Sharks could have led by eight or more points at half-time, until Canberra’s George Williams snaffled a pass from Cronulla second-rower Wade Graham and trimmed the margin to a skinny four points. There was an element of luck as the Raiders scored first in the second stanza, when Jack Wighton was allowed to take a quick tap from a penalty. Last year’s Clive Churchill Medallist caught the Sharks with their pants down, and he also scored the next try when he showed superb athleticism in pursuit of Williams’ chip-kick. Williams also notched a double, before a try to Elliott Whitehead put the Raiders ahead 32-14. A consolation try to Cronulla’s Sione Katoa from – you guessed it – another intercept, made the final score 32-20.

 

The Saturday night match was played at an electrifying pace, with the Storm struggling for cohesion in the first 20 minutes despite regularly threatening in attack. A breathtaking try to Clint Gutherson, featuring a wonderful counterattack from the Eels following a Melbourne error, set up a 12-0 lead for the third-placed team against the second-placed team. But the Storm quickly levelled the score following two quick tries, before scoring first in the second half to take the lead. The Eels drew level at 18-all but the Storm applied the blowtorch and scored three tries in seven minutes, before Parramatta scored last. Melbourne backs Ryan Papenhuyzen, Josh Addo-Carr and Justin Olam were scintillating at times while some of their forwards were lethal too. The Storm now look forward to a week’s break while the Eels have major concerns after wingers Blake Ferguson and Maika Sivo sustained knee injuries. Sivo’s finals campaign is over while Ferguson appears in trouble. Sivo’s blistering pace and try-scoring ability were sorely missed after he was forced to exit the match in the first 15 minutes.

 

On Sunday, the seventh-placed Newcastle Knights jumped out of the blocks while the sixth-placed Rabbitohs paid for being sluggish. Two converted tries and a penalty goal gave Newcastle a 14-0 lead inside 12 minutes, although Phil Gould reckoned the Knights could have sought another try instead of the penalty goal when they led 12-0 and had all the momentum. Regardless, it was astonishing to see the Knights totally lose their way while the Rabbitohs clicked into gear and scored eight unanswered tries. The match was still up for grabs at half-time as Souths led 20-14, and the margin was a still attainable eight points with less than 20 minutes left. With the Knights struggling to hang on, Souths prop Tevita Tatola touched down between the posts as several defenders clutched at him without containing him. Later, hooker Damien Cook scored an 80-metre try despite being knocked to ground and having to get up and resume his dash to the tryline. It was incredible that the sixth-placed team had tallied 106 points in two rounds: 60 against the reigning two-time premiers, and 46 unanswered points against the Knights. When the likes of Cook, Tatola, Adam Reynolds, Cody Walker and Alex Johnston find their mojo, the Rabbitohs look capable of beating anyone. But the final say went to retiring Newcastle forward Aidan Guerra who set up a try with a nifty pass in the dying seconds and then landed an incredible left-footed conversion from near the right wing.

 

Meanwhile, both NRLW matches on Saturday were a little wayward, with the Roosters downing the Dragons 18-4 before the Broncos accounted for the Warriors 28-14. Nita Maynard scored the first try as she darted over from acting-half for the Roosters, before the Dragons hit back. Another Roosters try from dummy-half, this time from Quincy Dodd, gave the Roosters an eight-point lead. The second half featured just one try, as a Roosters’ victory never looked in doubt. Rugby sevens convert Charlotte Caslick made a bright start to her NRLW career as she showed an array of skills, while Hannah Southwell and Zahara Temara also made a good impression for the Roosters. Injuries hurt the Dragons, as Kezie Apps was forced off with concussion while Shakiah Tungai, Maddie Studdon and Jessica Sergis were other casualties.

 

The Warriors started strongly and led 8-0 in the first 15 minutes as the Broncos were rusty, before a hat-trick of tries to dynamic Brisbane fullback Tamika Upton took the Broncos to a 16-8 half-time lead. The Broncos extended their lead to 20 points before the Warriors reduced the margin, but their comeback was foiled as a try was disallowed due to a delicate fumble at dummy-half. Upton and forwards Amber Hall and Chelsea Lenarduzzi were particularly impressive for the victors, while there was concern for Raecene McGregor who was taken off on a medicab in the final five minutes. Despite their uneven performance, the Broncos did enough to suggest that they would again be the team to beat in the NRLW. From the vanquished side, Warriors five-eighth Kirra Dibb showed her skillful kicking game while rugby union convert Ellia Green made an impression on the flank.

 

Stay tuned for Week Two of the NRL finals and Round 2 ofNRLW.  It’ll be interesting to see if more finals fixtures involve a team jumping out to a handy lead early on and then being run down.

 

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About Liam Hauser

A Queenslander through and through, Liam went out of his comfort zone as he had a thoroughly worthwhile time in Tumut and Gundagai from 2008 to 2016 before enjoying a year in Gunnedah. His strongest sporting interests are State of Origin, Sheffield Shield, Test cricket and the NRL. His sporting CV doesn’t have many highlights, although he once top-scored in a warehouse cricket match with 54 not out at number 10, and shared in an unbroken last wicket stand of 83 with the number 11 who scored an undefeated 52. Liam has written books including State of Origin 35 Years, A Century of Cricket Tests, A History of Test Cricket, The Immortals of Australian Cricket, The Immortals of Australian Rugby League, and The Great Grand Finals: Rugby League's Greatest Contests. Also a huge fan of Electric Light Orchestra.

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