A frantic finish to the second qualifying final has seen the Sydney Roosters advance to within 80 minutes of a grand final berth with a victory over the Brisbane Broncos at Allianz Stadium. Here are my talking points from the clash.
Can the Broncos bounce back?
The Broncos, without their stars looked very ordinary at times in the all-important qualifying final. Normally, you wouldn’t call a qualifying final the most important game of a teams’ finals series, but on this occasion, it might be.
So long as the Storm beat the Eels as expected on Saturday, the Broncos now face a preliminary final in Melbourne. To make it there, they have to win next week first though, and that may be a challenge that Wayne Bennett’s men may not be able to overcome.
With Darius Boyd, Korbin Sims, Tevita Pangai Junior and of course, Andrew McCullough all still likely to be sitting on the sidelines, the pressure on Brisbane to improve their performance will reach breaking point this week.
Likely to be up against an unpredictable Manly side should they beat Penrith, even at home, it’s a game the Broncos may not be able to bounce back in.
The Panthers won’t be a walk in the park either, but if the Broncos play like they did on Friday night, especially early in the piece, it’s difficult to see them turning things around enough to win.
A straight-sets elimination would be embarrassing, but it’s the cruel reality Brisbane may face.
Game plans to beat the Storm, but it’s daylight second
It seems the media attention surrounding exactly how hard the Storm are going to beat has gotten to the Roosters and Broncos – more so the Roosters, but also the Broncos.
The first 15 minutes of the game feels like an eternity ago, but both teams came flying out of the blocks. It was fast-paced, entertaining and both teams were clearly trying a few things. There was a lot of side-to-side movement, fast play the balls and attempts to attack at every opportunity.
Running games from creative players were explored in what felt like every set, and the nature of the game suggested they were setting up a game plan to beat Melbourne – even if they weren’t playing Melbourne.
I’m hesitant to call it overly different for the Broncos, because it’s something they have been doing for weeks – scoring a lot of points and going on the attack at every opportunity. Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford, in particular, combining well for a running game that was unpredictable through the middle third of the park.
But the way the Roosters came out of the blocks, then kept the level up for the first half an hour was superb. There were mistakes, and that’s to be expected, but they tried something different. You are never going to win a game against the Storm by grinding – it’s simple as that.
It didn’t work as well after half an hour, and playing 80 minutes is something the Roosters haven’t done for a month. If they can play that sort of game for 80 minutes though, there’s no reason they can’t beat any team in the competition.
The Broncos need Darius Boyd back. Urgently.
Maybe the most worrying element of the Broncos’ game was their defence. While McCullough being out hurts them through the middle, it shouldn’t be the deal breaker.
He averages 48 tackles per game, sure, but that workload should be able to spread out across their bench forwards. If Joe Ofahengaue and Herman Ese’ese can’t pick it up, then something is badly wrong.
The biggest problem for the Broncos was that Darius Boyd was missing. Boyd, as much as he is maligned in the media at times is the second best defensive organisational fullback in the competition, only behind Billy Slater.
If they are going to beat either Manly or Penrith next week, they need Boyd back on the field. That, or Nikorima needs a crash course in how to run a team from the back. They looked a shambles at times, especially on their own line.
With so many attacking players (Milford, Hunt, Nikorima and Benji Marshall), Boyd doesn’t offer a great deal extra in attack, but the Broncos sure need him at the other end of the park.
Luke Keary is rediscovering his running form, and it’s dangerous
If you cast your mind back to the first four weeks of this season, you’d remember Luke Keary looking like he’d be the buy of the year for the red, white and blue.
He started the season with a bang, shredding defensive lines and kicking the ball on a five-cent piece. He was playing on the back of a dominant forward pack, sure, but he made the job of Mitchell Pearce easier.
Anyway, as history will show, Keary only showed patches of that form for the rest of the season. He showed glimpses of returning to his early season form on Friday though.
A try, a couple of line breaks, a hand in another try and it all came off the back of his running game. He picked his spots wonderfully, didn’t overplay his hand and did everything you’d assume Trent Robinson asks of him.
If Keary can rediscover the form he had in the first four weeks, he will be a dangerous asset for the Roosters in their remaining games.
Anthony Milford’s vision was sensational, but it’s not enough on its own
Milford made some strong runs and good plays during the game, but on his own it’s simply not enough to win the premiership or compete well enough in the finals.
If the Roosters had of been on their game, you get the feeling they would have ran up quite a score.
Benji Marshall starting in the halves is an interesting experiment, but one for mine that doesn’t seem to be working. Whoever Milford plays alongside needs to be an organiser, and while Marshall did that well at the Dragons in 2015 when he finished second in the Dally M Medal, he is no longer the same player.
In fact, he has never been the same since Greg Eastwood landed on his leg in the elimination final the same year. He is good in patches, and was again, nearly kicking that 40/20, but the former Kiwi captain struggles to control a game now.
If Boyd isn’t back next week, Nikorima must start in the halves, Jordan Kahu at fullback and Marshall from the bench.
Jake Friend’s kicking game was poor
Friend is generally one of the Roosters’ most consistent players, and it’s difficult to go really hard on him, because in the end, the tricolours won, but there’s no argument to be made he was ordinary.
His kicking game, usually so dangerous was poor. He had two grubbers which went dead, both of which lead to Broncos’ tries shortly afterwards.
Conceding seven-tackle sets is a momentum killer in anyone’s books. Mistakes happen, but a hooker shouldn’t be doing it twice in the same game. It proved crucial, and Friend was lucky the Broncos weren’t really on their game.
While the kicking game is what stood out to many about Friend’s performance, his whole attacking game was off. Closer inspection shows he made just a single run for five metres in the 80 minutes, which, in a fast-paced game with tired ruck defenders isn’t taking care of opportunities in the slightest.
Cameron Smith would have had a field day, and given he is the yardstick for hookers in the NRL, it’s something Friend needs to do better.
He has had a great season, but wasn’t good enough in the first week of the finals.
Roarers, what did you make of the second qualifying final? Drop a comment below and let us know.