The reigning premiers have been dismissed from the NRL Finals by a spirited North Queensland Cowboys outfit in the first NRL elimination final after an extra time classic. Here are my talking points from the thrilling encounter.
Now, before we move into them, I feel obligated to mention this is a referee bashing-free zone. Calls went both ways, and they will not be mentioned again. I don’t want to talk about them, nor do we need to.
Moving right along.
The premiers are gone again and going back-to-back is impossible
It’s impossible to win the NRL premiership two years in a row. It’s never going to happen in this era, and it’s as simple as that.
The feat of winning back-to-back premierships in Australia’s top flight rugby league competition (under any name) hasn’t been done since 1992 and 1993 (don’t remind me), unless you count the Super League in 1997.
All season, the Sharks have been close but not quite there. They have been in the top four without really playing well, ended up finishing outside and ended up paying for it.
Premiership fatigue and the desire to win after taking out the top spot the season before is a real thing in the NRL, no matter which way you look at it. The longer the season went on, the worse the Sharks looked. It was a typical premiership defence – both efforts and result-wise – and it failed miserably at the end.
More on the Sharks’ season later, but it’s obvious going back-to-back won’t happen.
Can the Cowboys defeat the Eels?
We all wrote them off against the Sharks, and in fairness, they had no right to win. The Cowboys took the lead for the first time in the 85th minute.
That in itself is incredible. If the Sharks had been ruthless and made the most of their opportunities, the Cowboys would have been blown off the park. Of course, that didn’t happen and the Sharks made a lot of errors, had poor decision making and gave away dumb penalties.
As much as we can blast for the Sharks for their rubbish performance, the credit has to be heaped on the men from Townsville.
They defended like their lives depended on it, put pressure on their opponents at every turn, and even with a weak attack managed to find build enough pressure to score two tries. Neither of the tries were brilliant, and neither came off the back of an amazing attacking play, but the bottom line is that the Cowboys cracked the Sharks twice.
Holding their nerve under extreme fatigue in golden point wasn’t bad either, and you can bet your dollar they were on their last legs.
All things considered, the Cowboys did exactly what everyone said they were going to and got a result everyone thought wasn’t coming.
So, with the Eels next week, can they cause another upset? If we learnt anything today, they will compete for 80 minutes. It’ll be close, probably low-scoring and the game will be alive at the death.
If the Cowboys get a good start, they might find their way over. The Eels’ defence isn’t quite on the same level as Cronulla’s. While it’d be a shock to see the Cowboys in the third week, it’s impossible to write it off.
Jason Taumalolo is worth every cent of his contract
Let’s start with the raw numbers.
Seventy-two minutes, 22 runs, 256 metres, a try, a line break, a stack of post-contact metres and 37 tackles without a miss. If that doesn’t scream ‘domination’ – or indeed ‘saviour’ – then nothing ever will.
The Kiwi forward was amazing for the Cowboys. He turned up time and time again, averaged almost 12 metres per carry and scored a try where he was flat-footed five metres out then dragged a third of the Cronulla team over the line with him before somehow finding a way to get the ball to the ground.
He was utterly dominant. Taumalolo is undoubtedly the best forward in the game, and there have been times this season where he has gone without credit, mainly because he received so much last year and he hasn’t done anything different to that.
What he does every week goes above and beyond, and the Cowboys have made the best investment possible with his decade-long contract.
Andrew Fifita – rocks, diamonds and costly mistakes
Fifita has always been known as a bit of an inconsistent player. The Cronulla, New South Wales and Australian front-rower has the potential to turn a game on its head in a matter of minutes with his furious ball running, but he can turn games both ways with his mind-numbing madness.
Unfortunately for the Sharks, it was all on display against the Cowboys. It was, for the most part, actually quite a strong game from the big prop. He ran hard for plenty of metres and made the Cowboys pack look weak at times.
He gave away some silly penalties, though, and cost the Sharks their final opportunity of the game. Setting for a field goal, they were on track to give James Maloney a shot from 25 metres out. Instead, Fifita ran sideways and then offloaded to no one.
Fifita has risen before to play some huge games – remember the 2016 grand final and Origin 1 this year? – but his inconsistency must drive supporters mad.
Michael Morgan excels again under pressure
If the Cowboys are going to beat the Eels next week, then Michael Morgan is going to be the key man, as he has every week since Johnathan Thurston was injured.
He showed jitters early taking control of the team for the first time, but he has been sensational over the last couple of months. Every week, he turns up, directs traffic around for the Cowboys and while he hasn’t been able to get them over the line a number of times, he has contributed big time when it’s counted.
Think back to Round 25. The Cowboys, effectively playing for their season against the Tigers, were down by plenty in the final quarter of an hour. Morgan constructed three tries in nine minutes to secure victory.
He didn’t do as much on the attacking brilliance front against the Sharks, but he controlled the game. His kicking game was superb, whether clearing, attacking or from mid range, and he summed up most situations very well to keep the Cowboys calm and collected.
This is a man who has grown into his role brilliantly, and talk of him gaining a starting a role in Mal Meninga’s Australian team at the Rugby League World Cup starting at the end of October is well-deserved.
What to make of Cronulla’s 2017 season?
We’ve already touched briefly on the plight of the Sharks 2017 season, and the fact they weren’t able to become back-to-back premiers, but what do we make of their frustrating season?
It’s hard to know what to write about the Sharks. This is a side that wasn’t expected to make the eight by a majority of punters and experts before the season started – reviewing my own pre-season ladder, I had them pencilled in for seventh or eighth.
I thought that was fair. They have unearthed a gem of a player in Jayden Brailey, while Valentine Holmes has gone from strength to strength throughout 2017. Their forwards have been tenacious as ever, Chad Townsend keeps going up the gears and Paul Gallen has led from the front again – as he did yesterday, making an impressive 55 tackles.
While Shane Flanagan’s men have been constantly brought undone by errors, penalties and a lack of discipline, this is by no means a bad season. They almost finished in the top four – and probably would have if not for some injuries derailing them through the middle third of the season – and should have advanced to Week 2.
In all seriousness, their final game in 2017 summed it up. They dominated, had a stack of opportunities and simply couldn’t make it count.
The Sharks will be there and thereabouts again 2018 – you can count on it.
Roarers, what did you make of the game and first weekend of finals action?