Criticism of referees used to be about the inaccuracy of their decisions, but during the NRL grand final the referees came under spotlight because they arrived at the correct decision.
This weekend, Super Sunday goes up a notch with each of the top four teams set to be involved in matches that will help decide who finishes where at the end of 25 rounds.
First, the third-placed Canberra Raiders welcome the second-placed Sydney Roosters to the nation’s capital, while two hours later, the fourth-placed South Sydney Rabbitohs take a home game to Gosford where they’ll face the top-placed Melbourne Storm.
This means that if the ladder remains as it is at the end of Round 25, then this would be the qualifying finals line-up – though the home-ground advantages the Raiders and Rabbitohs will enjoy against the Roosters and Storm respectively this weekend would be reversed.
The first match takes us down to the nation’s capital where the Chooks will be aiming to end a near-decade long drought, having not saluted at GIO Stadium since mid-2010, when ex-Raider Todd Carney inspired his side to a 22-12 victory.
Last week, Trent Robinson’s men posted the highest score and winning margin of any side this season, humiliating the Gold Coast Titans by 58-6 with winger Brett Morris scoring a first-half hat trick and James Tedesco and Latrell Mitchell scoring two tries each.
Despite the huge victory – which sent out a warning to the rest of the NRL competition that they will not give up their title defence without a fight – it has been said that they are yet to hit top gear.
Having been barely forced to sweat against the Titans, on Sunday they’ll get a far more stern test of their premiership credentials when they face the Raiders, led by ex-Roosters coach Ricky Stuart.
Stuart’s side were equally as impressive as they also put the cleaners through the Warriors in Auckland last Friday, winning by 46-12 to ascend to second place before the Roosters bumped them back down to third courtesy of their win over the Titans.
It was the Raiders’ seventh win in their past eight matches, the only loss in that period being against the Parramatta Eels in Darwin in Round 15.
Their largest defeat has also been by only 12 points – against the Melbourne Storm in Round 2 – who they will face at AAMI Park the week after their home clash against the Roosters.
Their most recent meeting – during Magic Round at Suncorp Stadium in Round 9 – saw the Chooks withstand a furious second-half fightback from the Green Machine to prevail by 30-24 after they had led 30-6 a minute into the second half.
After the Raiders and Roosters wrap up proceedings, the Rabbitohs and Storm will go head-to-head for the only time this regular season, with Craig Bellamy looking to maintain an impressive record against Wayne Bennett, under whom he learned his trade at the Broncos in the early noughties.
In a sign that they are starting to peak at the right time, the Storm put the previous week’s heartbreaking golden point loss to Manly behind them, unleashing their anger on the Brisbane Broncos by handing them a 40-4 obliteration at Suncorp Stadium last Friday night.
At a ground where they have only lost once in the past decade (against the Gold Coast Titans in 2017), the Storm at one point threatened to surpass the record for their biggest ever win against the Broncos at Suncorp, before slowing down when the match was already truly won.
Only a try to the Broncos’ Kotoni Staggs spared them the embarrassment of being held scoreless at the ground for the very first time.
It marked their 17th win in their past 19 encounters against Brisbane, and comes to show that the Storm clearly haven’t forgotten their 2006 grand final loss to the same club.
It was also the 300th time Cameron Smith had captained the Storm, having led them first on a rotational basis in 2006 before assuming the role on a full-time basis following the 2007 State of Origin series, in which Queensland were victorious for the second of eight consecutive years.
The Storm’s ruthless performance highlights the task that the Rabbitohs have at hand on the Central Coast.
While the top three recorded huge victories over the weekend, the Bunnies stumbled against the Sharks, going down 39-24 at Shark Park last Saturday night.
It was their fifth defeat in their past eight games dating back to their round 12 defeat against Parramatta, also coinciding with the State of Origin period in which the Rabbitohs are among the teams severely affected.
It did, however, put an end to a three-match winning streak in which they defeated the the Sea Eagles, Cowboys and Dragons by a grand total of 17 points.
They could be without Sam Burgess, who is disputing the grading of his dangerous tackle on Matt Moylan in the hope of being cleared to face the Storm, who the Bunnies have an abysmal record against.
While the Rabbitohs won the corresponding clash last year by 30-20 at ANZ Stadium, they did lose their most recent meeting against the Storm in heartbreaking circumstances, losing 29-28 in the qualifying final at AAMI Park last September.
In that match, a Cameron Munster field goal proved to be the difference as the Rabbitohs’ barren run in Melbourne continued – the red and green have never saluted in the AFL capital since the Storm entered the competition in 1998.
The Bunnies had led five times as they attempted to end one of the NRL’s longest hoodoos, only for the Storm’s finals experience to get them over the line and ultimately to the grand final.
While this will be their only meeting this regular season, there is still the chance the Bunnies may have to face the Storm in Melbourne during the finals, and this would give them another chance to end their drought in the Victorian capital.
All is now set for what promises to be a massive Sunday in the NRL, with each of the top four teams in action as the fight for a top two finish continues to go down to the wire.