The finals are locked in, 16 teams have become eight, and the regular season is done and dusted. There were some intriguing, surprising results from the final round of the season though, so let’s get into my talking points from the weekend that was.
Before I do get into it, a big thanks to those who have read this column each week throughout the season.
As there was a comment about this last week, I thought I’d address how talking points will work through the finals. We will switch to wraps of each game from next week, instead of one per week, and they will be published the morning after each game.
The Sharks are built for finals footy
The Cronulla Sharks. Inconsistent, can’t goal kick, forgot how to win.
They were all criticisms labelled at the club during 2019, but on Sunday afternoon, at a packed Leichhardt, they proved beyond all reasonable doubt that all of those were false, and that when it counts, they will find a way to turn it into a grind, and then go close to winning.
On Sunday, it was good enough to win, and win convincingly.
Not only on Sunday though, but with their season on the line for the best part of two months, the men in black, white and blue, have won five of their last seven to get themselves into the top eight.
It’s been strong performance after strong performance, and while they haven’t played at their best more than a couple of times this season, that’s not the point.
The point is, the Sharks are still the same scrappy, grinding team they always have been, and unless they are playing the very top teams, will come away with a victory in games like this more often than not.
What was probably more impressive for the Sharks, was the way they executed their game plan on Sunday and never looked rattled, despite plenty not going their way early.
Despite a big crowd of nearly 20,000, the pressure of the day and the unknown surrounding the Robbie Farah situation, they rode their bad luck, defended like their lives depended on it and ensured they put the Tigers under the pump whenever they could.
They wore the Tigers pack down, knowing the bench was going to be a strength during the middle third of the game, and then struck during the early going of the first half, keeping up their own intensity to score three tries in ten minutes.
It was an incredible period of the game for the Sharks, but it wouldn’t have been possible if they didn’t weather the early storm of intensity and emotion, then stay patient and wear the Tigers down.
I still don’t think Cronulla can win the competition, but their effort on Sunday is what it’s all about.
Souths send statement before finals
Sometimes in this great sport, it’s not about how you win, it’s just about getting the job done, and finding a way to overcome adversity in doing so.
There couldn’t be a better advertisement for that statement than the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who mounted a second-half comeback to beat the Sydney Roosters in what we now know will be the opening week of finals action in a replay.
While there was nothing riding on the game for the Roosters and therefore it’s hard to actually take a lot from the game, the fact South Sydney came from behind should give them untold confidence heading into a finals campaign which, for some weeks, they have looked unprepared for.
There is no getting around the fact South Sydney haven’t been at their best since the opening week of the season, when they beat the same club in the derby and set tongues wagging with just where they might have ended up under coach Wayne Bennett.
It wasn’t to be and they look the fourth-best team coming into the finals, but a win over the Roosters in the first week of the finals, a week off and more confidence, would do them the world of good.
And while I state there isn’t much to read into with the result during Round 25, they haven’t lost to the Roosters in either game this season, and that has to give them something of a mental edge heading into the contest.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for South Sydney though, who still showed signs of weakness. They won’t be able to afford to start slowly against the ruthless Roosters once we hit a high-stakes game, and they won’t be able to make countless silly errors.
What’s more concerning for Wayne Bennett’s side is that they will have to do it all without Sam Burgess, unless he can beat a charge at the judiciary.
Whether that’s possible and tenable or not remains to be seen, but the battle of two of the foundation clubs in Week 1 of the finals is going to be a doozy, and every single rugby league fan should have it marked in the calendar.
Don’t miss next Friday night.
Canberra shouldn’t have rested so many players
I’m not going to try and claim to know more about rugby league than Ricky Stuart, and I’m not going to claim that I know how his team are travelling better than he does as we move towards finals footy.
However, I am going to claim that resting six stars for their final round game that they had to win to avoid a trip to Melbourne was madness.
Look, there is some rationale behind it. Lose the game and you get Melbourne in a non-knockout situation with fresh players, at a venue you recently won at, coming back from 18-0 down.
I did write in this column last week that the Raiders, as a collective group, looked like they needed a week off, and for many of their stars, they have gotten just that, however, if they are to win next week, it’ll mean two weeks off in three, which is dangerous for form and rhythm on the footy field.
Basically, it was the wrong week to be resting players. They needed to back themselves to keep rolling with victories, travel to Sydney next week, and beat the Roosters.
Teams simply don’t beat the Storm twice in a season, let alone twice in a season in Melbourne. It just doesn’t happen like that, and the Raiders might be on the wrong end of the stick next week, just as Manly were last weekend when the Storm decided to make an example out of them at Brookvale.
The other problem with playing a final, as opposed to a regular season game in Melbourne, is that it takes that much out of you.
While the Rabbitohs survived last year because they played a poor Dragons outfit in the second week of the finals, all of the sides in the bottom four look dangerous this year, and if the Raiders lose, they have to travel back from the Victorian capital and find a way to get the job done.
That, is a heck of a lot easier said than done, even if they would be playing at home Week 2. It’s a much easier task to go to Sydney, but for the Green Machine, they are going to have to back their call and get the job done.
Parramatta’s back three the key to their success
There are no prizes for guessing the Parramatta back three are good at their jobs.
Maika Sivo had run away with the award for top try-scorer this year, the Eels looked like a completely and utterly different team when Blake Ferguson was out injured, and Clint Gutherson is something special chiming in at the back.
Parramatta, as a side when they play well, are a great team to watch, and it’s the entire team, not just the back three, who have shown some really good form at times this year.
Mitchell Moses, for example, has been outstanding, while Reed Mahoney’s debut season in the NRL has been brilliant. Their forwards too, are good when on a roll.
But so much of their ability to dominate other teams through those areas just mentioned comes from the back three, who not only defend solidly, but are among the best in the competition at getting sets off to good starts.
If Parramatta are to make a deep run in the finals and put the pressure on the top teams if and when they get to face them, it’s going to be on the back three to ensure they have momentum and energy to be able to compete.
Apart from Sivo’s hat-trick of tries on the weekend, they had over 400 metres between them, as well as over 100 kick return yards, and that hurts opposition, who then struggle to hold the Eels at the wrong end of the ground.
It’s quite incredible that the trio have averaged around 150 metres each per game throughout the season, and if they can maintain that effort and consistency, it makes Parramatta a much stronger side.
The Broncos just had to beat the Bulldogs
While the Broncos finals spot was reasonably secure heading into their final game of the season, a win would have locked it up, and, as it turned out, given them the probable easier task next week by finishing seventh and heading to an understrength Manly, who now may not even be able to play at Brookvale.
Instead though, the Broncos got the fumbles, they got the shakes, they struggled in the forwards and were bullied by the continually surprising Canterbury outfit.
In a game they should have been right up for, their 1500 day hiatus of being able to beat Canterbury at Homebush will continue, after a sloppy showing.
They fell behind early in the piece, and while Anthony Seibold’s side did wake up eventually, they struggled to put the finishing touches on the game and eventually fell away to lose 30 points to 14.
There were no real excuses for the Broncos. They completed at only 71 per cent, making 12 errors, missed more than 30 tackles and more worryingly, didn’t use the ball effectively when they did get on a roll, making just three line breaks and forcing no drop outs for the entire game.
It’s on the entire team to lift when they face the Eels at a full Bankwest next week. Sure, they beat the Eels just a few weeks ago, but this is a completely different scenario, and the faith in a number of young players to keep the club’s season alive must be repaid.
Manly have to go back to the grind for 80 minutes
One of the key traits for the Sea Eagles has been their ability to grind and stay in contests through their defensive efforts and smarts with the footy.
That really went away from the club on Friday night as they fell to the Eels at Bankwest Stadium, and while the contest was a bit of a nothing game, the Sea Eagles have to do things the really hard way from here on out.
While we know they have already lost superstar fullback Tom Trbojevic, who they have been so good with when he has been in the side this year, they will probably have to now do it without Martin Taupau as well.
There is no getting around just how stupid his swinging arm was on Ray Stone during the second half. He was probably lucky not to be sent off, although, given every minute sent off reduces judiciary points, he may well have preferred to have been.
Instead, he now faces a nervous wait, with an early plea to the Grade 2 charge rubbing him out for next week, and losing a fight on the charge rubbing him out of the semi-finals as well, or, Round 1 next year if Manly fail to win in the first week of the finals.
Anyway, back to the point at hand. The Sea Eagles are now without two of their stars for at least the first week of the finals, and won’t be able to rely on that increased level of talent to get them out of situations.
Instead, they will have to go back to square one, but worryingly, they weren’t prepared to do that at times on Friday against Parramatta.
Again, the difference between a game that means nothing and a game that means everything is huge when it comes to effort on your own goal line and other such matters, but they should have been better with fifth spot still on the line.
They missed tackles, dropped the footy, and while they probably did cop a few rough decisions, it was absolutely no excuse to be blown out by the Eels in the manner they were.
If they want to beat a tough as bricks Cronulla outfit next week, getting into the grind and doing the little things right will become the more important.
Try to be flashy or play the easy way out, with no kicking game or presence in the middle third, and it’ll be the end of their road three weeks before they want it to be.
Phil Gould is the right man to head up the Dragons review
The Dragons have had a horrendous season, and there is simply no getting around that fact.
There was little comfort for fans in the fact they were able to close out with a victory over the Gold Coast Titans, and there shouldn’t be any comfort for the players, coaches or anyone else involved in the joint venture.
It’s been bad. They finished 15th, and no matter what happened off the field, for a roster with multiple Origin and international players, Paul McGregor’s side have horrendously underachieved.
Now, I didn’t want to write about the Dragons again. I’d much prefer to just forget about their woeful start to finish performance, but with the announcement Phil Gould will head up a club review into the football department, this was worth a quick mention.
No matter what you think of Gould and his time at Penrith, opinions on the game or skills in the commentary box, he is a smart man.
During his time at Penrith, he administered the best junior nursery in the country, got a new training facility approved, and did some good things with a lot of young players at the club.
Sure, there were issues with the club while he was there, but that speaks of deeper problems at the foot of the mountains.
What the Dragons needed was an outsider, someone to come in and run the rule over the entire club, and Gould won’t pull any punches when he just does that.
Roarers, what did you make of Round 25? Drop a comment below and let us know.
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