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.
South Sydney and Canberra head into the qualifying finals rank underdogs against the Roosters and Melbourne respectively.
Fans of the former two clubs are bullish and maybe that’s fair enough because after all, Souths have a 2-0 record against the Roosters in 2019, and Canberra just beat Melbourne, in Melbourne, coming back from 0-18 down – the first team to do that against the Storm, ever.
But that was then and this is now. The Roosters and Storm are now in finals mode and that’s a vastly different proposition to the sides presented in the final round of the regular season or a Round 22 game when Melbourne was three games clear on top of the table.
Finals time is business time and any fans out there who thinks the top two sides are going to perform like they did in the regular season is sadly mistaken.
A win in Week 1 is critical. While it’s not impossible, recent history has shown that if you have to take the long road to a preliminary or grand final, your chances of winning the premiership drop away significantly.
It’s not easy and it’s not supposed to be. Beating the two sides being tipped by most for a grand final rematch means absolutely everything needs to go right.
The Bunnies have history to draw on for their match, both past and recent. There’s the book of feuds. Animus that goes way, way back. And they won’t have forgotten last year how they were beaten for a grand final spot by a Tricolours side that carried a busted Cooper Cronk and held them tryless.
But they’ll have to do it without Sam Burgess, who is out suspended for pulling the hair of winger Billy Smith.
Of course, it wasn’t just for that act, but the cumulation of three charges this season.
All the way back in March, Wayne Bennett said Burgess had to work on his discipline after a high tackle in the preseason Charity Shield game.
The Rabbitohs coach wasn’t overly perturbed at the time, saying, “He understands what works and what doesn’t. He just needs to take ownership of that.”
Cronulla captain Paul Gallen put it a bit more bluntly on Channel Nine last Monday night:
“It’s the stupid things he does along the way that accumulates and has put himself in this situation. So, he has no one to blame but himself.”
One does wonder what Bennett would make of the situation his leader and enforcer got himself into this week.
Burgess is a great player, the Clive Churchill medalist in his club’s 2014 premiership triumph. But he’s also cost his team over and over and over again with ill discipline.
The cardinal and myrtle without Burgess are a diminished outfit. Still high quality, mind you – but unarguably lessened.
George Burgess is also back this week after receiving a nine-week holiday for his intensive digital examination of Wests Tigers hooker Robbie Farah’s skull. George also brings a track record of on-field stupidity that gives away penalties and possession. To beat the favourites, that cannot happen.
In the other qualifying final, Canberra are primed to get that priceless week off and a home preliminary final.
They will have planned, analysed, reviewed, and planned some more. They’ll be confident they can get the job done after not just completing the comeback win in the Victorian capital, but doing it with two players being sin binned.
The Green Machine outscored the home team 22-6 when it was 13 on 13.
Ideally, they will have also done some deep breathing and meditation exercises because their hosts are going to hit them with everything. And by everything I mean all the wrestling pins, all the niggle, all the cheek, and all the downright smartarse, annoying things to suck their opponents in and get their mind off the game.
Will Chambers, Cameron Smith, Cam Munster, they’re all masters at it. They’re sensational rugby league players who live for finals play and love the verbal joust that’s part of it.
The Storm will be in the ears of the Raiders players all night, literally and figuratively.
The trick for Ricky Stuart’s side will be to give a bit back, but to be smart about how far to push it. A lot of teams overplay their aggression against top sides because they feel like they need to prove themselves. That’s just what the Storm want. If you’re trying to bash them rather than beat them, they’ve got you.
Brainless acts can be incredibly costly. Raiders fans still have nightmares of Elliot Whitehead’s completely unnecessary swinging arm on a prone Ben Barba in the 2016 Week 1 second versus third qualifying final at GIO Stadium.
With only three minutes left, Whitehead was penalised, James Maloney kicked a simple goal and Cronulla won 16-14.
In this year’s Round 22 comeback win, Storm prop Nelson Asofa-Solomona goaded Joe Tapine into getting sin binned and turning over possession 30 metres out from the try line after the away side had finally got some possession. Asofa-Solomona gave cheek and a slap in a scrum, Tapine overreacted and got walked. It couldn’t have worked out more perfectly for the Storm.
And then there’s Joey Leilua.
The reigning Dally M centre of the year brings unpredictability, excitement and unbelievable skill to the game. He creates plays in attack that make the difference in close matches.
Yet he can also be a complete liability on the field, prone to brain explosions that cost his team massively. He returns this week after two weeks suspended for kneeing a Manly player, an act that didn’t need to be done but also cost his team an eight-point try in a tight game.
Across the league, teams know exactly which opposition players can be gamed and plan their undoing accordingly. It could be sending a lot of traffic their way because they know there’s a chance of a penalty, keeping a tackle going just a second longer than usual to make them react, generally making sure they have an annoying night.
Leilua is going to have the kitchen sink thrown at him because the Storm know he could do anything in response. Can he keep it together?
It’s going to be a fantastic weekend of finals, particularly the top-four games.
The Raiders and Rabbitohs must be smart, be focused and be disciplined. Or they will be beaten.