Eight teams have become six. Here are my NRL talking points for Week 1 of the finals.
The captain’s challenge has an issue
I’ve been a fan of the captain’s challenge, and the power it has given referees to tell captains to stop whinging. But a serious flaw in the system was exposed on Saturday in Canberra.
When Wade Graham left a yawning gap in the defensive line to challenge a decision at a stoppage of play (as is his right under the current rules), Jack Wighton wasn’t supposed to be allowed to take a quick tap and dart through to score.
Referee Grant Atkins was adamant you couldn’t challenge a ruck decision, but if that is the case, then more clarity is needed surrounding the rule, because all rugby league fans have heard is that a challenge can be made at any stoppage in play.
There was a stoppage before Wighton’s quick tap, and he took advantage of the gap created by Graham attempting to challenge the referee’s decision.
It was a bad look for the sport at the business end of the year, and no wonder the Sharks captain was more than just a little bit agitated.
Graham Annesley will more than likely tell us who was right and who was wrong on Monday, and while the Sharks can’t blame that one decision for their loss, the NRL can’t afford a repeat.
The Roosters defence must aim up next week
That the Panthers won on Friday night wasn’t a surprise, nor was it shocking the Roosters couldn’t immediately recover from their 60-point blowout against the Rabbitohs from the week before.
Sydney actually started well, given they scored the first two tries, but then they fell apart without the ball and leaked points to the Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary-led opposition, who proved finals jitters won’t stop them this year.
It was the Roosters defence which let them down. You can’t concede 28 unanswered points in 35 minutes during the finals against the minor premiers and expect to be in the hunt.
It’s not complacency, either, because their efforts without the ball hasn’t been at its best this year. The Chooks have a substantially worse defensive record than the other top-four teams, and while it has made for entertaining footy, all the resulting pressure being heaped on James Tedesco and Luke Keary seemed to show on Friday night.
Given the way the Raiders have been attacking in recent times, the Roosters’ defence has to aim up if they want to avoid going out in straight sets.
Ryan Papenhuyzen continues to amaze
When Billy Slater retired, you wondered if there would ever be a fullback quite as good again.
Ryan Papenhuyzen isn’t in that class yet, but he played another stunning game on Saturday as the Eels took the fight to the Storm for the vast majority of their qualifying final.
Given the Storm didn’t know who their first-choice fullback was 12 months ago, it’s remarkable how Papenhuyzen has stamped his authority all over the spot.
When he missed the Round 18 clash against the Cowboys, the Storm’s attack was noticeably clunky. Compare that to the way they dissected the Eels, especially late in last night’s game, and it’s chalk and cheese.
Papenhuyzen’s stats were off the charts, as he scored a double, ran for 265 metres and caused havok for the Eels defence all night.
Melbourne may not have been at their absolute best (and some of that is down to so many players returning from a week off, hence the slow start), but the way Papenhuyzen clicks with the rest of their spine is special.
He works with Cameron Smith in much the way Slater used to, and if he can continue performing throughout the finals, there is no reason Melbourne can’t go the journey.
Jack Wighton is Canberra’s key
There was little doubt who the man of the match was when fulltime was blown in the nation’s capital on Saturday.
While the Raiders pack can match it with just about any side, and Tom Starling has done a remarkable job of replacing the injured Josh Hodgson, it’s all about Jack Wighton for Canberra.
He has the ability to turn it on with his running game at a moment’s notice and turn the tide of a game, as he did against Cronulla.
There is no question the Raiders were struggling for ascendency at halftime, down 14 points to 10. But early in the second half, Wighton changed the game.
He chipped in with two crucial tries on the back of his running game, and the way he attempted to make something happen every time he had the ball in hand has been a hallmark of his season. His ability to do the unexpected often has opposition defensive lines reeling.
Doing it against the Roosters will be another matter altogether, but given the Tricolours’ issues with defence, Wighton could well prove the difference again next week.
Parramatta are going out in straight sets
The Eels might have finished in the top four, but they were in freefall leading up to the finals. For a season that started with so much promise, including being the only team to get over the Panthers, the wheels truly fell off.
While they were competitive against the Storm, they were always going to need their second chance. As the other top teams have come good and improved, the blue and gold have gone the opposite way.
It could be argued that Saturday was their best performance in many weeks, but even then it was many miles from good enough.
With the Rabbitohs defeating the Knights, the Eels have a game which looks almost unwinnable next weekend, particularly if they’re without both Maika Sivo and Blake Ferguson.
The problem is that expectations for the Eels were high this year. They are no longer a club turning themselves around from a bottom-feeder to a premiership contender.
Their squad was more than strong enough to be in the hunt this year, but with a straight-sets exit looking inevitable for the second time in four years, to go with an embarrassing second-round exit last year, Brad Arthur’s position may begin to look a little shaky at the helm of a side who should be doing better.
Cameron Murray should be the first player picked for New South Wales
Cameron Murray has had a lot to deal with this year. A new position, which became his old position in a matter of weeks, all the while playing in an inconsistent team who more or less made the finals because of a late-season charge.
It is a recipe to be inconsistent or downright poor for any player, as some of his South Sydney teammates have been.
But after coming of age last year in the middle third of the field, one of the smallest but most explosive and agile locks in the competition has continued to play excellent footy for the cardinal and myrtle.
His statistics may not say this has been his best season, or even on par with his last, but what they don’t show is Murray’s play the ball speed, the rock-solid defence in the middle third, and the way he backs up in support to create headaches for opposition defensive lines.
That was on display when he ran onto a Damien Cook pass for a try in Sunday’s elimination final win over the Knights, but we’ve seen it all season.
He is opportunistic as any forward in the competition, and it makes him incredibly hard to contain. What’s more important is that he makes very few errors, which is a factor his Rabbitohs teammates often struggle with.
His form as Souths came from the clouds late in the season was outstanding, and he played a huge role in their comeback from 14-0 down against Newcastle this afternoon.
Cronulla must go back to basics in 2021
Cronulla letting in a mountain of points to disintegrate in their elimination final was a case of the script being followed to a T.
It’s worth noting that circumstances have worked against the Sharks this year. They struggled enormously with injuries, decided to let Josh Morris go when they shouldn’t have, and had plenty of young players on the field.
But in 2020 the club have gone away from what made the Sharks such a competitive outfit. Formerly a team who gritted out every game they played and defended like their lives depended on it, they have been the complete opposite under John Morris.
Shaun Johnson’s form might have got them to the finals, but when he went down with injury, that was that for the black, white and blue.
They took the fight to the Raiders for a large chunk of Saturday’s game, too. They certainly didn’t throw in the towel, but again, their defence simply wasn’t good enough. With the club now looking ahead to 2021, they must remember their club identity.