There are two games to go until the finals, with teams still jostling for positions and yet another Melbourne milestone. Here are your NRL talking points for Round 23.
‘Downtown’ calls – rare, but right
Early in Friday’s game against Penrith, Souths were on the boil and looked like they were finally going to break their duck against a top-two side. But their control of the game and a 12-point lead turned to dust as Penrith worked their way back level then strode away to win 25-12.
The turning point came on a ‘downtown’ penalty called on Souths prop Mark Nicholls with scores tied at 12 with 18 minutes left in the second half.
Debate has been furious about the merits of the decision and whether an archaic rule no-one ever calls was randomly dragged from the bottom drawer, but the point needs to be made that the call was right, even if it was rare. Props are downtown on kicks dozens of times each game, but they don’t impact the play like Nicholls did. That was the problem.
Wayne Bennett was nonplussed as ever after the game.
“We’re all a bit dumbfounded by that one. It might be the rule, but as Mark said, he’s done it all his career. No-one can believe it and so many of them are guilty of it. It was a big moment in the game.”
Mind you, the Bunnies didn’t help themselves, with 11 errors and a penalty count of 11-2, but the Panthers showed there’s still a gulf between themselves, Melbourne and the rest. Souths are now 0-4 against the Storm and Penrith in 2021 with a combined score of 157-42.
Wayne Bennett will have taken some lessons from those four losses, and Souths certainly weren’t terrible on Friday. Their likely match-up in Week 1 of the finals will be a great watch.
The Storm’s weekly history-making
It seems every week the talking points include some kind of record set by the table-topping Melbourne Storm.
The Storm’s 30-24 win over Gold Coast was their 19th in a row, tying the 1975 Eastern Suburbs Roosters for the longest winning run in rugby league history.
And just like it is around Origin time, the Storm did it with some of their best talent watching on. How about this for a list of names the Storm went without for Thursday: Jahrome Hughes, Dale Finucane, Justin Olam and Brandon Smith.
Since losing to Penrith by two points in Round 3 the Storm have crushed anyone they’ve encountered. They’ve got Parramatta next week for the outright record – tot an easy game, but would you bet against them?
Here’s a remarkable stat: only two of these 19 wins have been by single digits, and both of those were when the Storm were down their best for Origin. The other 17 wins have been at least ten points and often a lot, lot more. They are an incredible team.
Matt Timoko and Moses Suli were beastly
What a game the two No. 4s had on Friday night. Raiders youngster Timoko was immense, breaking 11 tackles, running 139 metres and setting up a try for his winger Harley Smith-Shields with a nice little flick pass. Timoko has been in and out of the Raiders side in the early part of his career but is well regarded, having just signed a contract extension until 2024 and seemingly starting to get the pace of first grade.
His opposite number, Suli, was just as impressive. Suli has had a chequered career but his talent is undeniable. He also broke 11 tackles and took the Raiders apart with some strong runs on the way to 210 defence-scattering metres. When Suli gets it together he is a wrecking ball – fast, agile and skilled with the ball. Like so many before, he could be anything, and he’s still young enough to make something of himself.
There’s talk there Dragons are keen to bring him over. Will Anthony Griffin be able to unlock the potential within?
Did you write the Roosters off too?
I’m not going to lie – when St George Illawarra took the lead 16-14 almost an hour into Sunday’s game my mind quickly catastrophised that this was it. The Roosters had got the absolute most they possibly could out of an injury-ravaged squad and their admirable fight had come to its end.
I really should have known better. Daniel Tupou retook the lead with a try three minutes later, another one shortly after that and one on the hooter to top off a 40-22 decimation of the Dragons. The win keeps the Roosters a game ahead of Manly, and that will be critical over the last fortnight of the season when they play Souths and Canberra compared to Manly’s softer run of Canterbury and North Queensland.
The Roosters have had their troubles with the teams above them this year, but when it comes to finals time, all bets are off. Finals are just muscle memory for teams like these.
The battle for eighth will go down to the last round
Canberra, New Zealand and Gold Coast blew their chances to close in on the top eight, while Newcastle and Cronulla took theirs. The Knights did all they needed and nothing more against Canterbury and are now all but safe, two games clear of three fighting over the last finals spot – Canberra, Cronulla and the Gold Coast.
The draw is what makes this next fortnight fun. Canberra have the Warriors and Roosters, Gold Coast have Newcastle and the Warriors, Cronulla have Brisbane and the Storm, who are guaranteed to rest key players in the finals round. It’s the Sharks in the box seat, but there’s going to be some fun ahead.
Nice one, Brisbane and New Zealand
A quick one to finish: wasn’t that Sunday arvo game between the Broncos and Warriors good fun? Sure, it was two clubs who aren’t going to leave much of a mark on 2021, but the game was enjoyable for the neutral.
Do we attribute it to the fact there were only two set restarts awarded for the match? No, that’s the cynical view, and we’re being positive this week.
This was an engrossing game with ascendancy taken and lost, real talent on display as Anthony Milford turned the clock back five years and Reece Walsh continued to tease his former home, and some late drama with Walsh’s difficulty on the kicking tee proving the difference in scoring.
So, well played to both clubs.
What caught your eye over Round 23?