The big occasion of the finals got to most of the teams in week one of the playoffs but Penrith and Brisbane again showed their all-round strength and it’s going to take something monumental to stop them meeting in the Grand Final.
We had it all in the first four playoff matches – a couple of nail-biters, an unfortunate injury to Ryan Papenhuyzen, sell-out crowds and even a biting allegation with Tyson Gamble saying Jack Wighton chomped down on his arm.
It’s always tough when you’re the referee and a player makes a complaint about a bite because you have to be 1000% sure about what’s happened to send someone off.
There’s that old saying that if something looks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it has to be a duck and even though to a lot of fans at the ground and TV viewers were convinced it was a bite, it’s a serious allegation and the referee, Ashley Klein, and the bunker couldn’t say for sure so that’s why Wighton was only placed on report.
If you think back to a lot of the high-profile biting incidents in the past like James Graham on Billy Slater in the 2012 Grand Final, they were dealt with by the judiciary because it’s too big a call to send a player off on the field if you aren’t absolutely certain of what’s happened.
That incident definitely helped bring the crowd into the game at McDonald Jones Stadium – I can’t remember hearing the Knights fans as loud as they were on Sunday in a long time.
The Knights were well below their best and the occasion looked like it got to them in the first half a bit.
Canberra are a team that won’t go away easily and after they got their first two tries from some Knights errors, they showed some creativity in attack to get in front and then come back at the end to send it into extra time.
Newcastle still managed to win which is a strong sign because when a team is struggling, you can tell a lot about their mindset and spirit when they still manage to find a way to get the job done.
Rewriting the script after a bad start is hard in any game, let alone an elimination final.
Kalyn Ponga was pretty well marked by the Raiders but he still managed to come up with a few moments of brilliance which led to points.
The Knights look like they might have got the Jackson Hastings call wrong by playing him even though his ankle wasn’t right and I’d expect Adam Clune to come into the side next Saturday against the Warriors.
They’ve been up for a long time and they’ve done well to stay alive even when they were below their best and I think they will get a win in Auckland because their attacking weapons like Ponga, Gamble, Greg Marzhew, Dom Young and Bradman Best are the kind of players that can trouble the Warriors.
Even though the Warriors lost 32-6 at Penrith, they weren’t that bad and it could have been a lot worse after the Panthers were 20-0 up at half-time.
They were naturally a touch disconnected in attack with Shaun Johnson ruled out on top of Luke Metcalf being injured and they seem to have lost their momentum in the past month.
It’s going to be very emotional for them playing a home semi-final for the first time in many years after all the drama they’ve been through the past few seasons during the pandemic.
If they can harness it then they’re a good chance to beat the Knights but if they can’t handle the emotion and regain their early season confidence, they could be going straight out the finals back door.
What more can you say about Penrith. They’re the best connected team in the NRL and the fact that they’ve been averaging around 12 points conceded for four straight years now is unbelievable.
That resilience on their goal line says a lot about their ruthless attitude and their effort, desire and commitment to each other.
There’s still a hunger there even though you could excuse them for not having it after all the success they’ve piled up.
Nathan Cleary and Isaah Yeo are in top form – there’s no one going better among the players in key positions anywhere in the NRL at the moment. Dylan Edwards never stops and having Mitch Kenny back at hooker makes them rock solid in the middle.
It’s such an advantage having a week off in the finals when the cumulative effects of injury, suspension and fatigue come into play given the length of the season.
I thought Cronulla were the more dominant team at Shark Park on Saturday night but they didn’t take advantage of having the Roosters down to 12 men enough when James Tedesco was sin-binned.
The game was there to be won and they lost it by not making the most of a few critical chances when it mattered.
I thought the Roosters might conjure up a try and get back on even keel, which they did, and then Sam Walker executed his field goal perfectly.
The Sharks panicked when they tried to respond. They didn’t set up well when the one-pointer needed to be taken – they went sideways and didn’t get a quick play-the-ball just next to the left post.
Tedesco’s been tremendous, Victor Radley is back in form and Walker and Luke Keary standing up, I give them a chance against the Storm but the home side deserve to be slight favourites.
Melbourne were a fair bit off against Brisbane on Friday night and are going to have to repair a few things.
Invariably they bounce back from poor performances and I think they paid the price of trying to be too physical in the early exchanges.
The Broncos handled that well and they have not just physicality but speed eight across the board, not just in their pack.
Guys like Selwyn Cobbo, Herbie Farnworth and Kotoni Staggs are all aggressive with their carries and tackles.
It’s a Melbourne Storm trademark and the Broncos hadn’t beaten them for so long, so they gave them a bit of their own DNA.
Brisbane are hitting their straps on both sides of the ball and the fact that they’re averaging around 30 in attack over the past month is a bit scary because they still haven’t quite found top gear.
You never like to see injuries like the compound fracture of the ankle that Ryan Papenhuyzen copped near the end of Melbourne’s loss to Brisbane.
Unfortunately they can happen in a tough contact sport but they’re the type that make us all feel ill.
It can be traumatic for everyone in a team especially when it happens to someone who has fought so hard to be back after fracturing his kneecap.
I remember coaching a game for Newcastle against Parramatta in 2004 when Andrew Johns and David Seage both tore their ACL in the same game and I felt emotionally upset by it.
Joey was out bang on 12 months and a short time later showed he was back to his best with his famous Origin II performance which was great for everyone to see, although while I was happy for him, I wasn’t totally thrilled as Maroons coach at the time.
But you see other players who never never quite get back to being the same player after they have a major injury so hopefully Ryan can do that.
I had a bit to do with him in the Australian World Cup Nines side a few years back and he’s a likeable guy, happy go lucky and extremely talented.