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  • Writer's picturePaul Monaro

Reset after thrilling NRL finals weekend

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

It will be the same Rugby League conversation right up the east coast this week. What appeared to be a two- or three-way battle seems to have come back to a no-contest. If the premiership was a race at the Corso, Tommy Trbojevic, or anyone else for that matter, would struggle to win with a ten-metre start.

You don’t have to understand the game, only tempo, to observe how superior the Storm are in the way they play. Virtually every aspect of Melbourne’s approach is faster and more skillful. This was certainly the case on Friday, and they did it with a 90% completion rate.

Why can Melbourne play a near-perfect game so much faster than everyone else? It has to be what they do at training, ad nauseum, till it’s faultless. And then they must practice some more, till they are doing it in their sleep.

Against Manly, their dominance gave them the opportunity to work on the ‘one percent’ aspects of the game. This was demonstrated by every player showing urgency for their last try, even though they were 26 points ahead with not much left on the clock.

They worked on nailing forty-twenties, a successful captain's challenge, and for good measure, a two-point Papenhuyzen field goal with two seconds left on the clock.

Manly never gave themselves a chance, with their first error and a Storm try coming after three minutes. By ten minutes, and the Storm’s second try to Kenny Bromwich, it was 10-nil.

Ten points for any side against the Storm? You could argue the game was over then.

In attack, the Storm was almost flawless. In defense, they are a team that does their homework on the opposition. As Andrew Voss said on Fox Sports, they brought the kryptonite to the Manly fight, nullifying the impact of the normally super-charged Turbo. One of the game's best players was frustrated into making errors.

The Storm fullback had no such trouble. If Ryan Papenhuyzen is still below his best, then look out the teams that are left!

He hasn’t been overplaying and injects himself just at the right times. When he runs onto a pass, he has that Billy Slater-like timing of hitting top speed right as he catches the ball. It’s so hard for the opposition to handle it’s almost like catching wind.

Manly’s stats show they made four errors in the first half. But combine that with their four penalties conceded at crucial times, it’s clear they played themselves out of the contest. And maybe out of our reckoning as a team that can halt the hurricane. Time will tell.

We all thought Penrith might be the team to change the script. Now we’re wondering if we’ve been watching an illusion. In the final rounds of the competition, they had key players still returning from injury. Not surprisingly the timing and intensity weren’t quite there. But they have had time to put it together by now.

And they haven’t! It’s that word tempo again. If it was a drum set, they just kept thumping away on the bass.

Against Souths, they seemed to be playing well within themselves. It wasn’t until the Rabbitohs regathered a charge-down midway through the second half that Penrith seemed to realise things were serious.

By then it was too late. Souths had all the momentum, and the assurance of a matador.

Would Penrith have played more up-tempo if it was sudden death? We’ll see next week.

Incredibly, Souths kept Penrith to a single try - one that came with a degree of luck. Nine minutes into the game, Nathan Cleary aimed his banana kick at one of the uprights. He never misses these!

It missed, and almost sailed dead in-goal, only for Paul Momirovski to bat the ball back for Stephen Crichton to score.

Nathan Cleary. Picture Wikipedia

Maybe Wayne Bennett was rattling around in Cleary’s head. Bennett’s animated rant the day before was only a mini bombshell, but for Penrith it seemed to have maximum impact. Cleary’s kicking game was ordinary by his standards. In the first half his high kicks weren’t deep enough, and he only successfully launched one of his deadly floaters. That was diffused by rookie Blake Taaffe, who showed plenty of self-assurance after an early drop.

There were telling signs that Penrith was off their game. Yeo made a serious break late in the first half, one that Cleary and Jerome Luai would normally have anticipated. Cleary realised and chased, but by then he was ten metres behind. And there were no other Panthers players in the frame! A try at that point could have been a crucial momentum changer.

A few minutes later Penrith failed to challenge a penalty after an obvious Tom Burgess fumble in the play-the-ball. The players’ minds seemed to be somewhere else. Soon, they might be thinking about next year.

How are the Roosters placed after their win?

The whole finals landscape would have been different with a fully fit Roosters line-up. Part of the reason they are still contenders is that, as a team, they constantly turn up for one another. But they were stretched all the way by the (eight-placed and lucky to be so) Titans. If the Gold Coast side had cut out half of their errors, they could have won two games against the Roosters.

To be fair, the Roosters were going play for play on mistakes. At the end of the first half, both teams had completion rates hovering around sixty percent. It was an absorbing game and a valiant effort by both teams. But it was two teams in the bottom of the eight seemingly making up the numbers.

Of course, tell that to Trent Robinson and his team. Sam Walker might be the X-factor to sneak the Roosters past Manly next week, but then they would face Souths, and after that probably the Storm.

If they make it to the preliminary final, what will be said by Benny about the Roosters blockers? As Walker nailed the match-winning field goal, the blockers resembled a sea wall, with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Victor Radley standing offside next to the ruck? To anyone who wasn’t a Titan’s fan, it was almost comical.

The highlight of this game was Jarrod Wallace’s intercept that killed off a classic Roosters attacking play. Isaac Liu passed inside to Tedesco, who was set to make the zillionth clean break of his career. Wallace read it perfectly and plucked the ball out of the air, sprinting 40 metres before being pulled down. His sprint would have looked slow even at double the speed, but it was the effort that counted. He was one of the Titan's best and was rewarded with a late try.

Not so David Fifita who failed to make an impact, at least for his team anyway. Towards full-time, with the game on the line, his attempted tap-on to a furious Corey Thompson sailed harmlessly into touch. It was early in the tackle count. He is one of a handful of forwards in the game who seems to think they’ve been employed as an architect when their main job is to drive the bulldozer.

Parra v Penrith will be billed as the battle of the west. But that will be a hard sell. Supporters from the west just want to see someone beat the Storm, Roosters, or Souths.

Parramatta scored some very slick tries, and their defense for the final 20 minutes was match-winning. But like the Roosters v Titans, this was a battle of the middleweights. The Eels should never have allowed Newcastle to stay in the contest for as long as they did.

Parramatta has shown they have the recipe to beat the Storm, so that would be an interesting contest. However, despite their disappointing showing, you would think Penrith will advance, and the Grand Final everyone expected will come a week early. Anything is possible, but unless Penrith can double their tempo by then, they’ll be in the game as spectators.

In theory, the side of the draw Souths finds themselves may provide the easier passage through to October. Most pundits will now have them playing Melbourne in the Grand Final. If so, it will be interesting to see which Storm subtlety Bennet blows up about on match eve. Maybe he’ll mention a certain player who has plenty of form but gets away with a lot that’s unnoticed. Or maybe it will be maestro Cameron Munster, who seems to get away with things even when they are noticed.

Included in the Storm's best against Manly were the premier’s sleight-of-hand play-the-ball tricks. Dale Finucane should be known as ‘the magician’. His delicate nudge on a ball Tom Trbojevic was trying to play even had Tom fooled. The theatrical surprise from Finucane had the referee fooled as well.

So, it might come down to a battle of two master coaches, with plenty of scheming from these two wizards in the lead-up.

So far, most teams haven’t asked enough questions on the field to beat the Storm. Bennett will start by asking questions off it.

He’ll start with the referees. Then, he might demand his case be taken up by the NRL.

Hell, maybe he’ll drag the Queensland Government into it! In any event, if it is the Storm and Souths in the final week, whatever else, it will provide the ultimate drama.

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