First tackle: Finals footy hits with a bang
What a great weekend of finals football we were treated to, once the Sea Eagles had finished their ordinary effort against the Storm on Friday night.
The Roosters were given an almighty fright by the Titans, who didn't take a backward step in trying to make the most of their finals opportunity on Saturday afternoon. We then had the Rabbitohs who outsmarted and outperformed the Panthers to give themselves a week off ahead of the Preliminary Final.
On Sunday we saw the most ferocious of the four battles, with Eels and Knights players really going all out in the trenches. The intensity of the elimination clash was encapsulated in a Knights set of tackles in the 19th minute of the game.
With Newcastle bringing the ball off their own line through one-out forward charges, the Eels, spearheaded by fiery lock Nathan Brown, really muscled up to the challenge. In five runs the Knights barely travelled 10 metres, each tackle a three-man hit that rattled bones and elicited gasps from the crowd. They finished the set with a kick which barely cleared halfway.
It was finals footy at its most intense and it continued through the full 80 minutes.
Second tackle: Where did Turbo go?
Manly fullback Tom Trbojevic will probably win the Dally M medal this year, despite being out for a chunk of the season through injury. He was the driving force behind the Sea Eagles' unexpected charge into the Top 4 and has proven just about unstoppable at times during the season.
Against the Storm on Friday night he had 15 runs for a total of 151 metres. He made no line breaks, no line break assists, no try assists and he certainly scored no tries. He only managed to break two tackles all game and passed the ball just five times.
It was an ordinary game by his standards, but he was up against one of the best defences in the competition. Whenever Manly were on the attack, the purple wall adjusted to their every move. Trbojevic is at his best taking advantage of quick play-the-balls when the defence is on the back foot. The Storm defence is seldom on the back foot. They rarely crack and when they do, they scramble so well in cover.
We have not seen the last of Trbojevic for the season. He will take on the Roosters next week and will hopefully see a little more room. He'll need to be at his best for the Sea Eagles to advance to a Preliminary Final against the Rabbitohs.
Third tackle: The whistle turns the game
With the Knights leading 10-6 and halftime looming, two big calls from referee Ashley Klein changed the course of their elimination final against the Eels.
The Eels were working the ball towards halfway, into a stiff breeze. On tackle five Klein wasn't happy with the ruck speed and gave them a tackle restart. In that ensuing set, the ball was passed to Mitchell Moses ten metres into Knights territory. As Moses took the ball at first receiver, Klein called a couple of Knights forwards offside, they both hesitated and Moses pounced. He tore through the gap before swerving around fullback Kalyn Ponga, to run away and score under the posts.
From the restart they worked their way back downfield before some slick passing from Clint Gutherson and Waqa Blake put Blake Ferguson over in the corner. In a couple of minutes, the Eels had taken control of the game from the hands of the Knights.
The game was wrapped up late with a controversial penalty try. There was little doubt that a try would have been scored had the interference not occurred, but it was unclear whether Clint Gurtherson's grubber kick came from a dropped ball.
Fourth tackle: Smith's headache solves Bellamy's
Craig Bellamy had one dilemma taken care of by an unfortunate clash of heads, in the first half of the Storm's comfortable win over the Sea Eagles. With Harry Grant sitting on the bench, Bellamy has to decide when to pull the trigger and make the swap with the equally effective Brandon Smith.
Midway through the first half the decision was made for Bellamy when Smith charged into the Manly defence and reeled out of the tackle holding his face. He left the field for a HIA which he failed, but has since been cleared of any structural damage to his face.
Grant, of course, went on to play a starring role in the dominant Melbourne victory. It's a luxury Bellamy will continue to enjoy through the big games ahead.
Fifth and last: More rules frustration for fans
We saw the ridiculous escort rule in action again during the Roosters' narrow win over the Titans, with veteran centre Josh Morris penalised in the 14th minute in Townsville. With Daniel Tupou settling under a towering bomb, ten out from his own line, Morris ran a direct line back in support, his eyes fixed on the ball. Titans centre Brian Kelly, running a similar line, tangled with Morris and hit the deck.
The referee awarded the Titans a free kick and Morris immediately called for a captain's challenge, convinced he had done nothing wrong. The bunker looked at a couple of replays before agreeing with the referee that Morris had denied Kelly a chance to contend through the line he ran. The challenge was unsuccessful and as the Titans lined up to kick the scores level at 2-all, Roosters captain James Tedesco sought further clarification.
Inexplicably the referee explained that Morris needed to be there sooner, to establish a position. It was a nonsensical explanation of an at times nonsensical rule.
It was matched in the 32nd minute of the game with another ridiculous by-the-book call. David Fifita took a pass behind, but inside decoy runner Patrick Herbert. Herbert realised the error and stopped dead in his run, quite clearly avoiding any contact with the defence. Fifita went on to beat four defenders in a signature run full of both nuance and power. The bunker ruled no try and fans buried their faces in their hands.
Handover: Rabbitohs fullback redeems himself
All the talk in the lead up was about Rabbitohs youngster Blake Taaffe struggling with Nathan Cleary's towering kicking game. It only took seven minutes for Taaffe to spill the first high kick sent his way.
It could have been the beginning of a long night for the man tasked with filling the boots of suspended star Latrell Mitchell, but with some encouraging words from skipper Adam Reynolds, the youngster turned things around from there.
Taaffe was safe under the expected feast of high kicks sent his way for the rest of the game. He made up for it later defusing everything kicked his way. He looked dangerous every time he ran the ball and threw a perfectly timed pass to put Jaxson Paulo over in the corner for a crucial try.
The Rabbitohs have the luxury of a week off now to prepare for a Preliminary Final against either the Roosters or the Sea Eagles. One win away from the Grand Final, super coach Wayne Bennett will be pulling out all his tricks to go out on a high at the end of his tenure at Redfern.