The first week of the NRL finals is now complete, and what a week it was. A host of updates and a couple of thrilling finishes highlighted an enthralling weekend of rugby league, so let’s dive right in and take a look at how all four games unfolded.
Friday Night: Penrith Panthers vs Parramatta Eels
Penrith have been the best side all year by some margin, and having locked up top spot on the NRL ladder some time ago would have been looking ahead to this game for some time. Parramatta would have been delighted to sneak into the top four in the final round of the home and away season and earn themselves a double chance in the process, but a game in Penrith against the Panthers was hardly the ideal reward. And though they stuck with the home side in the first half, going into the break down by just a solitary point, the Panthers showed why they are the most imposing matchup in the league in the second half. After Brian To’o scored his second try of the game in the 51st minute, they scored another in first the 59th and then the 61st minute to open up a 25-8 lead. They stretched that out to 27-8 courtesy of a penalty goal by the final whistle, setting up a home preliminary final for themselves and putting a second consecutive Premiership well and truly within their reach.
Next Match for Penrith: Panthers vs Sharks/Rabbitohs
The Panthers’ preliminary final opponent hasn’t yet been decided and will come out of the winner of the Sharks vs the Rabbitohs game next week, but regardless of who it is, Penrith will head in as favourites with the betting sites on their home turf.
Next Match for Parramatta: Eels ($1.53) vs Raiders ($2.50)
The Eels get to return home next week and face a much less intimidating opponent than the Panthers in the Raiders, though Canberra is in fantastic form of late and wont’ go down without a fight.
Saturday Afternoon: Melbourne Storm vs Canberra Raiders
The Storm’s disappointing second half of the season culminated in a Round 25 loss which saw them slip outside the top four, but against the Raiders at AAMI Park they were still expected to advance through to the semis according the betting apps. The Raiders, however, had found some brilliant form over the past couple of months to sneak inside the eight, and with a try in the seventh minute it was clear they weren’t here just to make up the numbers. The Storm responded soon after through Xavier Coates, and when he scored again four minutes later they had a four-point lead. It didn’t last long, however, with Canberra scoring two tries in three minutes just before half-time to take a 16-8 lead into the break. With an upset brewing the Storm’s back was against the wall, but a third try to Coates and another to Nelson Asofa-Solomona 12 minutes later gave them a four-point lead and with all the momentum. At that point they looked like being hard to stop, but what happened next was testament to Canberra’s character as a unit; a converted try to Hudson Young in the 66th minute put them in front, before another to Jordan Rapana gave them an eight-point lead they wouldn’t relinquish in the dying stages. The 28-20 win made them a surprise semi-finalist, and resigned the Storm to a hugely disappointing finish in a season in which, for a long time, they were going toe to toe with the Panthers for Premiership favouritism.
Next Match for Melbourne: N/A
The Storm’s season is done and dusted after the loss, which marked a remarkable fall from grace following the expectations which surrounded them earlier in the year.
Next Match for Canberra: Eels ($1.53) vs Raiders ($2.50)
The Raiders will once again enter their next game as underdogs, but as they showed against the Storm that certainly won’t bother them.
Saturday Night: Cronulla Sharks vs North Queensland Cowboys
This matchup between two unexpected top four teams was always going to be an intriguing one, but few could have predicted the level of excitement this game would ultimately bring. It was hot from the outset, with Tom Gilbert scoring first for the Cowboys before Toby Rudolf levelled things up at six apiece in the tenth minute. The see-sawing nature of those first ten minutes would prove to be a sign of things to come. The Sharks took the lead with a try in the 24th minute, before the Cowboys tied things up in the 28th and then took the lead in the 30th. It didn’t last long, though; William Kennedy then squared it up at 18-18 with a converted try of his own in the 35th minute, and that would be the score heading into the main break. It was a thrilling first half, but there was still plenty more to come. The Cowboys were the first to strike in the 52nd minute, but it took just four minutes for the Sharks to respond and take a two-point lead, before stretching that out to eight in the 66th minute. The visitors had their backs right up against the wall at that point, but a penalty goal to Valentine Holmes in the 72nd minute brought them to within one score of their opponents. As the minutes ticked down it seemed increasingly unlikely they would find the try they needed, but with just a minute to go the irrepressible Jason Taumololo found a way, and when Valentine Holmes duly converted the scores were tied at 30 all, and the game sent to overtime. A massive 12 minutes passed with no team able to score the golden point they needed to advance into the preliminary finals, until finally, more than one and a half hours of game time after the opening kick, Valentine Holmes scored the field goal that sealed the Cowboys trip to the final four.
Next Match for Cronulla: Sharks ($1.95) vs Rabbitohs ($1.85)
The heartbreaking loss resigns the Sharks to a semi-final matchup, and though it’s on their home turf they have a seriously tough ask against the rampaging Rabbitohs, and aren’t favourites with NRL betting sites even on their home turf.
Next Match for North Queensland: Cowboys vs Eels/Raiders
The Cowboys will have to wait a week to find out whether they play the Eels or the Raiders for a spot in the Grand Final, but they’ll be favoured to make it through regardless of who it is.
Sunday Afternoon: Sydney Roosters vs South Sydney Rabbitohs
As enthralling a day of rugby league as Saturday was, Sunday afternoon’s game was the most anticipated of the weekend, with the league’s fiercest rivals facing off for a spot in the semi-finals with both of them in sparkling form. The Roosters, in particular, have been unstoppable for months, but it was the Bunnies who got off to a flyer with a try through Alex Johnston in just the fifth minute of the game. It didn’t take long for Sydney to respond, though, with Angus Crichton responding four minutes later. The home side franked that try with another three minutes later, before Latrell Mitchell gave the visitors back the lead in the 22nd minute; a lead they would carry into the half-time break. The game was very much in the balance with 40 minutes to go, but the Rabbitohs came out of the blocks after the break like a team possessed, looking keen to snuff out any hopes of a Roosters’ come back in quick time. Two consecutive tries within 11 minutes gave them an imposing 24-8 lead, but a Nat Butcher try brought the Roosters back to within ten points and in with a chance. Defence, at that point, became the name of the game for the visitors, and they dug their heels in like a far better team than their seventh-place finish would indicate. The Roosters wouldn’t score again, and a try to Isaiah Tass in the 71st minute gave the Bunnies a famous 30-14 lead. The ending might not have been as exciting as many may have hoped, but the game certainly wasn’t lacking any of the expected ferocity, with no less than seven players sin binned throughout the course of the game.
Next Match for Sydney: N/A
That’s it for Sydney, who will rue an early end to the season after they entered the finals series as perhaps the most in-form side in the league.
Next Match for South Sydney: Sharks ($1.95) vs Rabbitohs ($1.85)
Despite finishing a long way below the Sharks and having to travel to Cronulla, so good is the Rabbitohs’ form that they’ve been pegged as slight favourites for their semi-final with betting sites.