NRL Round 7 kicked off with one of the most unforgettable individual performances of recent times, while another thriller decided by a field goal provided some relief amid a succession of landslide results.
The hallowed Anzac Day schedule was a double-header of contrast: a stunning upset and a record-breaking demolition.
In the wash-up, the Cowboys, Tigers and Dragons emerged with their finals prospects significantly enhanced, while the Bulldogs, Titans, Knights, Raiders and Warriors lurched into varying levels of crisis.
1 – Blowouts and Boilovers
Six favourites covered in Round 7 – and did so easily in a weekend short on competitiveness.
Cronulla led Manly 32-0 at halftime before taking the foot off the gas in the second half to win by 12 points; Brisbane overwhelmed Canterbury 34-14 with a late surge; North Queensland subdued Gold Coast 30-4; Parramatta routed Newcastle 39-2; Penrith beat Canberra into submission 36-6; and Melbourne crushed the Warriors 70-10.
The only underdogs to cover also pulled off valiant victories.
In dire straits after an 0-5 start, Wests Tigers backed up their euphoric 21-20 Easter Monday upset of the Eels with a remarkable 23-22 defeat of Souths on a five-day turnaround.
The maligned Luke Brooks was the hero this time as the Tigers got up with another last-minute field goal.
The Tigers’ Jackson Hastings-led attacking transformation has been at the heart of the turnaround.
After scoring only four tries total in their previous four games, they have scored four tries in consecutive games against two of the better defences in the NRL – with David Nofoaluma notching back-to-back doubles.
Equally unfancied St George Illawarra snared its first Anzac Day victory since 2018, a richly-deserved 14-12 eclipse of the star-studded but disjointed Sydney Roosters.
The Dragons held on after leading 14-0 at halftime, displaying a defensive resolve rarely seen under Anthony Griffin and the Saints have not conceded less points in a game since Round 9 of 2020.
Meanwhile, Ben Hunt – the biggest positive of a poor start to 2022 for the club – was a runaway Anzac Medal winner, kicking brilliantly and setting the tone with his commitment on defence.
The Tigers ($8) and Dragons ($3.75) have come in slightly in the Top 8 market and face one another in a suddenly intriguing Sunday afternoon clash in Round 8, with the Saints opening as warm favourites in Wollongong.
2 – Talakai Express
Few who witnessed Siosifa Talakai’s first-half obliteration of Manly on Thursday will forget it in a hurry.
Only pitched into Cronulla’s centres three weeks earlier to cover injuries, the 25-year-old wrecking ball was again unstoppable.
At the half-hour mark Talakai had over 180 running metres, two tries, three sparkling try-assists, three line-breaks and six tackle-breaks – career night stats over 80 minutes for most centres.
The 25-year-old Junior Kiwi rep and Tonga-eligible powerhouse has come from nowhere into NSW Origin contention.
The Sharks eased off in the second half, but given they are just seven weeks into a campaign with several new combinations under a rookie coach (and were also missing Dale Finucane and Braden Hamlin-Uele), they shape as the best-placed team to derail the Penrith and Melbourne juggernauts.
The Sharks are on the third line of premiership betting at $8 and will be looking to make hay over the next month with clashes against the Broncos, Warriors, Raiders and Titans.
3 – Warriors’ Record Books Rewritten
It’s a worrying sign when the coach admits his players gave up.
The irony is the Warriors – despite gifting the Storm three tries via two Ed Kosi howlers and a Shaun Johnson intercept – were arguably the better team in the first half and defended heroically to trail just 16-10 at the break.
Then they threw in the towel, conceding 10 tries in 31 traumatic minutes during the second stanza to lose 70-10.
It was men against boys – and Brown probably would’ve thrown a certain fleet-footed ball boy a jersey if he could’ve.
The Warriors will have to live with the following on their CV:
· Biggest losing margin and highest score conceded in club history
· Just the 10th team ever to concede 70 points in a game (and first since 2008)
· Leaked 13 tries, one short of the worst in the past 44 seasons
· Perhaps most disturbingly, believed to be the most points conceded in one half since 1935
The loss was compounded by injuries to Josh Curran (MCL) and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (concussion), while Aaron Pene could be in a judiciary trouble after copping Reimis Smith high.
The Warriors had been building somewhat promisingly over the previous month.
But can a depleted squad show the necessary mettle to put one diabolical half of footy in the bin and bounce back?
This Saturday’s showdown with the embattled, embittered Raiders – who are second-last on the ladder but showed some fight despite a 30-point loss to the Panthers in Round 7 – could be season-defining for both clubs.
Alarm Bells For Titans and Knights
The Warriors may have deflected some unwanted attention with their end-of-round capitulation, but Gold Coast and Newcastle are arguably in an even bigger hole with just two wins from seven matches.
The Titans turned in their worst performance of 2022 in a 30-4 defeat to the Cowboys, with their trademark attacking flair absent and their defence as shaky as ever.
Shoehorning David Fifita into the centres backfired and seemed like a rare panic move from coach Justin Holbrook and the Titans’ lack of experience and leadership in the spine is painfully apparent.
The Knights are on a five-game losing trot courtesy of a pea-hearted 39-2 loss to the Eels.
The Novocastrians’ meek goal-line defence in front of a 25,000-strong home crowd harked back to the triple-wooden spoon doldrums of 2015-17, while they were held try-less for the second time this month.
Don’t expect any relief for the desperate outfits in Round 8: the Titans host the Panthers on Friday and the Knights welcome the Storm to town on Sunday, with both battling home sides opening beyond the $7 mark head-to-head.
Cowboys Firming For Finals
In all likelihood there may only be one Top 8 spot up for grabs less than a third of the way through the 2022 regular season.
The Panthers, Storm, Eels and Sharks are shoe-ins, the Roosters and Sea Eagles are near-certainties despite patchy starts, and the Rabbitohs are just $1.36 to get there despite going 3-4.
North Queensland has surfaced as the team most capable of rising from the bloated pool of mediocrity and qualify for the finals for the first time since reaching the 2017 grand final.
Fifth on the ladder and boasting the second-best defence in the competition, the Cowboys put away the Titans with authority on Saturday.
Five-eighth Tom Dearden is one of the NRL’s most improved players, Scott Drinkwater’s injection at fullback has given their attack spark, Valentine Holmes is on fire and the pack mixes youthful athleticism with genuine grit and elite go-forward.
The Cowboys are now $2.00 to make the playoffs, with the Raiders ($3.50) on the next line of Top 8 betting.
But the wraps come with a caveat: Todd Payten’s charges have only played one other current Top 8 team (a loss to the Roosters) and have defeats to the Bulldogs and Warriors against their name.
An upcoming schedule of the Eels, Knights and Tigers gives the Cowboys an opportunity to consolidate their position before they take on the Storm and Panthers in consecutive weeks in the second half of May.