While Penrith Panthers and Melbourne Storm remain streets ahead of the field, Round 8 shook up the rest of the NRL picture.
Three of the top six teams were beaten by teams below them on the ladder, an early-season battler has surfaced as a dark horse, an early-season bolter has rocketed into wooden spoon contention and just two points separate third and 11th.
Catch up on a rollercoaster weekend in an increasingly unpredictable premiership race.
Bulldogs And Broncos Graft Out Shock Wins
Four head-to-head favourites were rolled in Round 8, with the only the underdogs who failed to cover being a 12-man Manly and hapless Newcastle – which also happened to be the only games to go over the total points line.
Brisbane set the tone for a wild weekend with a gutsy 16-7 defeat of in-form Cronulla, built on physicality and resilience overwhelmingly missing from Broncos sides in the past half decade.
Sliding Gold Coast lost its fourth straight but claimed something of moral victory in a gritty defeat to premier Penrith as 20-point outsiders, holding the Panthers to a season-low points tally in an 18-4 result.
Slight underdogs the Warriors – 60-point losers just five days earlier – rallied to a 21-20 defeat of Canberra in a low-quality Redcliffe encounter on the back of a spectacular club debut from five-eighth Daejarn Asi, a contentious late penalty and otherwise out-of-sorts Shaun Johnson’s golden point poise.
Saturday night got crazy with 13.5-point outsiders Canterbury snapping a six-match losing streak via a 16-12 boilover against Sydney Roosters, who are under pressure after a string of subpar showings against bottom-half opposition.
Surging North Queensland received 9.5 points at the line but looked every bit a dominant favourite in dismantling a flat Parramatta 35-4.
Renascent St George Illawarra and Wests Tigers played out an absorbing round-closer in Wollongong, the Dragons ultimately prevailing 12-6 after a try-less first 55 minutes.
The shock results have created a six-team logjam tied for sixth with 4-4 records, while five clubs have a share of last place with just two wins. A one-two Penrith-Melbourne finish appears almost inevitable,
but the Top 4 and Top 8 races are shaping up tantalisingly with one-third of the regular season in the books.
Last week the Cowboys established themselves a genuine Top 8 contender, but do we now have to reassess this team’s 2022 ceiling and consider them a Top 4 smoky?
The Cowboys appear to finally be buying into what coach Todd Payten is selling. Commanding wins over the Titans (30-4) and Eels (35-4) took their tally of games conceding just one try to four, while only the Panthers boast a better defensive record this season.
Surrounded by dynamic tyros Reuben Cotter, Jeremiah Nanai, Heilum Luki and Tom Gilbert, marquee man Jason Taumalolo has rediscovered his mojo. Scott Drinkwater has been a revelation at fullback with three tries in five try-assists in four games, while Tom Dearden has been among the NRL’s most consistent and effective halves.
The Cowboys ruthlessness in piling on three tries in the last six minutes in Darwin when the result was already in the bag oozed hunger and confidence.
A popular wooden spoon pick after losing to the Bulldogs in Round 1, the third-placed Cowboys have been backed into just $1.55 to reach the finals and $5 to finish in the Top 4.
Knights Of The Bottom Of The Table
North Queensland’s looming Round 9 victim is Newcastle, the new occupiers of 16th spot on the NRL ladder.
The fast-starting Knights have sunk to six straight losses, held to a paltry penalty goal in both of their last two games while conceding a whopping 89 points. Adam O’Brien’s embattled team leaked just 10 points in the opening fortnight of the premiership, yet now own the NRL’s worst defensive record.
Five-eighth Jake Clifford picked up the maximum six Dally M votes in the first two rounds but his form-line has mirrored the Knights’ staggering decline, hooked during the second half against the Storm. Their pack is getting steamrolled on a weekly basis. There’s too many deficiencies for heavily-scrutinised linchpin Kalyn Ponga to turn around on his own.
A fourth wooden spoon in eight seasons would be an unmitigated disaster for O’Brien and the Knights – but it’s emerging as a legitimate possibility.
Field Goal Finesse
With far more games going down to the wire than in recent seasons, possessing a decent field goal exponent is shaping as an absolute necessity in 2022.
Shaun Johnson’s second golden point match-winner in four weeks to sink the Raiders took the tally of matches decided by one point to six in just eight rounds. By this stage in 2021, just one game had featured a one-point margin (among only four games that were decided by less than four points).
We’ve already had 12 field goals kicked this season – an average of one every 5.3 games. In 2020 field goals were slotted every 8.8 games, while last year it was one every 7.1 games.
Veteran No.7s Daly Cherry-Evans (25 NRL field goals), Adam Reynolds (22) and Johnson (16) remain arguably the finest purveyors of the field goal art.
Meanwhile, after a grand total of just seven golden point matches across the 2020-21 seasons, we’ve already had four instalments of extra-time in 2022. If the trend continues, it’s set to be a nerve-shredding campaign for fans and punters.
The record for most golden point games in a season since its 2003 introduction is 15 in 2016.
Injuries, Suspensions Bite
Manly back-rower Karl Lawton became the owner of the unwanted record for the quickest send-off in 15 years, marched in the eighth minute for a terrible spear tackle on Souths’ Cameron Murray, the likes of which have largely been eradicated from the game.
Despite the histrionic, outdated reaction from the likes of Phil Gould and Brad Fittler, there is no question he deserved an early shower – and a repentant Lawton is looking at a four-week stint on the sidelines.
The shorthanded Sea Eagles showed impressive resolve to stay in the match until the latter stages, eventually going down 40-22 after conceding a couple of late tries.
But Lawton’s impending suspension adds to a concerning list of absentees for Des Hasler, who is sweating on the potential return of Tom Trbojevic and Josh Aloiai as early as this week after centre Brad Parker (knee) joined Taniela Paseka, Andrew Davey and Morgan Boyle in the casualty ward.
Haumole Aolakau’atu is available for Round 9 after serving a one-week ban.
Meanwhile, the 2-6 Raiders’ golden point heart-breaker was compounded by a dangerous throw charge against Jack Wighton – one of the few players keeping the struggling outfit competitive. Wighton faces a two-match suspension with an early guilty plea.
A MCL injury is slated to keep David Fifita on ice for the next four rounds – by which point the Titans’ Top 8 hopes could be down the tubes.
The Broncos are chasing three straight wins for the first time since May 2019 when they take on Souths this Thursday, but they may have to do so without invaluable prop Payne Haas, who grinded out 54 minutes against the Sharks despite aggravating a shoulder injury.
The Warriors’ injury-, suspension- and form-ravaged three-quarter stocks took another hit with Jesse Arthars exiting with a shoulder injury on Saturday, though Dallin Watene-Zelezniak should be back in Round 9 to save Nathan Brown from buying another ticket in the Ed Kosi lottery.
Other big names pushing for a return in the next fortnight include Tohu Harris (Warriors), Brian To’o (Panthers), Lachlan Fitzgibbon (Knights), Dale Finucane (Sharks) and Elliott Whitehead (Raiders).