NRL Round 11 had it all: officiating controversies, match-winning sideline conversions, campaign-altering injuries and a pair of blowout upsets.
Penrith opened up a four-point gap on the field with a statement win over Sydney Roosters, while North Queensland, Cronulla, Brisbane and Parramatta closed in on second-placed Melbourne in what’s shaping as a fascinating battle for top-four spots.
Few teams’ stocks rose sharper than Canberra’s after a second straight 20-point win as the underdog, and St George Illawarra and Wests Tigers emerged victorious from bottom-half showdowns.
1 – Bunker Flunks Another Easy Test
Officiating NRL matches is an overwhelmingly thankless task. But it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the folks with their finger on the button in the Bunker when they conjure decisions as categorically wrong as the ones that stymied Newcastle on Thursday night.
Contentiously taking a try off Dane Gagai for allegedly losing his grip on the ball after he latched onto an Anthony Milford grubber bordered on the absurd.
But missing a classic shepherd from Te Maire Martin in the lead-up to a decisive 67th-minute Selwyn Cobbo try was the biggest indictment yet in a horror 2022 for the Bunker.
The battling Knights trailed just 14-12 at the time but crumbled to a 36-12 defeat by conceding three more late tries.
Despite being without Adam Reynolds, the Broncos rode their luck – with firming Maroons Origin bolter Cobbo at the forefront – to a fifth straight win for the first time since 2017.
At 7-4 the Broncos have surged to equal-fourth on the ladder with the Sharks and Eels, who both bounced back from Magic Round losses with hard-fought Round 11 wins.
2 – Manly’s Cooked After Turbo Blow
Manly coach Des Hasler also had some grievances with the standard of refereeing after his gutsy side went down 22-20 to Parramatta on the back of a 9-2 penalty count and Mitchell Moses’ late sideline conversion.
The result saw the 5-6 Sea Eagles slip to 10th but will have far greater ramifications on their campaign courtesy of 2021 Dally M Medal winner Tom Trbojevic’s season-ending dislocated shoulder.
Reuben Garrick is a sound fullback replacement and Manly boasts decent backline depth, but without ‘Turbo’ it’s hard to see the Sea Eagles do much better than scrape into the finals.
They have already lengthened to $2.50 to make the Top 8 following the shattering diagnosis.
It leaves NSW coach Brad Fittler in a bind, too, with the other incumbent Blues centre, Latrell Mitchell, still sidelined as well.
Uncapped centres Stephen Crichton, Kotoni Staggs, Siosifa Talakai, Zac Lomax, Matt Burton and Campbell Graham are the leading contenders to fill the Blues’ breach, though Fittler could turn to versatile, Origin-experienced veterans Clint Gutherson or Jack Wighton.
3 – Weathering The Storm
Losing two blue-chip spine players was always going to significantly impact Melbourne’s offence against the NRL’s two best defensive sides.
But the absence of Ryan Papenhuyzen and Jahrome Hughes does not fully explain the flood of points put on the usually iron-clad Storm.
Heavy defeats to Penrith (32-6) and North Queensland (36-6) have created a couple of unwanted Bellamy-era firsts.
Melbourne had never lost consecutive games by more than 20 points since Craig Bellamy took the reins in 2003.
Meanwhile, the Storm have leaked more than 30 points in back-to-back games for the first time since 2005 and it’s the first time they have scored less than seven points in consecutive outings under the coaching maestro.
Penrith the first team to score more than 30 against the Storm since 2017 and the Cowboys inflicted the perennial heavyweights’ first back-to-back losses since 2018.
Surely Craig Bellamy’s men will be hellbent on avoiding a third straight loss for the first time since 2015 when they host similarly shorthanded Manly on Thursday.
The Storm’s missing stars should not take anything away from the performance of the Cowboys, who had lost the previous 12 games between the clubs and also had injury setbacks with Kyle Feldt and Jason Taumalolo leaving the field in the first half.
After four years in the bottom-four, the Townsville club looks every bit the top-four team and have averaged 36.4 points while conceding only 8.4 in the past five rounds.
A second-half flurry of four tries in 12 minutes – including two to second-row aerial specialist Jeremiah Nanai, who now has a staggering, Menzies-esque 10 tries in 11 games in 2022 – blew the Storm off the park. The Cowboys get a chance to truly underline their title credentials at Penrith on Friday night.
The Cowboys have come in to $11 to win the premiership and still offer plenty of value at $2.00 to finish in the Top 4.
4 – Rabbitohs On The Ropes After Dubbo Drubbing
In their past 100 minutes of football, Souths have been outscored 56-12 by a pair of bottom-half teams with losing records in the Warriors and Canberra.
While they were always in control in the Magic Round win over the Warriors, the Rabbitohs’ 32-12 defeat to the Raiders in Dubbo was even more emphatic than the scoreboard made it look.
They were never in the hunt after conceding two early tries and trailing 20-0 at the break, eventually missing an eye-watering 48 tackles.
The absence of superstars Latrell Mitchell and Cameron Murray does not excuse the lack of defensive effort from a team that has played in four straight preliminary finals.
Souths remain in the Top 8 despite a 5-6 record – but they need to make hay over the next three weeks against the Tigers, Titans and Dragons.
Ricky Stuart’s Raiders, now $2.75 to make the Top 8, have rediscovered their mojo just in time, however, winning three in a row – including back-to-back 20-point upsets following their stirring 30-10 beatdown of the Sharks in Brisbane.
Sizzling tries and stiff defence sounded a warning to the NRL’s other finals hopefuls ahead of the earlier-than-expected return of halfback recruit Jamal Fogarty.
But it’s a big few weeks coming up for the Green Machine with showdowns against the Eels, Roosters and Broncos.
5 – ‘Madge’ And ‘Hook’ Ease Pressure As Broken Brown Flounders
Michael Maguire and Anthony Griffin were the coaches under the April blowtorch, before their teams simultaneously scored drought-breaking, pressure-relieving Round 6 victories.
Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra were inching perilously close to slump territory again but notched much-needed – if unnecessarily scrappy – wins in Round 11.
The Jackson Hastings-inspired Tigers got off to a flyer against the strife-torn Bulldogs with four first-half tries to none at Leichhardt Oval.
After conceding the first three tries of the second stanza, the Tigers got home 36-22 with a late double to utility Fa’amanu Brown, who was playing his first NRL game in three years.
The Dragons came from behind to hold off the Warriors 24-18 with makeshift fullback Cody Ramsey and strike centre Zac Lomax starring, though they should have put a couple of nails in their battling opponents’ coffin before enduring what was ultimately a nervy finish.
Realistically, the Tigers and Dragons are a few gears away from Top 8 material – but in a competition with a sagging middle, winning the games they should at this time of the year keeps the finals flame flickering.
Four early wins may be the only factor that saves the Warriors from a maiden wooden spoon.
They have won one of their last six and look a shell of a competitive and cohesive unit, while centre Adam Pompey had a shocker to rival teammate Ed Kosi’s Anzac Day debacle.
In the wake of Matt Lodge’s messy mid-season exit and a possible long-term injury to Addin Fonua-Blake, coach Nathan Brown appears a shattered man bereft of ideas on how to steady the capsizing Warriors vessel.
There seems to be something seriously wrong behind the scenes and it is destined to come to a head if the Warriors go down to the Knights at Redcliffe on Saturday.
Despite being just one win shy of the Top 8, the Warriors have blown out to $15 to make the finals.