NRL Round 14 went overwhelmingly to script, despite a host of Origin-related injuries and withdrawals.
That was until Canterbury produced arguably the most unexpected result of the year on Monday – shaking up the wooden spoon battle and rocking Parramatta’s premiership credentials in the process.
If Canterbury’s defeat of Parramatta on Monday wasn’t the NRL’s upset of the season so far, the magnitude of it was unquestionably the biggest shock of 2022.
The Bulldogs played with exuberance and genuine attacking quality few thought possible in a 34-4 drubbing, with maligned and unheralded types following the blistering lead of big guns Matt Burton and Josh Addo-Carr. The Eels took until the 67th minute to get on the scoreboard in the face of a tenacious blue-and-white wall.
In four games since Mick Potter took the reins from Trent Barrett, the Bulldogs have posted their four highest scores of the season. They’ve tallied 98 points under Potter – compared to just 96 across the first 10 rounds before Barrett’s axing.
The 3-11 Bulldogs’ three scalps make impressive reading: North Queensland, Sydney Roosters and Parramatta. After moving off the bottom of the ladder, they’ll start favourites against Wests Tigers in Round 15 – one of four remaining matches against fellow bottom-five battlers as they firm as a great chance of offloading the wooden spoon.
The Eels, who went in as $1.15 favourites giving away an 18.5-point start, remain the NRL’s most baffling enigma.
The 8-5 blue-and-golds boast away wins over Melbourne and Penrith (the Panthers’ only loss in 2022) yet have crashed to bottom-four fodder Wests Tigers and Canterbury – coincidentally, both on holiday Mondays.
The Eels, who no doubt ruined countless Round 14 multis, are a woeful 3-8 against the line as favourites this season – losing five of those.
The Bulldogs’ stunning victory was certainly an outlier in Round 14.
The favourites in the first seven games of the weekend won and covered – most doing it easily.
The other members of a clearly-defined bottom-five – plus the 6-7 Dragons, whose 10th-place standing has been built on picking up cheap wins over cellar-dwellers – were beaten by a combined 171-54, each conceding at least 30 points and going down by margins of 14-plus.
Saturday night produced a couple of absorbing, hard-fought thrillers between likely finalists. But Melbourne still did enough to cover against Sydney Roosters (26-18) in a controversial affair, while Brisbane did likewise in a gutsy display against in-form Canberra (24-18).
The traditional coach sacking bounce-back failed to materialise for Wests Tigers and the Warriors, despite showing some early promise. Brett Kimmorley’s Tigers crumbled 30-4 to Manly at Campbelltown after trailing by just two with 27 minutes left – not aided by Brent Naden’s send-off for an ugly spear tackle.
Warriors fans were lured into delusions of Stacey Jones-inspired grandeur as their team raced out to a 12-0 lead in even time against Cronulla in Redcliffe, only to watch the familiar frailties of the NRL’s weakest defensive unit resurface as the Sharks ran in eight of the last nine tries in a 38-16 drubbing.
Busted Broncos Grind It Out
Brisbane had every right to fade to an honourable loss to Canberra on Saturday, but the gallant 24-18 victory was another step in the Broncos’ remarkable evolution under Kevin Walters.
Already depleted by the absence of rested Origin debutants Selwyn Cobbo and Kotoni Staggs, the Broncos lost key trio Payne Haas (28th minute), Adam Reynolds (59th minute) and Herbie Farnworth (61st minute) to game-ending injuries.
The Raiders were held scoreless in a gripping second half, repeatedly repelled by a tiring but unflagging Broncos defence.
Patrick Carrigan backed up his epic Origin debut with 46 tackles and 173 metres in an immense 68-minute effort, rookie half Ezra Mam already looks impossible to displace after three NRL appearance, Billy Walters played a vital role at hooker and then in the halves, and Thomas Flegler charged for a game-high 196 metres.
Brisbane is hopeful of having Cobbo, Staggs (shoulder), Reynolds (ribs) and Haas (shoulder) on deck for Friday’s showdown in Melbourne. But Farnworth (bicep) and bench utility Cory Paix (knee) are sidelined for some time.
The 9-4 Broncos have lost 10 straight to the Storm but their trip to AAMI Park shapes as the standout match of the round. While some wait for them to stumble, the Broncos have shortened to $2.20 to maintain their Top 4 billing until the end of the regular season – but they remain on the seventh line of title betting at $15.
Storm Substitutes Shine
Only three teams have used more than Melbourne’s 27 players this season, but the NRL’s perennial heavyweight has defied a very challenging campaign injury-wise to remain outright second with a 10-3 record.
Queensland winger Xavier Coates is slated to be missing until Round 22 with an ankle injury suffered in Wednesday’s series opener, joining Christian Welch (season), George Jennings (season), Reimis Smith (Rd 22), Tepai Moeroa (Rd 18) and Tom Eisenhuth (Rd 17) in the casualty ward.
But whoever Craig Bellamy thrusts into the Storm line-up invariably does the job. The makeshift right-edge pairing of debutant Grant Anderson and Marion Seve played a huge role in Saturday’s gripping 26-18 defeat of the Roosters, scoring two tries apiece in fine all-round performances.
Nick Meaney deserves plenty of credit for his efforts as fill-in fullback over the past few weeks, too, but he could revert to the wing this week with Ryan Papenhuyzen a chance of returning in what would be a major boost ahead of Friday’s blockbuster against the Broncos.
The unbreakable Storm are just $1.05 to finish in the Top 4 and $1.75 to reach their fifth grand final in seven seasons.
Besieged Blues Bounce Back
NSW’s vaunted Penrith contingent underwhelmed in the Blues’ series-opening loss, with halves Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai wearing the bulk of the blame.
The criticism of the Panthers’ linchpins was the last thing the struggling Knights needed, with Cleary and Luai at the forefront of a 42-6 thrashing in Newcastle on Sunday afternoon.
Cleary produced a try, two line-break assists and a try assist, while Luai had a line-break and two try-assists in the seven-tries-to-one beatdown.
Panthers winger Brian To’o racked a game-high 268 metres, a whopping 11 tackle-breaks and scored two tries after being overshadowed by Maroons rookie Selwyn Cobbo on Wednesday, and centre Stephen Crichton notched a try and a try-assist to go with 187 metres following a mixed Origin debut.
Meanwhile, controversial game one omission Josh Addo-Carr cranked up the heat on Blues coach Brad Fittler with a brilliant hat-trick in the Bulldogs’ rout of the Eels – taking his tally to 11 tries in his past seven games.
Canterbury five-eighth Matt Burton – a reigning Dally M Centre of the Year – also provided a reminder of his match-turning qualities with three try-assists at Parramatta’s expense. Burton has laid on eight tries in his last five outings.
Dynamic Manly second-rower Haumole Olakau’atu boosted his claims for a NSW call-up with a try, three line-breaks and 179 metres in a blockbusting display against the Tigers.