With the dust still settling from arguably the greatest State of Origin decider of all time, NRL Round 18 set the scene for an absorbing run home with a weekend chock-full of drama, low-scoring thrillers, high-scoring barnburners, stunning individual displays – and a shattering injury to one of the code’s best.
We attempt to unpack how the round has impacted the premiership race with only seven matches remaining until the NRL playoffs.
1 – Maroons Heroes Back It Up
Just days after winning one of the most taxing games of footy imaginable – and based on the state of Jai Arrow on Thursday morning, giving it a good nudge later that night – a clutch of Queensland stars who did back up in Round 18 underlined their class and endurance with brilliant performances to inspire their clubs.
Series-sealing stud Ben Hunt was the first Maroon to step up to the plate on Saturday afternoon, continuing his one-man band act for the Dragons.
Hunt scored a solo try and laid on another for Zac Lomax immediately afterwards to erase an early 12-0 deficit against the Roosters, before his team was overrun 54-26.
At 32, Hunt is enjoying a career-best year and is a genuine Dally M Medal chance despite the Saints now looking unlikely to feature in the finals.
His courage and ability is wasted on such a poorly-constructed roster.
Next up, oft-maligned marquee men Daly Cherry-Evans and Kalyn Ponga shone brightest as Manly powered away from Newcastle 42-12.
Victorious Maroons captain DCE put in an astounding shift with two line-breaks, three brilliant try-assists and even taking on the goalkicking duties.
He thoroughly deserved the early mark from Des Hasler in the 73rd minute.
Man-of-the-match in the decider, Ponga showed throughout the Origin series what he can do with quality around him.
The Knights skipper was a class above his teammates at Brookvale with a team-high 200 metres and pure desire to finish a 75-metre try movement he started with a line-break assist that gave the underdogs a sniff at 14-12 early in the second stanza.
North Queensland’s Tom Gilbert (71 metres, 15 tackles) – who put in 49 minutes less than 48 hours after his Origin debut – Gold Coast’s Tino Fa’asuamaleaui (153 metres) and Souths’ Arrow (73 metres, 33 tackles) all provided admirable engine-room grunt for their clubs after helping Queensland to glory.
Special mention to Blues skipper James Tedesco, who was enormous in a beaten effort on Wednesday night and produced the goods again for the Roosters three days later.
‘Teddy’ ran for a game-high 292 metres in the Origin decider and chalked up another 191 metres for the Chooks, while his relentless support play netted two second-half tries.
2 – Storm Worried, No Pappy
Melbourne sunk to three straight losses for the first time since 2015 courtesy of a rollercoaster 20-16 home defeat to Canberra.
Compounding the result and then some, champion fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen suffered an agonising season-ending knee injury.
On top of the Storm’s heavy outside-back injury toll, the long-term absence of the 2020 Churchill Medal winner could prove a mortal wound to the perennial heavyweights’ title hopes.
Unfortunately for Craig Bellamy, his two best-credentialled No.1 replacements – Cameron Munster and Jahrome Hughes – are required in the halves.
Nick Meaney is a very capable replacement most clubs would be elated to have as their back-up…but he’s a notch or two below most custodians in the premiership race.
Previously hot on the Panthers’ heels in premiership futures, the Storm have drifted back into the chasing pack level with the Cowboys at $7.50 on the second line of grand final winner betting.
3 – Manu And Mitchell The Aces In Finals Shuffle
A flashpoint late-season incident rubbed former teammates Joey Manu and Latrell Mitchell out the 2021 finals, through injury and suspension, respectively, but the similarly freakish game-breakers have loomed as the key figures in the race for the Top 8.
Whether he’s at fullback, centre or five-eighth, Manu keeps producing mind-blowing performances.
With the No.6 on his back against the Saints, the Kiwi superstar ran for an absurd 194 metres, scored two tries, made three line-breaks and produce two try-assists that encapsulated his rare skillset (along with a piece of gamesmanship that split opinion).
There’s an argument the Roosters are better off with Manu in the halves with concussion-prone Luke Keary’s combination with Sam Walker yet to gel.
The Tricolours remain outside the Top 8 and are $21 to win the comp, but with Manu, Tedesco and Walker – plus the likes of Victor Radley, who arguably had a career-best outing against the Dragons – all firing they can still give it a shake.
Meanwhile, the Rabbitohs, who have not sat higher than sixth at any stage this season, will be setting their sights on the Top 4 after chalking up their fifth win in six games.
Souths’ first three-match winning streak of 2022 has coincided with Latrell Mitchell’s return from a three-month injury layoff.
It’s no coincidence, though. Sunday night’s 36-28 win over the plucky Bulldogs swung on Mitchell’s blockbusting talents, scoring one of the individual tries of the year at a crucial juncture in the second half and laying on two tries – giving him three assists for the match – inside the last 10 minutes after Souths had fallen behind.
South Sydney remains seventh but is now only a win away from fourth, shortening to $17 for the premiership.
Five of the Rabbitohs’ next six matches are against teams above them on the ladder, though, so a patchily-performing line-up needs to lift around the mercurial Mitchell.
4 – Depleted Teams Dig Deep
As a coach of a club with a stack of Origin players, when you rest your entire rep contingent you’re prepared to take the L.
But the benefits can be far-reaching for the run home – and picking up the two points is a valuable bonus.
Ivan Cleary and Kevin Walters hit the jackpot in Round 18 with makeshift line-ups carving out gutsy, hard-fought victories (albeit against the competition’s two worst teams).
Penrith twice came from behind to edge Wests Tigers 18-16 without their seven-strong Blues posse, with Dylan Edwards, James Fisher-Harris and Viliame Kikau standing tall and a host of fill-ins proving they are worthy of an opportunity further down the line.
Eight points clear with seven rounds left, the minor premiership is all but in the defending champs’ keeping – and the Panthers are now an insanely short $2 to go back-to-back.
Brisbane, without five Origin guns, also had to dig deep to thwart a willing Gold Coast 16-12, clawing back from a deficit on two occasions.
The result keeps the Broncos in the Top 4 battle up to their eyeballs ahead of a reasonable draw over the next month featuring games against three teams in the bottom half.
It didn’t quite pan out the same way for Todd Payten and North Queensland on Friday, but the Cowboys lost few admirers in a 26-12 loss to the in-form Sharks with only debutant Gilbert backing up and a contentious Bunker call conspiring against them.
The Cowboys have retained second spot and will come back fresh as they look to consolidate their spot with four straight games against bottom-half outfits.
5 – Parra Prove Point
Back-to-back wins over a pair of wooden spoon contenders (failing to cover the line in both) isn’t the usual platform to launch a premiership charge off.
But Parramatta’s ability to outlast also-rans Wests Tigers (28-20) and the Warriors (28-18) – two potential banana-skin games – suggests the enigmatic outfit is turning a corner.
The Eels had to lift on Friday night to put away the Warriors, who produced arguably their best performance of the season.
Reed Mahoney and Isaiah Papali’i may be bound for Sydney rivals in 2023, but yet again both played like they would do anything for the blue-and-gold jumper.
Maika Sivo has added a new dimension to the Eels since returning from a long-term injury last month and broke the Warriors’ spirit with his sizzling 55-metre try.
The sixth-placed Eels, $9 in premiership betting, are only a win off second…but there’s still a slew of teams breathing down their necks and a huge upcoming fortnight at home against the Broncos and Panthers could prove season-defining.
Five of Parramatta’s remaining seven games are at CommBank Stadium and the club’s 28-9 record at the venue (5-1 in 2022) is shaping as a real trump card, with the Eels still seem like the team most capable of bumping the Penrith juggernaut off its tracks.