The pressure valve is cranking up in the NRL and some teams and officials are starting to crack.
Round 19 delivered a string of pivotal results as every position on the ladder from fourth to ninth changed hands, while the weekend concluded with perhaps the most controversial finish to a match of the NRL era.
But one constant remains: runaway title favourite Penrith’s unstoppable surge to the minor premiership.
1 – Bunker’s Steep De-Klein Continues
Rarely has the rugby league community reacted in unison in total abhorrence to an officiating decision as after Sunday’s sensational debacle that cost Wests Tigers an upset of high-flying North Queensland.
After conceding a late try to fall behind by a point, the Cowboys took the kick-off with one second remaining.
The dubious process by which the last sequence was sent up as a captain’s challenge was the first red flag.
But Ashley Klein’s call to rule an escort penalty against Asu Kepaoa was up there with the worst of all time – and must have the NRL sweating bullets about a similar atrocity occurring when the stakes are higher over the next two months.
Good teams find a way, however, and Valentine Holmes’ clutch after-the-siren goal – however unwarranted the attempt may have been – was a beauty to push the Cowboys two points clear in second place.
While it was a vital two points gone begging for the hapless Tigers as they strive to avoid their first wooden spoon, they were undoubtedly the moral victors in Townsville.
After blowing an 18-6 lead and going half an hour without scoring to trail by seven, the Tigers conjured two tries in the last six minutes to seemingly conjure a Houdini act of their own.
It wasn’t to be, but the beleaguered side will be buoyed by their gallant performance – and the tidal wave of sympathy that has come their way.
Meanwhile, have the Tigers missed a trick by overlooking Ben Gardiner – who stood in for a COVID-stricken Brett Kimmorley – in favour of their risky Sheensy-Benji succession plan?
2 – Squeeze On Storm And Eels After Swing Results
Melbourne and Parramatta were the big losers in the top-half shuffle over the weekend, slipping down the ladder with losses to Top 8 rivals.
The Eels were as insipid as they’ve been at any stage of a wildly fluctuating campaign, thrashed 36-14 by the Broncos at their CommBank fortress.
Craig Bellamy tore his Storm troopers a new one yet again after a mistake-addled 24-12 defeat to the Rabbitohs – a team they had lost to just five times in 36 meetings.
The perennial benchmark club of the NRL has not lost more than 10 games in a regular season since 2005. But at 11-7, that record of consistency is in jeopardy.
The Round 19 results saw Souths join the stuttering heavyweights in a share of fifth spot – and Melbourne ($9) and Parramatta ($15) slide significantly in premiership betting.
It doesn’t get any easier for the Eels, who face the dominant Panthers and desperate Sea Eagles in the next fortnight before a key showdown with the Rabbitohs in Round 22.
The Storm get a gift-wrapped chance to reset in the next two rounds against the Warriors – though a trip to Auckland could be tricky – and Titans.
3 – Four-way Logjam In Thrilling Race For Eighth
Lurking four points further back on the next NRL rung are Sydney Roosters, Manly, Canberra and St George Illawarra, who all finished the weekend in equal-eighth with a 9-9 record after some important Round 19 outcomes.
The Ben Hunt-inspired Dragons dug their way out of a slump by subduing a disappointing Sea Eagles outfit 20-6, their remarkable halfback and captain setting up the victory with a double inside 18 minutes.
As expected, the Roosters cruised to an easy win in Newcastle, thrashing the Knights 42-12 with Luke Keary (one try, one try-assist, 126 metres) making an eye-catching comeback from a concussion layoff and James Tedesco (one try, two try-assists, three line-breaks, 317 metres) asserting his status as the game’s premier fullback.
The Raiders were caught on their heels by the also-ran Warriors, who surged to a 14-0 halftime lead at GIO Stadium.
But the Green Machine avoided a catastrophic loss on the back of two Jack Wighton 40/20s and a three-minute brace to back-rower Corey Harawira-Naera, winning 26-14.
The Roosters ($1.85) are narrowly favoured in the Top 8 market over the Sea Eagles ($2.20) and Raiders ($3.00), with the Dragons ($6.00) still considered only an outside chance.
Expect a shake-up to those odds after Round 20, with the Sea Eagles hosting the Roosters, while the Raiders get a near-gimme against the Titans and the Dragons face a tougher ask at home to the Cowboys.
4 – Records Beckon For Panthers Juggernaut
It’s hard not to be impressed by Penrith’s relentless pursuit of wins despite scaling the NRL’s peak last year and grinding through another arduous Origin period.
The 20-10 comeback win on Saturday night to halt Cronulla’s five-game tear saw the premiers rack up their second nine-match winning streak this season.
The 17-1 Panthers remain on track to become the first team to lose less than two regular-season games since St George’s unbeaten 1959 campaign (which consisted of just 18 rounds).
They are eight points clear of the field – and if that gap gets any bigger, Ivan Cleary’s charges will be the most dominant minor premiers in history.
Penrith won’t lack any motivation this Thursday when it meets archrival Parramatta – the only team to beat the Panthers in 2022 – while the $1.90 title favourites’ toughest remaining games are at home against battling Melbourne, away to improving Souths and a final-round trip to Townsville.
5 – Bulldogs Loom As Finals Banana Peel
Mick Potter’s freewheeling Canterbury Bulldogs have all but extricated themselves from the wooden spoon scenario after a 36-26 defeat of last-placed Gold Coast Titans – and they are in a mood to prove as pesky as possible to a clutch of finals aspirants.
The Bulldogs’ turnaround since Trent Barrett’s axing has developed into one of 2022’s more striking storylines, averaging an elite 25.5 points per game in eight games under Potter.
They’re a team enjoying their footy, playing without limitations and reaping the rewards.
Josh Addo-Carr bagged a hat-trick against the Titans to take his tally to 14 tries in his last 12 games as he chases a World Cup spot, while fellow marquee man Matt Burton crossed for two tries and laid on another.
The Cowboys (Round 21), Eels (Round 23), Sharks (Round 24) and Sea Eagles (Round 25) could have their Top 4 and Top 8 apple carts spoiled by the feisty blue-and-whites over the closing rounds.