The previous week finished in staggering circumstances, the ensuing days were dominated by some of the most unique rugby league stories in recent memory – and the madness continued right through a tumultuous NRL Round 20 schedule.
Massive upsets, the costly send-off of the game’s best player, another dismissal in golden point, lengthy suspensions and farcical leniency from the judiciary, more injuries woes and plenty of position-shuffling on the ladder rendered it one of the most memorable weekends of the 2022 season.
1 – Suspensions, Injuries Blow Finals Race Wide Open
The headline moment of Round 20 was undoubtedly Nathan Cleary’s 17th-minute early shower for a dangerous tackle.
The brain snap wrecked what was shaping as another epic western derby, Parramatta leading Penrith 12-4 at the time before cruising to its second win over the premiers this season, 34-10.
But the tackle has far greater ramifications than the Panthers losing for just the second time in 2022.
Cleary accepted a five-game ban, which means he won’t return until week one of the finals – less than ideal given halves partner Jarome Luai (knee) is also expected to be out until the big games in September.
The Panthers still hold a six-point lead at the top of the table and should scratch out enough wins to collect the minor premiership, but the effect on the runaway title favourites’ cohesion could be crucial.
They may be ripe for the picking in the playoffs and the market has reacted with Penrith drifting to (a still very short) $2.20 for the premiership.
Thomas Burgess’ high tackle in golden point on Saturday night earned a send-off, a week on the sidelines and helped Cronulla pip his South Sydney side 21-20.
Patrick Carrigan’s ugly hip drop tackle is set to attract a decent ban – particularly after the victim, Jackson Hastings, suffered a broken leg.
It was a bitter chaser for Brisbane following a bizarrely flat 32-18 home loss to the struggling Wests Tigers.
Wally Lewis Medal winner Carrigan has been immense for the Broncos and his absence puts them behind the eight-ball in a super-tight top-four race.
Meanwhile, Melbourne is again sweating on a backline injury with stand-in fullback Nick Meaney helped off with a shoulder injury after a heavy fall in Auckland during the Storm’s scrappy drought-breaker against the Warriors.
David Nofoaluma’s arrival can’t come soon enough – but the No.1 spot could become a massive problem.
The Storm, though, can count themselves extremely lucky Nelson Asofa-Solomona will be on deck for the run home.
The giant forward’s sickening forearm drop on Wayde Egan’s jaw was cheap and dangerous, yet he was not cited by the Match Review Committee.
2 – Proud Manly On Finals Precipice
With three players on first-grade debut and another returning to the NRL after a three-year absence, a Manly side stripped of seven key players performed gallantly in a 20-10 loss to in-form Sydney Roosters.
It’s questionable the Sea Eagles would have produced a better result at full-strength, so the notion that the jersey furore may have cost the club a spot in the finals is an inflammatory stretch.
But the real test is the coming days for the 10th-placed Sea Eagles, who have slipped two points behind the Roosters and Raiders.
How will the dissenting seven gel back into the squad after leaving their teammates short?
Is there remaining tension on either side of the rainbow divide?
Manly’s run home is a treacherous one, beginning with a crunch game at home – where Josh Aloiai, Jason Saab, Christian Tuipulotu, Josh Schuster, Haumole Olakau’atu, Tolutau Koula and Toafofoa Sipley may suddenly not feel as welcome as they were a week ago – against Parramatta.
The Sea Eagles have blown out to $101 in the premiership market.
3 – His Royal Hynes-ness: The New King Of Shark Park
In just his seventh game in his new Shire backyard – and his first game at home in more than two months – Nicho Hynes produced his second after-the-80th-minute match-winning moment.
Following on from his post-siren conversion to sink Parramatta in Round 2, the ice-cool Cronulla halfback snatched a 21-20 golden point thriller from South Sydney’s grasp with his NRL-high fourth field goal of the season.
In a weekend of upsets and swing results, the victory was a huge boost to the Sharks’ hopes of getting two bites at the finals cherry.
They are now outright third on the ladder and in the box-seat to entrench themselves in the top four – all five of their remaining games are against teams currently stationed in the bottom half of the table.
Meanwhile, Hynes is stamping himself as one of the most clutch and important players in the 2022 premiership race.
There was a fair bit of scepticism around Hynes’ ability to perform at his breakout 2021 level outside the cushy confines of the Storm’s system, but his leadership – on top of his undeniable class – in taking ownership of the Sharks’ fortunes has been first-rate.
Cronulla has joined second-placed North Queensland – handsome winners over St George Illawarra on Sunday – on the second line of title betting at $7.
Meanwhile, the Rabbitohs will be ruing two points that got away, with Latrell Mitchell spraying three field goal attempts in extra-time. Souths slid back to seventh, just two points in front of the Roosters and Raiders.
This weekend’s clash with the Warriors on the Sunshine Coast is just about must-win for Jason Demetriou’s charges ahead of a brutal last four rounds against the Eels, Panthers, Cowboys and Roosters.
4 – Tiger Time
Six days after being robbed of the upset of the season in Townsville, Wests Tigers regrouped and returned to Queensland to secure their belated boilover in emphatic fashion.
The Tigers produced their most complete performance of the year to douse the high-flying Broncos 32-18 on their own patch.
Halves pairing Adam Doueihi and Jock Madden – who have only been in the same NRL 17 just once previously, when Madden debuted off the bench last year – both scored tries and steered the battling side around superbly.
It’s a much-needed development, with lock linchpin Jackson Hastings’ season now over.
Meanwhile, the showing from the makeshift duo may provide the Tigers with further food for thought in terms of potentially offloading Luke Brooks, the polarising, highly-paid and generally underperforming 10-season playmaker.
Remarkably, three of the Tigers’ meagre tally of four wins have come against Top 8 teams, having beaten the Eels and Rabbitohs back-to-back.
The Tigers have pushed a win clear of the hapless Titans and can just about ditch wooden spoon concerns if they can chalk up consecutive victories again at home against Newcastle on Sunday.
5 – Johnston Joins Tryscoring Giants
South Sydney may not have got the result, but Alex Johnston ticked off yet another milestone when he scored the opener against Cronulla in the 11th minute.
Johnston’s try – the 158th of his career in just 183 games – moved him into the top 10 on the list of the premiership’s all-time top try scorers.
Only the incomparable Ken Irvine, still No.1 almost 50 years after retiring with 212 tries in 236 games, boasts a better strike-rate of players ahead of Johnston.
The 27-year-old could conceivably break into the top five before the season is out, with Matt Sing (159), Hazem El Masri (159), Brett Stewart (163), Terry Lamb (164) and Andrew Ettingshausen (165) now in his sights.
Johnston, with 22 in 18 games this year, holds a six-try lead in the NRL tryscoring race and is well on track to join Fred Tottey (1919-21), Benny Wearing (1925-27) and Nathan Blacklock (1999-2001) as the only players to top the premiership in three straight seasons.
Another three campaigns on his current trajectory will see Johnston mow down Irvine’s exalted tally.
Saturday’s four-pointer marked the third time in seven games Johnston has saluted for first try scorer punters.
Surprisingly, he did not bag the opening ‘meat pie’ in a match once across the first half of the season.
Meanwhile, Jeremiah Nanai’s late double for the Cowboys lifted him to equal-second on NRL’s tryscoring charts with an astonishing try-a-game total of 16.
The 19-year-old is on course to join the greatest tryscoring forwards in the code’s history, needing four more to become only the third forward after Frank Burge and Steve Menzies to cross 20 times in a season.
Nanai set up a beauty against the Dragons, too.