If Ricky Stuart’s Raiders keep winning, then either the Broncos, Rabbitohs or Roosters are likely going to miss finals in what will be stunning scenes.
It proved a weekend of blowouts, except from Canberra and the Panthers who secured the minor premiership with a gutsy win over Souths following a fortnight of patchy form.
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The Storm reminded the competition just how dominant they can be, while the Cowboys also flashed their premiership credentials.
The Eels returned to winning ways alongside the Roosters who handed the Wests Tigers their worst defeat in club history.
Cronulla’s halves also put the other title contenders on notice, while Dragons halfback Ben Hunt again showed why he’s considered a Dally M Medal chance.
Read on for all the key Talking Points from Round 23.
PANTHERS EXPOSE SOUTHS ACHILLES HEEL AHEAD OF FINALS
Matty Johns is concerned Souths are only playing well in patches of games and warned it won’t be enough to win the big finals matches at the end of the season.
Souths were down 20-12, before leading 22-20 with three minutes to go against Penrith, but just as they did against the Sharks they failed to ice the game at the death as the Panthers sealed their second minor premiership in three years.
“In the last six weeks South Sydney have played football where they have only lifted when they have to,” Johns said on The Late Show with Matty Johns.
“There were certain games like the Melbourne game where they were very strong and had the game under control all the way through it. We saw that last week against the Eels.
“But there were games against the Bulldogs and a few other sides where they just had to lift to do it and they just toyed with Newcastle.
“When the game was on the line against Cronulla they couldn’t find the composure and we saw it again against the Panthers.
“Just lifting in patches is bad practice when you get towards the finals.”
Johns believes Souths won’t beat Penrith and Melbourne in the finals if they don’t lift their intensity and focus for a full 80 minutes consistently.
“If you look at Penrith alternatively they played a game last week against Melbourne 16-0, but it was nil-all the second half,” Johns explained.
“All the data showed that game last week was the intensity of a hard core finals match and that put them in good stead tonight.
“I think it is confidence from Souths, but it is bad practice.
“Sides like Penrith and Melbourne you don’t beat them by playing in patches. You have got to keep the intensity high.
“That was an incredible win by Penrith when you consider there was no Luai and Cleary.”
Souths now need to beat the Cowboys and the Roosters in the final two weeks and hope other results go their way or they will have to do what no team has done and win the title from outside the top four.
ROBSON’S FORM THE KEY TO COWBOYS’ TURNAROUND
Reece Robson is “a bloke you want to play with,” according to his Cowboys teammate Reuben Cotter and it’s a good thing the hooker is well-liked because he could be the key to the club’s success this season.
The Cowboys have been the story of the season, going from a second last finish last year to finals footy and a potential top two finish this year.
The improvement of several players has contributed to the success, but none more so than Robson with Michael Ennis and Corey Parker agreeing the Cowboys “are not in the position they are if he doesn’t play.”
Robson joined the Cowboys in 2020 but is having his breakout season this year. The 24-year-old was selected in the New South Wales extended squad and will play finals footy for the first time in his career.
Ennis said on Fox League that Robson has been at the heart of the Cowboys’ rise this season and he believes he’s the type of player that a club can be built around.
“It’s been a defining season for the young dummy half,” Ennis said.
“I’ve loved the road to the top for Robson… going to the Cowboys I genuinely believe the turnaround for Todd Payten has been on the back of what guys like Robson and Reuben Cotter have been able to do.
“It’s on the back of the tenacious, competitive nature they have and their work ethic. He’s getting through enormous amounts of work defensively and I don’t think he’s getting the recognition that he deserves for his ability to keep them with momentum when they’ve got the footy.
“Robson has had a tremendous season for them and I genuinely believe he’s been a huge contributor to why they are where they are.
“There’s blokes you can build a club around because of their character and he’s a player that you can build a club around. He strikes me as a player that’s right up the drainpipe of what Todd Payten wants. He is exactly the type of character that Todd Payten wants in his footy side.”
With the Rugby League World Cup coming up later this year, there’s even more to play for. Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga has already said he’ll likely only take two hookers in his squad and Parker believes Robson “absolutely” could be a dark horse because of what he’s achieved this season.
“You talk about players like Dylan Edwards and what their value is, well the Cowboys are not in the position they are now if he (Robson) doesn’t play,” Parker said.
“What he’s been able to do with their forward pack in particular alleviates what the halves have to deal with.
“They are definitely not the team they are if he is not in that side. I think he is a terrific player and rightly picked in Brad Fittler’s extended Origin side this year.”
BRONCOS IN DANGER OF MISSING FINALS AFTER HORROR THRASHING
The Broncos could go from top hopefuls to missing the finals after their horror 60-12 beating at the hands of a ruthless Storm outfit.
Corey Parker believes the Broncos were guilty of reading their own hype after they beat the Eels in Round 19 and have been in free fall ever since.
“The Broncos look content as a football side,” Parker said.
“You go back to Round 19 against the Eels, they beat Parramatta 36-14. From that moment if I’m being honest they thought they were going a lot better than what they were.
“They played the Tigers a week later who dished them up 32-18. They played the Roosters who dished them up 34-16. They played the Knights, who while Brisbane got a win were very below par against a dismal Knights outfit.
“They come to Suncorp Stadium in front of 45,000 fans against the Storm, who are a genuine top four team and this was going to be their litmus test.
“They wanted a good baring of where they are as a football side. They just got it.
“60 points to 12. Embarrassing. Up there with one of the biggest losses in the club’s history.
“A harsh, harsh reality check to that football side of exactly where they are at.
“In my opinion from where they have fallen from that Parramatta game to where they are now just wreaks to me of them being content or complacent and they thought they were going a hell of a lot better than where they are as a football side.
“41 missed tackles tonight. Since that Parramatta game they are averaging over 40 missed tackles a game.
“We heard from Kevvie Walters and Adam Reynolds we will get an indication next week. Well they had a great opportunity to get an indication against the Storm tonight.
“There may not be a week after next week. It could be curtains for the Broncos.”
Michael Ennis believes the Broncos have cost themselves success in the finals even if they make it after a horrific night for the club in front of a packed Suncorp Stadium.
“It would be a horrific devastation for them falling out of finals contention,” Ennis said.
“Next week is a massive game for them up against Parramatta.
“It is an embarrassing night for the club. There is no questioning that. It has been a catastrophic night for them.
“It was a massive opportunity for them tonight to really show their metal.
“Their bench tonight I just don’t think that is going to cut it to be honest. Ryan James didn’t have an impact.
“Kurt Capewell might be out now with an ankle injury, so things are not looking great for Brisbane.
“It was such a big night for Brisbane because I feel like they needed a home final to really lift them through the finals series and I think they may have missed that tonight.
“I can’t see Brisbane challenging the big sides at the back end of the year. They are just not there yet.”
MOSES AND BROWN SHOW CAN TAKE EELS ALL THE WAY
The Eels were back to their best in a 42-6 demolition of the Bulldogs and showed again that when they get their power game right, their halves are almost unstoppable.
Mitchell Moses returned to inspire the Eels to victory, but his halves partner Dylan Brown was even more devastating with his running mate beside him.
Corey Parker believes Moses makes everyone around him better, including Brown, but they can’t work their magic unless the Eels win the battle up front.
“Moses back in the side certainly gave them an injection with three try assists,” Parker said.
“He stabilised what they are doing with their attack.
“Last week a duck egg, they weren’t able to score any points and they got 42 against the Bulldogs.
“But it was built off the back of that physicality and winning that battle.
“We heard from Mitchell Moses, when Dylan Brown has that run first mentality everything else just comes off the back of it.
“He is a terrific five-eighth and a wonderful ball runner. He is at the forefront of what they are doing.
“But he was able to do that with Mitchell Moses back in the side.”
Cooper Cronk believes the Eels have all the ingredients of a premiership team, but they need to produce it over four consecutive games come finals time.
“You talk about want and desire and they definitely went after the game,” Cronk said.
“The Moses and Brown combination was awesome. Six try assists between them. Three a piece.
“It was an outstanding combination. Mitchell Moses first game back for a couple of weeks, but Dylan Brown, a couple of tries and three try assists. Wow, what a performance.
“You talk about the power game of Parramatta, that is their identity. When they get it right they win games of football.
“The challenge in the finals is can Parramatta get that power game on?
“The last three years Parramatta have been a team that is hovering around winning this competition, but this is the year they need to put it together.
“They really need to hone in on that physical game because it is all there. They have the ingredients to do it.
“We have seen it this year, so can they put it all together for September?”
SHARKS HALVES CLICKING INTO GEAR
Cronulla halves Matt Moylan and Nicho Hynes are proving a lethal combination at the business end of the season.
Moylan returned from a quad injury against the Sea Eagles and didn’t miss a bit alongside Hynes.
The dynamic duo set up three tries and scored another three between them in the 40-6 romp which has secured their spot in the top four.
“I love watching sides where the six and the seven combine in any shape and that goes back to Kevvie Walters and Alfie Langer in Brisbane or (Ricky) Stuart and (Laurie) Daley (in Canberra),” Andrew Voss said on Fox League.
“Cronulla have got a really good thing working here with Hynes and Moylan and we saw it right there.
Hynes finished with 20 points but Shraks coach Craig Fitzgibbon found special praise for Moylan who has rejuvenated his NRL career this season.
“He was really good. We took it slow with him (on return from injury), obviously he has a history of soft tissue there but he was super confident and got through training,” Fitzgibbon said.
“He’s just in such a good spot with himself and what’s required with our footy and he just complements Nicho so well in the way he allows Nicho to play his natural game but he’s also coming up with some stuff himself.”
Hynes once again put on a clinic as the Sharks star continued his campaign to silence those who doubted his move to halfback this season.
“Nicho Hynes is having a night out on the northern beaches, big smile on his face,” Andrew Voss said.
“The man who’s having a big night as well is his halves partner. Nice short ball to the big man and Nicho Hynes wrapping around,” Greg Alexander said.
Cronulla face the Bulldogs and Knights in their final two games and would need to cop heavy losses to fall out of the top four and lose their finals double chance.
TEDDY’S ‘RUTHLESS’ COMMENT A ‘SCARY THOUGHT’ FOR RIVALS
The Roosters sent a big warning shot to the top eight after a stunning 72-6 beat-up of the Tigers.
As if the scoreline wasn’t enough to make rivals shiver, skipper James Tedesco said after the game he was “filthy” about letting the Tigers score one try.
It was that comment that really stuck out to Fox League’s Corey Parker, who called it “ruthless” and believes it highlights the “killer instinct” of a playing group that has clicked into gear at exactly the right time of the season.
“A four-game losing streak and then they went on a run and this is their sixth win in a row. But they have purely focused on their own game and where they want to go,” he said.
“And the thing I got most out of that post-game chat was James Tedesco wasn’t happy that they scored six points.
“That is ruthless. That is relentless. That is your leader.
“72 points it will be spoken about for a long, long time to come. The last game at the SCG, 72 points against the Tigers.
“But he was not happy with that one area and I love that. I love that killer instinct in the eye of James Tedesco, but more importantly the way it flows into the group.
“Their eye is firmly on the prize and some scary thoughts come for teams above them.”
Tedesco’s comments came as no surprise to Cooper Cronk, who played alongside him for two seasons at the Roosters
“He is a perfectionist,” Cronk said.
“The elite players go after perfection every time and you don’t get there so that is the thing you are forever chasing.”
And while Cronk said the performance at the SCG should be celebrated, he stressed that the Roosters now face a tough task in the Storm and Rabbitohs before they can lock in finals footy.
“They are going to finish in the bottom half (of the eight),” he said.
“They have moved into sixth spot right now so if they are going to win this competition, they are going to have to beat Storm into Souths in the final two games and then possibly the same teams again in the finals.
“But from where they started to where they are now they are playing their best football and it really is destiny in their own hands.”
TIGERS ‘GAVE UP’ ON THEIR SEASON
The Wests Tigers desire and passion has been called into question followed their biggest loss in club history.
The Tigers were woeful in a 72-6 defeat to the Roosters and were rightly hammered over the performance.
NRL premiership winner Corey Parker said the 66-point loss “takes the cake” as the biggest “annihilation” NRL fans will see.
“We watched a domination from the Tricolours coming up against what was a dismal, awful, putrid performance from the Wests Tigers,” Parker said.
“They were horrible. 30 points to nil at halftime. The Roosters were going at a point a minute in the second half. 72 points to six.
“The Roosters were scoring tries for fun.
“You have got to call it sometimes as you see it.
“We sit here and watch football games all afternoon and there were annihilations from all four games, but this one takes the cake.”
Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph’s Phil Rothfield believes the Tigers gave up on their season a long time ago.
Head of football Tim Sheens allowed three players to leave the club — Luciano Leilua’s early exit to the Cowboys as well as David Nofoaluma and Oliver Gildart’s short-term loan deals.
Rothfield believes it was at that point the merger club gave up on the 2022 season.
“In my view the Wests Tigers gave up on their season, they gave up, they let Luciano Leilua go, they let David Nofoaluma go, to a lesser extent they let Oliver Gildart go,” Rothfield said on the Big Sports Breakfast.
“That was a sign to me they gave up on their season, they really did, I know Tim Sheens looks at it that it is short term pain that relieves the salary cap and allow them to do more with their money next year.
Rothfield went on the say he would have “felt sick” seeing one of the players from the team he support celebrating with their new teammates.
“I would have felt sick if I was a Wests Tigers fan watching Leilua and Nofoaluma score tries for Cowboys and Storm, celebrating with their new teammates,” Rothfield said.
“That clubs have a responsibility to put their best 17 players on the park each and every week of the season.
“It was the most shocking capitulation there last night, take nothing away from the Roosters.”
Oliver Gildart was one such player who could be seen celebrating with his new team — against the club he will return to next year.
On debut for the North Sydney Bears in the NSW Cup, Gildart scored five tries before slotting into the centres for his side’s drubbing of the Tigers.
HUNT’S TIMELY DALLY M REMINDER
It came as no surprise to anyone that St George Illawarra star Ben Hunt as at the top of the Dally M Leaderboard after 12 games before the votes were then made private.
Based on the form he’s been in since, Hunt appears to be the clubhouse leader among the NRL community for the prestigious award.
While most of it will be on his offensive exploits and his incredible ability to direct the Dragons around the pitch, there was one key moment in the side’s clash against the Gold Coast Titans that proved why Hunt is a strong contender to win the Dally M Medal.
The Titans were deep in Dragons territory and most would have thought the Gold Coast would cross over for yet another try.
It looked for all money that they would when Jayden Campbell burst through just metres from the try line and was on course to score.
Instead, Campbell was held up by none other than Hunt.
The Dragons star wrapped up Campbell and did everything he could to prevent the youngster from touching the ball down.
Fox League commentator Steve ‘Blocker’ Roach called it the “tackle of the year” and marvelled at Hunt’s ability to scramble back and help.
“One-on-one, on Campbell, at speed, that looks like Hunt saves the try there,” Roach said.
“Just to get himself back there after [AJ] Brimson went straight through.”
Although Hunt’s defensive moment of brilliance rightly earned him plenty of plaudits, he still shined on the offensive side of the game.
Hunt chalked up two try assists and three linebreak assists against the leaky Titans, as the Dragons ran out 46-26 victors.
RAIDERS STAY IN THE HUNT
They may have done it the hard way but Canberra kept their season alive with a fifth win in six games.
The Raiders face struggling sides the Sea Eagles and Wests Tigers to finish the regular season, but they don’t quite control their own destiny.
The Green Machine are just one win behind the Roosters, Rabbitohs or Broncos on the ladder – but they have a poor points differential.
To play finals, Canberra likely needs to win out and have one of those three sides lose their remaining games.
The Roosters face the high-flying Storm next week, while the Rabbitohs host the second-placed Cowboys. The Roosters and Rabbitohs meet in the final round.
The Broncos face the Eels and Dragons and are the only side the Raiders could realistically catch on points differential.
Canberra are 26 points off the eighth-placed Broncos on differential, but 155 points behind the Rabbitohs and trail the Roosters by 212 points.
Raiders coach Ricky Stuart said earlier this month his men had “a great draw” to finish the season and praised another important win on Sunday.
“It keeps (finals) alive and that’s really important, winning that game keeps us alive for another week,” Stuart said.
“We’ll review and talk about that first half but we all know what it was, we’ve just got to be better.
“I’m really happy (with the second half response). It was two halves of football, you’ll hear that as a cliche but it definitely was.”