Week one of the NRL finals featured a plethora of points as defence took a back seat to some entertaining rugby league.
Each game featured the underdog jumping out to an early lead before being run down by their more fancied opponents which created some fun games to watch.
The Panthers emerged as the clear premiership favourites after a gutsy win against the Roosters who will now play the Raiders in a rematch of last year’s grand final in a mouth-watering semi-final clash.
The Storm were predictably too good for the Eels to secure the week off, while the Rabbitohs smashed the Knights to set up a big semi-final against the Eels.
Penrith Panthers 29 – 28 Sydney Roosters
It was hard to get a gauge on how the Roosters would perform after their dismal 60-8 loss against the Rabbitohs in the final round of the season, but they burst out of the blocks to take a 10-0 lead after eight minutes.
It looked like the Panthers were suffering from stage fright early on, but one big tackle on Josh Morris seemed to kick them into action and they roared back into the game with four consecutive tries before half time.
Nathan Cleary was the star with a first half hat trick, but his halves partner Jerome Luai was just as good, causing all sorts of problems for the Roosters right edge defence.
The Panthers have played some irresistible footy this season, but their final 25 minutes of the first half was as good anything we’ve seen all year.
They carried that momentum into the second half with their fifth try in a row to push the lead out to 28-10 and looked like running away with it, but the defending champs showed their resolve with two tries in a row, reducing the deficit to just six points with 16 minutes remaining.
The Panthers managed to steady and when Cleary calmly slotted a field goal in the 77th minute, it looked to have sealed the win. But a brain fade from Brent Naden off the kick-off allowed the Roosters to cross for a try and reduce the margin to just one point.
The Panthers managed to hang on, much to the disgust of Roosters coach Trent Robinson, who was uncharacteristically animated in the coaches box, swearing his head off at Josh Mansour in the dying stages before bristling at reporters in the post-match press conference.
Both sides would have lost no admirers from their performances but the Roosters now have to do it the hard way if they are to claim their third consecutive premiership, with a grand final rematch against the Raiders booked in for next week.
For the Panthers, they deservedly get the week off and will be red-hot favourites to make it to the grand final when they play the winner of the Eels versus Rabbitohs in a preliminary final.
Canberra Raiders 32 – 20 Cronulla Sharks
Most people had the Raiders winning this match comfortably after they beat the Sharks last week with a severely weakened side, but the Sharks were out to prove people wrong and started the game superbly.
They dominated possession with their forwards dominating the territory battle, while some perfect kicks kept the Raiders pinned in their own half.
The Raiders gave up two tries from errors, but their goal line defence was keeping them in the game as they repelled numerous Shark attacks before a George Williams intercept try right before half time meant they remarkably only trailed by four points at the break.
The Raiders needed to come out firing in the second half and it was Jack Wighton who led the charge.
He put on a masterful display, scoring two tries and setting another one up in the space of 10 minutes to send the Raiders through to the next round and put an end to the Sharks’ season.
While they may have got away with a poor first half against the Sharks, the Raiders cannot afford a slow start against the Roosters, or they’ll find themselves out of the game quickly. Their forwards were beaten early so expect Josh Papalii and company to come out firing.
The Sharks faced plenty of adversity throughout the season, but the reality is they just weren’t good enough to match it with the best teams. They failed to beat a top eight side all year and will need to make some big moves to improve next season.
Melbourne Storm 36 – 24 Parramatta Eels
The Storm came in expecting to win and despite trailing 12-0 early, they steadied the ship to comfortably secure the week off and a spot in yet another preliminary final.
Despite finishing third on the ladder, the Eels were given no chance heading into this match but got off to a flying start with Nathan Brown scoring in just the second minute.
They led 12-0 when Clint Gutherson started and finished a brilliant team try and suddenly an upset was on the cards until the Storm hit back.
The Storm scored two quick tries to level the scores at half time thanks to some brilliant work by fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen.
They then came out of half time scoring four of the next five tries to take a commanding 18-point lead to effectively end the game.
The Eels scored a late try to reduce the margin to 12 points but didn’t have enough firepower to overcome the Storm.
Papenhuyzen was clearly the best player on the ground, using his electrifying pace to carve up the Eels defence time and time again. He finished the match with 265 metres gained, two tries and two try assists.
The main negative for the Storm was a knee injury to Cameron Munster which saw him throw his mouth guard in anger, but he is expected to be fit for their next final. The other issue is their defence which has leaked over 20 points in the last four weeks, but if the finals are going to continue to be shootouts, that may just suit the Storm and their newfound attacking game style.
For the Eels, they now face the daunting prospect of playing the red-hot Rabbitohs to keep their season alive, a team that destroyed them 38-0 when they last met in round 16.
South Sydney Rabbitohs 46 – 20 Newcastle Knights
This game again followed the pattern of one team jumping out of the blocks as the Knights led 14-0 early on and were right on top.
However, the Rabbitohs have demonstrated an ability to score plenty of points quickly and that was on show again as they scored three tries in eight minutes and added another one late in the first half to take a 20-14 lead at half time.
It was all one-way traffic though in the second half as the Rabbitohs scored the next four tries to make it 46 unanswered points before a late consolation try to the Knights made it 46-20.
The Rabbitohs have shown some inconsistent form this year but their best has been sensational, especially when Cody Walker and Damien Cook are given room to operate.
They get the easier of the losing qualifying finalists now and would fancy themselves to knock off the Eels and set up a showdown with the Panthers in a preliminary final.
For the Knights, this season was a step in the right direction under new coach Adam O’Brien as they made their first finals appearance since 2013, but there’s still plenty of work to do.
At times they looked like being genuine contenders, but they looked tired towards the end of the season and will need a big off season to go deeper into the finals next season.
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