WHAT a superb first week of finals the NRL dished out on the weekend.
Three games decided by two points or less, punctuated by the Melbourne Storm providing a massive upset against minor premier Sydney.
The 131,794 fans who flocked through the gates at the court finals set a record for week one of an NRL finals series and we’re now left with the Brisbane Broncos as the $3.50 favourites with WIlliamHill.com.au to win the premiership, after they handled state rivals North Queensland, 16-12 on Saturdaynight.
A massive crowd of 50,000 packed out Suncorp Stadium for the derby and the bitter rivals did not disappoint them, The Broncos much vaunted defence holding tight against a North Queensland side that had more possession and ran for nearly 500m more than its opponent.
Ben Hunt broke through for the first try of the match, scything through the Cowboys’ defence, before former Bronco Antonio Winterstein was set up by the great Johnathan Thurston to give North Queensland its first.
Anthony Milford gave the Broncos a 10 point buffer when he made it over thanks to some brilliant work from young buck Kodi Nikorima, but the Cowboys had one last effort in them, Thurston taking matters into his own hands to reduce the margin to four points. But that’s where is stayed and the Broncos will enjoy a week’s break, while the Cowboys must now navigate past the Cronulla Sharks, who whacked the South Sydney Rabbitohs 28-12 to boot them out of the finals, one year after they won it all.
Our friends at sportsbet.com.au have put up the Cowboys as $1.36 favourites to end the Sharks’ finals run in Townsville on Saturday night, with Cronulla the $3.15 outsiders.
“The Sharks are certainly the fairytale side of this year’s finals, but the Cowboys showed enough against the Broncos to suggest they’ll be tough to beat on their home turf,” the bookie’s Christian Jantzen said.
The Sharks have provided a great rags to riches story, going from winning the wooden spoon last season to winning a final this year.
They led 18-0 at half time and at one stage the lead was 24, before the Rabbitohs scored a couple of late tries to give the scoreboard some semblance of respectability.
Jack Bird, Wade Graham, Anthony Tupou, Sam Tagataese scored tries for the Sharks, while Michael Gordon sent six over, while Dylan Walker and Chris Grevsmuhl managed to make it over for the Rabbits.
The Sharks will be sweating on Michael Ennis, after he was placed on report and will hope Valentine Holmes will recover from a corked quad.
The Sharks are the $13 outsiders to win the premiership, but Rabbits coach Michael Maguire has given them a glowing endorsement, comparing them to his side that broke a 43 year drought to win last season’s flag.
“I see Cronulla has a fair bit of belief there amongst their players and it would be great to see a club like that go on and do something special – if they believe they can then they will,” Maguire said.
“I see a team in Cronulla which I really hope they can go on and win the grand final to be honest.
“I think a club who hasn’t had a taste of what we were lucky enough to have last year deserves it.
“It’s not through luck either, it’s through hard work, but just sitting there and watching their fans and how happy they are to see their team aspire to dream I really hope they go on and take the opportunity because they’re a real credit.
“What they have been through, to see that club earn a chance at doing what we did – good on em.”
The Storm provided the boil over of week one, eking out a thrilling 20-18 win over the former premiership fancy, Sydney.
The Roosters could have been forgiven for thinking they’d walk home against a Storm side that hasn’t won a final since 2012.
They’d won 12 straight NRL games and collected top spot at the end of the regular season.
But they got all that they bargained for and more from the Purple army.
And the Storm will be making a bronze statue of prop Tim Glasby, the bruiser scoring just his second try of the season in what would prove to be the match sealer, nine minutes of from time.
His try backed up earlier ones from Marika Koroibete and Kurt Mann and four goals from Cam Smith.
The Roosters had Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Black Ferguson to thank for they tries, while James Maloney converted each of those.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy, always focussed, said his boys needed to improve, but he was quite happy with their performance to restrict the best team in the competition.
“I thought we made it hard on ourselves a few times with the footy,” Bellamy said.
“Our defence, at the end of the game too, but especially in the first half we didn’t build a whole lot of pressure and I thought they built more pressure but our defence was really good.
“We set ourselves some pretty good standards over the past month and we held up those standards.”
The Storm will enjoy the week off, but have concerns about Koroibete, who had a lacerated achilles, which sounds nasty, hero Glasby, who hurt his knee and Jordan McLean, who also suffered a knee complaint.
The Roosters will now have to contend with a fired up Canterbury at Allianz Stadium, but have been installed as $1.38 favourites at Sportsbet.com.au to bounce back from their loss to the Storm, while the Bulldogs are the $3.05 outsiders for the game.
“We’re giving the Roosters another chance and we’re expecting the punters to get behind them against the Doggies as well,” Jantzen said of the finals betting market.
The Bulldogs scraped into the second week of finals by the narrowest of margins – one points – 11-10 in a golden point victory over a depleted St George Illawara side.
The Dragons toiled manfully, despite losing perhaps their best player in Benji Marshall and back rower Joel Hamstring early in the second half.
It was a dour, physical match, that really only came to life when the Dogs ripped the lead off the Dragons in the 78th minute, before Gareth Widdop levelled it up in the 80th after slotting one from an off side penalty decision that left the Bulldogs supporters livid.
Widdop went from hero to villain in exra time, though, missing a field goal and then booting his crack at a 40-20 out on the full, which gave the Dogs the impetus for the field goal that would win them the match.
2015 NRL week two finals markets
Sydney Roosters ($1.38) vs. Canterbury Bulldogs ($3.05)
North Queensland Cowboys ($1.40) vs. Cronulla Sharks ($2.95)
2015 NRL Premiership market
Brisbane Broncos ($3.50)
Sydney Roosters ($3.75)
Melbourne Storm ($4)
North Queensland Cowboys ($5.50)
Canterbury Bulldogs ($11)
Cronulla Sharks ($13)
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