It's on for young and old, but niggle won't cause everyone to giggle
Fight night ... Sea Eagles second-rower Anthony Watmough squares up to Bulldogs hooker Michael Ennis in last Friday's fiery first qualifying final at ANZ stadium. Photo: Getty Images
FOR all the brilliance of the first weekend of the finals, was there any more fascinating moment than a young Canberra upstart getting under the skin of one of the best forwards in the game?
Just before half-time in Sunday's elimination final in Canberra, Sharks captain Paul Gallen made clear his feelings towards the Raiders second-rower Josh Papalii.
''He got me twice,'' Gallen said to a referee. ''I'm going to get him back, and there's nothing you can do about it.''
It had been an absorbing battle from the first set of the game, when Gallen clashed with Papalii after a tackle on the Canberra forward, who is still eligible for the under-20s. The NSW captain later labelled a tackle by Papalii as a ''dog shot'' and bemoaned another hit to his back without the ball.
It was clear from the opening weekend of the finals that niggle had been amplified due to the lift in intensity as well as the increase in importance in the matches. Some thrived under the pressure and others cracked. Papalii is by all accounts a quiet 20-year-old but his actions in putting the Sharks lock off his guard and to some extent off his game rang loud among his teammates.
''That's massive for a 20-year-old to stand up to a player like that and really do the job on him, stuff like that inspires the whole team,'' winger Sandor Earl said. ''He's a great player, Gal, and anyone to get under his skin is massive.''
Yet he was not alone. The weekend was full of niggles, giggles and some old-fashioned ''how 'bout we settle this in the car park?'' sledging.
It began on Friday night, when Manly's Anthony Watmough and Jason King were involved in verbal and physical battles with Bulldogs players, who were clearly lining up to try to put the premiers off their game.
Prop James Graham repeatedly shouted in his thick northern English accent: ''Let's go again, son.'' Hooker Michael Ennis and five-eighth Josh Reynolds, like two attack dogs, regularly joined in the fun.
On Saturday night in Melbourne, the Storm found a way to frustrate Souths second-rower Dave Taylor, who conceded penalties and at one stage kicked the ball away in despair.
Officials are aware that emotions are running higher than they have been previously, and the sledgers and nigglers are searching for even the slightest of advantages.
''Every side has certain players who are always there when things happen,'' a long-time observer of the game said. ''It's the same players week in and week out. But once the finals come around it goes up a gear. You could see that on the weekend.''
And you will see it again this weekend; on Friday night, Watmough and King against North Queensland, whose most vocal players are halfback Johnathan Thurston and centre Brent Tate. And then on Saturday night, Papalii, who it was revealed had been told by his coach David Furner to target Gallen, will set to work again. The Rabbitohs will expect it.
But what will be fascinating to watch is whether they just accept it.