Matter of degree: Sea Eagles compensate for lapses but Bunnies' Jekyll-Hyde routine could end in heartache

Matter of degree: Sea Eagles compensate for lapses but Bunnies' Jekyll-Hyde routine could end in heartache

The two better teams won the elimination semi-finals. However, the devil is usually in the detail, so let's dig a little deeper.

Sea Eagles v Cowboys: This was a good, strong, contest. The Cowboys had fallen at this hurdle before, so were determined to make amends. Again, though, they didn't quite produce their best football on this, their biggest night of the season.

Classy ... Daly Cherry-Evans stayed composed.

Classy ... Daly Cherry-Evans stayed composed.

Photo: Brendan Esposito

Passing rushes looked nowhere near as fluent as we've come to expect, and the combinations that have served them so well all year only made fleeting appearances.

The Cowboys' attack appeared flustered by the excellent coverage they encountered from Manly.

They refused to buckle though and had the defending premiers rocking midway through the second half. They clawed their way back and were close enough on the scoreboard to snatch victory at the death if they could find the big play they needed.


It's now well documented this chance was taken away from them by one of the more extraordinary video referee blunders we've witnessed this season.

I don't usually refer to referee controversy in these columns, but in this case I will make an exception. This was diabolical. In fact, I will go as far to say I felt sick for the game of rugby league when it occurred. It not only spoiled the match and deflated the Cowboys' spirit, it was a complete embarrassment to our code.

It's not enough to later admit "we got it wrong" or "it's not ideal". We've been subjected to many a clanger from the eye-in-the-sky boys over the years, so no real surprises there. What continues to amaze is that the same people making these errors keep getting a start in the video referee's box. Why? Please explain.

It is also confusing that match officials can somehow find a very different interpretation of a particular incident to 99 per cent of the players and fans watching. How can this be?

Now, let's get this straight, the Manly team didn't make this call. They just forced the issue with their aggression and competitiveness. No one is blaming them or suggesting they wouldn't have won the game anyway. It's just that people are tired of being disappointed.

Make no mistake, the NRL referee ranks are in total disarray and divided on many issues.

On-field referees have lost ownership and control of the rule book. The men with the whistles are being let down by the systems that have been thrust upon them thanks to sustained pressure and interference from coaches, and in no small way due to the sensitivity of our game's leaders to media criticism.

I'm positive the whistle-blowers on the field are far better than they show, or are being allowed to show. Give them ownership and trust them.

Anyway, back to the football.

Manly were terrific. They had been licking their wounds all week after falling to the Bulldogs. It's obvious a number of them are carrying injuries, but you wouldn't know it the way they threw themselves into their work.

The Manly defence was outstanding for most of the contest, but they are still guilty of lapses when the scoreboard looks comfortable. This is a mental thing.

However, for the most part, their expertise in working as a unit in defence, and their athleticism in covering the field, rattled the team with the best attacking record of the season. That's quite an achievement.

It was a great team effort. The forwards diligently toiled away at the tough stuff. The halves Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran are now very adept at big-match football. They were classy and tough at all the right times.

Big Tony Williams gave us a lot more of what we expect. He charged onto the ball with renewed vigour and was a real handful for the Cowboys' edge defenders.

Jamie Lyon was inspirational. Some players really do get better with age. Well, maybe not better, but they have the ability to impart greater influence over a team's performance. His presence was vital to Manly's success.

All in all, a good game, spoiled by the video referee horror. However, the better team won the day.

South Sydney v Canberra: It was D-Day for the Rabbitohs and they got the job done. Mind you, there were still traces of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde inconsistencies that continue to plague this team.

This victory was set up in the first 30 minutes thanks to an aggressive mindset from the South Sydney big men. They produced a sustained period of power running. This was backed up by enthusiastic support play as Souths totally overwhelmed their rivals.

Most influential were the likes of Sam Burgess, Roy Asostasi and Dave Taylor. They ran without fear, and bent the Raiders' defence back.

Souths five-eighth John Sutton, the biggest No.6 on the planet, also played like a forward and terrorised his smaller opponents.

Hooker Issac Luke took his opportunity to start the match with both hands. He's a talent - his speed and aggression out of dummy-half were key factors in this opening barrage.

The 14-0 scoreline after 30 minutes did not reflect the physical dominance that the Rabbitohs had established. The Raiders appeared powerless to contain their rampaging opponents.

Then enter South Sydney's evil side, Mr Hyde. Without warning, the fire went out of the Rabbitohs' bellies. Concentration waned. They conceded the soft penalty, followed immediately by conceding the soft try, then for good measure repeated the dose.

The same sequence occurred in the second half. No sooner had Souths kicked away to another comfortable lead than they immediately lost respect for their opponents and started playing to the crowd with frivolous passes instead of ruthlessly grinding the Raiders into the dirt. Unforced errors, combined with sloppy defence, handed the Raiders an opportunity to score again.

Thankfully, Souths steeled themselves in the run to the line and finished the match with some dominant passages of play to run out easy winners. I just don't know why they lapse the way they do at crucial times during the 80 minutes.

Big-match football is about being relentless. The Rabbitohs need to cut down the difference between their best and worst periods.

I'm confident their best football can beat any team in the competition. However, I'm equally confident their worst football can be beaten by any team in the competition.


The chance to win a premiership doesn't come around too often. Souths are only two victories away. They need to start to feel it, believe it. It's a perfect time to get things right.

The Raiders? Well, they should be congratulated for their courageous second half of the season. They played some quality football and some of the young players in their ranks have great potential.

Phil Gould

Phil Gould is a League Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald

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