It was a thrilling opening weekend of action-packed finals footy and now there are just six clubs left in the premiership race.
Brisbane ended their Storm hoodoo in style, while the Panthers showed just how ruthlessly they’re chasing the first three-peat in 40 years.
The Roosters delivered one of their gutsiest wins to end the Sharks’ season but it came at a cost, while the Knights ousted the Raiders in one of the games of the season.
Read on for all of the big talking points out of week one of finals.
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BRASH WALSH GIVES BRONCOS TITLE WINNING SWAGGER
The Broncos can thank Reece Walsh for giving them the confidence to match any team in the competition as they sit two games away from a drought-breaking first title since 2006.
The Broncos had only beaten the Storm twice in their last 26 games and not once in 14 years at Suncorp, but Walsh made a mockery of history as he led Brisbane to a convincing 26-0 thrashing to advance to the preliminary final.
The Broncos will now host a preliminary final at Suncorp for a shot at their first grand final appearance since 2015 and Michael Ennis believes Walsh deserves plenty of credit for instilling belief in his teammates.
“We spoke about him before the game, he’s just so brash and confident,” Ennis said.
“The press conference during the week, for us old-timers that came through that path where if you were outspoken your senior players went ‘hey, back in your box’. He sat there and just went ‘no fear of Melbourne, no fear at all of Melbourne, I don’t care what’s happened previously. We’re ready, bring it on.’
“And then he backs that up. He’s got all the skill and speed that we’ve fussed over throughout the year — and rightly so.
“I thought he played tough again tonight, he was in their face, he agitated them and he just continues to dominate under huge pressure.
“He just eats pressure, he just seems to love it. But Reece, I love watching him. I could sit and watch him play all day.”
James Graham believes Walsh’s unflinching commitment to his style of play and the Broncos’ attacking game plan and his ability to not get discouraged by mistakes or setbacks is rubbing off on his teammates.
“I love how he just gets back up and gets on with it as well,” Graham said.
“He never tries to milk penalties. He just cracks on with it, he doesn’t show signs of weakness.
“Credit to him because Melbourne came for him, there were a couple of moments where they really looked to target and isolate him, put him off his game and perhaps distract him.
“As well as he’s played this year, it’s been a big learning curve for the young man seeing what can happen, seeing what the other side of the game is like when people are questioning how you are to a referee, can you handle the temperament of State of Origin and being sent off.
“He’s answered that test, he’s seemed to have grown and he doesn’t get too bogged down in those issues anymore.”
At 21, Walsh has only played 58 NRL games and two Origins, but already Cooper Cronk believes he is one of the top players in the game.
“This kid is elite, so good to watch,” Cronk said.
The Broncos can now sit back and rest for a week and then prepare for an all out war at Suncorp with a grand final appearance awaiting the winner.
Walsh STARS in big Broncos’ win | 02:52
HOLES EMERGE IN STORM’S TITLE TILT AS SPINE BIG GUNS GO MISSING
They may have lost luckless star Ryan Papenhuyzen to injury, but the Storm’s big money spine failed to deliver while their pack was blown away by Brisbane.
The 26-0 rout has the Storm’s title hopes on life support as the Broncos exposed some real issues in their game ahead of their do or die semi-final.
Michael Ennis tipped the Storm to beat the Broncos based on their experience in finals, but believes they were totally outplayed in the physicality stakes by a more hungry and ruthless Broncos team that beat them at their own game.
“There was a number of times I saw Storm players a little rattled on the ground by the sheer aggression from Brisbane players,” Ennis said.
“Whether it was the forearm in the face or shoving their heads into the ground or whether they just simply collared them and dragged them to the ground. They almost looked up like, is he serious?
“It was so personal tonight for Brisbane. They wanted it and their forward pack completely dismantled the Storm physically.
“The fact that not one Melbourne forward ran anywhere near 100 metres yet Brisbane had five of them. Brisbane had five of their forward pack and two off the bench all comfortably over 100 metres carrying the football.
“They just dominated them physically. Their footwork. Their leg speed and the way they were running with purpose off the back fence it was simply too much for Melbourne to be able to contain.
“I said before the game I thought Melbourne would win the game because of who Melbourne have been for so long, particularly in finals series.
“But when I was actually watching the game, I thought they don’t have the power to match Brisbane when they are in this sort of mood.”
Ennis believes the Storm need much more from their big money spine players, especially now that Papenhuyzen is out for the remainder of the finals series with a fractured ankle.
“They tired to push the ball wide and they didn’t have the speed to go around Brisbane,” Ennis said.
“Farnworth and Staggs just chewed them up.
“Then you go back to the spine and Harry Grant carried the ball three times out of dummyhalf tonight. He didn’t have any momentum to play off.
“Munster was nowhere near his best form what we have expected. And Jahrome Hughes who I am a huge fan of. I think he is one of the elite halves in our game and he was quiet tonight.
“Boy Nick Meaney struggled tonight. He really struggled to have an impact on the game.”
Shook Bellamy speaks on Papenhuyzen | 06:38
HAS LUAI’S ABSENCE HELPED GROW CLEARY’S GAME?
Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary handed in a 10/10 performance against the Warriors on Saturday, doing a bit of everything well to help his team to a fourth straight preliminary final.
It was the second game the back-to-back champs didn’t have star five-eighth and Cleary’s running mate Jarome Luai, but his absence hasn’t slowed down the Panthers juggernaut.
If anything, we’ve seen Cleary produce two of his best performances with Luai on the sideline, as the halfback has had to resort to showing off more of his running game – to tremendous effect.
Cleary ran for 93 metres, including a brilliant individual try in the second half to seal Penrith’s win.
In addition, he recorded two line breaks, five tackle busts and three offloads. Quite the statline for a natural halfback leaves
Michael Ennis labelled it one of the greatest performances from a half in Cleary’s running stats in Luai’s absence are quite astounding.
Including the Round 26 game against Parramatta where Luai left the game in the first half with a shoulder injury, Cleary has run for an average of 105 meters with 1.3 line breaks when his regular five-eighth has been out.
That average plummets to 50 metres a game when Luai and Cleary line up in the halves together.
Cleary’s co-captain Isaah Yeo credited his teammate for adapting his game in Luai’s absence.
“It’s been a little bit of adapting on the run a little bit without Jarome there and having to play a little bit different but he was outstanding tonight,” Yeo told Fox League’s Jake Duke.
Rugby league legends Greg Alexander and Mal Meninga
“I think Nathan’s attacking better this year than he did last year,” Alexander said on Fox League.
“In the absence of Jarome Luai, who is that player you throw the ball to and he steps through the defence, Nathan realised there was a little bit more pressure on him to bring a running game.”
“Nathan’s running game has certainly improved in the last season, there’s no doubt about that,” Meninga added.
“He was a ball of energy today, ran the ball.
“When he scored that try today, you don’t see Nathan score those sort of tries, particularly in the back end of games. He’s certainly improved his game this season.”
Cleary masterclass books prelim spot | 01:00
‘HE WAS A MASSIVE LOSS’: THE WARRIORS BADLY NEED SJ
The Warriors were brave in defeat but just no match for an electric Penrith Panthers outfit on Saturday.
Unfortunately, star halfback Shaun Johnson was unable to play because of a lower leg injury, meaning the side’s first choice halves pairing of Johnson and Luke Metcalf, who is out for the season with a hamstring injury, weren’t available.
Instead, Dylan Walker and Te Maire Martin started in the halves against the Panthers. The problem is, neither of them are halfbacks.
While both players tried hard, the Warriors failed to look threatening near the line and weren’t nearly as creative as they can be.
It’s hard to pin blame on Martin and Walker as they haven’t formed a combination in the halves before. Martin has also just come back from an injury which has kept him out for half the season.
The Panthers were so dominant that even with Johnson, the Warriors likely wouldn’t have won, but they certainly looked much more likely in attack.
Warriors skipper Tohu Harris admitted his side missed the Dally M favourite’s presence on the field.
“He’s been one of the best players of the comp all year. Him and Nathan are probably the two best halfbacks in the comp this year,” Harris said.
“In that regard, he was a massive loss.
“I don’t think we played how we have all year. We come and we tried to do things as individuals rather than together.
“Penrith are too much of a quality side to beat them individually.
This time of year is all about applying pressure and we didn’t do that well enough, we let them (Penrith) off the hook too much”
Mal Meninga said the Warriors were brave, but without Johnson, their job was made that much harder.
“It all panned out how we expected with no Shaun Johnson,” Meninga said.
“The Warriors struggled in the kicking game, get field position, kick into corners.
I think they were brave … I just feel if Shaun Johnson’s available, they show enough resilience, enough spirit, enough courage.”
Wahs “taught a lesson” in finals return | 05:36
SHARKS BOW OUT AGAIN AS FITZY’S FIRST FINALS WIN ELUDES HIM
The Sharks remain winless from three finals matches under Craig Fitzgibbon as form continues to elude them at the pointy end of the season.
After going out in straight sets despite finishing second in 2022, the Sharks blew a 12-6 lead to lose 13-12 to the Roosters in their elimination final.
Greg Alexander believes the loss to his old club will burn Fitzgibbon even more on the back of their finals failure last season.
“It is a shattering performance for Craig Fitzgibbon who, it took him a long time to get over last year’s demise bowing out two weeks in a row,” Alexander said.
“This year will be the same. He will be very disappointed with how it has gone.”
Cooper Cronk believes the Sharks have the attack to be successful, but their defence under Fitzgibbon hasn’t improved since his first year and that let them down again in the finals.
“I think the Sharkies fans had high hopes to start this year,” Cronk said.
“I thought off the back of what they did last year going straight out I thought they were really set for a big year.
“When you saw them play in the pre-season I thought they had a really good team here and they are going to grow.
“But the one thing that let them down is they have always been able to attack with that sling shot mentality with Nicho Hynes controlling, but defensively they went backwards.
“It is a super big surprise that a Craig Fitzgibbon team that defence isn’t the strength of their football team.
“That became their undoing when they needed to because if you win the comp or you miss out at this stage of the year you get what you deserve and the Sharks just didn’t improve in the area that makes you competitive if you want to win the trophy.
“Craig Fitzgibbon is now 0-3 in terms of his finals win-loss record and I dare say that is going to burn for a long time because he is one hard character and when he doubles down it is on hard work, so I think it is going to be a huge summer for everyone involved in Cronulla land.”
However Mal Meninga believes the Sharks have a mental hurdle to climb to instil the belief that they can perform under the bright lights of finals footy after they let a match winning lead slip late.
“I think it is between the ears,” Meninga said.
“It is all about belief and confidence. They came off the back of last year losing two in a row through the finals.
“They came into this year full of confidence and with a lot of stability at the club. They didn’t buy many players and were very stable as far as their roster was concerned.
“Then again at the back end of the season when it matters, that belief or confidence disappears.
“I just thing there is real psychological damage to the way they think and to the way they perform in big games when it actually matters.
“It does come back down to the leadership group as well and their key players. They started well, but as the game drew on there was a lot more competitiveness.
“They were trying to get into the grind. There was a lot of errors and having to defend all that.
“All that work that they had to do they just didn’t get where they needed to be. They were outworked again tonight and the Roosters deserved their victory. It is a psychological thing.”
Chooks down Sharks in 1-point thriller | 04:04
A SPIRITED WIN, BUT A TOUGH TEST AWAITS THE CHOOKS
The stunning resurgence of the Roosters continues after Trent Robinson’s men won their sixth straight to send the Sharks packing.
On death’s door at the end of Round 22, the Roosters needed to win out and hope other results went their way to snare a finals spot. That’s exactly how it eventuated, with the Tricolours jumping from 14th to 7th in that span.
They had to overcome a bit of adversity against the Sharks, with captain James Tedesco sent to the sin bin with the game tied at 6 with 28 minutes to go.
The Sharks would score six points in that span but the Roosters were able to finish over the top and win 13-12, thanks to a field goal from Sam Walker.
Additionally, the Roosters lost two outside backs with Joseph Suaalii failing a HIA at halftime after a delayed concussion and Joey Manu leaving the game with a hamstring injury.
It was a mostly frustrating game for Roosters fans, but good teams find a way, which they did.
“It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t great but it was an enthralling contest,” Cooper Cronk said on Fox League.
There’s no doubt it was a gutsy performance from the Roosters, and Robinson acknowledged that, but admitted his side needs to be better if they are to have any chance of beating the Storm in Melbourne next week.
“There were a lot of reasons not to win that game and I felt like the spirit grew the more changes we had and the more the chaos grew,” Robinson said in his post-match press conference.
“You want the footy to improve, but as far as the spirit that the club and team plays the game, that was of a high, high end.
“I’d like to play better footy. We will play better footy next week.”
Asked by a reporter if it was the gutsiest finals win he has been apart of, Robinson replied, “perhaps it was.”
The Roosters be will undermanned against the Storm next week, with Suaalii already ruled out due to failing a HIA and Manu extremely unlikely to play.
Manu’s injury was the same strain which kept him out of the Roosters Round 27 game against Souths.
“He wasn’t (100%), so we got that wrong. There was no issue during the week at training,” Robinson said.
“We’ll be right. Of course it’s a blow, but so is missing Joey, Jared (Waerea-Hargreaves) and the amount of guys that have played this year but aren’t now.
“But we are in the finals. We will find 17 guys who will want to play better footy next week and keep the spirit we want to play with.”
‘Gutsiest’ finals win ever? | 09:51
O’BRIEN STEERING KNIGHTS RISE AFTER TRAGEDY
Knights coach Adam O’Brien has been praised for leading the club to the second week of finals for the first time in a decade just two months after almost getting sacked.
Newcastle officials were sounding out options to replace O’Brien back in June after they slumped to 14th on the ladder with just five wins from 15 games.
It was also just two months after O’Brien’s mother, Maree, died of a brain tumour after being diagnosed just before the start of the season.
In the weeks leading up to her death, O’Brien was juggling his coaching commitments and almost daily trips to Sydney to be at his mother’s hospital bedside.
Braith Anasta believes Maree’s passing has helped inspire the Knights’ 10-game winning run which will see them face the Warriors in New Zealand on Saturday.
“There was no coach, or not a person in the NRL, under more pressure around the same time his mum died,” Anasta said.
“A lot of us don’t know what goes on behind the scenes and I suppose it’s given him perspective on life. A lot of people and a lot of athletes, coaches, they draw inspiration from things like this and I think it’s been a turning point for him.
“It’s been unbelievable what he’s been able to achieve with this team.”
Mick Ennis echoed the sentiment and said at times there is “no tougher job in the country” than coaching in the NRL.
“It’s been an incredible mental toughness to go through what he went through this year and with the amount of pressure on him, the blowtorch of rugby league,” he said.
“They had those three losses mid-season, Brisbane, Roosters and Penrith. And they had the Bulldogs and Tigers coming up – had they lost those two games there was genuine talk that he was gone, that was it, it was all over.
“There was talk of their chairman and CEO interviewing other coaches and somehow in among all this he had all turmoil going on in his private life, obviously extremely close with his mother who tragically passed away.
“To have to facilitate a rugby league club under the pressure they were under, to have his key player (Kalyn Ponga) overseas with concussion issues, and then privately having to deal with the pain and suffering of what his mum was going through.
“It’s been an incredible year for him and to be able to turn it around and to get Newcastle to where they are and the style of footy they’re playing for their fans… It’s been one of the great stories of the year and Adam O’Brien has been the spearhead of that.”
O’Brien praised his players after they beat Canberra in extra time of their elimination final on Sunday and made special mention of Ponga.
“He’s been an inspiration to the team all week – he’s been an inspiration to the team all year – but to get himself right physically to go out there and then have the nous to start attacking down the right is a credit to him,” O’Brien said.
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