OF the four games played at the weekend, the overtime thriller between the Tigers and Roosters at the SFS sure took the honours for its nail-biting finish. But let's take the games in order.
Friday night's four versus five match on the Gold Coast, between the Titans and Warriors, proved that the only Queensland team left in the fight is in no hurry to exit the contest this year. As it turned out, it was a sudden-death game for the visitors, but the McIntyre System's firing order ensures that everybody flies blind. The Warriors learned their fate late on Saturday night.
The game was predictably a case of possession ruling. With 23 possessions to 15 in the first half, the Titans established a 22-6 half-time lead. The Coast have developed a good variety in their money-end assaults with Scott Prince, Mat Rogers and Greg Bird combining well. They also made sure their aerial attacks were contested. They're of little use if they're not. Points were produced on the scoreboard as a result.
Rogers's try came from a neat move, but the eight second-half turnovers meant the Warriors took the half 10-6. As it turned out, they'd conceded too big a start, but the fact that the Warriors were invited back into the game should be a timely warning for the preliminary final.
Saturday evening's three versus six match, Tigers v Roosters, had just about everything. A dominant first half by the Tigers where they did not allow the Roosters to poke their beaks over the halfway line. There was last ditch defence by the Roosters, so good they might get a call if there is ever a remake of the film Zulu, and two refs who stayed out of the contest in the overtime struggle. Fantastic!
The Tigers made so many visits to the Roosters in-goal area in the first 40 minutes, the groundsmen will have to re-turf it, but they couldn't ground the ball.
The 10-2 half-time score in favour of the Tigers could have been 30-2, but defence kept the Bondi flame flickering. The Roosters had earned a fighting chance, but that's about all.
Even so, the Roosters appeared to have run out of time and were one point short, but somehow Braith Anasta got hold of a ball that had been frantically spread all over the place with questionable intent. As only a scriptwriter with a fertile imagination would have it, Anasta levelled the scores at 15-all with a majestic field goal as the clock showed full-time.
Roosters centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall's intercept try in overtime took him the best part of 70 metres to cover the 52m from just over the right touch line to left corner post, but he'll never score a more important one. The Roosters' escape will be the stuff of folklore if they go the distance this year.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, their continuation to travel with Benji Marshall's sub-standard goal-kicking all year has cost them a win, a week off and possibly a crack at the title.
He is a 65-per-center competing in an era when 80 per cent plus should be part of every team's scoring artillery. On a number of occasions this year, I've mentioned on radio the risk the Tigers were running if they went to the finals with goal-kicking that had catastrophe written all over it.
He converted one of three tries. With two, the Tigers would have been home.
Why such a skilful player hasn't turned himself into a skilful goalkicker, which for the gifted is just a matter of hours of practice, has puzzled me all year. It also seems out of whack with coach Tim Sheens's thorough approach.
Saturday night's two v seven clash at Penrith between the Panthers and Raiders propelled the men from the capital to six straight wins, a record for all teams this season. At 22-20 it was a tight finish, but video ref Russell Smith denied Canberra five-eighth Terry Campese what looked like a fair try.
Obstruction was the ruling, but the inside-out slide defender, in my view, played the only card left in the pack when he fell into a Canberra front runner and appealed. Video refs are clearly intimidated in their booths by hostile home crowds. It would be much healthier for the game if video refs could not be seen by the lunatic brigade.
The one v eight match on Sunday finished up pretty much the way everyone expected with the Dragons winning by a big margin. But not before the depleted Manly team had put up a creditable struggle.
It was a strange game. It lacked excitement, emotion and intensity. The Saints played conservatively, almost as if they were hell bent on not losing rather than winning. Given the events of last year, it was an understandable approach, yet the familiar low mistake rate was missing.
The Dragons turned over seven possessions in each half, which was certainly not trademark St George Illawarra work for season 2010. It was more the stuff that had supporters kicking stones on the way home a few years ago, yet the result was never really in doubt. One standout was the fact that Saints' goal-line defence was its usual rock-solid self.
The red and whites plodded methodically through the first half for a 10-0 lead but gave the faithful three second-half tries to send them home singing their song. Mark Gasnier's 70m try was the last and quite a tonic for the supporters who have been patiently waiting for him to show some of his old form.
Now let's look forward. Curiously both games this weekend feature veteran coaches up against younger coaches who formerly played in their teams - Tim Sheens versus David Furner and Brian Smith versus Matthew Elliott.
Elliott and Sheens have worrying injury problems. They would also note with some feeling of injustice that finishing second and third for winning more games over an entire season counts for nothing after one narrow loss in week one of the play-offs. Both have to take their weakened teams to the home grounds of teams six and seven. This incidentally is not a requirement of the McIntyre System, but one by the owners of the gate receipts, the NRL.
Meanwhile, teams one and four, the Dragons and the Titans, sit back, watch the carnage and get ready to mop up the survivors which, given the attrition rate at this time of the year, might not be too difficult. With the spring in the step of the winning home teams this weekend, I tend to favour both of them over their visitors.