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Bunker Review – Finals Week 1

The 2023 NRL finals went off with a bang as Brisbane and Penrith made emphatic qualifying final statements, while Sydney Roosters and Newcastle survived nail-biting elimination final classics. 

Magnificent sevens

Brisbane and Penrith underlined their status as likely grand final opponents with dominant qualifying final victories – and their marquee halfbacks were at the forefront with vintage post-season performances.

The Broncos’ 26-0 rout of Melbourne on Friday was underpinned by brutal, swarming defence, while Reece Walsh – kept on a tight leash for much of the night – took the game away from the Storm midway through the second half by scoring a try and laying one on for Jordan Riki in the space of five minutes.

But Adam Reynolds was unquestionably the architect, setting up the first (for Kotoni Staggs) and last (for Selwyn Cobbo) tries, constantly putting the Storm under pressure with an exquisite kicking game – including an incredible line dropout that found the sideline – and booting five-from-five off the tee.

The following day, as the Warriors muddled along aimlessly with linchpin Shaun Johnson forced out with a calf injury, Nathan Cleary was almost untouchable in the Panthers’ 32-6 blowout.

The champion No.7 made two line-breaks, scored a dazzling solo try, had two line-break assists and a try assist, ran for 194 metres and did all the little things immaculately.

Not to be outdone, Sydney Roosters halfback Sam Walker – dropped earlier this season – completed his individual renaissance with a superb second-half display that culminated match-winning field goal to sink Cronulla.

With a Broncos-Panthers decider materialising, Cleary and Reynolds are on course for their second grand final showdown in three years. Cleary was the Clive Churchill Medal winner in Penrith’s gripping 14-12 win over Souths, for whom Reynolds was playing his last game.

Cleary is the $4.50 Churchill Medal favourite two weeks out from the big one, while Reynolds ($9.50) is on the fourth line of betting behind Walsh ($8.00) and last year’s recipient, Dylan Edwards ($9.00).

Thrillers buck elimination final trend

From 2012-22, under the current NRL playoffs format, the average elimination final margin was 15.31 points with nail-biters in short supply. But last weekend’s sudden-death encounters were both instant classics that went down to the wire, featuring stirring comebacks, dramatic moments and clutch plays.

Slight underdogs Sydney Roosters edged Cronulla 13-12 on the road in an absorbing arm-wrestle, with oustanding rookie Siua Wong levelling the scores with a 67th minute try before Sam Walker’s decisive one-pointer with seven minutes to go.

The seventh-placed Roosters’ sixth straight victory consigned the Sharks to their second straight week one defeat via a field goal, having gone down in extra-time last year courtesy of Valentine Holmes’ booming two-point strike.

Meanwhile, Newcastle and Canberra produced a final for the ages on Sunday, a seesawing epic that ranks alongside the greatest post-season encounters of the past 25 years.

The Raiders – rank outsiders at $4.40 and out of form – built a shock 16-6 halftime lead, but their gutsy resistance looked to have dissolved as the Kalyn Ponga-inspired Knights scored four tries in the space of 15 minutes to create a 28-16 scoreline with 18 minutes to go.

The depleted Green Machine wrested the momentum back, however, and sent the match into extra-time when Tom Starling finished off a sensational 77th-minute try.

After a slew of foiled field goal chances, the Raiders’ brave effort to keep their season alive came unstuck via a penalty goal as the added period ticked down, with the Knights clinching a 10th consecutive victory.

The Roosters ($3.60 H2H versus the Storm) and Knights ($2.50 H2H versus the Warriors) now hit the road in an attempt to back up their nerve-shredding elimination wins with semi-final upsets.

Statement game of NRL Finals Week 1

Staring down a 14-match losing streak against the Storm in their first finals match in four years with a host of key players yet to enjoy a post-season victory, the Broncos had reason to head into Friday’s blockbuster with a hint of nerves.

But their tough, clinical 26-0 beatdown of the Storm was their most compelling statement yet that Kevin Walters has a premiership-ready squad on his hands.

Adam Reynolds and Reece Walsh came up with the big plays, Payne Haas and Patrick Carrigan were dominant in the middle of the park, Herbie Farnworth and Kotoni Staggs dominated their opposing centres, and the Broncos’ collective resolve on their goal-line was magnificent from start to finish.

Another key feature was the Broncos’ composure in a clash where tensions threatened to boil over at several junctures. The Storm couldn’t let it go and lost the penalty count 10-5, while the hosts got on with the job and rumbled into a preliminary final.

Melbourne have a big task on their hands regrouping in week two against the Roosters, rocked by Ryan Papenhuyzen gut-wrenching latest injury setback.

Two-horse race?

Penrith and Brisbane shortened again on the back of blistering qualifying final victories, which in turn saw Melbourne and the Warriors slide in the premiership market. Newcastle drifted slightly despite their sudden-death win, while the Roosters came in slightly.

NRL PREMIERSHIP ODDS

TEAMCURRENT PRICELAST WEEK’S PRICE
Penrith Panthers$2.10$2.40
Brisbane Broncos$2.60$3.00
Melbourne Storm$11$6.50
New Zealand Warriors$15$12
Newcastle Knights$19$17
Sydney Roosters$21$23
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