The semi-final weekend of the 2023 NRL finals produced a tense thriller featuring a late match-winning try and a blistering beatdown in a spine-tingling atmosphere.
Finals system proves worth
Since the current finals system was brought in by the NRL in 2012, top-four losers from week one now boast an 18-6 record in semi-finals after Melbourne and the Warriors bounced back from heavy qualifying defeats to win at home.
For the seventh time in 12 seasons, the top-four finishers will contest the preliminary finals.
Compare that to the previously used McIntyre System’s 13-year reign of terror, where the top-four finishers did not fill up all four prelim spots once. Eleven top-four teams went out in straight sets, while five top-four teams were bundled out in week two after being forced to face fellow top-four sides in the semis.
Late-season bolters run out of puff
Sydney Roosters were sent packing in heart-breaking fashion – pipped 18-13 by the Storm and a sensational aerial try from Will Warbrick with less than two minutes left – while Newcastle walked into a Mt Smart cauldron and crumbled 40-10 to the rampant Warriors.
But just to make it that far was a phenomenal achievement. At the end of Round 19, the high-profile Roosters had blown out to $101 in the premiership market while the Knights were $301 longshots. A week earlier the Knights were sitting 14th and the Roosters occupied that spot after Round 20.
The clubs produced extraordinary winning streaks, however – the Knights winning their last nine, the Roosters their last five – to make the finals and carve out thrilling elimination victories. Their respective July-September heroics provide a platform for a strong 2024 campaign.
Newcastle, in particular, can take immense pride in their efforts: it was the first time they’d made it past week one of the finals since Wayne Bennett took them to a prelim from seventh in 2013, while the Knights amassed their highest win tally since the Andrew Johns-led team of 2006.
Churchillian deeds from Munster and Johnson
The Storm are $4.80 underdogs to topple the Panthers on Friday night, while the Warriors head to Suncorp Stadium as $3.90 outsiders against the Broncos.
But both teams boast a talisman who stood tall in week two and will have the top-two favourites on high alert this weekend.
Cameron Munster had a blinder to get Melbourne home against the Roosters in Jahrome Hughes’ absence (though Tyran Wishart was a surprisingly outstanding substitute), inspirational on defence and kicking brilliantly – most notably hoisting the pinpoint bomb across field for Warbrick to snatch the win.
Over the Tasman, Shaun Johnson emerged from a week of ‘will he/won’t he play’ speculation to produce his finest big-match performance at NRL level. He laid on two early tries to put the Warriors in the driver’s seat and controlled the match magnificently until getting an early mark and enjoying a stirring tribute from the faithful as he wandered around the sideline back to the bench.
The top seven lines in the Clive Churchill Medal market are occupied by Penrith and Brisbane players – led by Nathan Cleary ($4.25) and Reece Walsh ($6.00) – with Johnson ($19) and Munster ($23) next in line as two of only three contenders from the Warriors and Storm rated among the best 19 chances to be adjudged best on ground on grand final day.
Statement game of NRL Finals Week 2
The Warriors’ historic regular-season campaign – finishing in the top four for just the third time in 29 seasons – meandered towards September with a string of patchy performances and tight wins over battling opponents. We hadn’t seen anything like their best since a memorable Sunday afternoon demolition of Cronulla in Round 20.
But Andrew Webster’s charges responded to a qualifying final lesson at Penrith and rocketed back into form with a display of unequivocal dominance and composure to decimate Newcastle 40-10.
The Knights handed them the keys to victory with a diabolical start, but the Warriors took ruthless advantage to race out to 16-0 at better than a point a minute. When the visitors clawed back to 16-10 early in the second half, the Warriors hit the afterburners to run in four unanswered tries.
Amid a stunning collective effort, Tohu Harris, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Shaun Johnson produced near-perfect individual performances. Maligned trio Rocco Berry, Adam Pompey and Marcelo Montoya dominated their vaunted, in-form opposites, while the likes of Jackson Ford and Mitch Barnett would have been a runaway man-of-the-match on any other day.
It’s a tall order this Saturday, but with thousands of expats and NZ-based Kiwis making the pilgrimage to Suncorp Stadium and the ‘Up the Wahs’ phenomenon taking over, a repeat showing is more than capable of rattling the brash Broncos.
Penrith and Brisbane shortened again despite not taking the field, while Melbourne stayed steady on the third line despite being the bigger prelim outsider. The Warriors were backed in to their pre-finals price after a scintillating semi-final display.
NRL PREMIERSHIP ODDS
|TEAM||CURRENT PRICE||LAST WEEK’S PRICE|
|New Zealand Warriors||$12||$15|