A number of Origin hopefuls nailed their final auditions, while others buckled under the pressure of sudden death rugby league.
Meanwhile, Damien Cook re-established himself as the game’s most devastating hooker and Trent Robinson made a couple of decisions that left you wondering – “what if?”
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HAS WIGHTON SURPASSED KEARY AS GAME’S TOP NO. 6?
Raiders star Jack Wighton showed in his eagerly anticipated match-up with Luke Keary that his days as a makeshift No.6 are long gone.
Wighton outpointed his Blues rival Keary with a masterclass in the Raiders 22-18 victory in the 2019 grand final replay to knock the two-time defending champions out of the finals.
Josh Papalii set up the win with a dominant first half, but it was Wighton who scored the match sealing try and made all the right plays down the stretch.
The 2019 Clive Churchill Medallist finished with 96 run metres, four tackle busts, a linebreak and the four pointer that iced the game in the 70th minute.
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Keary suffered a head knock early, which hurt his rhythm and had a poor missed tackle to allow Joe Tapine to score a simple try in the first half.
Wighton clearly won the duel and Andrew Johns lauded him as the in-form five-eighth.
“I think he’s playing even better than Cody Walker,” said Johns.
“He’s just such a threat and at the moment he has a presence to him, a presence on the field which is just absolute superstar quality.
“He has such a big impact, his passing game is improved but when he runs the ball – and he was in everything the other night (finals win over the Sharks), making big tackles.
“The running game, he’s such an aggressive player but he’s making such an impact.
Both Keary and Wighton along with Cody Walker are a good chance of making Brad Fittler’s Blues side, but if everyone was fit the Raiders five-eighth would be the starting No.6.
However, Wighton is likely to fill in at centre where he starred last year, with Tom Trbojevic, Latrell Mitchell and Kotoni Staggs all ruled out due to injury.
DID ROBBO GET HIS SELECTION WRONG?
It’s very rare Trent Robinson gets his team selection wrong, but you can’t help but feel that he made a few blunders over the last few weeks.
It meant his side’s bid of winning a third-straight title went out of the window after defeats to Penrith and Canberra.
In both games, the decision over where to deploy Mitchell Aubusson could be questioned.
Aubusson, who brought the curtain down on an outstanding career following the loss to the Raiders, has been one of the Roosters’ best over the last decade.
Against Penrith he came on at hooker to replace Freddy Lussick after Robinson had cut Lachlan Lam from the side.
Aubusson is a lot of things, but a hooker who can go toe-to-toe with Api Koroisau he is not.
Then Aubusson was pushed to the second row against Canberra, with Angus Crichton dropped to the bench.
Crichton is likely to win NSW selection and had one of his best games in Roosters colours against the Panthers.
And coming in to the loss with the Raiders, he averaged 123m and 3.5 tackle busts over the last four games.
It makes the decision to omit him all the more surprising given he’s been in fine form since he returned from injury.
STAR RAIDERS DUO FACE GREATEST TEST YET
When co-captain Josh Hodgson and eight forwards went down before round nine, no-one gave the Raiders a chance of going deep into the finals.
It, of course, played right into the hands of coach Ricky Stuart.
“Where we have got to today, no one gave us a chance outside of our own group and I remember saying in this room after the last time we beat the Roosters here that no one has given us an opportunity to show what is underneath the jumper,” he said.
“Win or lose next week we have had an unbelievable season and we are in there punching again.”
He has two key men – Joe Tapine and Josh Papalii – to thank.
Papalii has already proven himself to be a big-game player after scoring a late try to sink the Rabbitohs in the preliminary final last season when the Raiders were down to 12 men.
Tapine, on the other hand, really stepped up on Friday night, highlighted by an epic solo try where he beat five Roosters defenders all the way to the line. He’s been improving every single week and there’s a good argument to say he’s in career best form.
The pair combined for more than 320 running metres but now they face their greatest test yet against the Storm.
“He’ll be targeted next week,” Stuart said of Tapine.
“They have been, since we’ve had a number of forwards down, those two have been incredible. The way they’ve really lifted their loads.
“Josh Papalii just keeps growing as a player. He was playing with a busted shoulder for a while and a bad ankle that got hurt tonight.”
Tapine too will have to aim up as Melbourne’s fierce pack take it straight to the Raiders lock.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better forwards try,” Stuart said of Tapine’s first-half four-pointer.
“It was a wonderful moment and came in a very crucial time in the game.
“I was really happy for him to celebrate his 100th game for the club with a finals game like that was very memorable.”
KING GUTHO NAILS BLUES AUDITION AS MOSES BLOWS IT
The Eels put a turbulent week behind them to dominate the Rabbitohs in the first half of their sudden death semi-final thanks to a masterclass from skipper Clint Gutherson.
The only problem was Brad Arthur’s side couldn’t go on with their 18-8 first half lead and lost the second half 30-6.
Regardless Gutherson’s performance was special in the 38-24 loss at Bankwest Stadium and was a timely captain’s knock for a team in turmoil on the back of Michael Jennings’ drug suspension.
Gutherson finished with 177 run metres, six tackle busts, three linebreaks, a linebreak assist, two try assists and two tries in a complete performance.
The only blot on his copybook was the dropped ball that saw Bayley Sironen score.
The stunning display saw Gutherson recapture the form that had him leading the Dally M Medal race and has thrust his name into contention for the NSW Blues.
Gutherson’s versatility allows him to cover fullback, wing, centre and five-eighth in the Blues’ 27-man squad and he was confirmed as a member by Brad Fittler on Sunday.
Teammates Junior Paulo, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Nathan Brown were also picked, but there was no room for Mitchell Moses who had a horror night against the Rabbitohs.
Moses cruelly missed a point blank penalty to lock up the scores at 20-20 in the second half and the Rabbitohs pounced on the ball and scored at the other end of the field in the same set to push the lead out to 26-18. From there, they never looked back.
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Moses still had a linebreak assist and a try assist and ironically slotted a number of conversions from the sideline, but it is these sorts of blunders in pressure situations that makes it hard for him to be picked in representative teams.
The game was there to be won with the Eels charging back into the contest and Moses needed to ice that conversion and lead his side to victory in a do-or-die clash.
While it is not all his fault, the simple fact is he didn’t and the Rabbitohs ran away with it.
COOK RE-ESTABLISHES HIMSELF AS GAME’S PREMIER HOOKER
All the talk this season has been about Penrith’s Api Koroisau surpassing Damien Cook as the most destructive dummyhalf in the game.
However, the Rabbitohs rake reminded everyone of his worth in a superb showing in Souths’ 38-24 win to knock the Eels out of the finals.
Granted Cook hasn’t had his best or most consistent season and Koroisau is not only a big reason why the Panthers charged to the minor premiership, but also why former club Manly struggled so much in his absence.
However, talk that Koroisau had leapfrogged Cook to the NSW Blues No.9 jersey for the end-of-season State of Origin series was premature.
Incumbent hooker Cook has played behind an inconsistent Rabbitohs pack that has only his its strides in the back half of the season.
He ran the Eels ragged on Saturday night to finish with a whopping 135 metres, 41 tackles with no misses, three tackle busts, two linebreak assists, a linebreak assist, two try assists and a try in a masterclass that left coach Wayne Bennett gushing.
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“I thought last week was his best game, but that was better tonight,” Bennett said.
Koroisau has been a revelation for the Panthers and will almost certainly be in Fittler’s 27-man squad when Penrith’s season comes to an end.
But any designs on the Blues’ No.9 jersey will have to wait for now. The battle between the two on Saturday night will be worth the admission fee alone.