The first week of the finals was filled with all kinds of wild judicial, geograhical and medical stories, ensuring that fans were left fully entertained and looking forward to the week to come. The Broncos and Panthers flexed their premiership might while the Roosters overcame a shocking injury toll in the backline to knock over the Sharks. Finally, Newcastle bit back – I mean hit back at at a ravenous Raiders to win in extra time.
The Finals Kick Off
Friday night introduced the 2023 finals series, where a mighty Brisbane Broncos team hosted an inconsistent Melbourne Storm side. 50,000 fans filled out Suncorp Stadium to witness the one-way ride that was the first qualifying final of 2023. From the game’s beginning right through to its end, there was a clear winner. A cursory look at the numbers shows just how dominant the Broncos were in the 26-0 victory. Brisbane’s healthy 75% completion rate dwarfed Melbourne’s 67% while the Broncos conceded half the penalties of the Storm at 5-10.
Aside from the dramatic displays and heated encounters, the most notable story was the horrifying injury sustained by Ryan Papenhuyzen in the 72nd minute of the contest. In only his third NRL game in 13 months, Ryan Papenhuyzen suffered a large blow as fellow Storm player Nelson Asofa-Solomona managed to land awkwardly on the back of his legs in a tackle. Papenhuyzen was unable to exit the field himself and after being carted off rumours of a possible compound fracture caused a huge buzz amongst NRL fans.The luckless Storm fullback was staring down the barrell of yet another 12 months of recovery. Thankfully, scans post-game confirmed that Papenhuyzen had merely suffered a fractured right ankle and was looking at a relatively short time table for a return to preseason training.
Panthers Rumble Into Yet Another Preliminary Final
Saturday afternoon provided fans with an opportunity to watch premiership heavyweights the Panthers in a long awaited clash with fan-favourites; the Warriors. New Zealand were without their star halfback and Dally M frontrunner Shaun Johnson and perhaps unsurprisingly they struggled to keep up they reigning back-to-back premiers. Ivan Cleary’s side set the precedent for how any prospective title contender should dominate, scoring 32 points, conceding just 6 and missing 30 less tackles than their opposition. With half the errors of the Warriors, the Panthers proved once more just why they are leading the race to winning the premiership. They are now in the box seat to complete the first three-peat since western Sydney rivals Parramatta achieved the feat in the early 1980s.
The Warriors showed just how crucial Shaun Johnson is to their squad, with numerous errors, a lack of strong game management and ill-discipline without him present on the field. It was evident to Warriors and NRL fans the significant extent to which Johnson’s leadership and control aid in guiding the Warriors to victory. The Warriors will regroup and prepare to take on Newcastle in New Zealand, and with Shaun Johnson named for their next clash, New Zealand faithful will remain in hope as their side aims to continue to extend their season.
Chooks Drown Sharks At Home
The second Saturday game provided fans with one of the most exciting finals contests seen in recent seasons. The Sharks controversially hosted the Roosters at Pointsbet Stadium, with many calls to change the games location to house more eager fans. The Sharks remained set in their stance, wanting to capitalise on their earned home game advantage, yet only welcoming 12,500 fans. This contest was one for the ages, with the game level for the majority of the duration. Even with Roosters captain and fullback James Tedesco sin-binned for a professional foul in the 51st minute, Cronulla only managed to pick up one four-pointer in this time, leaving the Roosters leeway to insert themselves back into the contest.
A miracle try in the 67th minute from rookie Siua Wong placed the Roosters right back into the contest, and a field goal from Sam Walker put the Roosters ahead at 13-12 in the 72nd minute. Two separate and desperate charge downs from the Roosters displayed just how important this match was to the Eastern suburbs side. It continued an already lengthy display of heart, soul and dedication from the side, traits fans felt had been missing for a majority of their season. The Roosters now gear up to clash with the Melbourne Storm at a bustling AAMI park, and will hope to continue their strong run and pick up their 7th consecutive win.
Knights Aiming For 11 In A Row
The final game to conclude the first week of the NRL finals was a sold out clash between the red-hot Knights and the lucky Raiders. Controversy has surrounded the Canberra Raiders, as fans, journalists and experts alike have all questioned how they had even managed to slip into the finals series. Losing 3 out of their last 4 contests before the psotseason, Canberra presented themselves as arguably the top eight side least deserving of September footy. Some early wins in 2023 managed to compensate for the amount of games lost toward the season’s end but a -137 points differential meant that Canberra were the only side in finals with a negative points difference.
Ultimately their season ended as they bowed out to the Knights despite leading the contest 16-6 at half time, seeming to have shut Newcastle out completely. A Kalyn Ponga penalty goal in extra time won the Knights the contest, and a spot in week 2 of the finals in New Zealand.
Despite a largely exciting game, the controversy that lingered was the alleged bite on Tyson Gamble from Jack Wighton. In the moment a bite seemed evident via the marks on Tyson gambles arm. Despite that, Canberra and Wighton faced no punishment on the field. Deemed inconclusive, the Raiders were handed the ball back and told to continue their attacking set. However, this sparked outrage amongst fans as an identical incident in the NRLW saw Broncos powerhouse Ashleigh Werner sent off from the field and suspended for 2 weeks. Wighton was referred straight to the Judiciary, and the soon-to-be Rabbitoh will miss his new side’s season opening clash in Las Vegas, as well as two matches following it.