There were plenty of talking points from the NRL semi-finals.
There were plenty of talking points from the NRL semi-finals.

Analysis: Where the NRL semi-finals were won and lost

This is the 112th first grade season of Australian rugby league and for the 110th time, the premiership winner will come from the top four.

There's little doubt the four best sides in the competition have made it to the preliminary finals, albeit with a few scares along the way for one of them, and we're set for two epic showdowns this weekend.

But before we consider what will be, let's take one more look at what has been. Here's where the weekend's semi-finals were won and lost.

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SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS 32 def MANLY SEA EAGLES 26

 

Cameron Murray and Campbell Graham celebrate a Rabbitohs try. Picture: Getty Images
Cameron Murray and Campbell Graham celebrate a Rabbitohs try. Picture: Getty Images

 

The Rabbitohs-Sea Eagles match was one of those games which was permanently stuck on the ragged edge of rugby league.

As hard as Manly played and as well as they'd done to make it as far as they did, their limitations finally caught up with them. Part of dealing with the injuries they've sustained is seeing the margin of error reduced again and again, because they simply don't have the talent to make up the gaps.

That's not to say the likes of Corey Waddell and Jack Gosiewski aren't talented, because they are - the inexperienced backrowers both played well, and Waddell in particular gave Adam Reynolds a hell of a time.

But the lack of combinations and cohesion came to the forefront defensively. Of South Sydney's five tries five of them came down the left edge, with Gosiewski, Daly Cherry-Evans and Moses Suli coming under heavy pressure defensively and given their inexperience as a combination there were several miscommunications in defence.

 

Moses Suli had a mixed night for the Sea Eagles. Picture: Getty Images
Moses Suli had a mixed night for the Sea Eagles. Picture: Getty Images

 

Suli mugged Dane Gagai in attack so badly it wouldn't surprise if the big unit left ANZ Stadium with the Origin player's wallet, but he was exposed defensively a couple of times himself. Much has been written about the Jake Trbojevic sin bin, but it came via a Dane Gagai break which had its genesis in a bad defensive decision by Suli.

Likewise, Cam Murray's matchwinner came from a Liam Knight pass which dribbled along the ground and Suli was too slow to get to the ball or to the defender. Suli has had a great couple of weeks and there are no limits to where his talent can take him, but he's far from the finished article.

Given there were 60 points scored in this one South Sydney were far from blameless with their own defensive frailties. Adam Reynolds was expertly isolated several times by Dylan Walker and Sam Burgess was dragged into the middle more than once, to say nothing of Gagai's struggles or James Roberts' ongoing battles with his own confidence. The Rabbitohs looked fragile on both sides and Reynolds and Gagai did not look fully fit.

The Rabbitohs have more gears to them than Manly, who very much reached the end of their run, but Souths still seem far from their best. They were good enough, but that's not the same as being good.

Until Trbojevic's sin bin (which was indisputably correct, as soon as he grabbed Gagai by the jersey and sent him to the ground he had to go) it felt as though the result would be Manly by how many.

 

Cameron Murray was superb for the Rabbitohs yet again. Picture: Getty Images
Cameron Murray was superb for the Rabbitohs yet again. Picture: Getty Images

 

Were it not for some sterling play from Cameron Murray, who has become the best forward on the team, and some mindless errors and lapses of concentration (like Brad Parker's penalty for tackling Roberts in the air in the final five minutes) from the Sea Eagles it would have been Manly moving on. In terms of individual talent, the Rabbitohs had Manly beat and it was those individual talents that got them home.

Having said that, and accepting Canberra would have been feeling good about matching up with either team, the Rabbitohs are the more dangerous outfit and a greater threat to the Raiders.

It's been several months since they put together a complete, 80-minute performance that showed what they're truly capable of, but the talent is still there, Wayne Bennett is still there and the early-season juggernaut is still in there somewhere, even if it's buried deep down.

MELBOURNE STORM 32 DEF PARRAMATTA EELS 0

 

Storm’s Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Josh Addo-Carr celebrate a try against Parramatta. Picture: Getty Images
Storm’s Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Josh Addo-Carr celebrate a try against Parramatta. Picture: Getty Images

 

From the time the Eels made their first error, which came on just their second set, this felt like more of a procession than a contest. For Parramatta to beat Melbourne they needed the passes to stick, they needed the bounces to go their way and they needed to draw the Storm into their kind of match, an open, flowing encounter where it was guns drawn in the centre of town and both teams fired until there were no bullets left.

Instead, this match turned into exactly what the Storm wanted. They didn't gun Parramatta down, they starved them to death while stripping them of their best weapons.

Blake Ferguson is one of the best yardage wingers in the competition - he managed just 73 runs from 12 carries, his second lowest total of the season. Junior Paulo was the only forward to eclipse 100 metres.

 

Blake Ferguson was well held by Melbourne. Picture: Getty Images
Blake Ferguson was well held by Melbourne. Picture: Getty Images

 

The Eels are a wonderful attacking force when they're on top, but they struggle to play off the back foot and they were on the back foot from the very first minute.

Parramatta are a good side with a big future who came a long way in 2019, but they lacked the certainty and clarity of purpose to trouble the Storm. To beat Melbourne a team cannot ever doubt where they want to go on the field or what they want to do when they get there. The Eels, who are far more reactive than proactive, just aren't designed that way.

For Melbourne, this was very much a return to form. Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Dale Finucane were both tremendous again, Cameron Smith took a more active role with the kicking game to great effect and the Storm buried whatever doubts that may have festered after last week's shock loss to Canberra.

Of greatest note moving forward might be Craig Bellamy's move to bench Will Chambers for Curtis Scott. Scott has struggled with injury all season and had played one first grade game since Round 9, Chambers is one of Bellamy's longest-serving soldiers and while he's not quite at his peak he's still an excellent centre.

Making such a dramatic change with such an experienced player at such a crucial time is unlike Bellamy and the machinations behind the switch are still unclear.

 

Will Chambers was surprisingly benched for Storm’s clash with the Eels. Picture: Getty Images
Will Chambers was surprisingly benched for Storm’s clash with the Eels. Picture: Getty Images

 

Could Bellamy have had one eye on this week's prelim, where Latrell Mitchell lurks? Origin I was the last time the two went head to head and Chambers won that duel handily. Chambers may yet return to the starting side this week but it's still something worth unpacking.

THE GOLDEN HOMBRE

Is there anything more thrilling than when a big man gets into the clear and attempts an ill-advised dummy, or perhaps a chip kick?

Is there anything greater than when a large lad decides the time has come for him to show the world the ball skills he knows lurk deep within?

Is there anything that lifts the spirit more than a hefty fellow crashing across the stripe for his second NRL try in his 179th first grade match?

I say no, and to honour these big fellas each and every week of the year, which many have dubbed #BigManSeason, we hand out The Golden Hombre, named after Todd Payten, the biggest halfback God ever created.

Tim Mannah has been an honest, tough forward for a very long time. When he leaves Parramatta at season's end he will be the final active player who appeared in the 2009 grand final, which alone would make him an important figure in Parramatta history.

 

Tim Mannah is on his way out of Parramatta Picture: Getty Images
Tim Mannah is on his way out of Parramatta Picture: Getty Images

 

But Mannah was also one of the only good things about some truly rotten Parra sides in the early stages of the decade, the heart of gold in wooden spoon teams and the lifeblood of a club which had previous few things to feel good about. It was a tough time and Mannah made it a little bit easier, and that means a lot.

Mannah has been shuffled out a side door and will end his time at the Eels in reserve grade, which is a tough look for such a loyal servant. But he's in a kickass Wentworthville side who have fought their way through to the grand final against Newtown this Sunday at Bankwest Stadium. I am honour bound to support my beloved Bluebags, but Mannah deserves some props all the same.

On the weekend Mannah had a line break assist off a 20-metre drop out when he threw a sharp pass to one of his outside men. In 233 first grade matches, he had two line break assists. You really do love to see it.

News Corp Australia

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