Chaotic mess or classic theatre? The game that split rugby league opinion

Melbourne Storm was the first domino to fall when they were overpowered by the Raiders at home last Saturday. Even then we should have heeded the warning signs that the rugby league landscape, at least for now, was shifting.

For the first time in nearly two decades neither the Storm or Roosters will be appearing in the preliminary finals. How the Tricolours were dumped out by South Sydney will live long in the memory for how chaotic and visceral the clash was which brought to a close an unprecedented reign, but was the match a classic or an unmitigated disaster in the eyes of the NRL?  

Amongst the ruins of the elimination final, the Roosters headed into Mad Monday having been involved in the sporting equivalent of it on Sunday afternoon. The Bunnies, on the other hand, live to fight another day. For now, they can pack away any thoughts of drowning their sorrows in some inner-city pub- to the victor goes the spoils.

MORE: Sin bins headline frenetic elimination final | NRL admits it’s ‘concerned’ about penalties 

Nothing about the game between the two arch rivals made sense though, as a blur of concussions, cheap-shots, scuffles and bickering was punctuated by the odd backline shift or jink of the hips to slice open a defensive line and register four points.

The scoreboard was even recalcitrant, as it failed to abide by common sense. Souths were reduced to 11 men, but somehow put points on the Roosters. Then, Trent Robinson’s troops produced a sucker punch of similar ilk themselves.

In a game that was almost anti-logic, the winners still advance to week two of the finals, while the losers will be at home tending to their wounds.

For his part in the drama, referee Ashley Klein may be given a week off to recover – such was his proclivity to raise both hands and banish a player to the bin. He may be suffering from a severe case of tennis elbow this week.

The sin bin figure in the end was a record-breaking seven. It easily could have been more, according to head of football Graham Annesley. He said the Bunker simply missed their mark in the early rounds of the heavyweight clash.

Tom Burgess should count himself lucky he wasn’t sin-binned for his high tackle on James Tedesco, who had already clocked over 100 running metres after barely a quarter of the match had been played.

MORE: Tom Burgess and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves receive bans following fiery clash

“Clearly, it was a lack of discipline by the players,” Annesley said, when asked to sum up how the game developed into such a slugfest.

Tedesco’s departure marked the turning point, as before that the Roosters were winning the collision and eating territory with the kind of appetite the Bunnies just didn’t possess.

This was eventually reversed and Souths somehow went into the interval with a 12-8 lead. They pressed home this advantage in the second half, with the Roosters hindered by injury – Angus Crichton and Daniel Tupou didn’t return to the field – and ill-discipline.

“Our objective is to keep everyone on the field, but that’s not in the hands of the match officials,” Annesley said.

“That’s in the hands of the players and how they approach the game.

“We saw a whole range of incidents that took place where the players frankly took those decisions out of the hands of the referees and the Bunker.

“It was a very intense and physical game with a lot of emotion in it – all of that is fine – but players know where that line in the sand is about compliance with the rules and what’s accepted. On multiple occasions, they crossed that line.”

Unsurprisingly, Victor Radley was the first one deemed to have overstepped the mark when he hurled himself into a confrontation with Taane Milne after a few minutes. The lock treading in the footsteps of Jared Waerea-Hargreaves against Melbourne, where he became their perceived protector.

As the No.13 made his customary walk to the sheds, the clash was already beginning to become moulded more into the image of a game of hockey.

Radley got put on ice for instigating, as power plays became a theme of the afternoon. Although, neither team could really make use of their numerical advantage they had at various stages.

MORE: ‘The tone was set’: Trent Robinson questions first Radley sin bin

“It’s not necessarily what we want to see in our game,” Annesley reasoned.

“The game has worked very hard over a long period of time to eliminate foul play. Now, most incidents are nothing more than accidents. But the players overstepped the mark.

“These incidents that took place unfortunately marred the spectacle and brought the referees into the game where there was no need for the referees to be brought into it.”

A question can be asked about why Klein didn’t once pause the action and speak to the captains in an effort to broker peace. But by the third sin bin in the first half, the game had already gone beyond this. 

At times, it felt like the officials would outnumber the players on the field, such was the frequency of their dismissals in a bruising contest.

The conveyor belt of players sent down the tunnel continued to churn, while the calm heads of Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker prevailed.

“I commend them for staying the course,” Annesley said, when discussing the performance of the officials.

“We’ve worked very hard too on consistency with the referees and they know what’s acceptable and what’s not.

“So, when they’re confronted with those circumstances, they’ve also got a responsibility to act.

“I don’t think they lost control. I think they were the only ones, in some cases, who maintained control.”

It was hard to argue with too many of the decisions, but Tevita Tatola was perhaps unlucky to be sent to the bin for placing his palm into the face of an opponent.

In any other game it would have been a nothing moment, but in this one where every little action meant something, the sight of Radley coming charging in was no great shock. The escalation led to both men being sat on the sidelines in the closing stages.

“Had they not taken that action, we could have seen a more serious situation develop in the game,” Annesley said in relation to any and all of the decisions on sin-binned players.

Robinson got irritated post-match at suggestions of players staying down to milk penalties, yet Annesley didn’t exactly agree with this stance when he defended the number of times the Bunker intervened, while citing how the game should be viewed in isolation.

“I think yesterday is not a good example of what we’ve seen throughout the year,” Annesley declared.

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