Second preliminary semi-final: NEWCASTLE 18 MELBOURNE 16 at AAMI Park

By STEVE MASCORD

DESPITE a stirring rear-guard action in front of a rabid, deafening AAMI Park crowd, Melbourne Storm’s premiership defence is over.

Under master coach Wayne Bennett, the unheralded Newcastle Knights rode into town and raced to an 18-4 lead just after halftime before Cameron Smith’s men attempted to run them down.

But at the end of the season which has seen their fortunes fluctuate, the Knights had the composure to hang on for their first win in Melbourne since 2004.

’The Storm found themselves 18-4 down with 33 minutes left in the second preliminary semi-final, with the majority of the 19,649 crowd trying to roar them back into the contest.

And they had some success, Cooper Cronk chipping ahead, regathering and passing to Kenny Bromwich, who in turn punched the Steeden onto winger Sisa Waqa.

Waqa, who had made a costly earlier error, raced over for his side’s second try, which Cameron Smith converted.

The second half had barely been underway when Newcastle took a lead which, in less high standard and frenetic games, would have been match winning.

Storm fullback Billy Slater dropped a bomb after trying to take it above his head, AFL style, with second rower Chris Houston racing through to score.

Video referees Steve Clark and Luke Patten checked that Slater had not been illegally interfered with after his initial error and the try was given, converted by Tyrone Roberts.

Melbourne held a 12-4 advantage at the end of a first half played at breakneck speed, with a couple of flare-ups inciting a vocal crowd.

The Knights gave early notice that they meant business when Kevin Naiqama, a late inclusion for James McManus who has a stress fracture in a lower leg, made a searching break before being hauled down less than 20 metres out.

Newcastle was sending wave after wave of attack at the Storm line and only a dummy-half fumble prevented them from ramming home an earlier territorial advantage.

Cronk kicked for Slater, who tapped the ball down to Kevin Proctor at the 22-minutes mark, with Novocastrian Jeremy Smith somehow managing to hold up his fellow Kiwi back rower.

But after Naiqama expertly defused a bomb, fellow Knights winger Akuila Uate managed to open the scoring.

The Knights appealed for a shoulder charge ruling against Slater as Uate crossed in the southwestern corner but there was no joy. Thankfully for Newcastle, replays showed the Fijian crossing cleanly and Tyrone Roberts converted for 6-0.

Newcastle’s Chris Houston fumbled from the ensuing kick-off but the world champions were initially held out.

However, a 26th-minute tackle by Alex McKinnon and Darius Boyd on Slater changed the course of the first half. McKinnon came in second and appeared to make contact with Slater’s head.

“I’ve seen that, there’s contact with the head and it’s been confirmed,” said referee Gerard Sutton. Within seconds of the penalty, Melbourne centre Maurice Blair sliced through to score from clos0e range.

But captain Cameron Smith was unable to convert and when McKinnon was involved in a head clash with Jordan McLean in the 33rd minute, tempers flaired.

Knights Joey Leiula rushed in and received a caution, while Smith said the referees: “I accept it was a head clash but isn’t that why we’ve got the (shoulder charge) rule? Richie Fa’aoso got six weeks for that at the start of the year.”

The referees didn’t see it Smith’s way, ordering a turnover for a lost McLean ball. The rookie was diagnosed with a broken jaw and didn’t return.

And with two minutes to go in the first stanza, the Knights added to their total with Chris Houston crossing after Sisa Waqa fumbled Tyrone Roberts’. Roberts converted from out wide.

NEWCASTLE 18 (M Hilder C Houston A Uate tries T Roberts 3 goals) bt MELBOURNE 16 (M Blair J Bromwich S Waqa tries C Smith 2 goals) at AAMI Park. Referees: G Sutton/B Cummins. Crowd: 19,649.

Filed for: THE AGE

Players Deliberately Obscuring Would-be Tries, Says Waqa

Melbourne - Sisa WaqaBy STEVE MASCORD

NRL players are exploiting a loophole in the current video refereeing procedure by deliberately obscuring would-be tries from television cameras, according to Melbourne winger Sisa Waqa.

The Fijian international had a crucial no-try call go against him in last Friday’s qualifying final, before a sickening fall after an aerial collision ended his evening prematurely.

“I got the ball down, I definitely scored the try,” Waqa tells Fairfax Media. “As soon as I got the ball, I went straight to the ground.

“But they said it was no try and when they went upstairs, they couldn’t see so unfortunately they didn’t give it to me.”
As was the case for a Steve Matai “try” in round 23, the on-field official ruled “no try” because he couldn’t see the ball on the ground – and the eyes in the sky disallowed it for the same reason.

Because the benefit of the doubt rule does not apply in the same way it did until this year, players can simply position their bodies between the ball and the television camera and it will be impossible for an on-field decision to be overturned.

“Everyone does that,” says Waqa. “I grounded the ball but the defenders get around it and block the view so they can’t get a good look at it on the ground.

“It’s a tough one. I don’t blame them. I would do the same thing in that situation.”

Waqa wasn’t sure of a solution to the trick. “They used to have benefit of the doubt but I think they changed that so that it was more clear-cut, the referee on the field said what he thought,” he added.

The ploy by defenders, usually in the case of attackers chasing kicks, puts the onus on the on-field official to almost guess whether the ball was grounded safely. If he guesses wrong, inconclusive video evidence means his colleagues in the grandstand cannot correct the decision.

Waqa, meanwhile, is gearing up to take on a good friend in his 50th first grade appearance – Newcastle flier Akuila Uate.

“He is on my side of the field. We are good mates,” said Waqa. “We spoke only last week. I played with his brother, Pana, in school. He was a very good player.”

Waqa has one appearance for the Fiji Bati to his name and hopes to add to that tally at the World Cup. He says Uate believes he can also play for his homeland, despite changing his country of election to Australia since the 2008 tournament.

“Aku can play for Fiji, yes,” said Waqa. “He is going to wait and see if he makes the Australian side and if he doesn’t, he will try to play for Fiji.

“I’d like to go to the World Cup but I have to get through the season with the Storm injury-free first.”

He’s confident the Storm will bounce back from last week’s defeat on Saturday at AAMI Park. “Souths didn’t beat us, we gave that game away,” he said.

Filed for: THE AGE

End Of The Road For Ryles Or Buderus

Jason Ryles/wikipedia
Jason Ryles/wikipedia

By STEVE MASCORD

FORMER Test and Origin team-mates Jason Ryles and Danny Buderus admit the threat of football oblivion hangs heavily over them going into the second preliminary semi-final at AAMI Park.

One of the pair will walk off late Saturday with his NRL career over following the sudden death clash. Another retiring star whose career dates back to the Super League War, Storm five-eighth Brett Finch, has been declared fit but may not play.

“I was training out there today, thinking it could be my last session,” Buderus, 35, told reporters on match eve.

“But I don’t want to think that way. I’m just very happy to be part of September. It’s a bit of a bonus.”

The hands of time are also moving for Knights veterans Willie Mason and Craig Gower. Utility Gower did not make the trip south after having neck surgery only two weeks ago, while Mason will clock up 250 games. Both plan to play on, however.

“You never know now. It’s sudden death. The Knights are a quality team and if we’re not on our game then it could well be our last game,” said Ryles, 34.

“It’s always in the back of your mind.

“I’ve been thinking of it since my early 20s because you never know when it’s going to end. I’ve been lucky to do something I haven’t called a job, personally.

“It’s something I would have done every week, even if I did have a real job.”

Having missed the 2012 grand final through injury, that spectre is every bit as menacing as retirement for Ryles, who played 12 Tests for Australia

“That’s footy and part of footy is you get injuries and the timing of the injuries is not always ideal,” he said.

Storm head trainer Tony Ayoub told Fairfax Media that Finch, who has battled shoulder and sternum injuries for the past fortnight, had done everything asked of him this week and was available for selection.

But England international Widdop, who last week returned from a dislocated hip, is regarded as favourite to take on the Knights.

Ryles said: “They’ve both trained. They’ve both swapped in and trained with the first team.

“Gaz brings the youth and he’s won a premiership last year. Finchy’s got a lot of experience and he adds another dimension to the team.”

Melbourne are shooting for an eighth consecutive win over Newcastle, who have not made it as far as week three of the finals for 12 years. The Storm have only lost nine of 49 games at AAMI Park.

Buderus, however, spoke glowingly about the input of veteran coach Wayne Bennett to the club’s finals campaign.

“Wayne’s been great in September,” Buderus said. “He’s a completely different coach this time of year. He’s been building towards this. For 18 months he’s been in Newcastle now, instilling a bit of faith and routine into this group. He’s getting the fruits of that now.

“He loves the game, loves the challenge and the competition. We’re feeding off that. He’s our leader and he’s Wayne Bennett, he’s won a lot of premierships. He knows what he’s doing.

“Last year wasn’t a good year for us and it got built up that it probably wasn’t going to be a good year and we fell a bit flat.”

Buderus dismissed suggestions of enmity arising from the last clash between the clubs, after which Bennett accused the Storm of deliberately conceding penalties when under pressure.

“They’re just the ultimate competitors and they just play the game at a level we want to get to,” he said. “I think every team aspires to get as competitive as Melbourne.”

Ryles described his opponents as “battle-hardened footballers”.

Filed for: THE AGE

Storm Laments Poor Start Not Disallowed Tries

Melbourne - Cameron SmithBy STEVE MASCORD

THERE were two disallowed tries about which he could have complained loudly, but Melbourne Storm captain Cameron Smith instead applied the blowtorch to himself and his charges.

The Storm’s premiership defence is hanging by a thread after their 20-10 qualifying final loss to South Sydney at ANZ Stadium on Friday. The world champions’ cause wasn’t helped by would-be tries to winger Sisa Waqa (32 minutes) and fullback Billy Slater (64) being chalked off by the video referees.

And Waqa was hospitalised with injuries to discs in his back after a spectacular aerial collision with opposite number Dylan Farrell late in the match.

“We need to make a decision, as a team, where we want to go now for the rest of this season,’ said disconsolate hooker Smith.

“It’s really in our hands, what we want to do with it. We’ve got three games to go – or three possible games – but we’ve got to turn it around quick from that performance tonight.

“To me, it just comes back to individuals and how much importance they place on the ball when they’ve got it in their hands.

“For some reason, it’s been a trend for us at the back end of the year. We can’t hold onto the footy, we invite the opposition down to our own end and we’re putting pressure on ourselves.

“It’s frustrating, it’s really frustrating. I can’t remember the last time we scored first. It wouldn’t have been many times out of the last dozen matches.

“To get on that tryline in the first 10 minutes and talk to the boys, it’s just the same old thing.”

It was a stark assessment for a team which has dominated the NRL for long periods over the last decade.

Coach Craig Bellamy added: “Our mental toughness, I’ve got no doubt we’ve got enough of that. It’s whether we’ve got the respect for the footy at the start of games. That’s the question.

“That’s been a real disappointing part of our game. I think we completed one of our first five tonight, or two of our first six – some ridiculous amount.”

The Waqa try was disallowed because of inconclusive video evidence after on-field referee Shayne Hayne said ‘no try’, while Will Chambers was found to have stopped Souths’ Nathan Merritt catching Cooper Cronk’s bomb when Slater claimed what would have been his second four-pointer.

“The first one … it was probably a fair ruling in that there wasn’t any conclusive evidence to overturn the referee’s decision,” said Bellamy.

“Som times I don’t think the referee can get a real good view of it either, so why should you make a decision on no try, or try, if you don’t really see it?

“Shane might have seen something there but five (camera) angles couldn’t tell.

“The other try was a real tough call against us, to be quite honest. He said Will took Merritt out. At the same time (Bryson) Goodwin was escorting Will, who knocked him off balance. Will didn’t have a proper shot at the ball because of the escort.”

Smith said Slater claim was “a fair try … I thought it was a fair contest”.

Bellamy said that while Farrell meant no harm in the collision with Waqa, “he tackled him early, before he had the ball. Sisa was going up, he knocked him off balance before he even had the ball.

“That’s the reason why it was so ugly.”

On the use of five-eighth Gareth Widdop, in what was his first game back from a dislocated hip, Bellamy explained: “Finchy (Brett Finch, shoulder and sternum) wasn’t fit to play.

“It’s a bit more serious than what they first thought.”

While Widdop was somewhat tentative on Friday, he is expected to benefit from the run when Melbourne plays Canterbury or Newcastle on Saturday night at AAMI Park.

Filed for: THE AGE

Second qualifying final: SOUTH SYDNEY 20 MELBOURNE 10 at ANZ Stadium

By STEVE MASCORD

NRL finals will come to Melbourne next weekend after two controversial disallowed Storm tries helped South Sydney to victory on the opening night of the play-offs at ANZ Stadium.

The Storm’s 20-10 loss means they will play Canterbury or Newcastle at AAMI Park on Friday or Saturday to keep their premiership defence alive. Would-be tries to winger Sisa Waqa (32nd minute) and fullback Billy Slater (64th) cost the world champions dearly and will be pondered for days.

It was Souths’ first win over Melbourne in Sydney since 2004 and the first anywhere since 2010. The bunnies had previously won just three of their most recent 22 games against the Storm.

Michael Maguire’s men – now just 80 minutes from a grand final – led 14-0 at halftime.

Cooper Cronk bombed to the south-eastern corner and Waqa flew high to reclaim the ball, referee Shayne Hayne referring the matter upstairs but making an on-field adjudication of “no try”.

In flashing the red light video referee Bernard Sutton said there was “insufficient evidence” to overturn Hayne’s call. There would have been insufficient evidence to over-rule a “try” ruling from Hayne as well.

Earlier, Storm winger Justin O’Neill had spilt possession on his own 20 metre line, with Adam Reynolds; pass putting winger Dylan Walker over in the north-eastern corner.

Reynolds goaled for 6-0, added a 22nd-minute penalty goal and then another Storm error at the back allowed the bunnies to add to their total. Prop Jeff Lima launched himself at the line, just to the left of the posts, for a 26th minute try which Reynolds converted.

South Sydney prop Roy Asotasi was somewhat harshly reported for a crusher tackle on Jason Ryles in the 29th minute. The penalty laid the platform for the raid which Waqa looked to have converted to points, but only after Greg Inglis smashed O’Neill when he looked certain to score on the other side of the field.

As the halftime siren neared, Souths captain John Sutton missed with a field goal attempt. The Storm were handed a penalty after the bell and captain Cameron Smith missed with a difficult, long range goal attempt.

The second half was 14 minutes old before the scoreboard attendants were bothered for the first time. From a scrum win, fullback Billy Slater sliced through, although video officials Sutton and Luke Phillips were called upon to rule on whether defender Greg Inglis had been illegally obstructed.

The decision – after multiple replays – was that he had not. Hooker Smith added the extras but at5 14-6 the Rabbits still appeared in control.

There were chances which Souths frittered; Chris McQueen knocked on, Adam Reynolds passed too early.

But the real turning point of the second half came when Slater looked to have scored his second try, from a Cronk kick, in the north-eastern corner. Defender Nathan Merritt had knocked the ball into his own head before it richoceted onto the ground and was claimed, one handed, by Slater.

The on-field officials said it was a try. The video referees disagreed.

Phillips and Sutton said Storm centre Will Chambers had illegally interfered with Merritt as he attempted to take the bomb. The try was disallowed.

Within five minutes, South Sydney had extended its lead. Fullback Inglis charged onto the ball 10 metres out, running in an arc, before he found hooker Issac Luke arrowing at the tryline.

The try was awarded without the men upstairs being consulted. Reynolds goaled for 20-6.

There was a spectacular incident with nine minutes left, Waqa chasing a kick and cartwheeling when his leg came into contact with opposite number Dylan Farrell. Despite the incident appearing an accident, and the rules allowing for defenders to tackle those attacking the line in the air, Farrell was placed on report.

Centre Will Chambers’ try off Cronk’s pass, after Waqa was carted off on a medicab, narrowed the margin once more to 10 points.

Before kickoff, a sternum/shoulder injury prevented Brett Finch playing for Melbourne. Gareth Widdop, in his first NRL game back from a dislocated hip, appeared tentative at times.

SOUTH SYDNEY 20 (D Farrell J Lima I Luke tries A Reynolds 4 goals) bt MELBOURNE 10 (B Slater W Chambers tries; C Smith goal) at ANZ Stadium. Referees: S Hayne/J Maxwell. Crowd: 21,609


Filed for: THE AGE

Waqa: The Night I Crashed Back To Earth

Melbourne - Sisa WaqaBy STEVE MASCORD

MELBOURNE Storm winger Sisa Waqa has spoken for the first time about the sickening mid-air collision which saw him carried from ANZ Stadium on a medicab and wearing a neck brace on the opening night of the NRL finals.

The Fijian international landed on his head and neck after coming into contact with Dylan Farrell in the 20-10 defeat to South Sydney yet will play this Saturday night in the second preliminary semi-final against Newcastle at AAMI Park.

“When I went down, the first thing I tried to do was move my hands and move my feet – before the doctor even got to me,” the 27-year-old told Fairfax Media.

“Once I could do that, I knew I hadn’t hurt anything major.

“I went straight to the hospital and they did some x-rays and some MRIs and they found out I had no structural damage.

“After that, I came back to Melbourne with the doctor. I was stiff for a few days and they had to do some more tests to make sure I hadn’t hurt any discs.

“But I’m definitely back in this week. I feel completely normal now, thankfully. It’s an honour to be playing for this club in such a big game.”

Ex-Rooster Waqa will be making his 50th NRL appearance opposite fellow Fijian flier Akuila Uate in a match the Storm must win to keep alive their premiership defence.

Speaking to journalists at training, captain Cameron Smith denied uncertainty over his own future beyond next year was distracting the team.

“I’ve made it fairly clear and the club’s made it fairly clear that there’ve been no contract negotiations at all,” hooker Smith said.

“My focus is on playing out the season with Melbourne as best I can.

“I’ve got 12 more months down here. I don’t understand why there’s such a rush. There’s talk that other clubs, or one in particular, having this huge offer and all these other circumstances but for me … there’s no rush.”

Smith said Brett Finch, named as 18th man, was still some chance of supplanting Gareth Widdop in the Storm’s starting side.

“Everyone knew Gaz wasn’t going to be at his best last week,” he said of Widdop, who made his return on Friday from a dislocated hip.

“He’d been out 14 weeks. I think he had 60 minutes in reserve grade and we were up against the most consistent footy side in the competition.

“He’s better for the run.

“It would be great to have them both on the field … if we win, there’s still an opportunity to be back in the team in future weeks.”

Smith was asked about North Queensland’s suggestions of a Sydney conspiracy to secure a Sydney Roosters-South Sydney decider.

“I think it would be a great story for the game if the Rabbitohs were involved and the Roosters were involved,” he said. “They’re two great clubs who’ve been around for a long, long time.

“I think you’re alluding to what Johnathan Thurston was talking about. I think at the time, he was running on raw emotion. You can understand where the bloke’s coming from.

“Johnno, he’s a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve.”

Filed for: THE AGE

Waqa Set For Miracle Return

BMelbourne - Sisa Waqay STEVE MASCORD

FOUR days after being carried from ANZ Stadium on a medicab after a spectacular aerial collision, Melbourne Storm winger Sisa Waqa is to be named in the side to play Newcastle in Saturday’s sudden death finals series game.

The Fijian flanker was fitted with a neck brace after face-planting on the turf when he came into contact with South Sydney’s Dylan Farrell on Friday night.

“He’ll probably be in the side tomorrow night,” a Storm spokesman said late Monday.

“It’s pretty remarkable but he didn’t get a concussion out of the incident and he’s passed all the tests on his back and neck. Sisa looks OK.”

Farrell was controversially placed on report over the collision, which appeared to be an accident, but on Monday escaped being charged.

One man who is yet to be passed fit for Saturday night’s preliminary semi-final at AAMI Park is five-eighth Brett Finch, who has shoulder and sternum problems. Gareth Widdop, who returned from a dislocated hip in Friday night’s defeat, would almost certainly be selected ahead of Finch in any case.

“Gareth’s been part of this system for a long time and I don’t think that’s an excuse and I don’t think it contributed to the result,” halfback Cooper Cronk told reporters.

Cronk was not willing to make any predictions about how the premiers would bounce back from Friday’s defeat.

“I can sit here and tell everyone we’re OK and we’ve regrouped but the performance will tell if we have or not,” he said.

“There’s no doubt we let an opportunity slip but I’ve seen people in Formula One win a race from not being in pole position.

“This club’s success has been built on hard work and that’s what we have to do this week.

“We’re in total control of our performance and that’s the way we approach it.

“We’re aware of … (Newcastle’s) … abilities. We’ve had two close encounters over the course of this year.”

Cronk was asked about claims by North Queensland captain Johnathan Thurston of a pro-Sydney bias in the NRL.

“It’s nice to have a bit more support north of the border with Jonathan and the Cowboys,” he said.

“We thank them for that. Look, obviously they were involved in a game an emotionally disappointed two years in a row. They’re entitled to opinions but we’ve still got a place to play in these finals.

“The way we play football, we do everything we possibly can and take everything else (out of the equation).”

Filed for: THE AGE