League: Eagles and Storm ones to back

By Peter Jessup

The top four cemented their playoff places with victories at the weekend with the 2007 grandfinalists, the Eagles and Storm, again looking the real title contenders, the Roosters and Sharks showing some fragility.

Below them, the Broncos stay in touch in fifth. They will be heavily focused on winning and so retaining their chance to push above the Sharks to earn a home game in the first weekend of the finals series when they play in Auckland next Saturday.

The Dragons, Panthers, Raiders, Titans and Warriors who were locked in a two-point spread prior to round 21 all lost and stay there, and tonight they will be joined by either the Knights or Eels who square off in Newcastle.

The Eagles host Melbourne next Friday in the game of the round, though boom wing Israel Folau who notched two tries against the Gold Coast may not play after suffering rib injury.

The Raiders play Penrith next Sunday and the Titans host the Knights on Monday in matches that have big significance for the Warriors' hopes.

While the competition focus was on that middle section of the table at the weekend, it seemed player focus was unswervingly on what was going to happen in the Sonny Bill Williams saga and what changes the case might bring to the NRL, primarily in terms of pay increases that would halt the exodus to the UK and France.

The game's new superstar, Storm five-eighth Greg Inglis, whose manager has opened preliminary negotiations with the club regarding an extension to his existing contract which runs to 2010, said he'll be waiting to see what offers he gets.

"I'm not going to sign," Inglis said. "I'm just going to see what they bring to the table, have a look around, definitely keep my options open." The Tigers' Kiwi halfback Benji Marshall who played rugby to age 16 is said to be a target of French rugby clubs.

Dragons half Rangi Chase, who was a Kiwis prospect, is the latest young player to quit the NRL, signing a two-year deal with Castleford from 2009. Souths veteran Dean Widders has also signed to go to the Tigers next year.

The Sonny Bill Williams-less Bulldogs were yesterday beaten 56-4 by Wests Tigers at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney and the Broncos beat Canberra 34-6 in Brisbane.

New Blues Origin halfback Mitchell Pearce, son of Wayne, scored his first career hat-trick as the Roosters handed North Queensland their 13th straight loss in Townsville on Saturday, the losing streak just one short of the longest on record, held by Wests in their last two years as a stand-alone club in 1998 and 1999.

The Roosters ran away 32-20 winners after a home crowd of 14,061 had lifted the Cowboys to a 20-10 lead at the break. The turning point came when Cowboys second rower Luke O'Donnell, returning from a seven-week suspension, was penalised for walking off the mark in the play-the-ball inside the Roosters red zone. They took the turnover and went 90 metres for Pearce's third try.

Roosters coach Brad Fittler agreed Townsville was always a tough place to get a win but was not pleased with the effort and attitude. "These are tough conditions up here. It was hot and North Queensland played some pretty good footy. But the other team looked a little bit more willing than we did, it was a bit disappointing from the point of view that I thought we had more to play for."

The Sharks scraped home 13-12 over the Dragons, with halfback Brett Kimmorley scoring the levelling try and nailing a field goal at 78 minutes to turn around a 12-0 deficit in front of the weekend's biggest crowd of 18,256 at Cronulla.

The Storm scored nine tries in a 44-4 win over the injury-depleted Titans.

Rookie Kiwi wing Jordan Rapana continues to impress, not scared to back himself in aerial clashes against Billy Slater.

The Eagles were 22-6 up at halftime over a muddled Panthers side missing Kiwi second rower Frank Pritchard through shoulder trouble. Their halfback Matt Orford handed the goal-kicking to Kiwi centre Steve Matai and left mid-second half with a groin injury. If he can't play next Friday, Manly will be without both their halves as five-eighth Jamie Lyon is not yet over a knee tear.

- NZ Herald

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