There was excitement aplenty in the NRL at the weekend with the season's first draw between Penrith and the Broncos after overtime, the second-biggest comeback in NRL history as Souths sneaked a one-point win over North Queensland and a packed-out thriller on the Gold Coast.
New Zealand-eligible players were prominent in a number of games and several are putting together the sort of consistent performances that will earn them a place in the World Cup squad in October.
Among those were Souths prop and captain Roy Asotasi and hooker Isaac Luke, whose late sideline conversion levelled scores before the Rabbitohs won 29-28, Frank Pritchard who was a standout against the Broncos, Greg Eastwood for the Brisbane side, Roosters' Setiamata Sa and wings Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Sam Perrett, Dragons wing Jason Nightingale and five-eighth Rangi Chase, Manly's Steve Matai and the Eels' Nathan Cayless.
Cayless led the Eels to a 24-22 victory over Melbourne at Parramatta yesterday. Storm were weakened with players on State of Origin duty.
The Bulldogs and North Queensland have more than just defeat at the weekend to worry about, both sides losing further players to injury.
The Dogs have nine out now and while Sonny Bill Williams made a big impact on return in the 24-12 loss to the Roosters, Michael Sullivan (hamstring), Heka Nanai (concussion) and Jarrod Hickey (corked thigh) are doubtful for their game against the Rabbitohs next Monday. The Bulldogs scored early through wing Hazem El Masri from a Williams off-load but were run down in the second spell.
There is concern for the NRL in the low crowd figures for the Sydney games, just 9271 turning out at the Sydney Football Stadium and only 9963 watching the Broncos draw 12-all at Penrith.
The Cowboys have lost prop Carl Webb with a broken ankle after their last-gasp fall to the Rabbitohs in Townsville. The home side led 12-4 at the break and 28-4 in the 49th minute after opening the second half with three quick tries. But then Souths scored through wing Fetuli Talanoa, centre Jamie Simpson and five-eighth Craig Wing who was returning after shoulder injury suffered in round one. Luke Capewell scored in the 74th minute and Isaac Luke goaled for 28-all. Souths new halfback Chris Sandow showed off his yellow boots with the winning field-goal and looks to have finally settled their problems at number seven. It was Souths third win on the trot.
It is the Cowboys who hold the record for biggest NRL comeback, 26-0 down at halftime against Penrith before winning 36-28 in round 12, 1998.
The Dragons scored their sixth win in a row 26-22 in a see-sawing battle before 26,463 at Skilled Stadium on the Gold Coast on Saturday.
The Titans missed Origin players Scott Prince, Anthony Laffranchi and Ashley Harrison and co-captain Luke Bailey but appeared to have it won when Mat Rogers scored from an intercept mid-second half. But the Dragons notched two late tries from bombs and Jamie Soward kicked five-from-five.
A crowd of 13,798 were at John Singleton's Bluetongue Stadium at Gosford to watch Manly overrun an Origin-depleted Newcastle side 28-12. It was 10-8 to the Eagles at halftime but without captain Danny Buderus, big prop Ben Cross and playmaker Kurt Gidley, they were run down in the second half.
Prop Brent Kite is on report for a high shot on Newcastle half Jarrod Mullen and lock Luke Williamson has a suspected fractured cheekbone.
In the Gosford game as at Penrith, the rookie replacements for the Origin or injured players fell to fatigue late in both halves and either allowed points in or failed to nail their own opportunities. The Panthers replaced usual fullback Rhys Wesser with 18-year-old Lachlan Coote, who showed great promise but missed two penalty attempts and two field goal shots in extra time.
The NRL has already responded to the obvious fall-off in crowd figures around Origin time by stating that the byes in 2009 will be scheduled before the interstate games instead of after them, so the bulk of the players involved will not miss any club games.
- ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY NZPA