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While it may be all over for the Newcastle Knights and Brisbane Broncos in 2003, six teams still remain in the hunt for the Telstra Premiership. After the weekend began with two upsets, it ended with both the Knights and the Broncos licking their wounds and lamenting their failure to overcome second half season obstacles. For the Knights the loss of skipper Andrew Johns with a neck injury with a handful of rounds to play, all but sealed their fate. While for the Broncos the drain of the representative season and mid-term injuries to Darren Lockyer and Gorden Tallis ruined a brilliant first half of the year. An old footy clich? is ?injuries are part of the game?, but the stark reality is they ARE the main reason teams fail to live up to expectations season in, season out. Just consider the injury toll for both sides (during the season) featured names such as: Johns, Lockyer, Tallis, Kennedy, O?Davis, MacDougall, Tate, Ikin, Parsons, Simpson etc. No side in this salary cap age can possibly have the depth to cover such significant player loss, and injuries are the main reason both sides finished at the foot of the Top 8.
For the Knights, traveling to Aussie Stadium to take on the battle tested Sydney Roosters was always going to be a tall order, and after barely a quarter of the game was played the Knights trailed 22-2. Despite losing only once since Johns went down, Newcastle was simply no match for the far more physical and dynamic Roosters. With Brad Fittler far more involved than expected, the Roosters outclassed a Newcastle team that just couldn?t lift their game to the next level without Johns at the helm. The effort and desire was there, but Joey wasn?t and it was a telling difference. The Knights however can take heart in their second half display, holding the Roosters to a 6-all score line while dominating possession and field position. Again, without Johns, making up the 28-point halftime deficit was never on the cards.
A wild and windy Sunday afternoon greeted the Broncos at Penrith Stadium, as the Minor Premiers looked to coast into an automatic preliminary final birth. But as predicted by many, the Broncos refused to die wondering, and a combination of tenacity and effort paid off early. Brisbane led 18-4 after 39 minutes and despite a massive gale behind their backs, the difference between the two sides was not the wind but Brisbane?s superior work ethic. However, as one Channel Nine sideline eye labeled it ?the 18 point wind?, Brisbane?s demise came not from the change of ends but the lack of winning confidence only seen in sides who have tasted victory barely once in the past three months. The wind didn?t turn the game for the Panthers, the change in their urgency level did. When interchange prop Ben Ross bumped off Carl Webb a minute before halftime to crash over the line from close range, the Panthers visibly clicked into gear. For the Broncos, Webb?s inability to finish the tackle suggested they had clocked off one minute too early. In the end, that try swung the game in the Mountain Men?s favour and from there Craig Gower, Preston Campbell and particularly a resurgent Ryan Girdler pounced on every opportunity the Broncos offered. Brisbane showed that hard work can ensure a competitive performance but Penrith proved that a winning confidence can trump a team to victory if given even the slightest of chances. The Brisbane performance however suggests one thing; Wayne Bennett?s teams always come ready to play. Confidence separated the Panthers from the Broncos yesterday, not a possibly ?used up? coach as suggested in some circles.
Momentum is the key to a strong finals campaign and that was undoubtedly highlighted in Week One of the Telstra Premiership Finals Series, when every victor clearly outplayed sides that had interrupted passages to the semis in the final weeks of the season.
For Brisbane and Newcastle, 2004 shapes up as a year they hope brings better fortune at the back end of the season. For six other sides, 2003 still could hold that elusive premiership.