Monday Morning Halfback: Finals Weeks 1

A new attendance record was set across the first week of the NRL Telstra Premiership Finals with 131,794 fans cheering on their teams across four matches, an average of 32,949 fans per game.

The weekend was on track for the lowest ever average winning margin for the opening round of finals matches after the first three games all ended in cliff-hangers. The Storm upset the Roosters by two points, the Bulldogs edged the Dragons by one in golden point, while the Broncos were just good enough to beat the Cowboys by four in a gripping Queensland derby. 

But the Sharks were too good for the Rabbitohs, running out 16-point victors and pushing out the weekend's average winning margin from 2.3 for the first three games to 5.75 across the first week of the finals. According to NRL statistician David Middleton, the record from 1996 still stands at 4.25.

The importance of goal kicking

The the first two finals showed how important goal kicking can be. Melbourne's Cameron Smith was magical with the boot, converting all his chances from the sideline, while his Roosters counterpart James Maloney narrowly missed by hitting the upright. In the end goal kicking was the only difference between the sides, helping Melbourne to a home preliminary final and forcing the Roosters to qualify for the grand final the tough way by going through Cronulla and then a preliminary final against the Broncos in Brisbane.

Dragons five-eighth Gareth Widdop twice hit clutch goals from tough positions to send the elimination final against the Bulldogs into extra time, while a lackadaisical conversion attempt from Bulldogs have Moses Mybe two minutes from time from almost in front could have come back to bite the Bulldogs hard when it looked like they had won the game. 

Widdop shows cruelty of sport; Graham shows its true worth

As Widdop slumped to the ground following Josh Reynolds' match winning field goal, the teary-eyed 26-year-old was consoled by opposite skipper and England teammate James Graham.

Widdop twice kept his side in the game with clutch conversions, but will ultimately rue an all-or-nothing play in golden point when he attempted a 40/20. The kick sprayed out on the full giving the Bulldogs the field position to ice the game, which they did. It was cruel, given all Widdop had done to keep his team in the contest despite carrying an injury.

While Bulldogs players celebrated a dramatic victory, their skipper James Graham made a beeline for Widdop to console his English compatriot. It was shades of the iconic image of Andrew Flintoff and Brett Lee at the end of the famous 2005 Ashes series.

"Gareth's a big-game player and someone who has got us to where we are. And he'll continue to do that. He hadn't trained for two weeks, he's done minimal work this week because he was in a hospital bed seven days ago," Dragond coach Paul McGregor said. 

"He goes out there under clutch situations and comes up with the right game management. To nail a conversion from the sideline and again just before extra time shows he's a world class player. 

"He's in the elite class and I'm glad to have him in my team."

Dragons prove their mettle

There are not enough sporting adjectives to describe St George Illawarra's performance against the Bulldogs in their loss to the Dogs. Terms like "gutsy" and "heroic" are common hyperbole at this time of year, but in a sporting context the Dragons were all that and more. They took the Bulldogs into the deep water and almost pulled out a famous victory despite losing Benji Marshall and Joel Thompson and having Widdop virtually playing on one leg. The Dragons simply refused to yield. It was unbelievable determination. They proved without a shadow of a doubt that they deserved their top-eight spot. Well done to the Dragons and coach Paul McGregor, who proved a lot of doubters wrong despite their heartbreaking loss.

Rabbitohs fail to get out of gates

South Sydney's title defence is over after a 28-12 loss to Cronulla, proving once again that it is near impossible to win back-to-back premierships in the modern era. But the nature of their exit was not great viewing for Rabbitohs fans. In their last four games this year the Rabbitohs conceded consecutive leads of 22 points or more, losing to the Bulldogs 22-0 (Round 24), Broncos 22-0 (Round 25), Roosters 30-0 (Round 26) and Sharks 28-0 (Elimination Final).

Sydney's footy free finals

As a sport looking to grow, it is a great thing that the two preliminary finals this year will be played to packed houses outside of Sydney. A capacity Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane and an equally full AAMI Park in Melbourne next weekend will be a great advertisement for the game. Both teams deserve to have their home ground advantage and let their fans enjoy being within touching distance of a grand final. Good luck to the teams who travel interstate in a week's time to face the hosts.

Young Cowboy continues to shine

We've spoken about Cowboys winger Gideon Mosby in this column previously and he has set a try-scoring record that may never be beaten, scoring four tries in his side's 36-24 win over the Broncos' in their Holden Cup Qualifying Final on Saturday evening.

The first player to score more than 30 tries in a season in the National Youth Competition, Mosby's quartet of four-pointers against Brisbane took his tally for the year to 38, an astonishing 10 more than Ben Barba scored in the inaugural under-20s competition in 2008.

Queensland Cup tryfest

The Townsville Blackhawks are through to the Intrust Super Cup grand final in their inaugural season thanks to a four-try feast from Zac Santo in their 26-12 win over the PNG Hunters at a raucous Jack Manski Oval on Saturday.

Amazingly, that feat was beaten just a day later by the Ipswich Jets' Matt Parcell who scored five tries in their 44-18 win over East Tigers on Sunday. The Manly Sea Eagles' new recruit set a finals record and will lead his team against PNG for a place in the final. 

Who's in line for the Kiwis halves?

Benji Marshall's hopes of a recall to the New Zealand Test team may be in jeopardy after suffering an ankle injury in St George Illawarra's heartbreaking 11-10 elimination final defeat.

The star halfback fell awkwardly in a 50th-minute tackle by Canterbury lock Greg Eastwood on Saturday night.

Initially Marshall said "it's broken, I'm gone" before attempting valiantly to run the injury off to no avail. 

Marshall hasn't played for New Zealand for three years but was well placed to get back into the squad after Golden Boot winner Shaun Johnson suffered a season-ending ankle injury and his Warriors teammate Thomas Leuluai ruptured knee ligaments. It now looks likely that Kieran Foran and Warriors rookie sensation Tui Lolohea will be the Kiwis' starting halves. 

This article first appeared on NRL.com