It’s a dream end to the season for the NRL – the make-up of the top eight won’t be finalised until the last game on Sunday.
And you know who is in that one.
But while the NRL is salivating at the prospects of another nailbiting finish and the finals series to come, confirming it is doing everything right to serve up an exciting product for the fans and, of course, the sponsors, recent events have tarnished that well-earned reputation.
The NRL has a lot right in turning what could be a tough, attritional contest into a spectacle worthy of all those sponsor dollars and TV eyeballs.
It has tidied up rules to make the game faster, allowed wingers to fly and broadened its appeal beyond suburban males.
While crowds, except in Brisbane, pale compared to AFL, the made-for-TV product rates its socks off and rakes in the revenue.
Yet, creeping into the game are turn-offs that threaten to alienate fans and maybe even sponsors.
Anyone who witnessed last Saturday night’s Raiders home game against the Broncos could not have come away without mixed feelings.
For a Raiders fan, it would have been a bitter disappointment, while only the most one-eyed Broncos fan would have been completely happy to book a win based on a dubious sin-binning and such a soft penalty.
I can plead objectivity here. As a former Brisbane lad, there remains a soft spot for the Broncos, but as a Canberran of 28 years, the Raiders have been my team for a long time.
Until the referee’s unnecessary intervention, it had been an absorbing, evenly-balanced contest, with the Raiders finally performing after a run of lethargic efforts that had them fulfilling their unfortunate nickname of the Faders.
It was thrilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff, and it didn’t really matter who you supported when Reece Lightning got the ball.
But then the referee decided that Jordan Rapana’s lazy foot as he slid across in a forlorn attempt to stop Selwyn Cobbo scoring was a trip, no matter that Cobbo had zero problem touching down.
It good as killed the contest because it gave the Broncos just the space they needed to fire its backline turbochargers.
Miraculously, even then, the Raiders still had a chance to win the game. That was snuffed out when the soft escort penalty was given.
The best games are always the ones where you forget the referee is there, when you can’t really remember what the referee did.
Fans of any sport do not want to have a contest decided on such arbitrary decisions.
Too many games are now turning on sin bins, soft penalties and slo-mo reels from the Bunker that make decisions on the barest of margins.
Rugby union has suffered at the hands of the technocrats who write what aficionados insist are the laws of the game. These arcane laws in the hands of schoolmasterly referees have turned what threatened to become a spontaneous, free-flowing affair into the stop-start boreathon that has followers switching off.
Rugby league does not need this sort of nitpicking.
The sin bin should be reserved for offenders’ heinous rule-breaking, a sanction to deter actions that threaten player safety or continuous professional fouls.
The NRL, rather than being defensive, should listen to the fans and the greats of the game who want to protect the code and the contest.
If that doesn’t make any impression, it should think about the brand. Hard-won, it could easily lose its lustre if the likes of last weekend are allowed to infect the game.