After rising to the top in recent weeks, the cream of the NRL sank on the weekend as the premiership race was muddied by the emergence of several dark horses.
The competition’s top four sides – Brisbane, North Queensland, Sydney Roosters and South Sydney – put in performances that ranged from gritty to patchy to downright woeful.
Good judges had recently narrowed the title contenders to those four.
However, Cronulla and St George Illawarra proved they shouldn’t be discounted and Manly stepped an inch closer to a miracle top eight finish.
After looking so emphatic against Newcastle the week before, South Sydney were made to work for their 20-16 win over Penrith on Sunday.
Penrith shot to a 12-0 lead before the reigning premiers showed their class and set up a blockbuster clash on Friday with Manly, who are fresh off a thrashing of ladder leaders Brisbane.
“It was bit of a clunky old game for us,” South Sydney coach Michael Maguire said.
“We’re looking forward now into preparations going into the next one.
“It’s two points. Throughout the season you have some good ones and some ugly ones. Last week we had a good one that we enjoyed and obviously that one there where we had to fight.”
St George Illawarra reignited their season with a come-from-behind 46-24 thumping of Newcastle to move into the top eight.
Gareth Widdop and Benji Marshall starred for the Dragons, ruining the party for interim coach Danny Buderus in his first game in charge.
Cronulla moved into fifth spot with a gutsy 18-14 win over New Zealand that would also have many of the top teams looking over their shoulder.
Even without Andrew Fifita, who has been stood down, the Sharks forwards muscled up to the big Warriors pack while winger Valentine Holmes stamped his reputation as a star of the future with two tries.
North Queensland were forced to work their way back from an 18-0 halftime deficit to win 32-24 against Canberra.
The Raiders blew a chance to move into the top eight while the Cowboys moved to equal with Brisbane at the top of the table on 34 points.
The Broncos received a 44-14 reality check at the hands of Manly that brought their minor premiership aspirations into question.
Brisbane had their eight-game winning streak snapped while the Sea Eagles responded to news coach Geoff Toovey will be sacked at the end of the year to be one win outside the eight.
In arguably the game of the season, the Sydney Roosters killed off a Canterbury comeback to win 38-28.
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was instrumental as the Roosters shot out to a 22-0 lead before the Bulldogs clawed their way back into it only for the Roosters to surge late.
The Wests Tigers eased pressure on coach Jason Taylor with a 34-16 upset over Melbourne with fullback James Tedesco starring with two tries and two try assists.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy declared “we’ve got a problem” after his side gave up their biggest scoreline of the year and are now in danger of losing touch with the top four.
The Gold Coast host Parramatta to conclude the round on Monday night.