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Forget the refs; let's celebrate the footy

One of the greatest weekends of finals footy has come to an end, but instead of focussing on the unscriptable finishes and the stunning upsets, people have turned their attention solely on the officials and the Bunker.

Why? Because it's the easy way out for coaches and fans of a beaten team while it's a guaranteed way for the media to ensure people buy their paper or click on their website.

We're all guilty of it – NRL.com ran stories from Cronulla's and Manly's post-match media conferences about controversial rulings – but we've got our priorities wrong.

Three games were decided by two points or less – the tightest start to a finals series since 2015 when the four matches were decided by 1, 2, 4 and 16 points – with countless talking points coming out of all four clashes.

Forget the referees; here's what we should be celebrating after an unforgettable start to the 2017 NRL Telstra Premiership Finals series.

Latrell comes of age

He was hooked when the Roosters took on the Broncos in Round 6 and spent the next few weeks in reserve grade, but on Friday night boom centre Latrell Mitchell showed how far he's come with the match-winner against Brisbane as he fittingly fended away James Roberts to score late in the game. It's easy to forget the Roosters speedster is still only 20-years-old and in his second season in the top grade. Forget the Greg Inglis comparisons; Mitchell is going to be a freak in his own right.

Smith doesn't show his age

Another week, another milestone for Cameron Smith, who broke Darren Lockyer's record for most games played in the NRL. It's an incredible achievement made even more remarkable for the fact he's done it all in AFL heartland. The Storm always lift for milestone matches and despite a couple of scares from the Eels, they held on to celebrate their skipper's record-breaking afternoon in style.

The Bryce is right

It's been a difficult year on and off the field for Bryce Cartwright, but the highly-touted utility showed he is going to be Penrith's X-factor in the playoffs with a couple of tries – his first of the season – plus a crucial try assist that broke the deadlock against Manly. His attacking stats have been down this year but there were signs on Saturday night that he's returning to his best as he provided a point of difference for a Panthers side that had every excuse to fold without their skipper Matt Moylan.

JT lifts the Cowboys

It's a headline we're used to seeing every time the Cowboys get over the line, but this time Johnathan Thurston had nothing to do with it as Jason Taumalolo put in another colossal effort to confirm he's North Queensland's most important player. The one-man wrecking ball ran for 259 metres (more than any other player this week), made eight tackle breaks, made 37 tackles from as many attempts and crashed over for a try that mere mortals aren't supposed to score. As long as he's on the park the Cowboys remain a chance; just think how good they'd be if the other JT and Matt Scott were there.

Unsung heroes right on tune

He's the glue that holds together a star-studded representative pack and on Friday night Roosters forward Isaac Liu received the kudos he deserves with a stunning opening stint that put his team on the front foot. Liu ran for 122 metres in the opening 20 minutes, broke the Broncos' line twice with his late footwork and was involved in Mitchell's winning try. Meanwhile, Moses Leota had arguably his best game in first grade. His numbers don't look like much – 67 metres and 10 tackles off the bench – but his 17-minute stint was elite and seemed to reenergise his Panthers teammates.

Cleary kicks Manly into submission

Most 19-year-olds spend their Saturday nights in spring debating which cask wine is the best value. Not Nathan Cleary. Not for the first time, the Panthers halfback played well above his age and dominated his more experienced rivals to guide Penrith to a shock win over Manly. Cleary kicked for a whopping 646 metres – 210 more than his nearest rival – while running for 112 metres and slotting five clutch goals to confirm his status as the best youngster in the game right now. The scariest thing is that no one was really surprised to see him play so coolly under pressure.

Eels lose no admirers

Given next to no hope of causing an upset down in Melbourne, the Eels showed why they earned a top-four finish with a typically ferocious 80-minute effort against the minor premiers. Will Smith was outstanding at the back and will leave his coach with a few headaches on Tuesday when he has to decide what to do with the returning Bevan French. Parramatta's forwards took it to Melbourne's middles while Mitch Moses continued to impress in attack. The blue and gold army came out in force in 2009 so don't be shocked to see 50,000 fans at ANZ Stadium as the Eels seek revenge for the 2005 preliminary final loss to the Cowboys.

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