Finest Origin series of modern era poised for thrilling finale

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JT kicking from the sideline to send the series to a decider. Photo: ABC

Queensland’s victory in Origin two will go down as one of the finest in recent memory. After the first game of the series, all the talk was centred around why the Blues were on the verge of a series victory, and how a dynasty, built around the likes of Fifita, Tedesco and Peats, was beginning to take shape. Journalists, media personalities and former players were trotting out that old line that we’ve become accustomed to hearing over the past few years – Queensland are too old, too slow. NSW, apparently, showed enough in game one to suggest that, just like that, in barely the time it takes to blink, the dominance they’ve had over the Blues for 10 of the past 11 years was over. Finished. So much so that mass changes to the Australian squad, which is currently dominated by Queensland players, were on the horizon. There truly is nothing like a bit of mid series propaganda to light the fuse.

What made the victory even sweeter was not just the fact that Queensland had been completely written off like a bashed up Toyota Land Cruiser circa 1994 after the opening game of the series, but that Thurston – Queensland’s ageless warrior – took to the field at below 100% fitness, played with a dead arm, and still managed to emerge the better of the two halfbacks, if not by a great margin. His kicking game was, by his own standards, below par, as were large chunks of his game. But still, he managed to get the job done in the only way he knows how; through determination and a burning desire to win at all costs. That is the JT way.

Much like he did against the Broncos in the Grand Final 18 months ago, Thurston produced a clutch play under the most pressurised circumstances imaginable, on the greatest stage of all. On that occasion it was a field goal in golden point. Last Wednesday it was a conversion from the sideline to put Queensland two points ahead and seal a series levelling victory that would see his swansong come in a game with something on the line. You couldn’t have scripted it any better, other than to remove the part where scans of his injured shoulder reveal he is no chance of taking the field in the decider.

Queensland’s junior brigade of Hess, Wallace, Holmes and Glasby gave fans’ heart palpitations at times – missing tackles and coughing up the ball in the Blues’ red zone – but were solid if not reliable. Glasby was the least impressive of the four debutants, letting in two tries through defence better suited to the rough-and-tumble of park footy, and will be lucky to retain his spot for the decider. But Queensland rarely mess with a winning formula. He will return in Origin three bigger and better for the experience, but needs to lift in the decider if he wishes to put his name permanently on a Maroons jersey and stave off bids from those stepping on his heels at club level.

Gavin Cooper, on his return to the side, played a game that, on another day, would have earned him far more attention and the lion’s share of the plaudits. Josh Jackson was, quite bizarrely, named man of the match, but it was Cooper who stood out like a lollipop man on a main road for the Maroons alongside Napa and McGuire, making 47 tackles and running for 108 metres.

Many more players deserve to be praised; Slater and Gagai quite obviously the stand-outs. But it was a collective effort from the Queensland side that allowed them to claw back some ascendency and reduce the ten point deficit.

Queensland’s first half was one of the most undisciplined and error-ridden in recent history. Too often they were hauled into touch by the NSW outside backs running a short side play that showed they had little understanding of the slippery under-foot conditions. To compound this issue, they were also sloppy with the ball, losing it when an attacking opportunity was beginning to form. At this stage it looked as if they had reverted back to the Queensland side of old that was wiped out by Johns and Fittler et al. in the days preceding the hand grenade thrown by Brian Fletcher, so frustrating was the way they squandered possession and blew try-scoring opportunities.

But NSW, like clockwork, threw away what looked like a forgone conclusion at half-time in a twenty-minute period from hell. The referees have been blamed. In fact, it appears they are the sole reason for the Blues’ loss if expletive laden social media rants are anything to go by. But that should not excuse the woeful second half performances of Pearce, NSW’s no. 1 scapegoat, and Hayne in particular, who would’ve put the home side in an impregnable position had he thrown a pass to an unmarked Morris just minutes before the interval.

There were refereeing blunders that had a bearing on the contest, namely the forward pass to Thurston out of dummy-half and the block on Jarryd Hayne, but it was the selfishness of a few privileged players coupled with a flawed game-plan that did the damage. Not the whistle-blowers.

It remains to be seen whether NSW are capable of replicating their first-up performance in the decider. It’s true, Queensland are at their most vulnerable right now and the future looks as if it belongs to NSW. When Thurston, Smith and Cronk part ways with the Maroons – perhaps as early as two weeks from now – Queensland will be required to unearth players with the skill and game awareness of Maloney and Pearce, who have been there and done it all before. Those currently on Queensland’s radar – Milford, Norman and Munster – are relatively fresh on the scene and are yet to taste premiership success. Maloney and Pearce have lifted a trophy together at the Roosters. They know each other’s games like the back of their hand. Queensland simply cannot match this experience.

If we’re using past performances as an indicator however, NSW will do what they always seem content with doing after a loss; make excuses, play the blame game, and twiddle their thumbs a la Homer J. Simpson at the nuclear plant while they wait for Laurie and his advisors to give them the answers. If this is the approach they take into a game that will mean more to the Queenslanders than their eighth series victory in a row, than they might as well not bother showing up. This is the departure of a future immortal we are talking about. And yes, I’m referring to Cronk.

52 – 6 was the result the last time NSW visited Suncorp Stadium for a decider. It also came at a time when NSW pundits were predicting the beginning of a Blues dynasty. Two years on and the same old mistakes are being made – complacency, arrogance and underestimating a team and its superstars that have embarrassed the Blues on 11 of the past 12 occasions.

Queensland, on the other hand, are seemingly revitalised after a horror show of a first game that was met with the usual ‘Queensland hypocrite’ rhetoric from certain outlets. Spare me the ‘dad’s army’ nonsense. This is a side capable of winning their third series in a row. Injuries to Boyd and Thurston, who will both be missing come Origin three, will hurt their chances. But if Queensland play with the same desire and shut down Fifita, Trbojevic, and Tedesco, than there is no reason why they can’t send off one of the modern day greats, possibly more, in style.

The critics who claimed Queensland’s time was up, and jumped on the Blues’ dynasty bandwagon no sooner than the eighty minutes was up at Suncorp Stadium in the opening game, have just witnessed what it takes to bounce back in Origin. When NSW departed from the style of play that served them so well in the first game, Queensland sniffed blood and pulled off a comeback victory typical of their never say die attitude. That’s the difference between the two sides at the moment. While NSW were busy organising how they would hoist the shield, Queensland were plotting and scheming ways to shut down Fifita. Had NSW had their wits about them, they would have been doing the same for Slater and Thurston. Instead, they were gripped by the hand of complacency, perhaps expecting to win. Which goes a long way to explaining why they went missing and never returned shortly after Gagai crossed in the 55th minute.

This is Origin. The game isn’t finished until eighty minutes have passed and the ball is as far as humanly possible from those capable of pulling off the kind of superhuman efforts that define the unpredictability of Origin.

The only question that now remains is whether NSW stand by Jarryd Hayne, or whether they opt in favour of 2016 villain Dylan Walker, who has been in scintillating form for Manly; the youngest of the Trbojevic brothers, Tom Turbo; or start Jack Bird, whose lack of in this discussion is bewildering, in the number four jumper. Hayne’s form at club level, the Tigers game aside, has been far from eye-catching, but then again, you’re compelled to take a punt on him because he is a supreme athlete and his past performances leave you feeling as though you’ve left out one of the modern day greats when he goes unselected.

Laurie has some tough decisions to make. Decisions that will likely decide whether, after five years of service, he’s used up all the get out of jail free cards at his disposal. Because if NSW are incapable of defeating a weakened Queensland side missing a future immortal, then changes will be made across the board. And, as we know, in this day and age, the blame is so often apportioned to the coach.

Close simply won’t cut it.

Bangladesh-bound – analysis of Australia’s 13-man squad

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Australia made a few surprising changes to their squad for Bangladesh. Photo: IBTimes India

Australia have named their test squad to tour Bangladesh at the end of August, with a number of familiar faces rejoining the side.

The biggest news to come out of the announcement was that Steve O’Keefe, Australia’s 19 wicket hero in last February’s tour of India, has been dropped from the squad following comments he made about a female cricketer at NSW’s end of season awards night.

This is without doubt the right call. Although, Trevor Hohn’s statement tends to suggest that O’Keefe was dropped on form, not for his alleged ‘booze fueled’ antics that have seen him receive a ban from this year’s Matador Cup; a competition he may not have featured in anyway.

“Whilst Steve O’Keefe bowled well in Pune, he did not maintain this level in the remaining matches of the series and we believe the timing is right for Ashton to enter the set-up and test his all-rounder ability,”

In fact, at no point in Cricket Australia’s article on the announcement of the 13-man squad are his actions mentioned. Disappointing given the progress of women’s cricket in this country. Surely we must at least acknowledge it to show that a precedent has been set and that such irreverence will not be tolerated.

Starc has also been left out of the squad, and while his omission is cited as being the result of an injury, it is hard to think that this is indeed the case given his participation in the Champions Trophy recently.

“…despite playing in Australia’s failed Champions Trophy campaign, the left-armer’s injury has not fully healed and he has subsequently been ordered rest with an Ashes campaign on the horizon.”

I understand him being rested for the Ashes, but to use an injury as just cause after participating in a world tournament that concluded no more than a week ago is unfair to paying supporters and Bangladesh Cricket, who are trying to cement their spot in the test playing ranks and earn more regular fixtures against the world’s leading side’s. Still, though, they are treated like second rate citizens.

It seems to be yet another example of CA refusing to send their best team to play in a test series that is perceived as meaningless and where television rights are purchased at bottom dollar, even though they will look the fools if Bangladesh embarrass Australia just like they did England at the back-end of last year.

Starc’s omission has, however, opened the door for Pattinson to return to the side. Young all-rounder Hilton Cartwright, whose selection before last summer’s Sydney test caused quite a stir, has also been included in the squad, meaning Australia will travel with a total of two all-rounders following the announcement of Agar’s selection as cover for O’Keefe.

Unsurprisingly, there was no room for Shaun Marsh who, it appears, has used up all his credit with the Australian selectors; Khawaja has instead been reinstated after missing the tour to India in February.

This is a big tour for the elegant left-handed batsmen who has fallen out of favor with selectors in recent times on tours to the sub-continent.

Since Graeme Swann got the better of him in the 2013 Ashes series, and following his torrid tour of Sri Lanka this time last year, Khawaja’s susceptibility to the turning ball has seen him miss a significant amount of cricket in Asian conditions.

This tour might finally settle the score and decide what role he plays in future tours to the sub-continent. My tip is that his class will outshine the guile of Shakib and the immense talent of Mahedi Hasan.

The rest of the team is as expected. All that is left to be finalised now is the MOU. Hopefully we receive some clarity on this matter in the not to distant future.

Groundbreaking project underway at Allan Border Field

I had the opportunity to catch up with Rick Shenton from Premier Greenkeeping last week to discuss a project he is undertaking in conjunction with Queensland Cricket.

It involves the testing of five different couch species on a single wicket square.

To read the full article, make your way to Turfmate’s website:

http://www.turfmate.com.au/article/5942/allan-border-field-s-wicket-project

If you haven’t already, you can also check out my trip to Brisbane International Virginia for Toro’s Red Iron Roadshow, where a number of new vehicles were unveiled.

http://www.turfmate.com.au/article/5925/toro-red-iron-roadshow

Pakistan’s success a win for cricket at large

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Pakistan are returning to the glory of the good old days. Photo: Dunya News

Ah Pakistan. How we love you and your carefree approach to the game.

We had written you off after your embarrassing loss to India, but we shouldn’t have. Clearly we had forgotten your modern-day trademark – to win games when nobody expects you too and when your backs are firmly against the wall.

It’s true. These days, nobody knows which Pakistan is going to show up. The one that plays like a newly assembled group of park cricketers, or the one that is capable of defeating the powerhouses of the international game through grit and determination.

We saw it against South Africa, where a master-class in reverse swing bowling from Amir, Junaid and Hasan saw Pakistan dismiss one of the tournament favorites for a total of 219, before Malik made hay while the sun shone against a South African bowling attack ravaged by Kolpak deals.

It was brilliant to watch. Not simply because reverse-swing has seemingly gone AWOL since the introduction of two new Kookaburra balls, but because cricket thrives when Pakistan is playing like they did in the days of Akram and Imran.

But these occasions are few and far between; only appearing when you least expect them too.

Even against Sri Lanka, Pakistan could have pulled a Pakistan and collapsed short of the finish line like a dehydrated marathon runner. They were already seven wickets down when the game was completed and captain Srafraz had been dropped not once, not twice, but three times in quick succession by an undisciplined Sri Lankan side who fielded as if they were ready to board the plane home. Not like a side that was desperate to give its travelling supporters something to cheer about.

Plain and simple, Pakistan wanted it more than Sri Lanka; they were hungrier for victory.

This approach is evident in the Test Match arena as well. Out of nowhere they have climbed the ICC rankings quicker than a feral cat scaling a telephone pole despite the fact they are a side of lightweight’s taking on the heavyweight champions of the world.

They’re unpredictable and often enter a bout as rank outsiders, but when you least expect it they’ll throw a haymaker that knocks their opponents to the ground quicker than a right-hook from Mohammad Ali.

This is best exemplified by their captain, the enigmatic Sarfraz Ahmed; and their coach, the often misunderstood and unorthodox Mickey Arthur. A man best remembered for being sacked after setting the Australian team homework on their tour to India in 2013. The clincher here is that, if you can recall, he played the role of headmaster and sent a few of his player’s packing for failing to complete it.

Unsurprisingly, Australia lost that series 4-0.

Arthur is like the teachers pet sitting on his lonesome at the back of a dimly lit classroom. He is bullied, bruised and teased for his differences, but makes his peers red with envy when he passes a test he is tipped to fail. Luckily for Arthur, he has made a habit of doing so just when the knives of his doubters, namely those being wielded by members of the PCB, begin to sharpen.

When he rose from his seat on Monday evening to celebrate Pakistan’s progression to the semi-final stage of the Champions Trophy, some of that unbridled joy would have been pure, unadulterated relief. Only a week earlier his job was under threat. India had handed Pakistan their backsides and there were whispers that the waters had muddied in the team camp.

But, like an unpopular high school student, he overcame the hurdles of adversity and passed the test. A sign that Arthur has pitched his tent on Pakistan’s property like a nomadic traveller and doesn’t plan on leaving until those with more power come knocking.

Nothing about Pakistan is conventional. But they always seem to find a way to get the job done.

Shortly before the start of the Champions Trophy, Pakistani opener, Sharjeel Khan, was banned for spot-fixing and yet another strike was put against Pakistan’s already sullied name.

Due to Sharjeel’s absence at the top of the order, Pakistan was forced to draft in a debutant during a major world tournament. Hardly ideal.

Quite clearly, corruption continues to act as a major stumbling block for the progression and performance of Pakistan cricket.

Young opener Fakhar was thrown into the deepest of dead ends and has responded admirably, scoring a half-century against Sri Lanka. But what if he hadn’t. How much could you blame on Sharjeel’s alleged crimes?

How much could you blame corruption for Pakistan’s struggles during the start of the decade, a period spent without whiz kid Mohammad Amir, who was rubbed out of the game along with two other members of Pakistan’s set-up for dealings with an illegal bookmaker.

Mohammad Irfan, a member of Pakistan’s ill-fated 2015 World Cup Campaign, was also banned at the beginning of this year for failing to report approaches by bookmakers linked to spot-fixing. As a result, Pakistan have had no choice but to introduce young, inexperienced seamers whose performances could have seen them exit the Champions Trophy without so much as a whimper.

Pakistan has a worrying association with corruption, but a finals berth at the Champions Trophy would make many players reassess the reasons why they play the game.

England awaits.

A post mortem of Australia’s cursed Champions Trophy campaign

Australia's Aaron Finch and Steve Smith (right) look dejected
Finch and Smith in the cordon – Photo: Indian Express

Losing to the Poms is always a bitter pill for Australian’s to swallow, but it is made far worse when it occurs in a must-win game at fortress Edgbaston and results in the elimination from a tournament you’re expected to get within touching distance of winning.

Sure, we can blame the rain for ending a game we should’ve won. Bangladesh will go through to the finals but they were totally outplayed by Australia and should consider themselves more than lucky.

They finish on three points having beaten New Zealand at Cardiff, and more thrilled for them I could not be. However, something must be done about the DLS system, because Australia have been robbed of the chance to show their wares beyond a sudden death group stage match-up that for only a fleeting moment they looked capable of winning.

Bangladesh have not played better cricket than Australia. Yet they are the one’s progressing to the finals.

At the Oval on Tuesday, Australia were within four overs of sending the Bangladeshis packing when rain intervened and both sides were gifted a point, much to the delight of their captain Mashrafe Mortaza, who said in no uncertain terms that Australia totally outplayed Bangadesh and were on a collision course for victory.

That’s it. Four overs was the difference between qualification and a plane ticket home. How can this be justified?

Call me a whinging Australian with a God complex, but that Australia, the better of the two sides, cannot progress beyond the group stage despite demonstrating their dominance over the very opponents that will, means there is something seriously wrong with the current system that decides upon a victor in the event of rain.

There are no two ways about it, Australia played poor cricket against England and deserved to be beaten. In fact, nothing about the brand of cricket they played across the entire tournament said they were entitled to a finals berth.

In the games against New Zealand and England, the bowlers lost their radar and were unable to take wickets at regular intervals nor stem the flow of runs when batsmen were set; so inconsistent was their line and length. King of the ODI castle Mitchell Starc was Reduced to a mere peasant, rarely able to hone in on a yorker length as he did so routinely back in the 2015 World Cup. Cummins, for all his star power and raw pace, was more expensive than a three course meal at a Turkish restaurant; the quicker he delivered the ball, the quicker it found the rope.

Only Hazlewood and Zampa can be commended for their performances with ball in hand. The former will return to Australia having bagged nine wickets in just three, rain affected matches, while the latter, often neglected by his captain at crucial stages of the innings, can depart knowing he has made a difference in this tournament.

While he couldn’t match the feats of Adil Rashid, who himself has battled through periods without the full backing of selectors, his craft is slowly developing and he is now apart of the fabric of Australia’s ODI team. Why Smith elected to bowl part time slow-bowler Travis Head before him, a specialist leg-spinner, beggars belief and was a tactic that failed to produce enough wicket taking opportunities for it to remain a viable option. Hopefully Australia have learnt their lesson and will stray from this line of thinking in the future.

It was a strange tournament for the batsmen. We can make all the excuses in the world about the weather preventing them from getting any semblance of match practice under their belts, but they are professionals and we need to see more in the way of adaptability.

Finch, a man who is no stranger to English conditions, looked out of touch in the first two games but returned in the last with a typically defiant innings filled with strokes born of power and aggression. His opening partner was just as fluent, but was dismissed after a promising start which saw him crunch a few boundaries in quick succession to kick-start Australia’s innings. If Australia were to win, he too needed to join Finch in reaching a half century at the very least. A start of 21 was never going to suffice.

Other notable performances came from captain Steve Smith, who continues to tick milestones off his list, and Travis Head, whose late order hitting edged Australia towards a respectable total. The rest were, without sugar coating it, extremely poor.

It was rather stupefying not to see Chris Lynn force his way into the Australian side for their clash with England. Moises Henriques was again given the nod ahead of him and provided nothing after a strong start from the top three, eventually falling to a poor stroke which saw Smith hammer the turf with his bat in frustration, perhaps acknowledging he had made the wrong decision.

There is no doubt Chris Lynn was the perfect man for the situation Henriques found himself in. Finch, Warner and Smith had set a platform and Australia were looking at a total of 300+ which, given England’s track record post the 2015 WC, was a requirement if they were to win and progress to the finals.

Lynn’s free-flowing stroke-play and absence of fear could have seen him capitalise on what was, at the time, some wayward bowling from Plunkett and Stokes. But Smith persisted with Henriques, perhaps hoping that his potential and raw skill would transform into an X-factor that could influence the game and help set a challenging total for England’s batsmen. As it stands, he leaves the Champions Trophy with a lowly average of 9 and his career hanging by a thread.

Speaking of outlandish selections, why was Pattinson, and Hastings for that matter, consigned to the carrying of drinks? For those who are unaware, Pattinson has been playing county cricket for Nottinghamshire and performing admirably in the Royal London one-day cup. Of all the Australian’s, he would’ve no doubt understood the conditions more than his other fast bowling counterparts who have been lapping up the dusty wickets in the IPL, yet he was never given the opportunity.

There is a pecking order in Australian cricket and Cummins, quite clearly, through pace and perhaps a smidgen of extra experience, is currently ahead of the Victorian spearhead.

So where do Australia stand now in ODI cricket? Like I said in my last article, they are far from the side that took the field against New Zeland in the World Cup final of 2015; lacking as they are both in experience and genuine match winners capable of matching it with the Stokes, de Villiers and Kohli’s of the world.

Clarke and Johnson, two of Australia’s finest warriors, have left a hole in the ODI side bigger than those at Gina Rinehart’s mining sites. For this reason, and many others that are within the players’ control but don’t appear any closer to a solution, Australia are now well below the powerhouses of the international game – India, England and, err, South Africa – and languishing somewhere around the middle of the field which is currently occupied by New Zealand and Pakistan. They are powerful at their best and woefully inconsistent at their worst.

Sure, some of the stars of the game reside in Australia’s side, but if we can take one thing away from this Champions Trophy it is that you need substance beyond your top order. New Zealand didn’t have it; neither did Australia. But England sure do, and India, with Dhoni and Yuvraj at the helm, have it in spades. That is why we are set for a repeat of the final of four years ago once again this time around. Bat is dominant over ball in this era and a strong order can atone for the sins of the bowlers.

Buckle your seat belts, folks. We are in for a wild ride!

2017 mid-season predictions

Now that we’ve reached the halfway mark of the season, it is time we took stock of the first 14 rounds of the Telstra premiership and began forecasting what is to come at the back-end of 2017.

From the end of last year, a number of teams have surprised us by rising to unprecedented heights on the competition ladder. Manly stand out in my mind as the surprise packets of 2017. They currently sit in sixth position on the competition ladder with seven wins and five losses to their name, and have knocked off some of the competition heavyweights along the way.

The Dragons have also exceeded many expectations. Some critics believed this year would go down as one of the worst in the clubs history; a season spent waiting for knight in shining armor, Ben Hunt to arrive and cure their attacking woes. It has been anything but. They sit third on eighteen points and, unless they experience a remarkable form slump, have all but sewn up a spot in the finals. It seems highly unlikely though, given the majority of their last 12 games are against sides currently residing outside the top eight.

Melbourne have done exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Craig Bellamy coached side built around professionalism and discipline. They’ve punished bottom eight sides and fought tooth and bone for victory against the likes of Cronulla, Brisbane and Manly. Which leads perfectly into my first prediction:

Melbourne to win the premiership: 

This is a rather tame prediction given their current position on the ladder and their outstanding track record in the finals, but it is difficult to see them being overrun two years in a row. In last year’s grand final, they were far from their best and many would argue that the Sharks were more hungry for victory given the premiership drought the club had suffered through and the turbulence they faced off the field just years earlier. It might sound like I’m talking in cliches here, but their heartbreaking loss to the Sharks would only add fire to the bellies of Melbourne’s ageing veterans. And that desire will take them all the way this year.

Melbourne were the second best team in the competition last year without Billy Slater, the world’s number one fullback. Now that he has returned, the big three have reunited and already they are showing signs of replicating the magic they created in the prime of their careers. Against the Gold Coast in the double-header weekend at Suncorp Stadium, Slater, Smith and Cronk ran riot up the middle of the ruck, creating three (if I recall correctly) identical tries to stun the Titans and put on a considerable early lead. Of course, the Gold Coast returned to win that game 38 points to 36, but the line breaks that led to those tries couldn’t have been executed by any other players in the game.

The outside backs of the Melbourne Storm are what excites me the most about watching this side play. When Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr are flying down the sideline, or taking a heat seeking missile from the boot of Cronk high above the opposition wingers, it is like watching the Harlem Globetrotters of the NRL in action; they pull off unbelievable try-scoring plays that you’d pay a pretty penny to watch on repeat. They are unstoppable at their best and showed against the Dragons that they are capable of blowing the opposition off the park early and hanging on for victory through unbreakable defense.

Only injury can weather the Storm.

Gold Coast to finish in the top eight:

They did it last year, much to the surprise of many punters, and have the ability to do it again in 2017. They sit 11th currently, four wins outside the top eight, but will make a resurgence late in the season to force their way into the finals.

Ashley Taylor has been at his sensational best, while Nathan Peats and Jarrod Wallace are in career best form. Jarryd Hayne is also returning to his best, even if he isn’t a shadow of his 2009 self, and if he can put in more performances like he did in Origin One, than there is no doubt the Gold Coast will be in the mix come September.

Mark my words, the Gold Coast are not as far from a premiership as many think. If they can keep Elgey, Taylor, Peats, Wallace, Hurrel, Roberts and James on the books, than they are capable of pulling a Cronulla by winning a premiership with a mixture of youthful exuberance and experience when nobody expects them to. The Sharks sneaked up on the competition last year and the Gold Coast will go under the radar in a similar fashion in seasons’ to come.

Sharks to set up a Grand Final re-match with Melbourne, Roosters to go close:

Speaking of the Sharks, they are my tip to make the grand final once again this year. It is uncanny how similar this season has been to last for the reigning premiers. They were clearly suffering from a premiership hangover early in the season, but have risen from the ashes to sit in 2nd position at the halfway point of 2017.

Many expected them to struggle without Barba and Ennis, and in some games – such as their clash with the Bulldogs two weeks ago – they have missed their attacking flair and ability to create something out of nothing, but are starting to play off the back of Fifita and Gallen and are reaping the rewards.

Much like last year, Lewis and Graham – two of the most underrated players in the competition – and their bench forwards, are key to the Sharks title defence. Second phase football and a fractured defensive line are where most of their points will come from and will allow Holmes, Maloney and Bird to attack from where they are most dangerous – long range with broken play.

The Roosters will go close, no doubt. But the Sharks have just a little bit more in the way of class.

Wests Tigers to beat the Newcastle Knights to the wooden spoon:

I made this one a few weeks ago, and since watching them on the weekend against the Dragons, and the Knights against the Storm, I am starting to reconsider my choice. But I will stand by it. Not only are the Tigers one of the most boring sides to watch when Tedesco is not in possession of the ball, I’m struggling to see where their points are coming from? Lolohea is a great addition, and Littlejohn a young player with plenty of ball-playing potential, but other than that, watching them attempt to cross the line is like watching a poorly made soap-opera – it’s clunky, monotonous and will eventually put you to sleep.

Their defence is just as flat, and I’ll be surprised if the Roosters don’t rack up another 40 points, more than half of which will be scored on the wing, like they did against the Eels not that long ago.

Mark Round 17, Tigers v Knights, down in your diary as the battle for the wooden spoon.

As a side note, the Tigers play the Roosters and Manly twice before the end of the season, and their only real shot against a genuine bottom eight team is in Round 26 against the Warriors. Other than that, they take on top eight teams as well as those on the fringe, such as the Panthers and Titans, who will come home with a wet sail in the lead up to the 2017 finals series.

Panthers to narrowly miss out on the top eight: 

It has been a tough year for the premiership favorites. They struggled through loss after loss across the first ten rounds of the competition but have got their mojo back in recent weeks, stringing together a number of wins to put their finals hopes back on track.

Matt Moylan has been moved to five-eighth; one of the finest positional changes in NRL history. Anthony Griffin has been heavily criticised this season, and duly so, but moving Moylan to five-eighth is a bold decision born out of courage and a desire to change his sides’ fortunes.

I believe he has the potential to become the next Darren Lockyer; already there are great similarities between their running styles.

While Moylan’s positional change will no doubt aid in the Panthers’ run towards the finals, giving them what they were missing in attack at times during the opening rounds, the early season losses will likely see them miss out on a top eight spot by a very narrow margin.

I’ve compiled a list of the club’s remaining fixtures and given each game a result. Overall, the Panthers miss out on the eight by two points to the Titans, who will accrue a total of 30 points.

(Panthers v Raiders – W; Cowboys v Panthers – L; Rabbitohs v Panthers – W; Panthers v Manly (Split Rnd) – W; Warriors v Panthers – L; Panthers v Titans – L; Panthers v Bulldogs – W; Panthers v Tigers – W; Panthers v Cowboys – L; Raiders v Panthers – W; Panthers v Dragons – W; Manly v Panthers – L.)

All they need to do is pick up one extra game that I’ve labelled as a loss and they will be on an even keel with the Gold Coast, making for and against the deciding factor for who goes through and who misses out.

If you’re interested in hearing my reasoning for any of the above results, please leave a comment below. 

As always, I expect there to be a few more unexpected results to throw my predictions off kilter and make me reassess my decision making. However, for arguments sake, my competition ladder at the completion of Round 26 reads as follows:

  1. Storm, 2. Broncos, 3. Sea Eagles, 4. Roosters, 5. Sharks, 6. Dragons, 7. Cowboys, 8. Titans

9. Panthers, 10. Eels, 11. Raiders, 12. Bulldogs, 13. Warriors, 14. Rabbitohs, 15. Knights, 16. Tigers.

Only Parramatta drop out of the top eight as it currently stands, the rest remain to battle it out in the finals.

As always, comments below.

ICC Champions Trophy update – guillotine looms large over Australia’s finals aspirations

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Australia must win their game against Bangladesh or face fierce backlash. Picture: DNA India 

We’re three days into the Champions Trophy and already it is becoming clear who the contenders are for the crown. England cruised to victory against Bangladesh, who put up a valiant fight but were ultimately lacking star power at the back end of their batting innings. New Zealand gave Australia a good scare and, had rain not ruined proceedings, you can’t help but think that the Kiwis would’ve won that game given the way they started with the ball. Finch, Warner and Henriques were already back in the shed when play was called, and the run rate was quickly creeping up on the Australians like a Lion stalking a Zebra in the dead of night.

South Africa also got their tournament off to a winning start on a slow, placid Oval wicket. Sri Lanka performed exceptionally well with the ball to restrict South Africa to a sub 300 total, but fell short in the run chase despite a strong opening stand from Dickwella and captain Tharanga. Had a few more batsmen chipped in, Sri Lanka would’ve given South Africa an almighty fright. But the guile of Imran Tahir proved too much for a Matthews-less Sri Lanka who, much like Bangladesh, are missing the star power in their late to middle order, making any chase over 325 a real struggle.

The slowness with which Sri Lanka got through their fifty overs yesterday evening was nothing short of farcical. It is no secret that one-day cricket is withering on the vine and slow over rates aren’t helping its cause. At one point during last night’s game, Sri Lanka had just twenty minutes to bowl ten overs. How the umpires allowed it to get to this point is beyond comprehension and goes to show that the ICC must do something to ensure we are not sent to sleep by batsmen calling for a refreshment every second over.

Banning the captain for one match is quite clearly failing to deter sides from taking their sweet time in setting fields, or from captains talking to their bowler as if they are relaying Chinese whispers. The only way to stamp this out is by introducing in-game penalties which are enforced by the on-field umpires. For example, if Sri Lanka go 45 minutes beyond their allotted time, and the batsmen aren’t calling for drinks at regular intervals, runs should be added to the opposition total. Whether this means adding 5 runs for every 10 minutes the bowling side goes over time, or cutting the innings off at a certain point, is up to the ICC to decide upon but must be made post-haste to ensure we are spared the nonsense that goes on between overs. Bottom line – fail to make a change now and risk seeing fans turn away from the one-day format in their droves.

Now that this little pet-hate of mine is out of the way, we can move on and talk about the cricket. Australia might be just one game into their campaign but already they are under great pressure to progress beyond the group stage. Rain is predicted for their clash with Bangladesh on Monday meaning they are at risk of going into their final group stage match against England with two no results to their name.

The odds are stacked firmly against them, so it is of paramount importance that they get the team formula right for the remaining matches. Last game, Henriques got the nod ahead of Lynn. While I understand that the selectors may have gone this way because Henriques provides Smith with an extra bowling option if things go awry early, as they did against New Zealand, Lynn is too good a player to waste on water-boy duties. He can change the game in a matter of overs and has the ability to send the ball to Timbuktu no matter the circumstances or conditions. Imagine a top order of Finch, Warner, Smith, Lynn and Maxwell. It doesn’t get much better. These are some of the finest one-day players the world has to offer, not to mention some of the biggest hitters on show, and will ensure Australia pass 300 more times than they fail. Take Lynn out of the mix though and it doesn’t look quite as threatening. Henriques is a fine player but he would be better suited down the order. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a spot for him currently, as Hastings showed on Friday how valuable he is as Australia’s fourth seamer.

On that note, I’m not quite sure what to make of Australia’s bowling effort. It was brilliant at times and horrible at others. Hastings and Hazlewood were the pick of the bowlers and changed the game when it looked like Ronchi might take it away from them. But even they were a little expensive and seemed powerless to stem the flow of runs when Ronchi and Williamson were in full flight. If it weren’t for some late innings brilliance from Hazlewood that sparked a lower order collapse, or the constant rain delays that put the game on hold, Australia would’ve been staring down the barrel of a mammoth total that might have ended their campaign there and then.

This is a telling tournament for Australia. They are still champions of the world but a number of the players who took them to that World Cup final are now making ends meat in franchise T20 tournaments around the globe. An Australian attack without Johnson is a weaker one no doubt, as is a batting order missing Clarke, Watson and an in form Bailey. In the two years since the World Cup trophy was held aloft, Australia have been tremendous on home soil in the one-day format and abysmal against the stronger nations away. They thrashed Pakistan at home last summer and India the year before. But were themselves defeated twice in the Chappell-Hadlee series, and against South Africa last October. More embarrassing the latter could not have been.

So there is plenty riding on this tournament for Australia. We will certainly know more about the side following the next two games then we did coming in to the Champions Trophy. Are they still capable of mixing it with the world’s best or are we witnessing a fall from grace bigger than Texas?

Monday’s game against Bangladesh is huge. Lose that and, suddenly, Australian one-day cricket is in a state of flux. I can hear the knives being sharpened already…