Tackling six talking points from Round 11

A set of six talking points covering all the rugby league world has to offer.

Josh Morris an inspired selection

Josh Morris’ selection in the NSW side for Origin has been met with mixed opinions. For what it’s worth, I’m with those who think his selection will be beneficial for Fittler’s ‘Baby Blues’. When rumours were swirling about Smith’s return to the Origin arena, I crossed my fingers and hoped those rumours would be proven true. There is nothing quite like a player making a return to the biggest stage after ‘retiring’ in any sport. While I was too young to remember Alfie making his return to the Queensland side in 2001, it remains one of the game’s most magical moments and without a doubt its greatest comeback story. The photo of he and Bennett embracing each other after the game is iconic. Morris’ return mightn’t be on the same level, but it has put a sprinkle of romance back in Rugby League. Morris is a great club man and an astute thinker on the game, but it will be his desire and hunger in defence that will most inspire his side.

Munster Queensland’s X-Factor

Cameron Munster’s 100th NRL game somewhat flew under the radar this weekend, but it should be celebrated, for he has come a long way since his early days in first grade. When he takes the field for Queensland next week he will do so in the knowledge that just a few short weeks ago he was being talked about as a candidate for captaincy honours. Nobody could have imagined this would be the case when he was sent home from Kangaroos camp two years ago. As much as anything, Munster’s meteoric rise from off-field liability to Dally M favourite speaks to Bellamy’s coaching methods. They say the player that oppositions most fear is the one they spend hours studying. If there is one man NSW will analyse to the hilt before the opening game, it is Cameron Munster.

Queensland’s new Messiah 

Daly Cherry-Evans has been selected as Queensland captain and New South Wales fans have been quick to bring up the tumultuous days of 2015. The cover of the Gold Coast Bulletin with the heading ‘Filthy Cockroach’ has been doing the rounds on social media since his selection yesterday morning. In fact, when Cherry-Evans leads his Queensland side out onto Suncorp Stadium next week, it will have been just over four years to the day since he backflipped on a deal at the Gold Coast. While the media have made his manner of speaking out to be obnoxious and clichéd, others see it to be considered and inspirational. Cherry-Evans’ captaincy style doesn’t fit the traditional Rugby League mould, but it will do for Queensland’s band of strong-willed battlers.

Embed from Getty Images

Players going the extra mile

The off-field drama of the last few years has taken a significant toll on the game’s image – perhaps irreparably so. But videos of the interactions between players and fans posted to social media are quickly picking up the pieces. Last week, Jarrod Croker was filmed giving his playing shorts to a young fan following Canberra’s narrow loss to South Sydney. It is moments like these that can break the stigma so often attached to Rugby League and bring new fans into the game.

Benji Marshall’s legacy

Benji Marshall was the reason I started watching Rugby League as a youngster. His footwork and speed were both qualities that I believed made the perfect footballer. A lot of commentators talk about kids watching their stars on TV and then replicating their favourite plays in the backyard. During the mid-2000s, the player every young football fan imitated was Benji. When he made the move from League to Union in 2014, I was devastated. But that devastation turned to joy when the Dragons announced he had been signed as Widdop’s halves partner on a two and a half year deal. I am still in awe of Marshall’s skills at age 34 and the form he has shown across the last two seasons back at his spiritual home. If the Tigers are to make the finals, he will be the man to take them there – and will show age is no barrier in the process.

Embed from Getty Images

Relief for struggling Dragons

The Dragons were today granted salary cap dispensation for Jack de Belin to the tune of $239,000. For this price, they will struggle to lure a first-grade quality forward to the club, but it does open the door for Trent Merrin to return to the Dragons on a short-term deal. Merrin is currently plying his trade in the Super League with Leeds Rhinos where he is signed until 2022 as a marquee player. He squashed rumours of a return to the NRL in March, but with the Rhinos languishing in 10th position on the Super League ladder and the salary dispensation official, there are now grounds for the Dragons to make further enquiries. Time will tell what happens here but with Graham out for two months with a broken leg, the sooner a replacement is finalised, the better.

Tackling six talking points from Round 10

A set of six talking points covering all the rugby league world has to offer.

Game of the season

There have been some great matches so far this season, but none have come close to Friday night’s classic between the Broncos and Roosters. With the exception of their clash earlier in the season, these two teams are building quite the entertaining rivalry. There was a classic encounter back in Round 6 of 2015, where Ben Hunt crossed in Golden Point to hand the Broncos a four-point win. And who can forget Round 11 last year, a match best remembered for Jamayne Isaako’s forty metre Houdini act to sink the Roosters in the 77th minute. It is hard to see any match going past Friday night’s thriller for game of the season.

Broncos on the move

Friday night might go down as the moment the Brisbane Broncos turned their season around. There were plenty of good signs for fans, including an impressive return to Rugby League for former Cronulla hooker James Segeyaro. The most impressive part of Brisbane’s performance was their defence against a Roosters side featuring two of the best attacking players in the game right now: Tedesco and Mitchell.

Dragons in a hole

The Dragons are either in the middle of one of their worst form slumps in recent memory or fast approaching the end of their premiership window. The Dragons last lost four games in a row back in Round 21 of 2016, where they went down to Canterbury 13-10. The following week they lost their fifth straight match against the Broncos 8-12. With the exception of that season, the Dragons have had a relatively good run since the start of 2015, making the finals on three occasions. With Gareth Widdop departing for England at the end of the season and Jack de Belin’s long-term future uncertain, the Dragons could be about to enter a rebuilding period. As a Dragons fan this is hard to write, but it seems they are now struggling to keep in touch with the teams inside the top eight. So far this year, three of their four wins have been by a margin of 2 points or less. This reminds me of 2016 where their attack was virtually non-existent and most wins earned by a slim margin.

Embed from Getty Images

Brown the saviour

Nathan Brown has been heavily criticised since taking over the reins at the Knights, but he deserves to have praise heaped on him for his side’s turn around. A number of Knights sides over the last few years have fallen apart following a run of losses. This one has bounced back into the top eight. Mitchell Pearce was considered a spent force after the first few rounds but suddenly he is in the frame for Origin selection. Danny Levi’s career was also headed down a dark path but he too has found form – perhaps the best of his career. Brown’s finest move, though, was bringing Kurt Mann into the starting side in place of Connor Watson and allowing him to do what he does best: run the ball. Accepting he had made an error by moving Ponga to the halves is another big tick against his name.

An Immortal in waiting

Andrew Johns took the Knights to their first premiership back in 1997 against Manly and backed it up in 2001 against Parramatta. This period was, without doubt, the best in the club’s history. If there is one man that can return the club to these heights, it is Kalyn Ponga. Having followed his career closely since his debut game for in 2016 for the Cowboys, I have no doubt we are about to witness history unfold as he becomes one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. Whether he surpasses Billy Slater as the best Fullback of all time is anyone’s guess, but I believe he will go past Cameron Smith as the game’s greatest point scorer by the time he calls time on his career many years down the track.

Embed from Getty Images

Farewell Cooper

Cooper Cronk gave a lot of credit to his former Melbourne teammates for the career he has forged. But as his form at the Roosters has shown, he is a fine player in his own right and not merely a product of those around him. As a Queenslander, I will never forget his series-sealing field goal during the third and final game of the 2012 Origin series at Suncorp Stadium. If there is one thing you can count on, it is the Roosters growing another leg to deliver Cronk one last Premiership.

Tackling six talking points from Round 9

A set of six talking points covering all the rugby league world has to offer

Magic Round a hit

There were many critics of Magic Round during the weeks leading up to the event. Some questioned why it was necessary to take an entire round to Brisbane, while others feared for crowd numbers during matches not featuring Queensland based teams. But these and many other questions were answered across the weekend and it now appears as if the NRL’s Magic Round has more supporters than doubters. It is common knowledge that Brisbane wants to host a Grand Final, but with new stadiums being built in Sydney and a memorandum of understanding current between the NRL and NSW Government, it looks unlikely to happen anytime soon. Outside of Origin Brisbane’s only big events involve the Broncos, and for a proud Rugby League state with a strong base of fans from interstate clubs, this doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. The Magic Round brought a Grand Final like atmosphere to Brisbane. If first impressions are anything to go by, it could grow to become a genuine drawcard for the NRL and another big event that Brisbane based Rugby League fans can look forward to each year.

Embed from Getty Images

Sharks resilient

The Sharks’ back-to-back wins against Melbourne and Gold Coast are quite remarkable given the number of injuries that have decimated their roster to this point in the season. In fact, their form has been so impressive they are currently $13 with the bookies to win the premiership and sit behind only the Roosters, Storm and Rabbitohs. The young players that have come into the side to replace the injured stars have done a brilliant job. The older statesman like Morris, Dugan and Prior have also stepped up to ensure the injury crisis wouldn’t impact the Sharks’ season. With the likes of Moylan and Johnson to return soon and Andrew Fifita’s injury not as bad as first thought, Sharks fans have every right to be excited about the potential of finals football in 2019.

Parramatta a write-off?

It is a well-known fact in Rugby League that no team has won the premiership after conceding 50 points in the regular season. Parramatta gave up 64 against the Storm on Saturday night. For fans of the club, this would have come as a huge shock given their bright start to the season. With a host of big-name players gunning for contracts and a run of relatively easy matches over the next few weeks – including a clash with South Sydney during the Origin period – expect the Eels to bounce back and maintain their position in the top eight. If results go the other way though, and the Cowboys and Panthers manage to steal some much-needed victories, more questions will be asked of Brad Arthur and the off-contract players.

Blues’ halves debate a blessing for Maroons

Queensland are big outsiders for the first Origin match at Suncorp Stadium, but with Maloney and Cleary struggling for form and talk swirling that they will be replaced, the Maroons are in with a huge chance of snatching victory. It is rare for a winning Origin side to be the subject of so much debate, and even rarer for the losing side to be settled on their combinations in key positions. At no point during the Maroons’ dominance was there talk about dropping key players over poor NRL form. Mal Meninga’s policy was stick with the players that have done the job at rep level and don’t pick sides on NRL form alone. With Cameron Munster in form, Michael Morgan going about his business quietly, and Ben Hunt putting in some solid performances amidst the Dragons’ injury crisis, the Maroons will be quietly confident they have NSW’s number for game one on home soil.

Embed from Getty Images

Obstruction rule a pain

In 2013 the NRL had a problem with obstruction rulings. Many sides were taking advantage of the rule which the NRL had made ‘black and white’ to ensure consistency of rulings across all games. Following much conjecture, the NRL amended the rule to allow video referees to use their discretion in such situations. After nine rounds of the 2019 season, it seems as if the ‘black and white’ system has made a resurgence. There were several instances across Magic Round where tries would have been allowed had the referees in the Bunker used their discretion. There will be more instances of defensive players taking a dive to ensure tries are disallowed if a ‘black and white’ approach to obstruction rulings is allowed to continue.

Last tackle – Are the defending premiers vulnerable in the last 20 minutes? 

The Roosters ran out 30-24 victors over a resurgent Canberra Raiders outfit on Sunday, but Trent Robinson will hold grave concerns for his side’s defensive frailties in the last 20 minutes of matches. If anyone is going to catch the Roosters this season, it will be the side that can limit the damage in the first 60 minutes. This could prove a difficult task given the attacking firepower the Roosters have across the park. Could the Broncos, fresh off a win at home against Manly, repeat the dose on Friday night and add to the list of upsets this season?

Embed from Getty Images

Football’s coming to Cricky’s Column

You may have noticed a new edition to Cricky’s Column. With the EPL title race gripping the nation and the Champions League reaching fever pitch, the site will soon venture into the world of Football writing!

For those new to the blog, Cricky’s Column has been covering Cricket and Rugby League for the last three years now. You can scroll through previously published articles using the ‘archives’ tab to get a feel for what the blog is all about and what you should expect when the Football section is open for business.

Keep your eyes peeled for news on when the first Football post lands on the site.

Embed from Getty Images

Tackling six talking points from Round 8

A set of six talking points covering all the rugby league world has to offer.

Sivo a Star

There have been many people asking whether Maika Sivo will turn out to be as good as Semi Radradra. Following his performance against the Dragons on Sunday, I’m prepared to say yes. Radradra’s greatest attribute was that he could score from just about anywhere on the field; he was as dangerous close to the line as he was running the ball from his own end. Sivo presents the same threat. If early signs are anything to go by, he could become one of Parramatta’s most prolific try scorers.

Best in the game

Rugby League’s television chat shows have been caught up in ‘fullback fever’ lately. At a time when Latrell Mitchell is dominating the game from the centres, all the conversations on the game’s best player are focused on the big two fullbacks: Tedesco and Tuivasa-Sheck. Curiously, the latter has registered just 5 Dally M points through the first eight rounds of the competition despite a strong start to the season, while Tedesco sat in the top ten at the end of round 7. So far in 2019, the Roosters fullback has scored 5 tries, broken 47 tackles and run for an average of a tick over 177 metres. Tuivasa-Sheck, on the other hand, has scored 4 tries, run for an average of 180 meters per game, and broken through 43 would-be tackles. These are some impressive statistics, yet the Warriors and Roosters find themselves at opposite ends of the table. Individual performances talk in this game, but wins speak far louder. Tuivasa-Sheck’s absence on the Dally M leader board can be partly blamed on the Warriors mixed performances thus far.

Embed from Getty Images

 

Knights on the charge

The Knights are back on track with back-to-back wins against the Eels and Warriors. Just a couple of weeks ago all the talk was about how soon Nathan Brown would be shown the door. With three wins and five losses to their name through eight rounds, the season could still go south in a hurry. But there are signs of a renewed confidence amongst the playing group that bodes well for the next few rounds. Pearce is seemingly back in form, David Klemmer is running for big metres, and Danny Levi has – to coin an overused rugby league phrase – grown another leg. They clash with the Bulldogs next weekend at Suncorp where they could earn their third win in as many starts before heading to Mudgee to take on what could be an injury-affected Dragons side.

Pick and stick a non-negotiable

With just a month to go until Queensland and New South Wales run out onto Suncorp Stadium for the first game of the Origin series, speculation around who will and won’t be selected is beginning to mount. Last week we heard reports that Cameron Smith would make his return to an injury-hit Queensland side. But perhaps the most interesting topic of Origin conversation has centred on the Blues’ halves. While Penrith has struggled for form so far this year, Fittler would be mad to overlook Maloney and Cleary. The case for in-form players like Luke Keary, Mitchell Moses and Cody Walker are convincing, but NSW should take a leaf from the legendary Maroons side that won eight straight: NRL form isn’t everything and a pick and stick approach yields dividends.

Sweet, sweet music

Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline may be turning 50 in June this year, but it has lost none of its charm. In England it is a staple at a number of major sporting events – rugby league included. So when it came over the loudspeakers at Bankwest Stadium on Sunday for the Dragons v Eels clash, I was immediately transported to The Jungle in Castleford, where the tune is belted out following a home win. If there is something I’ve felt all sports in Australia are missing, it’s a good old sing along in the crowd. Long may Sweet Caroline live on at Bankwest.

Broncos’ halves conundrum

With Kodi Nikorima departing the Broncos for long-term job security at the Warriors, there are question marks now around what Anthony Seibold will do with his halves. 18-year-old Tom Dearden filled the void at halfback in the Broncos clash with South Sydney and he is the man they have ostensibly placed faith in to continue in this role going forward. But if the losses keep mounting over the course of the next few weeks, Seibold’s hand may be forced. Mitchell Moses is currently off contract at the Eels and you can bet your house on more reports rumouring a move to Brisbane if they are unable to muster a win or two from their upcoming games at Suncorp. While it’s a long way off, a bottom eight finish for the Broncos would leave a number of players in a vulnerable position heading into the 2020 season. Moses will not be off contract forever so the Broncos’ form over the next few weeks may dictate the course of action they take.

James Anderson deserving of GOAT status

The ‘greatest of all time’ tag gets bandied around a lot these days. From a cricketing standpoint, you could probably think up a list of five candidates in your head before you’ve finished reading this sentence. But how many would include James Anderson?

While Anderson is by no means underrated in cricketing circles, he rarely figures in discussions on the game’s greatest fast bowlers. More and more these days commentators and journalists alike are stuck focusing on McGrath, Akram, Walsh, Pollock, Hadlee and other bowlers of their ilk, completely ignoring Anderson’s equally impressive record. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact many commentators have played against these individuals. Perhaps they overlook Anderson because he is still plying his trade – although this does little to explain the ongoing obsession with Steyn. In any case, Anderson should be at the forefront of any conversation around fast bowling now that he is the most prolific test fast bowler of all time.

The criticism constantly levelled at Anderson is that he struggles outside of England. Opposition fans label him ‘Jimmy Clouderson’, taunting him for his inability to swing the ball in dry conditions. There are figures to back these claims up. For instance, with the exception of the 2010/11 Ashes series, Anderson has rather failed to master Australian conditions. But the fact still remains that he has gone past the big name fast bowlers that so often usurp him on the list of cricket’s greatest players. Wickets aren’t the only sign of a good bowler though. Averages must also be considered. That being the case, Anderson’s average of 26.93 stands up against the best of the rest.

This season could well decide how Anderson is remembered in retirement. He has been a vital member of England’s Ashes triumphs and this summer will be no exception. With two largely inexperienced batting line-ups facing off against each other, the bowlers could decide the series. That is not to say there is a shortage of experience in the batting departments of both sides; between Root, Buttler, Stokes, Smith and Warner (pending selection) there is plenty. But for every experienced player, there is a test newcomer or struggler to cancel them out.

Anderson’s bowling action is poetry in motion and his swing and seam a thing of beauty.

There is plenty of cricket to be played ahead of the Ashes, though. Anderson will line up for Lancashire this coming Thursday as they begin their season against Middlesex at Lord’s. With the World Cup to take up a large chunk of the season during May, June and July, Anderson will likely play a big role in Lancashire’s tilt at the Division Two crown – barring injury or forced rest for the Ashes.

The World Cup will also force a significant portion of County matches away from the major venues and onto the reserve grounds. Anderson bowling in Division Two is a tantalising prospect enough. But Anderson with the new ball on those wickets is a dream for lovers of swing and seam bowling.

Anderson should be at the forefront of any conversation around fast bowling

With just 80 wickets to go until he passes the 1000 mark in first class cricket, there are plenty of reasons to follow the Burnley Express this summer. He might not figure in conversations with the likes of Akram and McGrath yet, but once he has 1000 wickets under his belt, his GOAT status can be denied no longer.

Beyond statistics, Anderson has inspired a generation of young cricketers. It is such a shame the UK public has had limited access to cricket on terrestrial TV for over a decade. Had the game been readily accessible, he may have reached out to thousands more.

Anderson’s bowling action is poetry in motion and his swing and seam a thing of beauty. There is much that can be learned from his approach to the crease, gather and release for cricketers of any age and ability. Such skills are barely considered in the T20 trade where words like line and length have been replaced by knuckle balls and cutters. The art of swing and seam will be lost with the increasing saturation of T20 cricket. Anderson may be the last great exponent of the craft.

Worrying patterns in McGregor’s coaching career shed light on form slump

Make no bones about it, the next three weeks are the biggest in Paul McGregor’s coaching career to date.

Having lost five of their last six games, the Dragons are in freefall.

For fans of the club, this has become an all too familiar sight in recent seasons and, once again, we find ourselves asking the same old question: why does this keep happening?

It can’t just be the players, for the team that took the field in 2015 – a year best remembered for the Dragons slide from first to eighth and subsequent exit in the first weekend of finals – looks vastly different to the one lining up against the Tigers this weekend.

Embed from Getty Images

For arguments sake, there are only five players still remaining from that Preliminary Final against the Bulldogs.

The rest? They’ve moved on. And yet the Dragons find themselves in the very same predicament three years later.

The only constant through this whole debacle, with the exception of a few players, is coach Paul McGregor.

He was there in 2015. He was there for the disappointment of 2016. And he was there last year when the Dragons dropped out of finals contention after leading the competition in the 7th round.

There have been several coaches on the chopping block this year and McGregor, following his sides’ humiliating loss to Parramatta, has suddenly re-entered the fray.

Just two weeks ago we saw the Panthers sack coach Anthony Griffin despite the fact they were well and truly in the race for the premiership.

The form is there. A top eight finishing position means nothing these days. And a contract even less so.

This leaves McGregor in a precarious position.

Could he soon join Griffin and become the latest casualty of the coaching merry-go-round?

Embed from Getty Images

The simple fact that he continues to produce the same result year in, year out with a different set of players speaks to his coaching methods.

The fact the Dragons had several players represent their state but are struggling to keep in touch with the top four is similarly concerning.

But perhaps McGregor’s biggest flaw, and the reason why his name is being mentioned in this conversation, is his reluctance to make changes when the chips are down and victories hard to come by.

This weekend he had a golden opportunity to introduce Zac Lomax and Jai Field – two talented youngsters who have been a part of the Dragons reserve grade outfit that currently sits in second position.

Anyone who has seen these two play know they are something special.

Embed from Getty Images

While they mightn’t be first grade ready as yet, an injury to Widdop and the waning form of the outside backs provided the perfect opportunity to give them another shot.

But McGregor has opted in favour of Kurt Mann who has failed to provide attacking spark at five-eight when given the opportunity in the past.

The counter argument to giving Lomax and Field another first grade cap is that they haven’t played the entire season and so are unlikely to feature in the finals.

But when a previously high-flying team is beaten – nay smashed – by a side ranked ten spots below them, isn’t it worth trying something different?

What is the purpose of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

Lomax and Field could be the Dragons answer to the Storm’s Jahrome Hughes, or the Raiders’ Nick Cotric.

Embed from Getty Images

The history of Rugby League is littered with stories of youngsters being thrown into the deep end and going on to forge long and successful careers. Why can’t the Dragons become a part of this narrative?

Sure, there is the argument that this current crop of players put the Dragons in title contention, so there is every likelihood they could rediscover their mojo and, consequently, their ladder position.

But they are playing on empty tanks. They are mentally scarred. And they’ve forgotten how to find the try line.

A fresh set of eyes in attack could change things. Adding two or more players from a reserve grade outfit with plenty of form and no baggage could teach them how to win again.

McGregor took a punt by choosing not to rest players after Origin when other teams did.

Say what you will about Griffin, or whoever made the decision at Penrith to rest their Origin stars after the series had concluded – it might just be the gamble that sees them through to the top four.

McGregor let his battle-wearied stars play on and could pay a heavy price for it.