Henry’s impending demise shows players hold all the aces

There is one man who can relate to the backstabbing and bloodletting Neil Henry is currently experiencing at the Gold Coast – former Wests Tigers coach Jason Taylor.

In March, Taylor was given his marching orders by Tigers CEO Justin Pascoe and Chairwomen Marina Go after player unrest got too hot for the board to handle.

The club, to save their blushes, argued that the team was beginning to ‘drift’ under Taylor’s leadership.

All signs, though, were pointing to an upward surge in form. Just six-months earlier the Tigers had missed out on the finals by a single point, while James Tedesco, Aaron Woods, and Robbie Farah had all earned NSW Blues caps.

The club attempted to pass it off as a coaching issue, and in many ways it was. But those who know rugby league recognised that there were deeper issues at play and that the club was actually being held to ransom by the ‘big four’ – Tedesco, Woods, Moses and Brooks.

There were rumours circulating at the time that the ‘big four’ had grown unhappy with the coaching situation at the Tigers and so they threatened to hold off on re-signing until the club made changes.

To compound this issue, Robbie Farah had also been forced out of the club at the end of the 2016 season following a bitter feud with Taylor that began way back in 2014.

Taylor allegedly told Farah he was ‘selfish’ for not passing up the opportunity to play for Australia in favour of training with the Tigers.

Farah fired back, mocking Taylor’s brief and ill-fated representative career…or so the story goes.

Sound familiar?

At the Gold Coast, it is Jarryd Hayne who has grown disenchanted with his coach.

Quite clearly, the relationship between Henry and Hayne is untenable. Both want out if the other remains, even if the former will claim that rumours of disharmony within the camp are nothing more than a media beat-up.

In recent days the issues at the Titans have snowballed, with Elgey and Taylor reportedly issuing the club with a similar ultimatum to Hayne.

It makes you wonder just how much power the players have in this day and age.

The issues between Hayne and Henry stem back to when the former San Francisco 49er first signed with the Gold Coast in August last year.

Hayne, a Parramatta junior, sat in front of an expectant media and spoke only of his disappointment at missing out on an opportunity to return to his former club.

“It’s tough, because you know, there was a few clubs that had offered and straightaway. I always wanted to go back to Parra.”

It was in this moment that Henry realised he would have to tread carefully around Hayne.

You can take the boy out of Parramatta, but you can’t take Parramatta out of the boy, someone quipped.

And so it has proven.

Only months ago stories broke of Hayne and his sloppy training habits.

Former teammates spoke to Hayne’s attitude and laziness in the days following and confirmed the worst for Henry – his poor habits were inbuilt and were not going away anytime soon.

It was revealed soon after that Hayne had been punted from the Titans’ leadership group for turning up to pre-season training overweight.

His former coaches know this side of Hayne all too well.

In fact, during his time at Parramatta, Hayne went through no less than 7 coaches. None could ever fully harness his potential, and so all were told to hit the bricks by the Parramatta board within two years of signing.

Some will say this is the nature of the beast. Coaching is a results driven role and part of the job description is to get the best out of each and every player regardless of the size of their ego or the depth of their pockets.

But Hayne has killed more coaches than Mortein has killed flies. None have been able to tame the beast and get him to deliver on a game-by-game basis.

Henry has been unsuccessful in bucking this trend and now his cards are marked.

All signs point to the Titans supremo being sacked next week in much the same way as Taylor was by the Wests Tigers following his falling out with the big four back in round three.

These days it is the coach who must fall on their sword, not the player. They are the ones held accountable if the club goes down the toilet.

It makes sense for the Gold Coast to sack Henry given they have more to lose by ripping up Hayne’s contract. Not only is Henry one of the most poorly payed coaches in the competition, and will only need to be payed out $400,000 if his contract is terminated, but Elgey and Taylor will follow Hayne out the door if Henry is allowed to hang around.

That’s a risk the club can ill afford to make.

This is a sad state of affairs for the NRL more than anybody. Players have far too much say in what happens at the administrative level and have the power to force a coach out of the club whenever the mood strikes.

In Taylor’s case, it was the players who held a gun to the board’s head and forced them into making a decision. Now three of the infamous ‘big four’ are either at another club or on the move in 2018.

If there is a lesson to take away here, it is that sometimes problems at a football club run deeper than the coach. They are the lightning rods for blame when things go wrong but are rarely the source of a club’s internal issues.

The only coaches immune to this behaviour are seasoned veterans like Wayne Bennett and Craig Bellamy. They wouldn’t let the players walk all over them like Henry and those before him have.

Bennett is the kind of no nonsense coach a player like Jarryd Hayne needs.

Every other coach in the competition must watch their back. The track record of players pulling a fast one over their so called superior doesn’t make for pretty reading.

Long gone are the days when the coaches say was final. It is the players who now hold all the aces.

Why the Bunnies’ problems are bigger than Michael Maguire

South Sydney may have taken some joy in defeating the Dragons on Friday night, but their season has been far from memorable thus far. They are currently languishing in 11th position on the competition ladder after 22 rounds, with just seven wins to their name and thirteen losses.

Their record following 2014 and the glory that ensued doesn’t make for pretty reading either – on just a single occasion have they made the finals. The year was 2015, and they were hustled out in the first week by Cronulla, 28 points to 12. They haven’t been back since, and 2017 is destined to end the same way.

So where has it all gone wrong for South Sydney since Sam Burgess lifted the trophy with a busted cheek bone less than three years’ ago?

 

Earlier this year I wrote an article on why Michael Maguire would be the next coach to be given the flick.

The weight of history was against him, and there were many parallels that could be drawn between the sacking of Geoff Toovey at Manly back in 2015, two years after making the Grand Final, and Maguire’s current tenure at South Sydney.

But after hearing him speak about the passion he has for the club, it appears he might just be the right man to turn the Bunnies fortunes around.

It makes you wonder what else could cause a proud club to slip from drought-breaking premiers to struggling cellar dwellers in such a remarkably short period of time.

The roster is almost entirely different, but you expect that given it has been close to three years since the Bunnies hoisted the Provan Summons Trophy, don’t you?

Well, no. To put this into perspective, only James Tamou is missing from the starting 13 that lined-up for the Cowboys in the 2015 Grand Final.

The Roosters premiership winning side of 2013 looks much the same today as well, with the exception of a few key omissions – Sonny-Bill Williams (Rugby Union), Anthony Minichello (Retirement), James Maloney (Sharks) and Michael Jennings (Parramatta).

The message to take away here is that if you have a premiership winning side, you generally try to keep it together until a players’ form drops or the group of listed players exceeds the salary cap. Not until it reaches this point do you start the culling process. And even when this does become a necessity, you certainly don’t decimate your spine and draft in players that add no value to the current squad.

South Sydney have done exactly this. Since winning the premiership back in 2014, they have pushed out players like Luke Keary, Apisai Koroisau and Dylan Walker, who have excelled at their new clubs and left the Bunnies to lick their wounds and wonder what life would be like had they never parted ways.

This is where Russell Crowe is introduced to the narrative. It has been well documented that he has assumed some control of the shape of the side and kept players at the club based on their personality rather than their footballing prowess.

His love for the Burgess brothers is another consistent thread.

Sam, Tom and George have been retained by South Sydney for the last few years despite just one of them being a deserving recipient of a contract renewal. Sam is a world-class player, a workhorse, and someone you’d give your right arm to lure to your club. His brothers, however, simply don’t bring the same star-power, and have caused Maguire more headaches than joy over the past two seasons with their sloppy ball-handling skills.

At some point, you have to ask if it’s worth moving them on and looking at other options, because their salaries are taking up a chunk of the cap that has seen far too many talented players pass through the back door of the South Sydney club office.

At the end of this season, talented winger Bryson Goodwin will join that list. You have to wonder whether he was ever allowed to reach his full potential at South Sydney. Sure, there were bright spots, but he never managed to reach the heights that he did at the Bulldogs way back in 2009, where he earned his first international cap with New Zealand.

On top of South Sydney’s poor management, their recruitment strategy must come into question. Why was Robbie Farah brought to the club this year when Damian Cook was more than ready to assume the post left vacant by the departing Cameron McInnes? (There’s another name to add to that list.)

We’ve seen already this year, particularly as the season has begun to wind down, that Damian Cook is Maguire’s first choice hooker. So why bother wasting money on Farah?

I understand that he was NSW’s starting number nine at the time of his purchase, but $750,000 a year for a player that spends most of his time on the bench is another example of the tangled web South Sydney are weaving through mismanagement. He’s earning almost as much as Burgess, despite playing a quarter of the Englishman’s minutes.

South Sydney have got their recruitment so wrong that John Sutton has been forced to spend most of this season at five-eighth. Imagine a world in which Keary, who has set the world on fire for the Roosters this year, was lining up alongside Adam Reynolds. The former a running five-eight with speed to burn. The latter a 130 game stalwart with one of the best kicking games in the competition on his day – just ask the Panthers.

Yet fans have been stuck watching John Sutton, who has offered very few edge of your seat moments through 22 rounds of competition.

His stats paint an accurate picture of his ongoing struggles – 4 try assists and just 8 line-breaks so far in 2017. Compare this to some of the competition’s other five-eighths like Gareth Widdop (16 try assists), or even young Brock Lamb in a struggling Knights side (8 try assists), and you can start to see why the Rabbitohs are cemented to the bottom of the competition ladder.

They might argue that Sutton has spent a lot of time in halves this season due to an injury to Greg Inglis, who himself has spent time at five-eight in the past. But a lack of recruitment foresight is what constantly ruins a clubs’ premiership run, and few of those currently making a march towards the finals don’t have a contingency plan in place.

When Cooper Cronk isn’t around, Melbourne have Brodie Croft; North Queensland have Te Maire Martin, whom without they might be struggling to compete; the Eels had Gutherson before Moses arrived; and the Broncos, well they’re spoilt for choice.

South Sydney have set themselves up for failure, and lack the foresight that clubs like Melbourne and coaches like Bellamy pride themselves on. They’ve said farewell to two hookers who are now starting at rival clubs (McInnes and Koroisau), an extremely talented number six who has excelled since being given the chance to shine and not confined to the bench (Luke Keary), and now must make do with players who are out of position or completely out of their depth.

Russell Crowe might be a world-renowned actor, but a man manager he is not. If he knows what is good for the club, he will take a back seat and leave the roster to Michael Maguire and his associates. Maybe then we will see more gems like Angus Crichton be unearthed.

Why the NRL’s image is in a bind

We can now safely assume the NRL has learnt nothing from the events of last week.

Yet again on the weekend, a blatant act of thuggery went unpunished. This time Kenny Edwards was the perpetrator; Jonus Pearson the victim.

Seriously, how far does it need to go before the NRL steps in and puts a stop to the violence that is driving young fans – and perhaps more importantly, their parents – away from the game in their droves.

Last week I wrote two articles outlining what needs to change if the NRL are to get on top of this issue and repair the game’s image. The crux of my argument was that any forceful contact to the head that results in injury, be it a deliberate act like Edwards’ or a late high shot like Soliola’s, should be made a send-off offence, with the player receiving a lengthy stint on the sideline as further punishment.

This is the only way we’ll bear witness to change and stamp out what is an ugly look for our game.

The fact remains, though, that the NRL have let another one slip through their grasp this week.

Where is Archer’s confession of the referee’s mistake?

Unless they are content with the laughable $1500 dollar fine handed out to Kenny Edwards, the referee’s boss must set the record straight for the second time in two weeks.

Without sounding like a broken record, his job is to make clear to the public in layman’s terms what they see to be a send-off offence and how they are going to deal with players who cross the line on the field.

The silence from the critics who slammed Soliola’s hit on Slater but have opted out of commenting on Edwards’ pathetic display is deafening. There are differences in the two cases, but both caused harm to the opposition player and have brought the game into disrepute. Those who heaped blame on Soliola last week, but have gone into hiding this week, are part of the problem. We need consistency in order to achieve a cleaner image.

This starts with Archer; he must set the tone. Nothing will get done if we continue to treat each case using a different set of rules. Edwards’ cowardly hit on Pearson and Soliola’s late hit on Slater are one and the same – both could have resulted in serious injury. Yet Soliola gets suspended for five weeks and Edwards receives a minor blow to the bank balance and is allowed to take the field next weekend?

I’ll say it again: what image does this game want to uphold? One of thuggery and violence where cowardly acts are rife and accepted? Or one that takes a tough stance on contact that puts the players in harm’s way?

Outside of reform, consistency and standardising the rulings around high contact is required. If a player gets banned for a high shot one week, a swinging arm or a deliberate elbow to the head after a tackle is completed should receive the same penalty the next.

But this game has long struggled with getting consecutive rulings right, both on and off the field.

Melbourne Storm were stripped of their premierships back in 2010 and forced to play close to an entire season without accruing points. Yet the Parramatta Eels are told in 2016 that if they cut a few players and become cap compliant, they can continue earning premiership points and potentially make the top eight.

Seems fair enough.

And what about Todd Carney being ousted from the NRL over his boozy antics at a pub, while Mitchell Pearce simulates a lude act with a dog and is banned for just eight weeks.

Sure, Todd Carney was on his third and final chance, but when you put the two acts into context it is clear that there are many similarities; foremost, that they both caused irreparable damage to the game’s image.

Then there are the disparities in the length of bans between codes for the use of both recreational and performance enhancing substances over the past few years.

In 2014, a few Cronulla players received backdated suspensions that saw them miss just three matches following an investigation by WADA into an illegal supplement regime implemented at the club in 2011. Meanwhile, in the AFL, Essendon were made to play the entire 2016 season with the majority of their squad missing for the same offence.

Again, there are differences in the two cases, but how can the NRL come up with such a different ruling to the AFL?

All of this smacks of double standards. And a game cannot clean up its image if it continues to treat similar cases differently.

Todd Greenberg is doing a fine job in charge of the NRL, but his biggest problem, after reading his responses to the questions posed by journalist Phil Rothfield on Tuesday, is that he cannot accept there are problems with the game.

Allow me to let you in on a secret, Todd: the game is completely lost at the moment. Not only are we incapable of getting something as simple as a ruling on high shots correct, but crowd numbers have decreased dramatically across the last five years and refereeing has hit an all-time low despite the millions of dollars that have been poured into improving the way the game is officiated.

The game’s image is as scrambled as your morning eggs. One day it’s a sport filled with skill and heroism, unrivalled by anything else on this planet – think the 2015 Grand Final. The next it has a drug problem, can’t control what its players are doing, and is allowing acts that belong in the UFC pentagon to take place without punishment – think rep round, NSW Origin camp and either Soliola’s or Edwards’ brutal and cowardly displays of violence.

Other sports are sitting back in their cane chairs and waiting for the NRL to implode so they can take up its share of the market.

The way it’s going, this could happen within the next two decades.

Who’d let their son or daughter play a game as poorly managed and seemingly dangerous as rugby league when there are safer alternatives that aren’t likely to cause their child’s face to be sprawled over the front page of the newspaper for drug possession in 10 years’ time?

Who’d even bother attending when the NRL are making decisions that are quite obviously causing the competition to become less attractive for viewers and harder to follow?

The proof is in the pudding – crowds are down 2% on last year and participation rates are declining at an alarming rate.

Some will say bring back the good old days of suburban venues, mid-game brawls and contested scrums.

Those days are sadly behind us. But with the game as out of whack as it is, it could do worse than to follow the old-school mantra – with a modern twist, of course.

The NRL have got it wrong…again

It’s hard to believe the NRL match review committee could compound the issue regarding Sia Soliola’s hit on Billy Slater. But they’ve done exactly that by giving the Canberra prop just a five-match suspension as opposed to the six that certain parties were pushing for. If they were interested in taking a tough stance on careless tackles, be they intentional or not, Sia Soliola had to be given the maximum penalty available.

That means he shouldn’t be returning in round 26 against, you guessed it, the Melbourne Storm. He should’ve been banned for the rest of the season without pay and received a reprimand from the club and the NRL.

This was the NRL’s only option after the on-field referees, and those reviewing the decision from the bunker, decided to allow Sia Soliola to remain on the field despite clear-cut evidence he deserved to be sent off.

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Billy Slater was stretchered from the ground on Saturday. Image Source: Pacific – Epeak

Many have argued that the referees are either scared to make this decision because they fear being dropped over poor decisions, or are totally lost as to what does and doesn’t constitute a send-off.

Either way, the NRL had the opportunity to put the argument to bed on Tuesday night but squandered the opportunity much like they did at Canberra stadium on Saturday.

The issue for me, as the match review panel currently stands, is that players are being given lighter sentences when they plead guilty. This simply doesn’t make sense.

‘Sia, because you’ve accepted that you are in fact guilty, we have decided to reduce your charge by one week.’

We are not dealing with convicted murderers here; we are dealing with footballers. As a result, charges should not be downgraded because they have accepted that their actions were not befitting of the NRL’s rules and regulations. What message does that send to the rest of the competition – you can hit a player late and high but still get away with a lighter sentence because you’ve acknowledged that your actions were wrong?

It’s no wonder the NRL has an image problem.

This isn’t the first time they’ve botched a sentence this year. When Tim Simona was found to be fixing matches and committing heinous crimes, Todd Greenberg didn’t mark him down on the no fly list, leaving the door ajar for corruption to creep back into the game at some point in the future.

And what about their soft approach to salary cap breaches in the past.

By not taking a hardball stance on blatant thuggery at the judiciary earlier this week, the NRL have effectively condoned violence.

Slipping or not, hits like Soliola’s give rugby league a bad name.

If the NRL were to make strides forward in preventing a repeat of the shocking events of Saturday night, Tony Archer, or another NRL representative, needed to make clear the rules around send-offs, sin-bins and general misconduct.

It’s no good leaving it to ‘instinct’ as some sources have suggested. We need black and white rulings.

This means contact to the head of an opposition player is made a send-off offence – whether it was intentional or not. Players must be protected.

If the NRL are truly committed to making the game cleaner than it currently is, then its high time they stopped operating their judiciary hearings like a court of law and removed those outdated and non-functional grading terms like ‘careless, late and reckless’.

The more criteria the NRL use for determining the extent of a penalty, the more decisions they are going to get horribly wrong. And for a game already losing its place amongst the younger population due to acts like Soliola’s, it cannot afford for the NRL to continue going soft on brutal hits.

Send-off farce final straw in sorry tale of refereeing blunders

It’s official – the send off is dead. If ever there was a time for it to come back into play again after six years in hibernation, it was Saturday when Sia Soliola’s sickening hit on Billy Slater left us all seeing stars.

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Referees Boss Tony Archer – Image Source: The Roar

In the Super League, the referee’s red card would have been pulled out sooner than Soliola was able to regain his feet. Yet here in the NRL, the referees have gone soft on late hits and general misconduct, while a soft slap on the cheek will get you sent for a ten minute stint on the sidelines.

Referees boss Tony Archer announced on Sunday that the officials made an error in failing to remove Soliola from the field – further evidence that the referees are lost as to what constitutes a send-off and what doesn’t.

Perhaps this stems from the fact that the backlash from both the media and general rugby league public would be so great in the event a player was sent off when they shouldn’t have been.

Whatever the case, a line in the sand was there to be drawn on Saturday night but the opportunity was sadly missed. Anything less now simply cannot be deemed a sin-binnable offence because the referees will be accused of allowing inconsistency to creep into the game.

It could be argued the precedent was set by Tony Archer just a day later. But actions speak louder than words and the fact of the matter is Soliola was allowed to remain on the field. Fans will cry poor as soon as one of their players is sat down over a similar incident because they can offer clear evidence that it has gone unpunished previously.

Tony Archer must come out and set the record straight through introducing black and white rulings around what constitutes a send-off so he is spared future embarrassment.

If he doesn’t then we can safely assume high shots and blatant thuggery like Sia Soliola’s swinging arm or Papalii’s head-high shoulder charge on Dugan will go without punishment on the field.

Something must be done if for no other reason than to ensure a fair contest is had between the side that loses an injured player and is therefore at a disadvantage for the remainder of the eighty-minutes, but also to avoid an injury that could end a players’ career and leave fans wondering why something wasn’t done to protect them earlier.

Archer must also address the clear inconsistencies plaguing the NRL’s million dollar Bunker.

When Daniel Tupou’s try was allowed despite clear evidence of a knock on from Latrell Mitchell in the lead up play on Friday night against the Knights, the Bunker lost all credibility (if it hadn’t already) in the eyes of those supporters whose sides have been robbed of two premiership points by the failings of what was designed to be an infallible system.

If this was the one and only time an error had been made, we wouldn’t be complaining. But it happens on a week to week basis.

Why have they also stopped intervening when the on-field referee blows a penalty that wasn’t there despite having done so previously?

The Bunker was designed to bring more consistency to the game yet we are witnessing an increase in poor decisions and a sudden reduction in the overruling of incorrect penalties.

Then there are the stories that suggest the Bunker are missing out on crucial camera angles because the operators are too busy filming the empty ANZ Stadium seats, and the odd fan who rolls up to the game.

I come back to this question quite often, but what happens if any of these errors occur in the Grand Final?

Ricky Stuart spoke about accountability after the Raiders clash on Saturday, which was a little bizarre given he was very lucky to avoid playing with 12 men, but there was some truth to his fiery rant.

Instead of Tony Archer releasing a media statement full of clichés that has been perfectly scripted to hit the right chords with the clubs, why doesn’t he promote post-season reform or outline the areas the referees are failing in and come up with the appropriate policies to address these issues?

It’s all well and good admitting that an error was made but until this is met with action nothing will change.

The number of refereeing blunders made next year must decrease or Archer should be given his marching orders. If more than half of those made originate in the Bunker, it too must be removed because clearly it is failing to uphold the standards expected by the public and clubs, but also what it was designed for.

The time has come. Enough is enough. Get it right now or be shown the door.

What missing the top eight would mean for the Dragons

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McInnes and Widdop all smiles during the Dragons Round one clash with Penrith. Image source: The Leader.

Seeing the Dragons drop down the ladder is an all too familiar sight for fans of the club.

In 2015, the Dragons were sitting in first position heading into the Origin period. But things quickly turned sour and they ended up finishing the regular season in eighth.

It is a worrying trend that this new Dragons outfit – who were seemingly destined for the finals just a few rounds ago – are following despite having changed a significant amount over the same two year period.

The Dragons lost to the Bulldogs in a heartbreaking elimination final that year and if their season continues the way it is currently then they might just fold once again when the first round of finals comes around.

That is if they make it at all.

Their road to the finals looks an easy one from a distance, but for a side as inconsistent as the Dragons it is difficult to judge.

They have the third placed Sea Eagles this Sunday before taking on the Knights, who gave them a right old scare not that long ago, in round 21.

Two rounds later they take on the Gold Coast who not only handed them their backsides last time around but are playing each round like their lives depend on it, so tight is the cluster of teams vying for a top eight spot.

Their only relief will come against the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs who are both competing for the competition’s ‘most boring and predictable team award’ at this year’s Dally M Medal night.

Much like the Bulldogs though, the Dragons are struggling to score points. It is a monkey they have been unable to remove from their collective backs for the past few seasons.

Last year Widdop and Marshall were blamed for their lack of creativity and this theory seemed to hold true when the Dragons went on a point scoring rampage early in 2017 under a reformed halves pairing.

But the last five or so rounds have seen the Dragons slip back into some bad habits. And there can be no better example of this than on Friday night when the fast-finishing Raiders sunk Dragon heart’s in golden point.

Or on the Gold Coast in round 17, where they could only muster 10 points against a side that was well and truly out of the top eight at the time.

Friday night’s game was there for the taking but like the Dragons of old they reverted to relying on defence too early and let the Raiders dictate terms to them.

When they defeated the Cowboys 28-22 way back in round seven they were relentless.

Even in a losing effort against the Storm they managed to pile on 22 points against what you could argue is the competition’s best defence.

But the well has since run dry and there are worrying signs that the Dragons will rely on their old mantra of ‘defence wins football games’ through fear of losing – much like they did at Canberra Stadium last Friday.

If so, their points differential will go south quicker than the share price of a bankrupt mining corporation and they’ll be lucky to win more than two of their last six games, all but ruling them out of the hunt for a spot in the top eight.

More evidence of the Dragons change in attitude came on Friday night when they began running sideways rather than straight up the middle of the field.

Last season, opposition sides were able to shut down their attack quickly because the defensive line would shuffle across the field and wait for the Dragons to run out of space on the edges.

They look far more dangerous when they give the ball to the likes of De Belin, Packer, Frizell and Vaughan who punch holes in the middle of the ruck and allow the halves, as well as Cameron McInnes, time and space to run the football or steal crucial meters out of dummy-half.

Take the effort against the Tigers earlier this season for example. The Dragons were able to put 28 points on the scoreboard because the forwards gave the halves room to manoeuvre.

Nightingale crossed three times that afternoon thanks to the brilliance of Gareth Widdop who threw three rocket passes off the back of some well-timed block plays.

Without the go-forward of the meter-eaters up front, however, the halves wouldn’t have been given the opportunity.

And that was the Dragons biggest problem last year – the halves overplaying their hands and attempting to create try-scoring opportunities when they hadn’t strapped on the blue overalls and earned the right to do so.

Against Canberra there were signs the Dragons had dismissed this mindset from their thoughts – particularly when the forwards got the ball within meters of the line off the back of a 65 meter drop out – and others where fans were left wondering what exactly has been achieved over the past eight months.

All these questions will be answered over the coming weeks as well as others such as: ‘did the Dragons move too early on re-signing Mary McGregor?’ and ‘will Ben Hunt provide something that McCrone currently is not?’

Which leads me to my next point – why has McCrone, at times, been shunned by McGregor in favour of Kurt Mann in the halves when the former is quite obviously the more competent halfback and the latter a natural born centre?

It beggars belief McGregor is still toying with the halves combination at such a crucial point in the season.

He made this ill-fated move against the Titans and paid full price; there was no attacking creativity until McCrone was brought off the bench and injected into the action in the second half.

If McGregor continues to make these errors in judgement then the Dragons will continue to play like a nothing burger football side that are woeful on their worst days and commendable but nothing more on their best.

3 wins from their last ten games against opposition sides ranging from gettable to hopelessly out of touch is a testament to this.

The final straw will be if they lose to Newcastle in round 21 or the incredibly tame and structured South Sydney in round 22.

A loss to Manly this weekend is forgivable but losses beyond this clash will show the Dragons have come nowhere through two years of constant tinkering and remodelling.

The question then will be: where to next?

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.