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.

Sell-out Cronulla crowd shows why the NRL must reconsider playing more games at suburban venues

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Shark Park in all its glory. Photo – Sharks Membership

It’s one of the oldest debates in rugby league – should more games be taken to suburban venues in place of those played at soulless big event stadiums like ANZ Stadium and Allianz?

Take one glance at the sell-out crowd at Cronulla’s SCG Stadium on Saturday night and there’s a strong case for doing so.

But before the NRL jumps the gun and changes all Wests Tigers’ home games in 2017 from ANZ to Leichhardt, there are a few things that must be cleared up.

Firstly, the crowd on Saturday night may have been inflated somewhat due to the half-time dancing spectacular put on as a marketing ploy by Cronulla officials to sell extra tickets.

Secondly, the Sharks are fresh off a premiership victory, meaning more fans may be inclined to visit the ground rather than opting to watch the game on television.

Lastly, the Bulldogs were visiting Shark Park for the first time since 2011 and generally have a large following wherever they travel, particularly within NSW.

But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen excellent suburban crowds push the case for more games to be scheduled at grounds with less seating and a more intimate atmosphere.

The pay off, however, is that these particular grounds very rarely offer the same facilities as large scale venues with public transport access, video replay screens that can be seen by a patron sitting in row Z and a surplus of public amenities.

Brookvale Oval is one of the last suburban venues used on a regular basis in the NRL but even it is stuck in the 1990’s as far as facilities go.

So we must find a middle ground.

This means playing local derbies, such as Cronulla against the Dragons, exclusively at suburban venues while the box-office clashes that have no local appeal and where tickets are in higher demand remain at the game’s bigger venues.

Games such as the Easter Monday clash between Parramatta and Wests, which currently takes place at ANZ stadium due to its popularity, is one exception given the availability of Leichhardt Oval and the atmosphere that can be created by supporters packed onto the Wayne Pearce hill.

Some fans would miss out on tickets but rugby league is fast becoming a sport designed for television, so leaving a few fans dismayed by being unable to attend in person is a risk the NRL must take to prevent itself from being left red in the face over empty grandstands.

It’s not a matter of shifting all home matches to suburban venues but rather allocating a few more games, which would otherwise leave a venue like Allianz half empty, to grounds with a more intimate atmosphere.

Games like the Roosters against the Dogs, which would generally attract a crowd of 15,000 at Allianz or ANZ, could instead be taken to Bellmore where it would almost certainly sell-out and create a more attractive and engaging spectacle for both fans at the ground and those watching on at home.

But the NRL have been slow to move on this debate and it is easy to see why when you consider that they receive a greater slice of the pie at corporate venues through food and drink sales.

Moving the Easter Monday game away from ANZ and into Leichardt would also mean the NRL sells just 20,000 tickets as opposed 50,000 plus, and for a game that operates on the revenue it generates, this approach makes little business sense. Particularly given their current financial situation.

But it is something that must be done to save us the pain of watching a game at Allianz where the players can hear a pin drop when the game hits a lull.

Not all NRL teams have the luxury of playing at suburban venues anyway and most grounds around the country have undergone redevelopment to allow for increased seating due to a rise in attendance figures. So it would take only a few minor tweaks to the fixtures list on the NRL’s behalf to set the wheels in motion and give suburban venues more games.

Why Michael Maguire is on borrowed time at South Sydney

After yet another humiliating loss on Friday night, Michael Maguire’s days at South Sydney are numbered.

Or at least they should be, given the way many clubs within the NRL have chosen to deal with coaches when they hit hard times and wins become more difficult to find than oversized pumpkins in a supermarket around Halloween.

Take Jason Taylor for example, the man dumped by the Wests Tigers at the beginning of this year following a run of losses and two years without finals football. He has since been replaced by Ivan Cleary but the way with which he was forced out of the club and to the back of the unemployment line was unjust and based on flimsy reasoning.

The Wests Tigers finished 15th in 2015 and 9th a year later, missing out on the finals by a point. But after just three rounds of the new season, he was thrown out quicker than a misbehaving partygoer at a night club after back-to-back losses including a 40 point thumping at the hands of the Canberra Raiders in the nation’s capital.

Club officials are quick to lay blame on the coach when their side’s on-field performances are not up to scratch, and this was certainly the case at the Wests Tigers earlier this year.

The writing was on the wall for Taylor long before his sacking when Robbie Farah, the clubs’ favourite son, was dropped to reserve grade despite appearing for NSW in Origin just weeks earlier.

Then, when he was eventually pushed out and forced to find another club at the end of the 2016 season, after making a late plea to remain a one club player in the Tigers’ heartbreaking defeat to Canberra at Leichardt in round 26, Taylor’s days were suddenly numbered.

The Tigers poor early season form was all the convincing the club needed to put the final nail in JT’s coffin. A day later he was clearing his desk and drafting a resume.

True, if a club has made a habit of missing finals the coach needs to go because they are clearly incapable of getting the most out of their players or coming up with match-winning game plans. But the Wests Tigers, like many other NRL clubs, seem to feel that if things aren’t going well on the field, it is the fault of the coach, even if the players at their disposal aren’t capable of matching it with the rest of the competition.

This from a club that kept a coach on its books for close to a decade after winning just one premiership and qualifying for the finals on three occasions thereafter.

So how does this relate to Maguire?

Put simply, he may end up the victim of another unjust sacking by an NRL club that believes its coach is the reason for a drop in performance. Not poor management, as in the case of the Tigers, or a lack of player depth which, again, is not the sole responsibility of the coach or something they may have any input in at all.

Since winning the premiership in 2014, Souths have finished 7th, where they made it as far as the qualifying finals, and 12th in a disappointing 2016 season. Once again this year, it looks as if they are destined to finish in the bottom eight. Maybe even the bottom four.

So how will a famous club with a thirst for premiership success like South Sydney respond to this kind of failure? If they are anything like the other proud Sydney clubs and are following the trend of making the coach the fall guy for circumstances beyond his control, he’ll be sacked using the age old excuse that they are “rebuilding the club” or “restructuring the way we go about business”.

But these excuses don’t hold up anymore. Only nine months ago Paul McGregor was on the outer at St George Illawarra along with Peter Doust who were, apparently, both to blame for the Dragons’ underwhelming performances.

Making Doust the scapegoat is understandable, he is in an authority position and is responsible for making decisions that directly influence on-field performance. But blaming McGregor, a man who had been in control of the club for just two full seasons, was hard to stomach.

Already this year, with the same two men at the head of the table, the Dragons have climbed the ladder and are sitting pretty in third position with seven wins and four losses. Yet McGregor and Doust could’ve been handing in their applications to rival organisations in the lead up to Christmas last year.

Then there’s the case of Geoff Toovey who, after four seasons in charge, was sacked in sensational circumstances with the return of advisor and Manly legend Bob Fulton. This despite missing the finals on just one occassion and qualifying for a Grand Final in 2013.

Des Hasler was also within a hair’s breadth of parting ways with Canterbury earlier this year. His record speaks for itself but after the Bulldogs got their season off to a slow start he was being held accountable for his players’ poor form.

So yes, Maguire has plenty to be concerned about. Like Toovey, he has experienced great success during his time as head coach but has suddenly fallen on hard times. The Rabbitohs are struggling to compete with the best teams in the comp and are a shadow of the side that won the Grand Final in 2014; sitting in 15th position and moving in a southerly direction.

Unlike Taylor, and McGregor to an extent, he is operating under a more sturdy board with few weak links and a good track record.

Yet, in much the same fashion as the former Wests Tigers coach, he is leading a team full of fallen champions, fading stars, and young footballers who are fresh to first grade and struggling to establish a foothold.

Maguire has been a fine coach for a long time but will soon fall victim to the modern age mindset that changing the coach will help reverse a sides’ fortunes while the players get off scot-free even though they are the ones participating in the game.

Why must we continue to force the coach to own the teams’ performance after just a few years in charge? Yes, he is responsible for improving and optimising the quality of the players he has at his disposal, but, contrary to popular opinion, he takes no part in the game and is not capable of throwing a pass to his winger or completing a set of six, even if his job, by very definition, is to give that player the best chance to succeed in doing so.

Give coaches a chance to build a legacy. If at this stage the side is still struggling, then consider making personnel changes at the top.

Forcing change because a club is unfamiliar and uncomfortable with failure and the thought of missing finals will rarely result in improved performance. Surely clubs have learned this lesson by now.

Club members will only renew their membership if the team is experiencing success. Sponsors too are drawn to clubs with a rich history of premiership glory. We live in a result driven world so it is understandable that clubs will go searching for answers when things go awry.

But we are asking too much of coaches and laying blame on the blameless when it should be attributed elsewhere – to the players who are a protected spices in the 21st century.

Bennett’s gamble pays off, Eels’ 2016 salary cap rort comes back to haunt them

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When it was announced in December last year that Benji Marshall would be joining the Broncos on a one-year deal, many fans were left dumbfounded, wondering how exactly Bennett planned on fitting him into a seasoned outfit. The halves where already filled with two up-and-coming Origin hopeful’s – one who is about to realise this dream – and a talented youngster with a limited amount of first-grade experience but plenty of potential. In the centers there was no lack of talent either. Roberts had already tied down his spot alongside Kahu, while Moga was being touted as the long-term replacement for the position once held by Justin Hodges.

But as we enter the first round of bye’s, Bennett’s gamble, it appears, is about to pay off. Marshall has been named in the halves alongside Ben Hunt, who is returning from an injury he sustained well over a month ago. This was surprising at first given the exceptional job Nikorima did in Hunt’s absence, but, like we’ve seen so many times before during his tenure with the Broncos and on the representative stage, Bennett has opted in favour of experience and class over form and youthful exuberance.

Bringing Marshall to the club after a torrid year with St. George Illawarra was a particularly risky gamble for Bennett to make. His signature cost the club a miserly $100,000 dollars, and for a player of Marshall’s ilk, this would have seemed like a bargain given the Dragons had tabled an offer of $300,000 not eight months earlier. But with there being no shortage of talent on the Broncos roster, it looked as if that money would have been better spent topping up a players salary, or even purchasing Marshall as part of the coaching staff. Because that is what it seemed he was brought to the club for – to advise players and up-skill the young halves in much the same way as Kevin Walters did during his time with the side in their last visit to a Grand Final in 2015. As it stands though, this might just be the best hundred grand Bennett has ever spent. And here’s why.

Around Origin time, the Broncos’ record is nothing short of woeful. In all honesty, they are probably the most vulnerable team across the bye rounds because so many players are away in Queensland Origin camp. This weekend against the Warriors, they will be without Oates, Milford, Boyd, Gillett, McGuire and Thaiday. That’s a fair chunk of both their spine and their all conquering forward pack, who have played an instrumental role in their go forward this season, that will be missing against a side largely unaffected by Origin.

And so Bennett, wary of the woes they experience around this time of year, took out an insurance policy, ensuring that if their season got off to a rocky start, they could still be competitive across the Origin period. This is why Bennett is one of the finest coaches of our era. He is a forward-thinker, a visionary and a man manager. Say what you will about his behavior off the field, he is one of the most powerful figures within our game and his radical moves have delivered numerous premierships for the clubs he has overseen. So it is no surprise that he took the Marshall gamble, even if, at the time, it looked like a waste of money and a thoughtless move.

Still, we’re yet to see if Marshall is worth the coin. There is a reason the Dragons chose not to renew his contract, and that is because they probably felt he was no longer up to first grade standard and was struggling to produce point scoring plays; a halfback’s prerogative. Already this year we have seen an upturn in the Dragons’ form and while this may have nothing to do with Marshall whatsoever, you have to wonder what their attack would look like had he been re-signed when they tabled the offer he scoffed at not so long ago.

What will he bring to the Broncos this Saturday and how will he perform in combination with the sprightly Ben Hunt? Bennett has put $100,000 on red and is letting it ride. Will he emerge victorious?

Peats’ good form rubs salt into Eels’ wounds

The Paramatta salary cap saga of 2016 is behind us and the rugby league community have moved on, but the scars still cut deep. Their struggles on the field so far this year are a sign that they are continuing to suffer the effects of last year’s events and everything at the club is not as rosy as it seems.

Nothing, though, would hurt more than watching Peats, the man they dumped like a hitchhiker on the side of the Mount Lindesay Highway without so much as a goodbye, run around for the Gold Coast in career best form. I wrote last year in this column that if the rugby league gods existed, they would ensure that Parramatta be given their just deserts. This week, Peats was named in the number nine jumper for NSW and never has an Origin selection made you feel more at peace with the world. Justice has been served.

Better still, the perennial strugglers Gold Coast, who are still in the hands of the NRL, have purchased a player that is not only worth more now than he was when he arrived, but are building a world-class spine, and a more than handy pack, capable of delivering a premiership within five years. This might sound like another Gus Gould rip-off, but when you look down their team list and see names like Peats, Hayne, Roberts, Elgey, and Taylor, it’s hard to think otherwise. Of course, a lot depends on how Gold Coast treat these players and whether or not they can keep them on the books given their rising prices and the limitations of the salary cap.

Then you look down Parramatta’s list and the future doesn’t seem quite so bright. There’s still names like Norman, Gutherson, Moses, French, Brown and Pritchard, who has been a more than able replacement for Peats, to get the heart fluttering. But with the Semi-trailer jetting off for French rugby at season’s end, Paramatta look a bits-and-pieces team destined to remain in the bottom eight for the foreseeable future. And much of this can be tied back to the former board members who allowed the salary cap drama to spiral out of control even when the integrity unit had exposed their attempt to cover up the rort. Was this an enormous blunder or sheer stupidity?

Whatever the case, Parramatta are now paying for their costly mistakes (or ineptitude) on the field. Not only would they still be in possession of Peats if they didn’t have to offload $600,000 worth of talent mid last year, they wouldn’t be rebuilding their player roster and starting from scratch like they have been since the five board members were given their marching orders. The situation may not be as dire at the Eels as it is at the Tigers, and their position on the ladder is a testament to this, but the ones that plunged the club into peril have effectively turned a team bound for finals into a team that are rocks one week and diamonds the next. At the moment they are getting away with poor performances against bottom eight sides because they are among the pick of a bad bunch. Against the competitions front-runners, however, they are struggling to compete. Just like they showed two weeks ago at Allianz against the Roosters.

If Parramatta are searching for inspiration, they should look no further than the Bulldogs who in 2002 were caught cheating the cap and two years later won a premiership. Or indeed the Storm who did the same two years after being found to have breached the cap themselves. If this trend continues, Parramatta will be champions in October next year. The way they’re going though, a top eight finish would be a significant achievement.

Dragons remarkable turnaround a testament to players’ character

Amongst the drama and intrigue that currently surrounds the NRL transfer market fiasco, one quite remarkable story-line has gone largely unnoticed by the Rugby League community.

The St. George Illawarra Dragons, given next to no hope of winning the premiership just two months ago, sit top of the premiership table with just one loss to their name. It’s not quite the Leicester City fairy-tale, particularly when you consider that we are just six rounds into the season and the Dragons have’t yet taken on the competition heavyweights, but it is a miraculous turn of events given the disastrous state of club just a few months ago.

Let’s look back at the events that led to their demise.

The Dragons finished season 2016 in eleventh position. The club was in disarray. Fans were campaigning for the coach and chief executive to be thrown out of the club like a drunkard being tossed out of a nightclub following a booze fueled brawl. And criticism was being hurled at the halves, namely Widdop and Marshall, like stones from all and sundry. The problem began and ended with them.

But as time has passed, some seven months now, the Dragons have become a more professional outfit and winning games has quickly become a habit.

The real test will come when they face the Cowboys this weekend, and then the Roosters followed a week later by the Storm. Only in the aftermath of these encounters will we know whether the Dragons are capable of challenging for the crown in 2017.

They’ve shown signs of having what it takes to make it to ANZ Stadium in October. Against a rampant and in-form Sea Eagles outfit last weekend they ran out 35 to 10 victors in a game many expected the home side to run away with like a cat burglar stealing a TV in the dark of night.

So what has been the catalyst for the dramatic turnaround from chumps to, dare I say, champs?

It’s hard to look past their pack, in particularly the big names – Vaughan, De Belin, Frizell, Thompson and even Packer – who are dragging the club kicking and screaming into a new era.

Much of the Dragons game last year was based around defence, and it needed to be given they found points harder to come by than a property listed for less than a million dollars in the city’s CBD.

But so far this year, the big men have provided the go forward and given the Dragons field position, allowing the halves to play close to the line instead of trying to create something from an impossible range. And hasn’t Widdop flourished.

The old story in Rugby League goes that members of the cities’ football club never have to empty their pockets for a coffee again once they’ve payed their dues; such is the admiration for their skill. Rumour has it Balmain legends Steve Roach and Paul Sironen are still being offered free drinks on the peninsula by overawed fans clinging onto the success of the late eighties. Gareth Widdop had no such luck around two months ago and was made to pay for every coffee, muffin and breakfast burrito he ever consumed, plus an extra surcharge. Now the race is on to snap up his signature before another club swoops in on him.

This is quite the turnaround but he is far from the only player that has experienced some success under the Dragons’ new style.

Former St George Illawarra hooker Mitch Rein labelled the Dragons a boring football side after he left the club on bad terms. One must wonder whether this was purely him airing his dirty laundry or whether there was truth to his claims.

But since Cameron McInnes has come along to spice up the Dragons attack, nothing about it has been remotely sleep inducing. His presence around the ruck has added an extra dimension to the Dragons game that opposition defensive units have found difficult to counteract.

Under Marshall, Widdop and Rein, St George Illawarra’s kicking game was almost non existent, and when it was, nothing came of it. McInnes has added run and carry out of dummy-half, been as solid as the rock of Gibralter in defence, but, and perhaps most importantly, has provided grubbers in behind the defence that have either led to try scoring opportunities or forced repeat sets.

Again, these opportunities only arise when the forwards are doing their job.

I cannot end this column without mentioning the transformation in Lafai’s game because, while he hasn’t earned the accolades or the plaudits that the likes of Widdop, McCrone, Frizell and Vaughan have, he has played a pivitol role in the Dragon’s reawakening.

Two weeks ago against the West Tigers it was his vision and strength that sent Nightingale over for a hat-trick. Sure, none of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the brilliance of Widdop in the lead up play, but it was stunning Rugby League nonetheless, delivered by a player regaining the confidence that saw him play a vital role in the Bulldog’s march to the Grand Final in 2014.

Wingers are only as good as their inside man after all.

Having said all this, it takes just one poor performance for the bubble to burst and the cycle to start all over again. It’s the way the Dragons bounce back from narrow, or damaging, defeats that will decide whether they are genuine challengers.

NRL need to set a precedent for gambling within the game

Todd Greenberg has done much in his time as NRL CEO to confirm that he is the right man for the job. But with just one statement in last week’s press conference to announce the fate of troubled West Tigers star Tim Simona, he immediately undid all his good work.

“Based on the evidence we’ve identified, it is very hard to imagine that Tim Simona will be registered with the NRL at any time in the future”.

Simona deserved a life-ban. His crimes are inexcusable and are in breach of more than just the NRL’s policies. He has broken the law, betrayed his team and should have been rubbed out of the game with not even the slightest chance of ever being allowed back; if for nothing else than preserving the game’s image.

But the wishy-washy nature of Greenberg’s statement, and the penalty, is hard to overlook.

The NRL haven’t taken a tough stance on any indiscretions other than salary cap breaches in recent times. Even the illicit drug policy has come into question by the players during the last week.

Back in 2002, the Bulldogs were fined $500,000 and docked premiership points when they were found to be cheating the cap.

Melbourne followed in 2010 for the same misdeed, but were also stripped of their premiership titles.

When it came time for Todd Greenberg to hand down his decision on Parramatta in July last year, he had a precedent, set by previous administrations, by which to follow.

As far as match fixing, or dealing with breaches in the games gambling code is concerned, the NRL is yet to establish a benchmark. It remains a grey area.

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Todd Greenberg needed to make an example of Simona to rid the game of gambling issues. Photo Source: Bein Sports

When news first broke that Tim Simona was placing bets on himself and opposition players to score tries against the West Tigers, the length of his ban in the eyes of the public was heavily dependent on an individuals moral compass.

What did and didn’t come under the banner of breaching the game’s ‘integrity’, and to what degree Simona’s actions could be seen as doing so when opposed to something like doping, was up for debate.

But that was before details of his contemptible charity scams and drug habit were brought to light, turning a tale of addiction into something more sinister.

At this point, the NRL had a golden opportunity to deter other players from even thinking of committing the same abhorrent crimes, by handing down a penalty that would force them to risk their careers if they wanted to follow in Simona’s footsteps. But in just one statement, Greenberg left the door open for future occurrences to take place.

A disappointing and undesirable result for the game’s image and culture, which is already under heavy scrutiny from the outsiders looking in.

Greenberg would have done well to express more than simply his personal feelings towards Simona’s actions. They were well considered, meaningful even, but didn’t fulfill their purpose.

Instead of using terms such as ‘hard to imagine’, which are open to interpretation by a future CEO who may wish to re-register Simona if he feels he has served his time, he needed to make an example of the former Tigers winger by banning him for life.

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Simona’s contract has been torn up by the NRL. Photo Source: Geelong Advertiser – 

If the NRL isn’t willing to play hardball then we shouldn’t expect gambling issues within the game to disappear automatically.

The same goes for the current protocols in place to deal with players who engage in recreational drug use. The punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime.

We must even question the effectiveness of the education forums administered by the NRL. Clearly, if these issues are systemic, their messages are failing to sink in.

Simona knew the consequences of his actions but still chose to feed his addiction in the most heinous way imaginable, by selling jersey’s and keeping the proceeds, promised to charity, for himself.

He had been through the NRL’s programs, presumably a number of times, but failed to heed their warnings.

The Wests Tigers missed the eight by one point in 2016. An issue that went largely unaddressed while the case was under the microscope.

It should have been the wake up call that kicked the NRL into gear, but it was barely considered.

This very point demonstrates the kind of influence match-fixing and gambling violations can have on the premiership at large.

What must the fan, that forks out thousands of dollars to watch their side play each year, be thinking when the NRL fails to take a tough stance on players making a mockery of their allegiance.

Does he or she still believe in the integrity of a contest?

There will always be question marks over the result of a game until the NRL brings in stringent rules to rub out those who attempt to manipulate them.

Roosters down sorry Dogs in placid affair

Last night we witnessed two teams headed in very different directions on the competition ladder.

The Roosters – with their new look halves combination and experienced pack – are gearing up for a top four finish, while the Bulldogs are in damage control and struggling to maintain their foothold in the competitions predicted top eight.

The former have found form across the first two rounds of the 2017 premiership season and there are no prizes for guessing why this has come about.

Missing the finals in 2016, following years of sustained success, hit the playing group like a freight train and left many of their seasoned veterans scratching their heads, wondering whether 2017 was destined to finish in the same vein.

But that was before Keary, who is shaping as the best buy of the season after two match winning performances in his first two games for the club, joined Halfback Mitchell Pearce in an untested combination that has worked like clockwork since its unveiling.

Selecting the winner in the lead up to last week’s game against the Gold Coast was a lottery, but if the same fixture was to take place today, the punters would have no qualms in backing the boys from Bondi. In fact, they would start as overwhelming favourites.

While a great deal of the Roosters’ early success can be put down to the Keary and Pearce factor, the likes of Ferguson, Guerra and Aubusson have been just as monumental in the sides’ impressive performances.

Latrell Mitchell is perhaps the best emerging talent in the NRL and credit should be given where credit is due. He is an immensely skilled footballer and has Origin written all over him. The side would not be as proficient in attack without him.

We mustn’t underestimate the influence of Michael Gordon either, and what his experience and impressive CV brings to the table.

The recruitment managers at the Roosters deserve to be commended.

For the Bulldogs, the same cannot be said. They battled hard for eighty minutes on Thursday night to get within just four points of a challenging opposition, but the media scrutiny around the alleged rifts between players, board and coach are beginning to show.

And with every loss, this debate, and the attention that accompanies it, only intensifies.

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Latrell Mitchell, future star. Photo: stuff.co.nz

They scored 24 points in the game but this doesn’t paint an accurate picture of their attack.

Three came off the back of Roosters errors and another was scored by running an over used, predictable block-play through the middle of a tired Roosters ruck that, later in the season, would have been snuffed out in a heartbeat.

Summing up their attack in a nutshell is easy because there isn’t much to describe. If given one word, it could be labelled uncreative. And this comes down to a lack of involvement from their halves which is affecting the potency of their go-forward.

The Bulldogs spine is one of the best in the competition on paper but they haven’t shown their wares in a number of months. When they do, their football is scintillating and creates an exciting spectacle for fans watching on television or at the ground. But these occasions are becoming few and far between with every passing game.

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The Canterbury Bulldogs will need to lift if they are to get their season back on track. Photo: source unknown. 

Structures like those that the Bulldogs have employed for what feels like generations are effective in certain circumstances, but when opposed to modern off the cuff methods, are often made to look obsolete.

So it is no surprise than, given the magnitude of evidence stacked against them, that their season is already on the rocks.

Sacking Des Hasler would be like shooting the messenger. He’s not directly to blame for their woes but is easily scapegoated as the responsible party because this is the only link we seem to make when teams are playing poor football in this era.

A man who has coached his side to two deciders inside five years doesn’t deserve to go. The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the players. They must lift.