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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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.

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

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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.

Cronulla Sharks v Brisbane Broncos Match Preview

Cronulla will be without star winger, turned fullback, Valentine Holmes when they begin their title defence in the season opener tonight.

The Broncos will also be without retirees Parker and Reed, while the spotlight will be put on Halfback Ben Hunt in his first showing since it was announced he would be travelling to St George at the end of this year to join up with the Dragons on a 1.2 million dollar contract.

This game has all the makings of being one of the closest in the opening round. Both sides have notable omissions and will be playing with new structures as well as adjusting to different game plans now that some of the incumbents have parted ways. The Sharks halves are the key to a home victory tonight while the forward pack has a large role to play in nullifying the speed the Broncos enjoy playing with when they are at their try scoring best.

Brisbane’s athletic outside backs pose the biggest threat to the Sharks’ defence and will be looking to exploit their new look right edge which will feature Raiders recruit Edrick Lee. Cronulla have also lost three of their most competent attacking weapons in Barba, Ennis and Holmes and will therefore be asking Maloney and Townsend in the halves to take the line on more often, increase the ruck speed and test the Broncos defenders when they begin to show signs of fatigue. Second phase play was the cornerstone of Cronulla’s attack last year, so look for Gallen and Fafita to play up the middle of the ground where their offloads will be more effective.

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Wade Graham will be a vital part of the Sharks premiership defence. Photo: Sharks.com.au

Many have tipped the Broncos to miss the eight this year, and this comes as no surprise when you consider that they will need to negotiate a difficult draw in the lead up to Origin. Games like these away from home against an undermanned side are must win if they are to squeeze into what will be a tightly contested top eight.

Their inexperienced bench, when opposed to Cronulla’s, would be the biggest concern for coach Wayne Bennet going forward. Pangai Junior, Ese’ese and Arrow have limited first grade experience and will come up against bigger and better opposition benches when they play the clubs predicted to finish above them this year.

Bennett has had plenty of depth on his benches in the sides he’s coached over his career and has therefore been able to control the game. You need only think back to some of his premiership winning sides throughout the nineties, right through to his success with the Dragons in 2010, to see the players he had at his disposal and the impact they had on tightly contested games.

This is a new era for Bennet and one I’m not sure he is equipped to deal with now that his priorities lie elsewhere. There is a World Cup coming up at the end of this year and I’m sure that the RFL would want Bennet on deck at least two months prior to ensure England are in the best shape going in. This could have major ramifications for the Broncos at the pointy end of the season.

Expect the scoreline to be tight in the season’s opening fixture and few points to be scored. Both sides will look to grind the other into the ground by playing off the back of their forwards, preventing an open contest by limiting the time their play makers and outside backs have in possession. We may not see the attacking brand of football that payed dividends for Cronulla last year, and now that Ennis is no longer serving the side at hooker, Jayden Brailey will be required to service the big men close to the line, taking some of the sting out of their attack. Will he be able to catch out opposition defenders with his limited first grade experience? It’s a tough initiation for the young rake and it will take time before he gets a feel for the physicality and pace of first grade.

Without Parker though, the Broncos have some concerns of their own that require addressing.

We’re in for an exciting first game to kick off the 2017 premiership.