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.

Is the hype surrounding Newcastle justified?

When you think of the Newcastle Knights, what comes to mind? If you’ve been following the team for any length of time, you’d probably be inclined to talk about the premiership the club won back in 1997, when Rugby League in Australia was in the grips of war, and again four years later, when one of the game’s greatest halfbacks helped the Knights defeat a highly fancied Parramatta side. If not these, you’d reminisce about the champion players that passed through the club during its glory days, Sunday afternoons spent at Hunter Stadium, the grand final parades, and the turbulence of the Tinkler era that brought with it so much uncertainty.

Things of late have begun to distort the image Newcastle once worked hard to build. Instead of talking about the supreme skills of Johns and Buderus, fans are lamenting the sorry state of a once famous and highly successful club that has lost its aura. Over the last five years Newcastle have won three spoons and failed to qualify for finals. Add to this that all three were won across the seasons of 2015, 2016 and 2017, and you begin to gauge exactly where the club currently stands.

2018 is filled with hope, though. For the first time in the last few years the Knights have a realistic chance of making the top eight. Mitchell Pearce, one of the most polarizing figures in NSW rugby league, joins the club from the Roosters – a side that knows what it takes to play finals football and does so routinely.

Even more exciting for Knights fans is the arrival of Kalyn Ponga. The young fullback may only have a handful of first-grade games under his belt, but he showed signs of great skill and maturity during his time at the Cowboys. The only question that remains now is whether he can deliver on the potential that the Knights saw in him when they sat down to table a deal. A contract worth in excess of a million dollars can often be more of a curse than a blessing for young players who arrive at a club with the expectation of helping deliver a premiership.

The Knights have also improved their depth through the signings of Tautau Moga, Connor Watson, Aidan Guerra, Chris Heighington, Slade Griffin, Jacob Lillyman and Herman Ese’ese. All are quality players who have been a part of highly successful clubs previously. And all will bring a bit of extra experience to the club that will help in the development of rising stars like the Saifiti brothers, Sione Mata’utia, Danny Levi and the powerful Mitch Barnett.

Take Heighington for example. Not two years ago he was a part of the Cronulla side that won the premiership. At the end of last year he came off the bench in the Rugby League World Cup final for England. Playing wise, Heighington’s days are numbered. But you sense he has been brought to the club for more than just what he can deliver on the playing field; his role is to nurture the young Knights forwards and help them realize what it takes to win a premiership.

This won’t be the season Newcastle go all the way – let’s get this straight. It mightn’t even be the year they make the top eight. But it is the beginning of a new era for the Knights. Their premiership window has been brought forward considerably thanks to the work of the management and coaching staff behind a successful off-season recruitment drive.

No longer is Newcastle merely there to make up the numbers. They’re a genuine threat. And I dare say a number of teams this season will fear coming up against them. Forget about easy beats. The Knights are an unknown quantity with a point to prove and for that reason they will cause a number of upsets this season.

This new look side can restore faith in the long-time fans that have begun to drift away from the Hunter and forget about the joy football can bring. They can rediscover the style of football that saw the Newcastle Knights become one of the most popular Australian sporting brands during the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

Johns and Buderus are now nothing more than a distant memory, but the mark they left on the club will withstand the test of time. We may never see the Knights return to the lofty heights set by these two ever again – certainly not for some time yet, anyway. But they, and many others, will be forever known as the architects of a club that inspired an entire generation of rugby league fans from a working-class town.

Growing up during the mid 2000’s, receiving my Rugby League education from Channel 9, much was said about the Newcastle Knights. They were the poster boys of the NRL and the most discussed side on television and in the newspapers. As a Dragons supporter, they were the one side you respected. That respect began to fade away shortly after Johns, Buderus, Gidley, Harragon and MacDougall retired.

I feel the club is on the cusp of returning to those good old days. If they do, the competition, and rugby league in general, will be better for it.

For the first time in a long time, Newcastle fans have a right to feel excited about the future.