Tackling six talking points from Round 9

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

Magic Round a hit

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

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Sharks resilient

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

Parramatta a write-off?

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

Blues’ halves debate a blessing for Maroons

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

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Obstruction rule a pain

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

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

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

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Cowboys return to the Promised Land without their ‘Messiah’

For the second time in three years, a Grand Final featuring two non-Sydney clubs will be played at the Olympic Stadium. What an utter embarrassment this is for the Sydney clubs who purport to own the game.

When Josh Dugan was busy burning bridges on social media and missing the team bus, Michael Morgan and his teammates were waiting silently behind the scenes, hoping the Dragons would self-implode and the Cowboys would fall into the finals.

The Dragons, who scored more tries than the Cowboys during the regular season, went on to lose to the Bulldogs in a game that had the hallmarks of final but featured two teams whose cultures were suffering the ill effects of a few self-important, overpaid prima-donnas.

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The rest is history. The Cowboys made it through to the finals, defeated the defending premiers, the comeback kings, and the high flyers, and now find themselves in another Grand Final.

Their drought-breaking victory against the Broncos two years ago in the greatest Grand final of the modern era will go down as the finest in their history no matter what happens because Jonathan Thurston was finally crowned a premiership winner. But a win against the giants of the game would give many punters, not to mention rugby league fans, something to smile about.

The club’s culture is what has allowed them to achieve so much success over the past few years. There are few other teams in the competition that could make it through to the Grand Final from eighth position, and even fewer who could do it without two of the game’s greats.

When Jonathan Thurston and Matt Scott were ruled out for the entire season, few gave them a chance of moving within touching distance of the finals.

Then former Queensland Origin star Justin O’Neill went down with an elbow injury, and the Cowboys were all but written off.

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What followed showed the unity of the club and the resilience of certain players that don’t receive the plaudits they deserve because they play in a side that is headlined by Thurston and fronted by enforcer Jason Taumalolo.

One of these underrated stars is Michael Morgan, who has gone from Thurston’s right hand man to dominant playmaker.

His performances in the finals series without the game’s greatest halfback have suddenly put Morgan within the top echelon of playmakers in the NRL. He has laid down a marker and asked the competition to chase him.

Nathan Cleary might be the best up and coming half in the competition, and Pearce a reliable playmaker at club level with all the talent but little to show for it, but neither has had to overcome the kind of adversity Morgan has this season.

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Take one look at the rugby league forums, news sites and on social media and you will see that Morgan has gained a number of supporters across the finals series.

Kids suddenly want to be him, coaches lose sleep over him, and the remainder of the competition envies his ever-expanding skill set.

Many have said that Queensland’s Origin dynasty will die off once Thurston and Cronk depart, but Morgan has shown there is plenty of life in the Maroons when the current stars begin to get their retirement plans in order.

Perhaps the most fascinating battle this Sunday will be the one between the old firm – Cronk and Smith – and the next generation – Morgan and Te Maire Martin.

Cronk has played mentor to Morgan for several years, and has taught him the tricks of the Origin trade. Now he must find a way to shut him down.

Also key to the Cowboys success are Shaun Fensom, Te Maire Martin and 2015 Grand Final star Kyle Feldt.

There are several young halves in the competition that have had their names put up in lights, but Te Maire Martin is going about his work quietly yet effectively.

Then there is Fensom, who has had to work his way back to the top since falling out of favour with the Canberra Raiders.

Fensom spent much of last season in reserve grade but Green, like he does so often, took a punt on him and his investment is now paying dividends.

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Think about the number of players Green has pulled from relative obscurity to fill a void in the Cowboys line-up. There’s Granville, who Green coached at Wynnum Manly and brought across to the Cowboys from Brisbane after just 10 first grade appearances; Coeen Hess, who they signed on a whim after a successful U/18’s campaign for the Townsville Stingers; and, of course, Michael Morgan, who is another local product that Green has turned into a million dollar half since taking the reigns.

Somehow, Green has been able to change some of these bits and pieces players into premiership winners and—perhaps more importantly—a single, united team rather than a team of individuals who are more concerned about their own public image than they are their club.

Many clubs go in search of marquee players with over 100 games of first-grade experience to deliver them a premiership. The Cowboys policy, with Green as head coach, has been to bring fringe first graders to the club that other teams wouldn’t take a second look at, and mould them into hard-working footballers that buy into the culture created by Thurston et al.

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The Roosters and South Sydney have won premierships at some point over the last five-years by bringing superstars like Sonny-Bill Williams and Sam Burgess to the club. The tradeoff is that when these players depart, they are left with a hole in the salary cap that they must fill with undeveloped players who haven’t been nurtured by the club and mentored by its forefathers.

The Bulldogs are going in search of a premiership next year by using the very same approach, and it might pay off in the future, but when they all depart at once, the club will be left in dire straights. Young players will be thrown into the deep end without knowing what it takes to deal with the hustle and bustle of the NRL.

The Cowboys have been in two deciders in the last three years with only two genuine superstars on their list. The rest have been taught to play for the spirit of the jumper and the loyal fans living in the North of Queensland.

If they play at anywhere below their best on Sunday night, the Storm will carve them up like a Christmas turkey. If they show the fight that has been drummed into them, then they will really fulfil their ‘giant killers’ tag.