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.

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.

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.

Which clubs are in the Hunt for Cronk?

So, Cooper Cronk and the Melbourne Storm have parted ways. A nightmare for some and a dream for the nine or so Sydney clubs that will soon begin battling it out for the contract of the world’s best halfback.

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Crock announces his Sydney move to the media. Photo: Fox Sports.

The big three, outside of State of Origin, are no longer.

It’s a sad sight but who are we to stand in the way of love.

The question now is where will Cronk end up in 2018 and which club does he best suit?

Perhaps a more appropriate question still is which club will benefit most from his services?

Here are the clubs in line to make a play for the 2016 Dally M medallist.

Parramatta Eels:

When news first broke of Cronk’s move to Sydney yesterday afternoon, Parramatta was one of the first clubs linked to his signature. But with last year’s salary cap dramas still lingering like the smell of two week old rubbish, it’s difficult to see them making a substantial bid, if any.

Corey Norman and Clint Gutherson have been in the halves across the first five rounds of the competition, but haven’t quite provided the spark the Eels require. They remain a work in progress, not a settled combination, so there are grounds for placing an offer for Cronk. But the 2018 cap, which is a bigger mystery than the gunman on the grassy knoll, will force Parramatta’s hand and see them drop out of the contest.

St George Illawarra Dragons:

The signing of Ben Hunt all but rules the joint venture out of the race, while the form of Gareth Widdop so far this year means there is no need to fix what isn’t currently broke.

Sydney Roosters: 

The Roosters are the other strong favourites tipped to lure Cronk like hunters in the African savanna.

The tri-colours have experienced great success with their newly formed halves pairing of Pearce and Keary, but much like the Eels, they aren’t a permanent fixture yet and are still in the beta stage of their partnership. This leaves room for Cronk to slot in alongside Pearce to form what could only be described as a halves pairing plucked from heaven.

The Roosters have 12 players coming off contract at the end of the 2017 season, leaving plenty of space to squeeze Cronk under the cap.

Cronulla Sharks:

James Maloney quipped that he may be out of a job when he heard Cronk was leaving Melbourne. But in truth, he has nothing to worry about.

Maloney and Townsend took the Cronulla Sharks to a premiership no less than seven months ago and sending one of them packing would be an unnecessary and unsavoury move.

Townsend is off contract at the end of 2017, giving the Sharks an outside chance of landing Cronk’s signature. But boy would it be a sucker punch to the gut for the Cronulla halfback.

Much depends on where the Sharks finish this season on the competition ladder.

The no vacancy sign will soon be put up. Surely.

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No longer will we see a Cronk pass to Slater. Photo: ABC

South Sydney Rabbitohs:

Cody Walker was re-signed for three years at the end of 2016 while his partner in crime, Adam Reynolds, did likewise, committing to South Sydney until 2021.

It seems highly unlikely that the Rabbitohs list managers would suddenly feel inclined to head in a different direction having made a choice to secure their future.

Walker has spent some time at Fullback though, so there is the potential for him to be shifted back into the number one. Alex Johnston is yet to sign a contract extension with South Sydney meaning this combination could well come to fruition.

It seems unlikely though. Rabbitohs are the big outsiders.

Newcastle Knights:

The Knights lost Jarred Mullen to a drugs ban at the beginning of the season, allowing youngster Brock Lamb to make his first grade debut. And what a fine job he has done.

Trent Hodkinson still has a year and a half to go on his contract. So, needless to say, he will not be the man making way for Cronk, while Lamb, given his inexperience, will have his head firmly on the chopping block if the Knights were to make a bid.

Newcastle are currently owned by the NRL though so it’s easy to see them being outbid by one of the financially stable clubs.

Canterbury Bulldogs:

If the scramble to sign Cooper Cronk was a horse race, the Bulldogs would be unbackable favourites.

Mbye and Reynolds have come under great pressure from supporters this year following a series of poor performances, leaving the door ajar for one of them to be sent packing.

No doubt both of them will be slipping an extra prayer into their evening’s grace. They are the two most vulnerable players in the league at the moment, outside of ‘they who shall not be named’ at the Wests Tigers.

Wests Tigers:

Again, the Tigers are in contention for Cronk, if for no other reason than because both halves are coming off contract at the end of this season.

The ‘Big Four’ have the board bent over a barrel, and they might just get their way one more time. A new coach and a board that would be hard pressed managing a small business might be reluctant to make any radical changes given recent events. Even if they would drastically change the fortunes of the football club.

Penrith Panthers:

No chance, simply no chance. And why would there be when the development of Te Maire Martin and Nathan Cleary has progressed into its second year. They are two of the most promising playmakers in the competition and Penrith have their heart set on keeping them together for as long as it takes them to form a Thurston/ Cronk like partnership.

Manly Warringah Sea Eagles:

Blake Green has just signed with Manly and is working like a charm while Daly Cherry-Evans is still earning $1.3 million dollars a year. They have been worth every cent across the last few rounds of this season and Manly won’t be stumping up a bucket load of cash to sign a single player.

Pass.

The Dragons would be crazy not to re-sign Dugan

Andrew Webster, speaking on NRL 360 two nights ago, revealed that the Dragons are offering Josh Dugan a reported $750,000 a season to continue on in the Red V, $100,000 less than he is currently earning.

The club are adamant that for as long as Dugan remains a Dragon beyond this season; he will do so in the centres.

This, despite coach Paul McGregor stating after the game on Sunday night that Dugan’s best football is played at fullback, and for as long as he is at the helm, that is where he will stay.

It’s clear that there are major disparities between what the club want and what the coach believes is in the best interest of his team moving forward.

This is dangerous ground for a football club.

Dugan has spent the last four years earning back the respect and admiration he lost when he parted ways with the Raiders following a string of off-field incidents that saw his career face a premature end.

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Will Josh Dugan remain in the Red V beyond 2017? Photo: Sporting News

Over this period, he has represented his state and country and has been a consistent performer through a dry period for the club.

So for the Dragons to offer Dugan less money than his current value is an insult to not only his growth as a footballer but his worth to the team.

The addition of Ben Hunt has a great deal to do with this.

Three months ago, the Dragons would’ve jumped at the opportunity to secure Dugan’s signature beyond this year, regardless of his asking price. It was a no brainer.

But the exorbitant figure they dished out to lure Hunt away from Brisbane has left a huge hole in the kitty.

In many ways, Hunt could prove to be more of a hindrance than the gifted messiah he is made out to be.

The Dragons were reeling entering season 2017 and the signature of Hunt assured fans that they would become a competitive force again next year.

A marquee signing would settle tensions and promise a light at the end of the tunnel scenario. And in many ways, it has.

A month into the season though, and suddenly it looks as if they might have jumped the gun. Confidence is running high and things no longer look so bleak.

The issue for the Dragons has always been their willingness to look outside of the club when the talent lies within; letting players go who have been brought up through the local systems but haven’t delivered on their potential.

And so the cycle goes: lure a high profile player by offering a life changing sum of money and force a group of home grown players to go searching for another club.

Then, when that player excels at a rival club and the marquee signing that took his place gets dropped to reserve grade, admit that the money would have been better spent keeping him on the books.

Let Dugan walk away for a matter of a few hundred thousand dollars and be left red in the face again.

He’s been one of the best performers through a difficult period for the club and is well worth his asking price if he is allowed to play at fullback.

The centre experiment hasn’t worked in the past at the Dragons and the club should recognise that he is not worth the coin to stand on an edge and be starved of possession.

He might be entering the backend of his career but the physicality of an NRL contest has not caught up with him. There are signs that he could go to another level if this current Dragons outfit continues in the same rich vein of form.

They look as well drilled as the first infantry.

The Dragons were blinded by poor performances when they penned the Hunt deal and will suffer dearly if they can’t fit their off-contract stars under the cap now that they have limited space left to work with.

The signing of Dugan is seismic. It could see the likes of Widdop, Lafai, Mann, Matthews and Packer squeezed out of the club at the end of the 2017 season.

A significant blow for the Dragons who are slowly regaining their aura after a painful period where wins were harder to come by than taxi’s on a Saturday night.

The Dragons on-field woes might well have been answered across the first four rounds of the competition but the tangled web of off field logistics has the potential to put the brakes on their progress.

NRL delivers knockout blow

The 18th man debate has resurfaced this weekend following a round which saw a number of clubs receive fines for breaching the NRL’s concussion rule.

Five players from three separate clubs sustained head knocks at the weekend but none were brought from the field.

Brendan Elliot, who was hit like a freight train by Hymel Hunt, was visibly disoriented and wouldn’t have been able to remember where he parked his car. But after assessment from the club doctors on the field, he was deemed well enough to play on.

There were three cases in the Titans game with Parramatta on Friday night and the club has had to pay a hefty $150,000 fine for failing to give Elgey, Greenwood and Simpkins the proper attention following knocks to the head.

To cap off an ugly round for the NRL, Josh Dugan was also allowed to continue playing following a stray elbow from teammate Russell Packer, despite being out for the count. The Dragons were later fined $100,000.

Imagine what parents are thinking when they sit down with their children to watch a game and see players stumbling around like a drunken tourist on Surfers Paradise Boulevard after receiving a heavy hit to the head.

Do they really want them playing Rugby League in the knowledge that they might be left permanently damaged by concussion because of its questionable management?

The NRL has tiptoed around concussion in recent years, but after a weekend which saw a number of confronting incidents take place, and in light of recent events involving James McManus taking out legal action against his own club, they needed to step up and draw a line in the sand.

There are already enough problems with the game. Concussion doesn’t need to become bigger than it already is.

But would this issue be as prevalent if coaches were able to call on an eighteenth man in the event that their bench was to be decimated by injury?

Knight’s coach Nathan Brown made his opinions well known following the game on the weekend and it appears his views are echoed by a number of the coaches across the competition.

“The bigger problem is injured people being forced to stay on the field because we don’t have any players left,” he said.

“I’ll leave that with the referees and judiciary….But if Brendan Elliott has to leave the field because of that, and then the player does get suspended, who gets the benefit out of it”.

Herein lies the problem. Brown couldn’t have summed it up any better.

Not only would coaches and doctors be less inclined to leave a concussed player on if they had an eighteenth man at their disposal, the opposition player would also be sent off, putting them at an immediate disadvantage.

Hymel Hunt’s swinging arm on Brendan Elliott would’ve knocked out Mohammad Ali and should have resulted in a stint in the sin-bin.

He has since been fined by the match review committee but the penalty needed to have ramifications for the South Sydney Rabbitohs on the field.

Another element of the concussion rule that the NRL must address is the use of club doctors in determining whether a player should or shouldn’t leave the ground for a HIA.

It was obvious on the weekend that the doctors were allowing players who thought they were on the surface of the moon to continue playing because they were short on troops.

This is a competition-wide issue and no one club can be excused.

But the decision to pull a player or let them play on should not lie with club doctors. Particularly when reputations and careers are at stake.

Josh Dugan is one of the most highly rated players in the competition and the Dragons would have been left without a key player if he was brought from the ground during the early stages of Sunday’s derby against the Sharks.

The doctor assessed him, went through the mandatory on field questions, and deemed that a HIA was not necessary even though he was left seeing stars.

Had Dugan not been the influential attacking weapon he is, would the doctors have treated him the same way?

It’s a question that extends to other clubs but it is ultimately the NRL who must ensure this is put to an end and taken out of the hands of club doctors.

Giving out fines like speeding tickets for breaching protocol is a start, but it is not a strong enough deterrent. Clubs will break the rules in a heartbeat if a small financial penalty is all they have to worry about.

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.