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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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.

Manly allegations set to reignite conversation around salary cap

If allegations of salary cap breaches at Manly, or any other club currently being probed, are substantiated in the future, they might just become the dumbest club in the history of the game.

In every case of systematic salary cap rorting over the last decade – whether it be Parramatta last year, Melbourne in 2010, or the Bulldogs in 2002 – front office stupidity has been to blame for the loss of competition points, premierships and hundreds of thousands of dollars. And the administrators at Lottoland will be front and centre once again if the alleged $300,000 third-party offer made to an unnamed Manly player in a car park is proven by the NRL’s integrity unit.

The most boneheaded move in NRL administrative history came last year when it was revealed that Parramatta had been offering its players third-party payments since 2013.

The infamous five, who were shown the door shortly after Todd Greenberg handed down his findings in May 2016, breached the cap year after year despite knowing full well that the integrity unit were tracking their every move like a stalker and had the ability to search e-mails, confidential documents and phone conversations at will.

Yet still, they continued their deception.

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The most staggering statement to come out of Todd Greenberg’s announcement of Parramatta’s breach last year was this – “As we sit here today, our preliminary findings suggest that the club is again over the salary cap for 2016.”

Really? How moronic can you get?

Was the NRL’s sanction in May of 2015, where Parramatta were fined half a million dollars and handed a suspended four-point penalty if they didn’t get their house in order by the start of the new season, not enough of a deterrent for Steve Sharp and company to reconsider their approach to governance?

‘The NRL are onto us but, hey, look, what are the chances we’ll get busted again?’

That’s the mindset of a gambler who doesn’t know when to walk away and will risk it all in the knowledge that they might one day hit the jackpot.

No such luck for Parramatta, who left the casino with an empty wallet and facing the reality of having to rebuild a broken club.

What followed was the outcome of the administrator’s sheer stupidity and downright contempt for the rules of operation under the banner of the NRL – points stripped, millions of dollars lost, and the need to move club favourite Nathan Peats on to what has turned out to be greener pastures.

The fans, who can do nothing in these situations but sit back and wait for the chaos to blow over, are the ones who are punished despite being completely innocent in the whole state of affairs.

Just ask those Melbourne fans who had to watch their side play for peanuts back in 2010. Not to mention the pain they went through when the NRL took back two premierships.

Could you ever forgive the administrators who were responsible for deliberately manipulating the books to gain an advantage, particularly given Melbourne have played just as well without having to exceed the cap?

Surely not – many Parramatta fans haven’t.

That is why if the integrity unit find that there is some truth to claims that one of Manly’s players has received paper bag payments, the administrators should be hung out to dry and made an example of.

Of course, it is all alleged at this stage and there are strong rumours that other clubs are following suit.

But giving players third-party payments after what has happened previously is inexcusable and an insult to the paying supporter, who is the most severely impacted in these situations, closely followed by innocent members of the playing group.

Administrators must learn their lesson; in an age where a dedicated integrity unit with a mandate to search and seize documents is in operation, tampering with the books like a tax fraud will land you in hot water.

If they haven’t learnt that yet, then they simply shouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the administrative tree.

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Sure, it is the salary cap making third party, under the table deals a more attractive option for club administrators. But to change the current system would be to give rich clubs like Brisbane and the Roosters a significant advantage, and lead to a lopsided and uncompetitive competition that will ultimately lose an already dwindling viewership.

The Australian Government wouldn’t reform its tax laws because instances of evasion have increased in the last decade. So why should the NRL be forced to change the way the competition is run just because cases of systematic salary cap breaches are continuing unabated?

Put simply, they mustn’t give in.

Many will argue that, with the salary cap increasing to around $9 – $10 million next year under the new television rights deal, clubs will have more space to keep their high-profile players on the list without having to tempt fate by breaching the cap.

In truth, and we’ve seen cases of this already, player salaries will increase accordingly as clubs look to outlay more money on their stars to keep them on-side.

The AFL haven’t been required to deal with any major salary cap breaches because, up until this year, the cap has been manipulated to suit the financial needs and situational circumstances of certain clubs.

Brisbane, for example, were given a retention allowance which happened to coincide with their premiership three-peat in the early 2000’s.

New club GWS were also given a greater cap allowance due to their list size and the need to keep them afloat and competitive in their early years.

All this has done is given a group of clubs a significant advantage over the remainder of the competition.

So it is no surprise then that Hawthorn was able to win three flags across three years, while clubs like North Melbourne and Melbourne have been forced to linger at the bottom of the competition ladder for several seasons.

This system is not an out for the NRL, and they certainly shouldn’t be tempted into adopting it simply because the integrity unit are stubbing their toes on salary cap scandal after salary cap scandal.

Contempt for the integrity of the game and corrupt administrative decision making born of a desire to gain the edge, despite the inherent risks demonstrated through past indiscretions, are the key issues.

What we have currently is a system that clubs hate, but is leading to a more balanced competition where most teams are a chance of winning the premiership.

Stick with it.

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.