The rise and rise of Panthers’ young gun Nathan Cleary

When a team goes on a seven game winning streak it is usually the spine that deserves the lion’s share of the praise.

This is certainly the case at Penrith, where Nathan Cleary – tipped to take the reigns from Mitchell Pearce as NSW halfback in 2018 – has guided his team to the top eight despite a slow start to the season that had many fans questioning whether the tide would ever turn.

Cleary is currently the NRL’s leading point scorer, having racked up 206 points in 22 games.

Nathan Cleary .jpg
Nathan Cleary in full flight – Picture: NSWRL

To put this into perspective, he is 27 points ahead of the next highest point scorer Gareth Widdop, and a whopping 116 in front of exciting young halfback Ashley Taylor, who many regard as the best young half in the competition.

Perhaps more impressive is the fact that he became the youngest player to reach 200 points in a premiership season on Sunday against the Raiders, and is within the top ten point-scorers at the Panthers already.

But a good halfback shouldn’t be judged on stats alone.

Cooper Cronk won the Dally M Medal last year because of the impact he had on every game he was involved in.

Much like Cronk at the Storm over the years, Cleary has played a starring role in Penrith’s victories and their late season resurgence.

There is no better example of this then when Cleary single-handedly pulled his side off the canvas against the Warriors in round 19.

With their season on the line and down 22 points to 18, Cleary scored a brace of tries to win the game and send the Panthers down the road to finals football.

They haven’t lost a game since.

Few playmakers have this kind of influence on a game, and even fewer have as much control over a side as Cleary.

When Matt Moylan was absent with injury, Cleary became the dominant playmaker and the side has looked a more polished and dynamic outfit ever since.

Compared to other players of a similar age, Cleary’s performances have been far superior.

This includes young guns like Ash Taylor, Anthony Milford, Mitchell Moses and Cooper Cronk’s clone Brodie Croft.

He has shown wisdom beyond his years in salvaging what was at one stage a lost cause for the Panthers.

It makes you wonder just where he ranks amongst the greatest halfbacks of the last decade, and where he might rank come the end of his career.

If Jonathan Thurston is the benchmark, and Andrew Johns a close second, then Cleary must be in the hunt to scale past the heights reached by Darren Lockyer during his 355 game career.

At just 19, Cleary has shown that he is capable of doing what Thurston does instinctively and what Johns made a career out of – running the ball at the line, basing his football around a strong kicking game, and taking complete control of the match during clutch moments.

Most importantly, he is as tough as old leather and has shown his mental resolve to be up to the rigors of first grade football, no matter the pressure of the situation put in front of him.

If he is capable of such brilliance after just two seasons in the top grade, god only knows where he will end up.

Premiership winner? Dally M Medalist? All time leading points scorer? Immortal?

It is far too early to judge if Cleary will be held in such high esteem. And it is easy to fall into the trap of hyping up a young half only for them to fade into oblivion a few years later.

The NRL has proven too much for many a talented youngster in the past; they set the U20’s alight and expect this form to continue as they make the transition into first grade, but soon find it difficult to cope in a dog-eat-dog world.

Todd Carney debuted for Canberra at age 17 but quickly fell in with the wrong crowd and is now fighting tooth and bone to make ends meat in the Super League.

Kane Elgey is another example of a young player bursting onto the scene only to pick up an injury and return a lesser player.

And who can forget players like Chris Sandow and Tim Smith who came and went quicker than Kevin Rudd during his second term as Prime Minister.

There are many other cases of young players failing on the field or finding trouble off it, but Cleary doesn’t seem like the kind of player that would let his talent go to waste.

The Panthers are expected to table an offer that would see Cleary remain at the club until 2024.

If Ben Hunt is worth $1.2 million, then it’s hard to see Cleary going for anything less.

The only thing that isn’t running in his favour is that he doesn’t yet have the runs on the board. He has been instrumental in his side’s late season surge, but hasn’t been in a successful finals series or a winning Grand Final.

If things continue the way they are, this could soon change.

Between Cleary and Munster, the future of the NRL looks bright.

Why the NRL’s image is in a bind

We can now safely assume the NRL has learnt nothing from the events of last week.

Yet again on the weekend, a blatant act of thuggery went unpunished. This time Kenny Edwards was the perpetrator; Jonus Pearson the victim.

Seriously, how far does it need to go before the NRL steps in and puts a stop to the violence that is driving young fans – and perhaps more importantly, their parents – away from the game in their droves.

Embed from Getty Images

Last week I wrote two articles outlining what needs to change if the NRL are to get on top of this issue and repair the game’s image. The crux of my argument was that any forceful contact to the head that results in injury, be it a deliberate act like Edwards’ or a late high shot like Soliola’s, should be made a send-off offence, with the player receiving a lengthy stint on the sideline as further punishment.

This is the only way we’ll bear witness to change and stamp out what is an ugly look for our game.

The fact remains, though, that the NRL have let another one slip through their grasp this week.

Where is Archer’s confession of the referee’s mistake?

Unless they are content with the laughable $1500 dollar fine handed out to Kenny Edwards, the referee’s boss must set the record straight for the second time in two weeks.

Without sounding like a broken record, his job is to make clear to the public in layman’s terms what they see to be a send-off offence and how they are going to deal with players who cross the line on the field.

The silence from the critics who slammed Soliola’s hit on Slater but have opted out of commenting on Edwards’ pathetic display is deafening. There are differences in the two cases, but both caused harm to the opposition player and have brought the game into disrepute. Those who heaped blame on Soliola last week, but have gone into hiding this week, are part of the problem. We need consistency in order to achieve a cleaner image.

This starts with Archer; he must set the tone. Nothing will get done if we continue to treat each case using a different set of rules. Edwards’ cowardly hit on Pearson and Soliola’s late hit on Slater are one and the same – both could have resulted in serious injury. Yet Soliola gets suspended for five weeks and Edwards receives a minor blow to the bank balance and is allowed to take the field next weekend?

I’ll say it again: what image does this game want to uphold? One of thuggery and violence where cowardly acts are rife and accepted? Or one that takes a tough stance on contact that puts the players in harm’s way?

Outside of reform, consistency and standardising the rulings around high contact is required. If a player gets banned for a high shot one week, a swinging arm or a deliberate elbow to the head after a tackle is completed should receive the same penalty the next.

But this game has long struggled with getting consecutive rulings right, both on and off the field.

Melbourne Storm were stripped of their premierships back in 2010 and forced to play close to an entire season without accruing points. Yet the Parramatta Eels are told in 2016 that if they cut a few players and become cap compliant, they can continue earning premiership points and potentially make the top eight.

Seems fair enough.

And what about Todd Carney being ousted from the NRL over his boozy antics at a pub, while Mitchell Pearce simulates a lude act with a dog and is banned for just eight weeks.

Sure, Todd Carney was on his third and final chance, but when you put the two acts into context it is clear that there are many similarities; foremost, that they both caused irreparable damage to the game’s image.

Then there are the disparities in the length of bans between codes for the use of both recreational and performance enhancing substances over the past few years.

In 2014, a few Cronulla players received backdated suspensions that saw them miss just three matches following an investigation by WADA into an illegal supplement regime implemented at the club in 2011. Meanwhile, in the AFL, Essendon were made to play the entire 2016 season with the majority of their squad missing for the same offence.

Again, there are differences in the two cases, but how can the NRL come up with such a different ruling to the AFL?

All of this smacks of double standards. And a game cannot clean up its image if it continues to treat similar cases differently.

Todd Greenberg is doing a fine job in charge of the NRL, but his biggest problem, after reading his responses to the questions posed by journalist Phil Rothfield on Tuesday, is that he cannot accept there are problems with the game.

Allow me to let you in on a secret, Todd: the game is completely lost at the moment. Not only are we incapable of getting something as simple as a ruling on high shots correct, but crowd numbers have decreased dramatically across the last five years and refereeing has hit an all-time low despite the millions of dollars that have been poured into improving the way the game is officiated.

The game’s image is as scrambled as your morning eggs. One day it’s a sport filled with skill and heroism, unrivalled by anything else on this planet – think the 2015 Grand Final. The next it has a drug problem, can’t control what its players are doing, and is allowing acts that belong in the UFC pentagon to take place without punishment – think rep round, NSW Origin camp and either Soliola’s or Edwards’ brutal and cowardly displays of violence.

Other sports are sitting back in their cane chairs and waiting for the NRL to implode so they can take up its share of the market.

The way it’s going, this could happen within the next two decades.

Who’d let their son or daughter play a game as poorly managed and seemingly dangerous as rugby league when there are safer alternatives that aren’t likely to cause their child’s face to be sprawled over the front page of the newspaper for drug possession in 10 years’ time?

Who’d even bother attending when the NRL are making decisions that are quite obviously causing the competition to become less attractive for viewers and harder to follow?

The proof is in the pudding – crowds are down 2% on last year and participation rates are declining at an alarming rate.

Some will say bring back the good old days of suburban venues, mid-game brawls and contested scrums.

Those days are sadly behind us. But with the game as out of whack as it is, it could do worse than to follow the old-school mantra – with a modern twist, of course.

Send-off farce final straw in sorry tale of refereeing blunders

It’s official – the send off is dead. If ever there was a time for it to come back into play again after six years in hibernation, it was Saturday when Sia Soliola’s sickening hit on Billy Slater left us all seeing stars.

Tony-Archer
Referees Boss Tony Archer – Image Source: The Roar

In the Super League, the referee’s red card would have been pulled out sooner than Soliola was able to regain his feet. Yet here in the NRL, the referees have gone soft on late hits and general misconduct, while a soft slap on the cheek will get you sent for a ten minute stint on the sidelines.

Referees boss Tony Archer announced on Sunday that the officials made an error in failing to remove Soliola from the field – further evidence that the referees are lost as to what constitutes a send-off and what doesn’t.

Perhaps this stems from the fact that the backlash from both the media and general rugby league public would be so great in the event a player was sent off when they shouldn’t have been.

Whatever the case, a line in the sand was there to be drawn on Saturday night but the opportunity was sadly missed. Anything less now simply cannot be deemed a sin-binnable offence because the referees will be accused of allowing inconsistency to creep into the game.

It could be argued the precedent was set by Tony Archer just a day later. But actions speak louder than words and the fact of the matter is Soliola was allowed to remain on the field. Fans will cry poor as soon as one of their players is sat down over a similar incident because they can offer clear evidence that it has gone unpunished previously.

Tony Archer must come out and set the record straight through introducing black and white rulings around what constitutes a send-off so he is spared future embarrassment.

If he doesn’t then we can safely assume high shots and blatant thuggery like Sia Soliola’s swinging arm or Papalii’s head-high shoulder charge on Dugan will go without punishment on the field.

Something must be done if for no other reason than to ensure a fair contest is had between the side that loses an injured player and is therefore at a disadvantage for the remainder of the eighty-minutes, but also to avoid an injury that could end a players’ career and leave fans wondering why something wasn’t done to protect them earlier.

Archer must also address the clear inconsistencies plaguing the NRL’s million dollar Bunker.

When Daniel Tupou’s try was allowed despite clear evidence of a knock on from Latrell Mitchell in the lead up play on Friday night against the Knights, the Bunker lost all credibility (if it hadn’t already) in the eyes of those supporters whose sides have been robbed of two premiership points by the failings of what was designed to be an infallible system.

If this was the one and only time an error had been made, we wouldn’t be complaining. But it happens on a week to week basis.

Why have they also stopped intervening when the on-field referee blows a penalty that wasn’t there despite having done so previously?

The Bunker was designed to bring more consistency to the game yet we are witnessing an increase in poor decisions and a sudden reduction in the overruling of incorrect penalties.

Then there are the stories that suggest the Bunker are missing out on crucial camera angles because the operators are too busy filming the empty ANZ Stadium seats, and the odd fan who rolls up to the game.

I come back to this question quite often, but what happens if any of these errors occur in the Grand Final?

Ricky Stuart spoke about accountability after the Raiders clash on Saturday, which was a little bizarre given he was very lucky to avoid playing with 12 men, but there was some truth to his fiery rant.

Instead of Tony Archer releasing a media statement full of clichés that has been perfectly scripted to hit the right chords with the clubs, why doesn’t he promote post-season reform or outline the areas the referees are failing in and come up with the appropriate policies to address these issues?

It’s all well and good admitting that an error was made but until this is met with action nothing will change.

The number of refereeing blunders made next year must decrease or Archer should be given his marching orders. If more than half of those made originate in the Bunker, it too must be removed because clearly it is failing to uphold the standards expected by the public and clubs, but also what it was designed for.

The time has come. Enough is enough. Get it right now or be shown the door.

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.

1489067346769.jpg
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.

205 Roos v Dogs
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.

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.

cq5dam-thumbnail-319-319
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.

 

Ennis, Barba departures leave gaping hole in Sharks title defence

The Cronulla Sharks will need to overcome the weight of history if they are to become the first side since the Brisbane Broncos of 1992-93 to win back-to-back premierships.

The defending champions open their account on Thursday night in the first game of the 2017 NRL season against the last club to complete the two-peat, but will be without two influential members of their premiership winning spine.

A drama filled off-season has seen Ben Barba travel to France to join up with Rugby club Toulon, while Hooker Michael Ennis called time on his career following a successful two year stint with Cronulla. Both are huge losses for the Sharks attack, which was heralded as the driving force behind last year’s success.

Winger Valentine Holmes, who was a try-scoring star on the wing for Cronulla in 2016, will now be required to fill the void left by Barba at fullback, but is unlikely to start in this Thursday’s clash with the Broncos due to injury. This means that either Jack Bird or Gerard Beale, who played mainly as an impact player off the bench last year, may be forced to start in the number one role until his return, forcing major reshuffling to the outside backs, which has the potential to unsettle the side.

The Sharks look a completely different outfit to last year and the loss of experienced players in important positions are what casts a shadow over their ability to repeat the dose. Their pack still boasts rep stars and hardened warriors like Gallen, Fifita, Graham and Lewis who were vital in giving attacking field position to the play makers and outside backs, while the halves combination of Maloney and Townsend were key to setting up try scoring opportunities. But Ennis’s presence around the ruck, his goal-line defence and his ability to play eighty minutes will be sorely missed by Cronulla this year. As will Barba, and the crucial meters he provided on the kick return, which was perhaps his biggest asset outside of his penchant for steering his wingers into gaps in the defensive line.

You cannot understate he’s worth in a Rugby League outfit. Particularly when it came to sparking something out of nothing. A quality we saw on display when he crossed the line from the back of the scrum to open the scoring in last year’s grand final. He also did it on countless occasions for the Bulldogs during his Dally M winning year in 2012. The NRL will dearly miss his exhilarating turn of pace and the competition will no doubt be poorer for his departure.

The men form the Shire face an uphill battle throughout 2017, particularly during the first five rounds of the year where they will be adjusting to new structures and life without key players. A slow start is to be expected as the likes of Jayden Brailey, the exciting youngster who will start at hooker in round one, Valantine Holmes and Raiders recruit Edrick Lee adjust to their new roles.

7896768-3x2-940x627
Michael Ennis will be a big loss for the Sharks in 2017. Photo: ABC.

Much of the Sharks’ game in both attack and defence revolved around Ennis to a degree last year and without him it’s difficult to see too many scoring chances being created around the ruck. But we mustn’t undervalue Cronulla’s bench, which remains almost identical to the one that lined up against Melbourne in last year’s decider. Their injection into the contest changed the game and breathed life into Cronulla’s attack on many occasions last year.

Beale provided a lethal injection of pace on the fringes, while the side’s elder statesmen – Heighington, Tagatese and Bakuya – possessed similar power and size to the players they replaced and were able to exploit tired defenders at crucial junctions in the game.

Bench depth often determines how deep a side is able to go in a premiership season, and if the Sharks’ substitutes are as potent as they were last year, the reigning champions may find themselves finishing in the top eight once again. But their ageing warriors are operating on tired legs while the men they are replacing are entering the twilight of their careers. Whether they are able to cope with the physicality of opposition packs for the full eighty minutes will determine if they are capable of mixing it with the best the competition has to offer.

Cronulla also have a swathe of fringe first grade players at their disposal, highlighting the depth they have waiting in the wings. Fa’amanu Brown and Kurt Capewell have shown promising signs in their limited opportunities so far and, given they have been named in the 22 man squad to take on the Broncos this week, will be first choice options to slot straight into the side should injury or retirement strike at an inopportune time. The future is bright on this front.

Maloney is another player that flies under the radar in some circles and stands out in others. He is one of the cursed few who seems to perform better when playing alongside familiar faces than in a representative arena, and has shown this through his three grand final appearances with three different clubs. A remarkable achievement few footballers can lay claim to.

james-maloney-scores-for-cronulla-sharks-against-north-queensland-cowboys-1200x480
Maloney will be a key player in this year’s quest for another premiership. Photo: EON Sports Radio.

Expect another big year from the NSW and Cronulla Five-Eighth, who will be required to marshal the troops in the absence of Ennis. He will also have the added responsibility of taking the line on more often this year, as will Townsend, given they cannot rely on their hooker to run the football in the same way Ennis did. How Maloney performs this season, like any play maker at any club, will determine Cronulla’s fate.

The pressure he and the entire Shraks side are under to continue last years unprecedented rise may prove too much for this club to handle given their lack of success. But it is a team filled with champion players who have experienced football at the highest level, making it very difficult to write them off at this early stage.

The porch light was turned off last year, so what does this current crew of Cronulla players have left to achieve?