Crystal ball predictions for the NRL finals

From a viewing perspective, this NRL season has been one of the most enjoyable in recent memory. Sure, it has had its low points; who can forget, for example, the game between Melbourne and Cronulla way back at the start of the season when over 30 penalties were blown, or just last week when the refereeing mess that has hijacked the majority of the season descended into farce?

Yes, controversy has dominated the rugby league agenda. But in amongst the chaos there have been some incredible moments that football fans will remember long into the future.

If you’re Panthers fan, you will never forget the day your team came from 18 points down to defeat Manly at fortress Brookvale. If you wear the Red V with pride, you will no doubt remember the spectacular finish against Parramatta, and the war of attrition on holiday Monday against the Dogs.

Those who live south of the border will look back on 2018 as the year a drought was broken and hope that it is a sign of things to come.

And who can forget that tight finish between the Broncos and Cowboys back in round 2 when the Lang Park goal posts acted as an extra man in defence, stopping a rampaging Scott Bolton on the bell.

For every moment of frustration, for every time you’ve screamed at the telly and threatened to put your remote through the lounge room wall, there have been hundreds of feel-good moments to remind you why you love the game.

It is with this new found optimism that I look ahead to how I believe the rest of the season will pan out and who, in this season of endless surprises, will take out the Provan-Summons trophy in October.

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The Top 4

According to most punters, the Roosters and Storm are the only sure things as far as the top four is concerned. Which teams will join them is difficult to pick. Souths and the Dragons are the obvious choices given their current position, but both sides have gone through a form slump of sorts over the last few weeks.

Failure to secure victory against the Tigers and a near miss against the struggling Eels on Saturday night has seen the Bunnies fall out of favour with many neutral fans, while the Dragons seem to still be suffering from a post Origin hangover. As far as I’m concerned, the Dragons are a long way from where they need to be at this point in the season. They’re falling back into bad habits in both attack and defence and, to be brutally honest, don’t look like they can mix it with the Roosters or Storm.

As a Dragons fan this is difficult to type because we have gone through the agony of falling away late in the season so many times over the last few years. Thankfully, a top eight spot is all but secured, so we needn’t worry about missing the eight altogether. But if the Red V are to avoid repeating their elimination final exit in 2015, they must secure a top four placing.

With a relatively soft draw including 4 matches against bottom eight sides, they should get the job done. The Panthers, Sharks and Broncos are nipping at their heels though, so there will be no shortage of drama over the next few weeks.

The dream is still alive for Dragons fans but it will quickly fade if they can’t win the majority of their five remaining games.

As for the Bunnies, there was a lot to like about their finish to the game against the Eels. They have too many gun players in good form to miss out on a top four spot. If the engine room of Sam Burgess, Crichton, Cook and Walker fires – as it has done for most of the season – it is hard to see them getting knocked out of the top four. They do, however, have a significantly harder draw than the Dragons which includes clashes with Melbourne and the Roosters.

For this reason, I believe the only change to the current top four is the Dragons sneaking into third spot.

Minor Premiers

It is hardly a surprise picking the Storm to win the minor premiership given most rugby league fans out there are tipping the same thing. But I’ll go with the flow because I don’t see anyone knocking them off now that they’ve hit their straps.

The most impressive thing about the Storm is their depth. They have a number of players outside their first choice 17 that would get a starting spot in most sides. Just listen to some of the names they have as back-up: Brodie Croft, Riley Jacks, Cheyse Blair, Brandon Smith…

It is truly remarkable what the Storm have been able to do over the last decade and I see them returning to the Promised Land once again in 2018.

Who plays in the Grand Final?

The Storm have played exceptional football over the last month and will be unlucky to miss out on a spot in the Grand Final. Their challengers came in the form of the Cowboys last year and I’m tipping a team in the bottom 4 of the eight to make it to the big dance yet again in 2018.

As much as I’d like to say it will be the Warriors, they’ve been too inconsistent for my liking. Mind you, a number of sides have been either rocks or diamonds this year so it is far too early to put a line through the men from across the ditch.

They take on the Dragons this weekend in Wollongong in a clash that will act as a form guide for the finals.

With the Warriors likely to be out of the picture, I think it will be the Sharks that beat out the other top eight sides to set up a rematch of the 2016 Grand Final.

The reason I’ve gone this way is because of the strike power they have up front and the speed on the edges. My only concern is the halves. Matt Moylan has been brilliant at times – as he was against the Panthers a few weeks back – and off the pace at others. Townsend has also been up one week and down the next throughout the year.

Their experience in key positions is what I like most. The majority of their roster has also played finals football before, so will know what it takes to win big games.

The premiers

I’ve already tipped the Storm to win the minor premiership. If this happens, I don’t think anyone will be able to stop Smith, Slater and Munster in the finals. They are big game players and the latter two will be especially hungry to add another notch to their belt before their remarkable careers draw to a close.

Most at stake

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve gone with the Dragons. Fans of the club will know the heartbreak of starting a season with bright-eyed optimism only to have their hopes and dreams crushed following a late season slide. It happened in 2015, it happened last year, and – if the last few weeks are anything to go by – it’s happening again in 2018.

There is plenty of pressure on coach Paul McGregor as well. Now in his fifth year in charge of the club, he must take the Dragons to at least the semi-finals to earn a pass mark. Anything less must be deemed a failure. The number of players selected for Origin this year suggests that the Dragons premiership window is wide open. If they fail to capitalise on this opportunity the door will quickly shut as ageing players begin to wane and young players are blooded in first grade.

Why the Bunnies’ problems are bigger than Michael Maguire

South Sydney may have taken some joy in defeating the Dragons on Friday night, but their season has been far from memorable thus far. They are currently languishing in 11th position on the competition ladder after 22 rounds, with just seven wins to their name and thirteen losses.

Their record following 2014 and the glory that ensued doesn’t make for pretty reading either – on just a single occasion have they made the finals. The year was 2015, and they were hustled out in the first week by Cronulla, 28 points to 12. They haven’t been back since, and 2017 is destined to end the same way.

So where has it all gone wrong for South Sydney since Sam Burgess lifted the trophy with a busted cheek bone less than three years’ ago?

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Earlier this year I wrote an article on why Michael Maguire would be the next coach to be given the flick.

The weight of history was against him, and there were many parallels that could be drawn between the sacking of Geoff Toovey at Manly back in 2015, two years after making the Grand Final, and Maguire’s current tenure at South Sydney.

But after hearing him speak about the passion he has for the club, it appears he might just be the right man to turn the Bunnies fortunes around.

It makes you wonder what else could cause a proud club to slip from drought-breaking premiers to struggling cellar dwellers in such a remarkably short period of time.

The roster is almost entirely different, but you expect that given it has been close to three years since the Bunnies hoisted the Provan Summons Trophy, don’t you?

Well, no. To put this into perspective, only James Tamou is missing from the starting 13 that lined-up for the Cowboys in the 2015 Grand Final.

The Roosters premiership winning side of 2013 looks much the same today as well, with the exception of a few key omissions – Sonny-Bill Williams (Rugby Union), Anthony Minichello (Retirement), James Maloney (Sharks) and Michael Jennings (Parramatta).

The message to take away here is that if you have a premiership winning side, you generally try to keep it together until a players’ form drops or the group of listed players exceeds the salary cap. Not until it reaches this point do you start the culling process. And even when this does become a necessity, you certainly don’t decimate your spine and draft in players that add no value to the current squad.

South Sydney have done exactly this. Since winning the premiership back in 2014, they have pushed out players like Luke Keary, Apisai Koroisau and Dylan Walker, who have excelled at their new clubs and left the Bunnies to lick their wounds and wonder what life would be like had they never parted ways.

This is where Russell Crowe is introduced to the narrative. It has been well documented that he has assumed some control of the shape of the side and kept players at the club based on their personality rather than their footballing prowess.

His love for the Burgess brothers is another consistent thread.

Sam, Tom and George have been retained by South Sydney for the last few years despite just one of them being a deserving recipient of a contract renewal. Sam is a world-class player, a workhorse, and someone you’d give your right arm to lure to your club. His brothers, however, simply don’t bring the same star-power, and have caused Maguire more headaches than joy over the past two seasons with their sloppy ball-handling skills.

At some point, you have to ask if it’s worth moving them on and looking at other options, because their salaries are taking up a chunk of the cap that has seen far too many talented players pass through the back door of the South Sydney club office.

At the end of this season, talented winger Bryson Goodwin will join that list. You have to wonder whether he was ever allowed to reach his full potential at South Sydney. Sure, there were bright spots, but he never managed to reach the heights that he did at the Bulldogs way back in 2009, where he earned his first international cap with New Zealand.

On top of South Sydney’s poor management, their recruitment strategy must come into question. Why was Robbie Farah brought to the club this year when Damian Cook was more than ready to assume the post left vacant by the departing Cameron McInnes? (There’s another name to add to that list.)

We’ve seen already this year, particularly as the season has begun to wind down, that Damian Cook is Maguire’s first choice hooker. So why bother wasting money on Farah?

I understand that he was NSW’s starting number nine at the time of his purchase, but $750,000 a year for a player that spends most of his time on the bench is another example of the tangled web South Sydney are weaving through mismanagement. He’s earning almost as much as Burgess, despite playing a quarter of the Englishman’s minutes.

South Sydney have got their recruitment so wrong that John Sutton has been forced to spend most of this season at five-eighth. Imagine a world in which Keary, who has set the world on fire for the Roosters this year, was lining up alongside Adam Reynolds. The former a running five-eight with speed to burn. The latter a 130 game stalwart with one of the best kicking games in the competition on his day – just ask the Panthers.

Yet fans have been stuck watching John Sutton, who has offered very few edge of your seat moments through 22 rounds of competition.

His stats paint an accurate picture of his ongoing struggles – 4 try assists and just 8 line-breaks so far in 2017. Compare this to some of the competition’s other five-eighths like Gareth Widdop (16 try assists), or even young Brock Lamb in a struggling Knights side (8 try assists), and you can start to see why the Rabbitohs are cemented to the bottom of the competition ladder.

They might argue that Sutton has spent a lot of time in halves this season due to an injury to Greg Inglis, who himself has spent time at five-eight in the past. But a lack of recruitment foresight is what constantly ruins a clubs’ premiership run, and few of those currently making a march towards the finals don’t have a contingency plan in place.

When Cooper Cronk isn’t around, Melbourne have Brodie Croft; North Queensland have Te Maire Martin, whom without they might be struggling to compete; the Eels had Gutherson before Moses arrived; and the Broncos, well they’re spoilt for choice.

South Sydney have set themselves up for failure, and lack the foresight that clubs like Melbourne and coaches like Bellamy pride themselves on. They’ve said farewell to two hookers who are now starting at rival clubs (McInnes and Koroisau), an extremely talented number six who has excelled since being given the chance to shine and not confined to the bench (Luke Keary), and now must make do with players who are out of position or completely out of their depth.

Russell Crowe might be a world-renowned actor, but a man manager he is not. If he knows what is good for the club, he will take a back seat and leave the roster to Michael Maguire and his associates. Maybe then we will see more gems like Angus Crichton be unearthed.

Why Michael Maguire is on borrowed time at South Sydney

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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.