Tackling six talking points from Round 10

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

Game of the season

There have been some great matches so far this season, but none have come close to Friday night’s classic between the Broncos and Roosters. With the exception of their clash earlier in the season, these two teams are building quite the entertaining rivalry. There was a classic encounter back in Round 6 of 2015, where Ben Hunt crossed in Golden Point to hand the Broncos a four-point win. And who can forget Round 11 last year, a match best remembered for Jamayne Isaako’s forty metre Houdini act to sink the Roosters in the 77th minute. It is hard to see any match going past Friday night’s thriller for game of the season.

Broncos on the move

Friday night might go down as the moment the Brisbane Broncos turned their season around. There were plenty of good signs for fans, including an impressive return to Rugby League for former Cronulla hooker James Segeyaro. The most impressive part of Brisbane’s performance was their defence against a Roosters side featuring two of the best attacking players in the game right now: Tedesco and Mitchell.

Dragons in a hole

The Dragons are either in the middle of one of their worst form slumps in recent memory or fast approaching the end of their premiership window. The Dragons last lost four games in a row back in Round 21 of 2016, where they went down to Canterbury 13-10. The following week they lost their fifth straight match against the Broncos 8-12. With the exception of that season, the Dragons have had a relatively good run since the start of 2015, making the finals on three occasions. With Gareth Widdop departing for England at the end of the season and Jack de Belin’s long-term future uncertain, the Dragons could be about to enter a rebuilding period. As a Dragons fan this is hard to write, but it seems they are now struggling to keep in touch with the teams inside the top eight. So far this year, three of their four wins have been by a margin of 2 points or less. This reminds me of 2016 where their attack was virtually non-existent and most wins earned by a slim margin.

Embed from Getty Images

Brown the saviour

Nathan Brown has been heavily criticised since taking over the reins at the Knights, but he deserves to have praise heaped on him for his side’s turn around. A number of Knights sides over the last few years have fallen apart following a run of losses. This one has bounced back into the top eight. Mitchell Pearce was considered a spent force after the first few rounds but suddenly he is in the frame for Origin selection. Danny Levi’s career was also headed down a dark path but he too has found form – perhaps the best of his career. Brown’s finest move, though, was bringing Kurt Mann into the starting side in place of Connor Watson and allowing him to do what he does best: run the ball. Accepting he had made an error by moving Ponga to the halves is another big tick against his name.

An Immortal in waiting

Andrew Johns took the Knights to their first premiership back in 1997 against Manly and backed it up in 2001 against Parramatta. This period was, without doubt, the best in the club’s history. If there is one man that can return the club to these heights, it is Kalyn Ponga. Having followed his career closely since his debut game for in 2016 for the Cowboys, I have no doubt we are about to witness history unfold as he becomes one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. Whether he surpasses Billy Slater as the best Fullback of all time is anyone’s guess, but I believe he will go past Cameron Smith as the game’s greatest point scorer by the time he calls time on his career many years down the track.

Embed from Getty Images

Farewell Cooper

Cooper Cronk gave a lot of credit to his former Melbourne teammates for the career he has forged. But as his form at the Roosters has shown, he is a fine player in his own right and not merely a product of those around him. As a Queenslander, I will never forget his series-sealing field goal during the third and final game of the 2012 Origin series at Suncorp Stadium. If there is one thing you can count on, it is the Roosters growing another leg to deliver Cronk one last Premiership.

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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?

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

 

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.

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

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.