2017 mid-season predictions

Now that we’ve reached the halfway mark of the season, it is time we took stock of the first 14 rounds of the Telstra premiership and began forecasting what is to come at the back-end of 2017.

From the end of last year, a number of teams have surprised us by rising to unprecedented heights on the competition ladder. Manly stand out in my mind as the surprise packets of 2017. They currently sit in sixth position on the competition ladder with seven wins and five losses to their name, and have knocked off some of the competition heavyweights along the way.

The Dragons have also exceeded many expectations. Some critics believed this year would go down as one of the worst in the clubs history; a season spent waiting for knight in shining armor, Ben Hunt to arrive and cure their attacking woes. It has been anything but. They sit third on eighteen points and, unless they experience a remarkable form slump, have all but sewn up a spot in the finals. It seems highly unlikely though, given the majority of their last 12 games are against sides currently residing outside the top eight.

Melbourne have done exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Craig Bellamy coached side built around professionalism and discipline. They’ve punished bottom eight sides and fought tooth and bone for victory against the likes of Cronulla, Brisbane and Manly. Which leads perfectly into my first prediction:

Melbourne to win the premiership: 

This is a rather tame prediction given their current position on the ladder and their outstanding track record in the finals, but it is difficult to see them being overrun two years in a row. In last year’s grand final, they were far from their best and many would argue that the Sharks were more hungry for victory given the premiership drought the club had suffered through and the turbulence they faced off the field just years earlier. It might sound like I’m talking in cliches here, but their heartbreaking loss to the Sharks would only add fire to the bellies of Melbourne’s ageing veterans. And that desire will take them all the way this year.

Melbourne were the second best team in the competition last year without Billy Slater, the world’s number one fullback. Now that he has returned, the big three have reunited and already they are showing signs of replicating the magic they created in the prime of their careers. Against the Gold Coast in the double-header weekend at Suncorp Stadium, Slater, Smith and Cronk ran riot up the middle of the ruck, creating three (if I recall correctly) identical tries to stun the Titans and put on a considerable early lead. Of course, the Gold Coast returned to win that game 38 points to 36, but the line breaks that led to those tries couldn’t have been executed by any other players in the game.

The outside backs of the Melbourne Storm are what excites me the most about watching this side play. When Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr are flying down the sideline, or taking a heat seeking missile from the boot of Cronk high above the opposition wingers, it is like watching the Harlem Globetrotters of the NRL in action; they pull off unbelievable try-scoring plays that you’d pay a pretty penny to watch on repeat. They are unstoppable at their best and showed against the Dragons that they are capable of blowing the opposition off the park early and hanging on for victory through unbreakable defense.

Only injury can weather the Storm.

Gold Coast to finish in the top eight:

They did it last year, much to the surprise of many punters, and have the ability to do it again in 2017. They sit 11th currently, four wins outside the top eight, but will make a resurgence late in the season to force their way into the finals.

Ashley Taylor has been at his sensational best, while Nathan Peats and Jarrod Wallace are in career best form. Jarryd Hayne is also returning to his best, even if he isn’t a shadow of his 2009 self, and if he can put in more performances like he did in Origin One, than there is no doubt the Gold Coast will be in the mix come September.

Mark my words, the Gold Coast are not as far from a premiership as many think. If they can keep Elgey, Taylor, Peats, Wallace, Hurrel, Roberts and James on the books, than they are capable of pulling a Cronulla by winning a premiership with a mixture of youthful exuberance and experience when nobody expects them to. The Sharks sneaked up on the competition last year and the Gold Coast will go under the radar in a similar fashion in seasons’ to come.

Sharks to set up a Grand Final re-match with Melbourne, Roosters to go close:

Speaking of the Sharks, they are my tip to make the grand final once again this year. It is uncanny how similar this season has been to last for the reigning premiers. They were clearly suffering from a premiership hangover early in the season, but have risen from the ashes to sit in 2nd position at the halfway point of 2017.

Many expected them to struggle without Barba and Ennis, and in some games – such as their clash with the Bulldogs two weeks ago – they have missed their attacking flair and ability to create something out of nothing, but are starting to play off the back of Fifita and Gallen and are reaping the rewards.

Much like last year, Lewis and Graham – two of the most underrated players in the competition – and their bench forwards, are key to the Sharks title defence. Second phase football and a fractured defensive line are where most of their points will come from and will allow Holmes, Maloney and Bird to attack from where they are most dangerous – long range with broken play.

The Roosters will go close, no doubt. But the Sharks have just a little bit more in the way of class.

Wests Tigers to beat the Newcastle Knights to the wooden spoon:

I made this one a few weeks ago, and since watching them on the weekend against the Dragons, and the Knights against the Storm, I am starting to reconsider my choice. But I will stand by it. Not only are the Tigers one of the most boring sides to watch when Tedesco is not in possession of the ball, I’m struggling to see where their points are coming from? Lolohea is a great addition, and Littlejohn a young player with plenty of ball-playing potential, but other than that, watching them attempt to cross the line is like watching a poorly made soap-opera – it’s clunky, monotonous and will eventually put you to sleep.

Their defence is just as flat, and I’ll be surprised if the Roosters don’t rack up another 40 points, more than half of which will be scored on the wing, like they did against the Eels not that long ago.

Mark Round 17, Tigers v Knights, down in your diary as the battle for the wooden spoon.

As a side note, the Tigers play the Roosters and Manly twice before the end of the season, and their only real shot against a genuine bottom eight team is in Round 26 against the Warriors. Other than that, they take on top eight teams as well as those on the fringe, such as the Panthers and Titans, who will come home with a wet sail in the lead up to the 2017 finals series.

Panthers to narrowly miss out on the top eight: 

It has been a tough year for the premiership favorites. They struggled through loss after loss across the first ten rounds of the competition but have got their mojo back in recent weeks, stringing together a number of wins to put their finals hopes back on track.

Matt Moylan has been moved to five-eighth; one of the finest positional changes in NRL history. Anthony Griffin has been heavily criticised this season, and duly so, but moving Moylan to five-eighth is a bold decision born out of courage and a desire to change his sides’ fortunes.

I believe he has the potential to become the next Darren Lockyer; already there are great similarities between their running styles.

While Moylan’s positional change will no doubt aid in the Panthers’ run towards the finals, giving them what they were missing in attack at times during the opening rounds, the early season losses will likely see them miss out on a top eight spot by a very narrow margin.

I’ve compiled a list of the club’s remaining fixtures and given each game a result. Overall, the Panthers miss out on the eight by two points to the Titans, who will accrue a total of 30 points.

(Panthers v Raiders – W; Cowboys v Panthers – L; Rabbitohs v Panthers – W; Panthers v Manly (Split Rnd) – W; Warriors v Panthers – L; Panthers v Titans – L; Panthers v Bulldogs – W; Panthers v Tigers – W; Panthers v Cowboys – L; Raiders v Panthers – W; Panthers v Dragons – W; Manly v Panthers – L.)

All they need to do is pick up one extra game that I’ve labelled as a loss and they will be on an even keel with the Gold Coast, making for and against the deciding factor for who goes through and who misses out.

If you’re interested in hearing my reasoning for any of the above results, please leave a comment below. 

As always, I expect there to be a few more unexpected results to throw my predictions off kilter and make me reassess my decision making. However, for arguments sake, my competition ladder at the completion of Round 26 reads as follows:

  1. Storm, 2. Broncos, 3. Sea Eagles, 4. Roosters, 5. Sharks, 6. Dragons, 7. Cowboys, 8. Titans

9. Panthers, 10. Eels, 11. Raiders, 12. Bulldogs, 13. Warriors, 14. Rabbitohs, 15. Knights, 16. Tigers.

Only Parramatta drop out of the top eight as it currently stands, the rest remain to battle it out in the finals.

As always, comments below.

Why Michael Maguire is on borrowed time at South Sydney

After yet another humiliating loss on Friday night, Michael Maguire’s days at South Sydney are numbered.

Or at least they should be, given the way many clubs within the NRL have chosen to deal with coaches when they hit hard times and wins become more difficult to find than oversized pumpkins in a supermarket around Halloween.

Take Jason Taylor for example, the man dumped by the Wests Tigers at the beginning of this year following a run of losses and two years without finals football. He has since been replaced by Ivan Cleary but the way with which he was forced out of the club and to the back of the unemployment line was unjust and based on flimsy reasoning.

The Wests Tigers finished 15th in 2015 and 9th a year later, missing out on the finals by a point. But after just three rounds of the new season, he was thrown out quicker than a misbehaving partygoer at a night club after back-to-back losses including a 40 point thumping at the hands of the Canberra Raiders in the nation’s capital.

Club officials are quick to lay blame on the coach when their side’s on-field performances are not up to scratch, and this was certainly the case at the Wests Tigers earlier this year.

The writing was on the wall for Taylor long before his sacking when Robbie Farah, the clubs’ favourite son, was dropped to reserve grade despite appearing for NSW in Origin just weeks earlier.

Then, when he was eventually pushed out and forced to find another club at the end of the 2016 season, after making a late plea to remain a one club player in the Tigers’ heartbreaking defeat to Canberra at Leichardt in round 26, Taylor’s days were suddenly numbered.

The Tigers poor early season form was all the convincing the club needed to put the final nail in JT’s coffin. A day later he was clearing his desk and drafting a resume.

True, if a club has made a habit of missing finals the coach needs to go because they are clearly incapable of getting the most out of their players or coming up with match-winning game plans. But the Wests Tigers, like many other NRL clubs, seem to feel that if things aren’t going well on the field, it is the fault of the coach, even if the players at their disposal aren’t capable of matching it with the rest of the competition.

This from a club that kept a coach on its books for close to a decade after winning just one premiership and qualifying for the finals on three occasions thereafter.

So how does this relate to Maguire?

Put simply, he may end up the victim of another unjust sacking by an NRL club that believes its coach is the reason for a drop in performance. Not poor management, as in the case of the Tigers, or a lack of player depth which, again, is not the sole responsibility of the coach or something they may have any input in at all.

Since winning the premiership in 2014, Souths have finished 7th, where they made it as far as the qualifying finals, and 12th in a disappointing 2016 season. Once again this year, it looks as if they are destined to finish in the bottom eight. Maybe even the bottom four.

So how will a famous club with a thirst for premiership success like South Sydney respond to this kind of failure? If they are anything like the other proud Sydney clubs and are following the trend of making the coach the fall guy for circumstances beyond his control, he’ll be sacked using the age old excuse that they are “rebuilding the club” or “restructuring the way we go about business”.

But these excuses don’t hold up anymore. Only nine months ago Paul McGregor was on the outer at St George Illawarra along with Peter Doust who were, apparently, both to blame for the Dragons’ underwhelming performances.

Making Doust the scapegoat is understandable, he is in an authority position and is responsible for making decisions that directly influence on-field performance. But blaming McGregor, a man who had been in control of the club for just two full seasons, was hard to stomach.

Already this year, with the same two men at the head of the table, the Dragons have climbed the ladder and are sitting pretty in third position with seven wins and four losses. Yet McGregor and Doust could’ve been handing in their applications to rival organisations in the lead up to Christmas last year.

Then there’s the case of Geoff Toovey who, after four seasons in charge, was sacked in sensational circumstances with the return of advisor and Manly legend Bob Fulton. This despite missing the finals on just one occassion and qualifying for a Grand Final in 2013.

Des Hasler was also within a hair’s breadth of parting ways with Canterbury earlier this year. His record speaks for itself but after the Bulldogs got their season off to a slow start he was being held accountable for his players’ poor form.

So yes, Maguire has plenty to be concerned about. Like Toovey, he has experienced great success during his time as head coach but has suddenly fallen on hard times. The Rabbitohs are struggling to compete with the best teams in the comp and are a shadow of the side that won the Grand Final in 2014; sitting in 15th position and moving in a southerly direction.

Unlike Taylor, and McGregor to an extent, he is operating under a more sturdy board with few weak links and a good track record.

Yet, in much the same fashion as the former Wests Tigers coach, he is leading a team full of fallen champions, fading stars, and young footballers who are fresh to first grade and struggling to establish a foothold.

Maguire has been a fine coach for a long time but will soon fall victim to the modern age mindset that changing the coach will help reverse a sides’ fortunes while the players get off scot-free even though they are the ones participating in the game.

Why must we continue to force the coach to own the teams’ performance after just a few years in charge? Yes, he is responsible for improving and optimising the quality of the players he has at his disposal, but, contrary to popular opinion, he takes no part in the game and is not capable of throwing a pass to his winger or completing a set of six, even if his job, by very definition, is to give that player the best chance to succeed in doing so.

Give coaches a chance to build a legacy. If at this stage the side is still struggling, then consider making personnel changes at the top.

Forcing change because a club is unfamiliar and uncomfortable with failure and the thought of missing finals will rarely result in improved performance. Surely clubs have learned this lesson by now.

Club members will only renew their membership if the team is experiencing success. Sponsors too are drawn to clubs with a rich history of premiership glory. We live in a result driven world so it is understandable that clubs will go searching for answers when things go awry.

But we are asking too much of coaches and laying blame on the blameless when it should be attributed elsewhere – to the players who are a protected spices in the 21st century.

NRL need to set a precedent for gambling within the game

Todd Greenberg has done much in his time as NRL CEO to confirm that he is the right man for the job. But with just one statement in last week’s press conference to announce the fate of troubled West Tigers star Tim Simona, he immediately undid all his good work.

“Based on the evidence we’ve identified, it is very hard to imagine that Tim Simona will be registered with the NRL at any time in the future”.

Simona deserved a life-ban. His crimes are inexcusable and are in breach of more than just the NRL’s policies. He has broken the law, betrayed his team and should have been rubbed out of the game with not even the slightest chance of ever being allowed back; if for nothing else than preserving the game’s image.

But the wishy-washy nature of Greenberg’s statement, and the penalty, is hard to overlook.

The NRL haven’t taken a tough stance on any indiscretions other than salary cap breaches in recent times. Even the illicit drug policy has come into question by the players during the last week.

Back in 2002, the Bulldogs were fined $500,000 and docked premiership points when they were found to be cheating the cap.

Melbourne followed in 2010 for the same misdeed, but were also stripped of their premiership titles.

When it came time for Todd Greenberg to hand down his decision on Parramatta in July last year, he had a precedent, set by previous administrations, by which to follow.

As far as match fixing, or dealing with breaches in the games gambling code is concerned, the NRL is yet to establish a benchmark. It remains a grey area.

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Todd Greenberg needed to make an example of Simona to rid the game of gambling issues. Photo Source: Bein Sports

When news first broke that Tim Simona was placing bets on himself and opposition players to score tries against the West Tigers, the length of his ban in the eyes of the public was heavily dependent on an individuals moral compass.

What did and didn’t come under the banner of breaching the game’s ‘integrity’, and to what degree Simona’s actions could be seen as doing so when opposed to something like doping, was up for debate.

But that was before details of his contemptible charity scams and drug habit were brought to light, turning a tale of addiction into something more sinister.

At this point, the NRL had a golden opportunity to deter other players from even thinking of committing the same abhorrent crimes, by handing down a penalty that would force them to risk their careers if they wanted to follow in Simona’s footsteps. But in just one statement, Greenberg left the door open for future occurrences to take place.

A disappointing and undesirable result for the game’s image and culture, which is already under heavy scrutiny from the outsiders looking in.

Greenberg would have done well to express more than simply his personal feelings towards Simona’s actions. They were well considered, meaningful even, but didn’t fulfill their purpose.

Instead of using terms such as ‘hard to imagine’, which are open to interpretation by a future CEO who may wish to re-register Simona if he feels he has served his time, he needed to make an example of the former Tigers winger by banning him for life.

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Simona’s contract has been torn up by the NRL. Photo Source: Geelong Advertiser – 

If the NRL isn’t willing to play hardball then we shouldn’t expect gambling issues within the game to disappear automatically.

The same goes for the current protocols in place to deal with players who engage in recreational drug use. The punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime.

We must even question the effectiveness of the education forums administered by the NRL. Clearly, if these issues are systemic, their messages are failing to sink in.

Simona knew the consequences of his actions but still chose to feed his addiction in the most heinous way imaginable, by selling jersey’s and keeping the proceeds, promised to charity, for himself.

He had been through the NRL’s programs, presumably a number of times, but failed to heed their warnings.

The Wests Tigers missed the eight by one point in 2016. An issue that went largely unaddressed while the case was under the microscope.

It should have been the wake up call that kicked the NRL into gear, but it was barely considered.

This very point demonstrates the kind of influence match-fixing and gambling violations can have on the premiership at large.

What must the fan, that forks out thousands of dollars to watch their side play each year, be thinking when the NRL fails to take a tough stance on players making a mockery of their allegiance.

Does he or she still believe in the integrity of a contest?

There will always be question marks over the result of a game until the NRL brings in stringent rules to rub out those who attempt to manipulate them.