North Queensland Cowboys v Canterbury Bulldogs @ Dairy Farmers Stadium
1. Ominous Performance from North Queensland
The hype was about the Bulldogs going into this contest but the Cowboys brushed them aside with a degree of arrogance. This 80 minute demolition job has put every other side that thinks they can win this competition on notice. Make no mistake the Cowboys are an even better football side in 2016. After keeping the same squad together in 2016 Cowboys have had a certain continuity which makes them a red hot chance to be the first side in 20 years to go back to back. Even losing star halfback Thurston for the second half, the Cowboys piled on another 18 straight points to show they are far from a one-man team. Indeed their whole squad has been so settled this year their combinations are frightening and will only get better and better as the finals approach.
2. Bulldogs Halves Cant Win Them a Comp
I'm sure the Bulldogs will save their best for September, they often do. However it won't be enough for them to get anywhere near the current Top 3 sides. Far too many times this season the Bulldogs have had poor completions rates and poor games. The Bulldogs halves in Mbye and Reynolds are just no match for the Top 3 sides in terms of combination, composure and consistency. They come up with poor 5th tackle options way too many times. Whilst the can be brilliant they too often place pressure on their forward back with poor options. I think Des Hasler will be looking closely at finding a star player in the halves if these 2 can't find some consistency in their game.
3. Week Break for JT Just the Tonic
Far from being a worry for the Cowboys, I think the slight hamstring injury for Johnathon Thurston could prove a tonic for both star halfback and team. It allows Michael Morgan, Jake Granville and Lachlan Coote to continue to take responsibility and ownership of games as their stars continue to rise. These 3 have taken their games to another level in 2016 and I think they will relish the extra responsibility. As for Thurston, he remains the best player in the game in 2016. I have never seen a better competitor or more inspirational leader. Usually sides and players lose that 5% edge once they have won a competition. Not Thurston, he is on a mission. This 2-week break gives him the chance to freshen up off another arduous rep season, and come into the finals fresh and firing.
Brisbane Broncos v Penrith Panthers @ Suncorp Stadium
1. Brisbane Have Hit Rock Bottom
The Broncos are unrecognisable from the team that started the year as premiership favourites. After winning 6 from their first 7, the Broncos were marked even shorter by the bookmakers as the side to beat. However since then a combination of injuries, Origin and poor form has seen their season fall apart. Whilst they remain pretty much a lock to make the finals, I can't see the Broncos making the all important Top 4 and that vital double bit of the cherry. I also can't see the Broncos dragging their form back to being able to knock over any of the Big 3 teams in Cronulla, Melbourne and North Queensland. I am sure they will take stock and find another gear as the finals get closer. However they are running out of time to start building their form and confidence up week by week. No Top 4 means no chance of a premiership for Bennett's men.
2. Bennett Needs an Enforcer
Whilst their halves have gone off the boil it has been the Broncos pack that has been demolished of late. Whilst the likes of Parker, Thaiday, Blair form the basis of an experienced, workmanlike and tough pack, they have hit the wall this year and are losing the ruck They lack big bodies and someone who can run over the top of blokes. They have too many workers and not enough enforcers. The Broncos lack size in the middle and other teams are starting to smell blood in the middle. Whilst they were like the Great Wall of China in 2015, this was not based around a power game rather holding strong and tackling hard. This year teams have ripped in in the middle and taken on the Broncos in the forwards and come up trumps. Recently Wayne Bennett has been talking to Matthew Lodge and a few other big boppers as he seems to have acknowledged the Broncos weaknesses up front.
3. Penrith an Enigmatic Side on the Rise
I thought Penrith could cause the Broncos plenty of problems on Friday night but put simply, I didn't have the balls to tip them to win. I knew they would push them close but given they had blown so many games this year, closing out a win at the colosseum that is Suncorp Stadium against the desperate Broncos would prove ultimately a bridge too far. However this was Penrith's best display of the season as they blew them off the park early and ended up with a commanding victory. With plenty of youthful exuberance, the confidence drawn from this win might see this side become a very dangerous beast over the final 6 rounds of the competition. Most pleasing for Penrith coach Anthony Griffin would have been the side forcing 5 line drop outs, showing the team finally starting to play with the control needed to win games against strong opposition.
Canberra Raiders v NZ Warriors @ GIO Stadium
1. Raiders Have Learnt How to Win the Close Ones
The Raiders were the cardiac kids of 2015 missing the finals because of a number of close losses. As Ricky Stuart fumed from one post match press conference to the next his side blew several opportunities to feature in the finals. The Green Machine in 2015 lost over 6 games by a try or less in a season full of heartbreak and near misses. Whilst the Raiders have lost a few close games this year, they have won the vast majority of them. Two Golden Points victories at home against Newcastle and now the Warriors show this team has learnt from the mistakes, and are a more mature and composed football side. Often a side's whole season rests on what side of the ledger their win/loss falls in the games decided by 6 points or less. The Raiders are well in the positive this year and have set themselves up as Top 8 morals and Top 4 hopefuls.
2. It's the Opposite Story for The Warriors
The poor old Warriors have now lost 3 games in Golden Point in 2016. Whilst they can hardly claim they deserved to win in Canberra given they played just 10 minutes of good football in a frantic finish, the Warriors will still be kicking themselves. With all the momentum on their side going into the extra period the Warriors gave up a Golden Point try and with it their place in the Top 8 for now. Whilst the side are playing more consistently in the second half of 2016, they still have periods in games that are simply unacceptable for a side of their talent. When you lose the close games over and over again it's not all bad luck. Close games are won by having strong leadership, controlled football and a side that is consistent and have genuine belief in each other. The Warriors have little of that and whilst they remain a Top 8 threat, the big sides will hardly be shaking in their boots.
3. Captain Jarrod Croker Coming of Age
The Raiders captain is somewhat of an NRL veteran at the tender age of 25. With 182 appearances, 94 tries and over 1300 points, Croker has flown under the radar in Canberra for most of his career. Whilst he has been a point scoring machine, Croker had never quite found the consistency in his game until this season. His defence this year has been excellent, a real weakness in his game over the years appears to have been addressed. Opposition teams often used to target the Raiders centre and he often suffered from poor reads or poor technique. However this year, defensively he has been rock solid to go with his brilliant attacking game both on ground and in the air. Perhaps it is the extra edge that the leadership has brought him, or the fact he has stronger defenders on his inside, but Croker is no longer leaking points. If he can continue this form and the Raiders surge into the finals he should be in the Origin conversation in 2017.
Gold Coast Titans v Parramatta Eels @ Skilled Stadium
1. It's All Got Too Hard for Parramatta
You can hardly blame Brad Arthur's men for starting to fall off the wagon. Despite having an excellent season, Parramatta will finish 2016 with a whimper as injuries and dramas start to finally take their toll. This was their biggest defeat since Round 1 as the Gold Coast racked up over 30 points over a tired Parramatta side. The Corey Norman suspension seems to have been the tipping point in the Eels season from hell. Whilst Isaac De Gois and Jeff Robson are steely veterans, they are ageing players that don't carry a threat in key positions. I don't expect things to get any better for Parramatta this week. The Wests Tigers can smell the finals for the first time in 5 years and I think they will take advantage of a Parramatta side that has clearly hit the wall.
2. Neil Henry A Coach of the Year Contender
When the DCE deal fell through for the Titans in pre season everyone thought they were in for another long season. In the hands of NRL administration the Titans have resembled a basket case for much of the last few seasons. Unable to go into the player market heavily Henry has instead elevated a side seen by many as wooden spoon contenders to the brink of the finals. Konrad Hurrell has added further punch to a Titans side that is well balanced across the park. The Titans may require just three wins from their final games to make the finals and that would make Neil Henry a real candidate for coach of the year.
3. Time for the Fans to Return on the Gold Coast
A 15,000 strong crowd witnessed the Titans latest victory which is an encouraging sign that fans might be returning to the club and to the Gold Coast. Over the past 5 years the Titan's crowds have hit rock bottom with concerns over the lack of star power on the Gold Coast as well as exorbitant ticket prices. Teams on the Gold Coast have been a grave yard for NRL with the Giants, Seagulls and Chargers all having to fold or be reincarnated in different forms. Whilst the Titans have also had their troubles, they have a clear advantage over their predecessors on the Gold Coast, a purpose built stadium for Rugby League. To have that ground packed with over 20 000 fans over the next few home games would be nothing short of this Gold Coast team deserve as they make their final push for a finals position.
Melbourne Storm v Sydney Roosters @ AAMI Park
1. Typical Storm Performance
Whilst the Cowboys and Sharks continue to blow teams off the park, the Storm are grinding out wins in their own indomitable style. Whilst the Roosters hung with the Storm for most of the contest, Melbourne were always in control. Once the Storm get a lead in a game they are excellent front runners. They finish sets better than any other team in the NRL. This sort of experience and know how will be even more vital at the pointy end of the season.
2. Same Old Story for the Roosters
The Roosters have hit sides with plenty of intensity and effort early in games recently. In losses to Parramatta, Cronulla and Melbourne, the Chooks managed to lead all three games. However with some young players in key positions and a side lacking in confidence, they have been unable to hold it for long enough. Execution of their plays has been well off and the Roosters continue to give up some soft tries. I expect them to finally graft out a couple of wins for all their hard work over the remaining rounds However it will be scant consolation for Roosters fans used to success.
3. Where Do Luke Keary and Michael Gorden Fit In?
A couple of interesting signings by the Chooks heading into 2017. With young guns Connor Watson and Latrell Mitchell currently occupying the five-eight and fullback jersey respectively, it is interesting to see where Keary and Gorden fit in. Whilst Keary has floated between starting and the interchange bench at the Rabbitohs, he remains a good footballer and will see himself as a first choice Number 6. Michael Gorden's form has been pretty solid for Parramatta, whilst he might be slowing down a bit, Gorden remains a reliable fullback and goal kicker. If I were the Roosters I would be persisting with Mitchell in the fullback role - he is a potential superstar that is only going to get better. However I think Keary needs to start at 6. He brings a good direct running game and will work well in tandem with Mitchell Pearce. Where that leaves Connor Watson I'm not sure, but the versatility of Watson could see him anywhere in the back line.
Cronulla Sharks v Newcastle Knights @ Shark Park
1. Mullen at the Crossroads
Mullen limped off with another hamstring injury just two weeks into his comeback at Shark Park on Sunday. At 29, and with a few injury interrupted seasons on the bounce, Mullen will be taking stock of where he is at. Once a player proclaimed the answer to Andrew Johns in Newcastle, Mullen has never quite reached the heights once expected. Whilst he has proven a good solid first grader with a great range of passing and kicking, his injuries and inconsistent form has plagued his career. Now in a side unlikely to challenge for a few years, Mullen might be seen as expendable, or might also want the chance to play his last few years at a side that can challenge for a title.
2. Barba Back to 2012 Form
I have to admit I never thought Ben Barba could get anywhere near the heights he scaled in 2012. That year he was untouchable in running away with the Dally M Medal. Barba spent the next few years well off the pace with off-field issues and a lack of confidence plaguing his game. He seemed to have lost that all important burst of speed that turned half opportunities into tries. However in pre-season when Shane Flanagan kept faith in him ahead of Valantine Holmes and Jack Bird at fullback something clicked in Barba. Maybe it was the competition for positions, maybe it was just his confidence slowly returning. However whatever it is Barba is close to best player in the competition at present. He scored 2, created 2 and had a further 2 denied by the bunker. Newcastle could not handle him and other big gun sides would have been looking.
3. Sharks Minor Premiers in Waiting - But One Dilemma Awaits
Cronulla might drop a game before the finals but I can't see them dropping two or more. With a soft run home and a team riding a 15 game winning streak, the Sharks will win the Minor Premiership. It will be interesting how Shane Flanagan approaches the last 6 rounds. He has said he won't rest any players. However I think if they wrap up that minor premiership early I wouldn't be surprised to see a few key players given a week to freshen up. The Sharks could play the Bulldogs in Week 1 of the finals which leaves an interesting dilemma for the Sharks. Whilst the match would draw 40,000 to ANZ Stadium I am sure Cronulla will not be too thrilled to be giving up home ground advantage to the lower ranked Bulldogs.
South Sydney Rabbitohs v Manly Sea Eagles @ Allianz Stadium
1. Sam Burgess is having a Year to Forget
There was plenty of hype when 2014 Grand Final hero Burgess returned to the Rabbitohs in the 2016 pre-season. In the first few rounds Burgess slotted in like he had never left with dominant displays against the Roosters and Knights. However Burgess's dip in form coincided with his injury scare when he was stretchered off in a neck brace on a soggy afternoon at the SCG. Since then big Sam's game, like Souths, has gone off the boil. He is the forward with by far the most errors in the NRL, with unforced errors riddling his game at crucial times. The effort still seems there from Burgess; however he is playing with nowhere near the swagger that made him the most feared forward in the NRL in 2014. South Sydney as a side look tired and devoid of inspiration.
2. Too Little Too Late for Manly but Signs Are Good
With 3 wins on the bounce the Eagles are finishing the year the way many expected them to start it. Consecutive wins against the Dragons, Warriors and Rabbitohs have elevated Manly to a puncher's chance of playing finals football. Most pleasing for the coach Trent Barrett would be the side's gutsy display under adversity. In the last 3 rounds Manly have conceded just over 10 points a match showing steely resolve that was missing during their mid-season 7 match slump. Whilst I think the Eagles have left their run too late, they are playing the type of tough and balanced football which they can build upon next year.
3. Lyon on Ageing Legs but Still a Canny Player
Jamie Lyon showed last night he remained a player that remains extremely valuable. Since moving to five-eight Lyon has displayed his football instincts and nous to lift the Eagles from their mid season slumber. The try he scored under the posts was Lyon turning back the clock, running a great line which completely opened Souths up. His kicking game has been very measured and excellent for a bloke who has spent much of his career out in the centres. Lyon is also a wily competitor and won his side a couple of penalties after getting in the referee's ear after Souths had won a string of penalties on the bounce. Lyon may have lost a couple of yards of pace but he will end his career as someone who is still an excellent NRL player.