St George Illawarra Dragons v Brisbane Broncos @ WIN Stadium
Broncos Win Ugly
It was not pretty, but Brisbane grinded out a much needed win in wet conditions in Wollongong. The Broncos led for the majority of the match and had to see out a late flurry from the Dragons in the last 5 minutes. The win steadied the ship for the Broncos and shores up their finals berth. The Broncos are only going to get their form back gradually and need to use their soft run home to build some momentum over the next 4 weeks. Whilst the conditions were torrid, Brisbane will take some heart from conceding only 8 points and will aim for something similar on Friday Night at home to Parramatta.
Thaiday Lifts Side
The Broncos big players have gone off the boil during their alarming mid-season slump. Some like Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford look down on confidence. Whole their big stars in the forward pack have seen their side get bullied in the ruck is recent losses. However Sam Thaiday was made a bit of a stand on Thursday night . He really aggressive and made a big impact in this game. The Broncos’ leaders are the ones that are going to drag them out of this rut and Thaiday put a marker down here. The Broncos won the territorial battle and defended with a grittier edge as they controlled much of the game.
All Over for Benji at Saints
With rumours of a bust up with Coach Paul McGregor on Tuesday, I can’t see the Dragons having any interest in re-signing Marshall beyond this season. Marshall has never been a great wet weather footballer and he was pretty awful on Thursday night. He made a few basic errors and threw a couple of bullet passes not suited to wet weather conditions. Marshall still has his good days; however his bad days have been a problem for both the Tigers and Dragons over the last 4 years. To be fair to Marshall, he has never really played behind a dominant pack. However some of the errors he made on Thursday you would not expect from such a seasoned player.
Parramatta Eels v Manly Sea Eagles @ PIRTEK Stadium
Barrett Doesn't Take Losing Well
Trent Barrett’s pain was written all over his face in a short press conference post their 10-9 loss to the Eels. He could barely contain his fury as a controversial late penalty condemned his side to a season ending loss. Barrett has quickly pronounced himself as a coach that wears his heart on his sleeve and I like that. He reminds me of Ricky Stuart the way he takes to losing, with utter disdain. Barrett has had a tough rookie year as his Manly side have failed to live up to expectations. However he has got his side playing tough the last month and I think they can build on it going into next year.
Eels Hang Tough
Parramatta deserves to finish with a winning record in 2016. Their 11th win proved the hardest to come by as they snuck home on Friday Night ending a run of outs. The Eels had plenty of reasons to turn it up with only Manly having their seasons on the line. However they produced a trademark defensive display despite Manly having most of the opportunities on the night. Most teams when out of finals contention refuse to take penalties goes however Brad Arthur’s men showed their intent by taking an early 2 points in a fiery opening to the game.
Tapau has not Justified the Price Tag
It was a soft penalty that ultimately decided Friday Night's game. Tapau's hit on a player without the ball was not a dirty play, but it was silly with the clock ticking down. He gave the refs the opportunity to penalise him and that they did exactly that and it cost Manly dearly. Tapau was a big name signing for Manly leaving the Wests Tigers in November after 2 years at the club. There was a lot of hype around Tapau and Manly by all reports paid him handsomely, however he has had a poor season. He plays his football in fits and starts and often goes long periods without making an impact in games. Manly seem to have him playing longer minutes and I think it might have nullified one of his best assets, his impact.
Newcastle Knights v Canterbury Bulldogs @ Hunter Stadium
Bulldogs Closing in on Top 4 Berth
The Dogs were not pretty again here, grinding out a 28-14 win in awful conditions in Newcastle on Saturday Afternoon. They invited the Knights back into the contest here after securing a comfortable 14-2 lead at halftime. It took a Sam Kasiano charge-down to swing the momentum back their way as they scored against the run of play after Newcastle had levelled up at 14-14. The Dogs remain a very unconvincing premiership chance based on the inconsistent football they are playing. Stuttering wins against the Dragons and Knights won't have put fear in the premiership heavyweights. However with a double bite of the cherry, and with the Bulldogs propensity to save their best football for September, they will be a dangerous commodity in the finals.
Hasler Refutes Critics
Des Hasler bit back at some of his teams critics after their victory on Saturday. Both Darren Lockyer and Brad Fittler effectively wrote off the Bulldogs as serious premiership threat. While the Dogs have often been unconvincing in their wins, they have only lost 3 games since Round 10. Those 3 losses have come against heavyweights Cronulla, Canberra and North Queensland. While they have not been blowing sides again the Dogs are in the Top 4 in stats in both completion percentage and metres gained which will keep them in the picture come finals time.
Knights Fans Keep Turning Up
The Knights fans have been unsung heroes this season. Over 13,000 fans braved the woeful conditions on Saturday to cheer their battered side on. To be averaging over 15,000 fans in a season where the team has been uncompetitive with just one win is an outstanding effort. I think the Knights fans appreciate the honesty of Nathan Brown and the fact they are returning to their blue-collar roots. They are promoting local juniors and looking to engage the proud Hunter community once more. During the Nathan Tinkler days, the Knights became disengage, distant and were run more like a franchise. They signed a lot of outsiders, they trained away from the public, and there was a lot of dissention among the fan base.. Whilst it might take 4-5 years to rebuild Newcastle, it looks like they have their fans along for the ride, which is a good start.
Cronulla Sharks v Canberra Raiders @ Shark Park
Loss the Sharks Had To Have
Make no mistake - this will be good for Cronulla. They have been playing well below their best the past month and some bad habits have crept into their game. Finally here at Shark Park, they were ruthlessly exposed by a rampant Canberra side 30-14. The Sharks were consigned to their first loss of the season at home and it was in relatively convincing fashion. Without Michael Ennis, the glue in the middle of the field, the Sharks defence and attack looked disorganised and tired for much of the night. This loss allows the pressure to ease from Cronulla and they can take stock of where they are at. Things that they were getting away with in unconvincing wins will now be put under the microscope. I think they will benefit from this loss as it takes the pressure off to continue the unbeaten streak. Even if they miss out on the Minor Premiership, it might be a blessing as I’m not sure how the Sharks would cope with being premiership favourites. For a side entering their 50th year without a title, the reality is no one remembers the Minor Premiers. They might prefer to run 2nd or 3rd and sneak under the radar for when for grand prize is handed out in October.
Raiders are Building a Bully
Get excited Canberra fans - this side is peaking at the right time and are becoming a Premiership dark horse. Whilst I still think their worst is a fair bit worse than the rest of the title contenders, their best can be as good as anyone if not better. They proved this here by knocking down the fortress at Shark Park in super impressive style. The modern game is all about size, aggression, power and speed and the Raiders have plenty of that as well as some great football instincts in the halves and at hooker. The Raiders have not really gone close to winning a premiership since back in their halcyon days in 1994. However this side are capable of it, maybe not this season, but certainly next season. Smart recruitment and a close team spirit under master motivator Ricky Stuart has seen the team come together much quicker then expected.
Hodgson A Star
I thought Josh Hodgson was a pretty good player heading into this season. However I didn't know he was this good. The Raiders hooker is a deserved frontrunner to take out the prestigious Dally M medal after a stellar season. When the Raiders halves were out injured earlier this season, Hodgson slotted into the halves at times and dominated. He became the team’s focal attacking point from dummy half at other times as the Raiders battled with injuries. He has an excellent short and long kicking game and has become a 40/20 exponent as well as someone who can gain crucial repeat sets. I thought 12 months ago Hodgson was more solid than spectacular. However he is a genuine attacking maestro with his running and passing game equally as dangerous. He reminds me a bit of a young Robbie Farah in that he is a really dominant and creative number 9. The difference with Hodgson is he doesn't drift across field - he is very direct. Ricky Stuart obviously did his homework when signing Hodgson and I'm not sure even he knew how good he would become.
Melbourne Storm v South Sydney Rabbitohs @ AAMI Park
Souths Find Some Resolve Finally
Souths can count themselves desperately unlucky not to walk away from AAMI Park with one of the upsets of the season. Having led the game with under a minute to play only a ridiculous lifting tackle from Damien Cook allowed the Storm to level. The Bunnies came out really physical here and managed to keep the score to 0-0 at halftime. With Greg Inglis returning and a much more dominant display from the Souths pack the Rabbitohs were the better side for longer periods. Michael Maguire needed this sort of performance from his side to show he maintains their support. Whilst at the end of the day it was a 9th straight loss for the Bunnies they can take plenty more positives heading to Auckland.
Cameron Smith is the Ultimate Ice Man
For all his greatness sometimes you look at Cameron Smith and wonder how he does it. Smith has become the most influential player in the game over the years as he has racked up trophy after trophy for Melbourne, Queensland and Australia. People often joke that he has a body more like an accountant not an NRL star. Then you analyse Smith he is not quick, overly strong or big. However he is the ultimate game manager, has fantastic football instincts and is a pure competitor. People in the know at Melbourne reckon he is ready to be a first grade head coach already such is his reading of the game and ability to lead. Smith didn’t blink when having to kick the levelling score from 40 yards out on an angle. In golden point extra time, Smith knew all eyes would be on Cooper Cronk and he fooled both markers hook, line and sinker in slotting the winning field goal. Smith is the calmest man on the field under pressure and has delivered time and time again. The Storm and Qld captain rarely loses big games and the Storm are going to be awfully hard to beat if the games go right down to the wire in September.
Bellamy a Perfectionist
Far from being satisfied with the Storm going top of the table, Craig Bellamy cut a grumpy figure at the post match press conference. Bellamy was particularly displeased with the Storm’s first half showing, giving them a typically fearful spray. Bellamy deduced that his team needed to lift and was particularly disappointed with the side’s execution in attack and attitude in defence. Bellamy forecast an open and honest review session during the week as they prepare for a blockbuster in Canberra on Monday night. The Storm will need to lift a leg or two if they want to beat the high flying Raiders on a cold Monday Night in Canberra. However you can bet under Bellamy they will lift and he ready for the Raiders.
Gold Coast Titans v New Zealand Warriors @ CBUS Super Stadium G
Warriors Finding Consistency
Far from falling off the wagon since Origin, the Warriors are starting to build momentum heading into the finals. The Warriors appeared to be in quicksand earlier in the season, copping several beatings and losing star recruit Roger Tuivasa-Sheck for the season to injury. However the last 8 weeks the Warriors have had 5 victories and 3 golden point losses. They have found a much more steely resolve in their defence and that was evident again on the Gold Coast. The Warriors have now knocked over Top 8 rivals the Panthers and Titans in consecutive weeks and will be confident of beating Souths at home on Saturday. It was the Warriors 5th consecutive win on the Gold Coast and 11th in 12th against the Titans.
Titans In Danger of Dropping Out
Suddenly the Gold Coast have a season defining game now against a rampant Wests Tigers side at Campbelltown. A packed CBUS Super Stadium was not enough to see off the Warriors as they lost crucial ground on their finals rivals. With both sides just outside the Top 8, the loser of the game at Campbelltown game will be long odds to qualify for the finals. The Titans have a tough run home although they have a good record against the Wests Tigers. The Titans demolished them earlier in the season 30-18 on the Gold Coast. They have troubled the Tigers over the years especially in the air and they will be looking to test the Tigers with some high balls to their smaller wingers.
Hayne Promising but is He a Five-Eight?
Jarryd Hayne was well under done on Sunday but still showed why he is a world class Rugby League player in flashes. Hayne made a couple of really strong defensive reads and excellent front line tackles to save a try. Hayne also showed he remains lethal in the air and his passing game showed touches of class. I’m a little bit surprised Neil Henry has thrown him into the Number 6 role this week. Hayne is not familiar with the Titan’s structures and systems, and I can see it being a little bit clunky in a game where there is no room for error. Even though Hayne is underdone I think he would be best in a position where he can focus on his running game and bob up when needed.
Wests Tigers v North Queensland Cowboys @ Leichhardt Oval
Best Win for the Tigers in a Long Time
The Tigers have been wallowing in their own misfortune for near on 5 years now. However they made a statement with a resounding win over the reigning premiers on Sunday afternoon. The Tigers were aggressive with and without the ball. They cut off Johnathon Thurston and ambushed his thinking time like no team has managed to do this year. Their try line defence and intensity was a hallmark of the win and something the Tigers have really struggled with over the years. While they still remain outside the Top 8, and with a really tough run home, this club is finally starting to build some momentum under Jason Taylor. They all look like they are finally on the same page in terms of what style of football they want to play. There is plenty of young talent at the Tigers, however it has taken time to bring it to the surface. As a long-suffering Tigers fan I can finally see light at the end of the tunnel.
Leichhardt Oval A Grand Old Ground
Leichhardt Oval might be on death’s door as a first grade rugby league ground, but it would be a real shame. The Tigers’ fans love the old ground and the players thrive on it. Since the merger began, the Wests Tigers have only made 3 finals series in 16 series. It is the lowest strike rate of any of the NRL clubs. They win at less than 40% over the course of 16 years. However their win record at Leichardt is over 60%. With 41 wins and 27 losses the Tigers have a significant advantage at Leichhardt. Whilst I realise that the big grounds allow the clubs to make more money and compete more in the market, the Leichhardt Oval factor cannot be measured in dollars. 50% of wins gets teams to the finals in the NRL and if the Tigers were playing more games at Leichhardt they might have been able to nudge up towards that mark. The crowd is right on top of the action and is always worth a couple of penalties. It’s a tough place for referees and it’s a tough place for opponents to come and win. Sure the toilets are a nightmare, the parking is not great and the ground is run down, but it’s old-school Rugby League. Long may it live and fight on.
The Cowboys were flat on Sunday and were totally outplayed by the Tigers. They have an awful record at Leichhardt oval this being their 8th loss their from 9 games at the suburban venue. I wouldn’t be too worried thought if I were a Cowboys fans. It’s never easy as defending premiers and I think they are just going through a lull. Paul Green bemoaned the fact his team has not been able to train as a full squad for over 2 months. Thurston has a late inclusion here but did not look totally fit. I expect the Cowboys to rebound strongly over the next few weeks. They remain right in the premiership mix for mine.
Penrith Panthers v Sydney Roosters @ Pepper Stadium
Nathan Cleary Stars
It might have worked out well for Nathan Cleary that his father Ivan was sacked from the Panthers. It would have been harder for Ivan to bring in his son at just 18 years old without claims of nepotism from the outside. However Anthony Griffin saw enough in clearly to send Jamie Soward to England and put faith in Cleary to run the side. Cleary put in his best performance of his young career on Monday Night showing both toughness and class in the convincing win. He defended strongly, ran the ball with purpose and had a hand in several tries. Cleary looks every bit an Origin player of the future.
Panthers in Good Position
The Panthers are in the box seat to secure a finals spot after a thumping win here over the Roosters. They have a good run home with a trip to Newcastle, followed by games against the Tigers, Titans and Sea Eagles. Penrith in this sort of mood can win all 4 of those games. They have plenty of point in them and blew the Roosters off the park on Monday Night. The issue with the Panthers has been their inconsistency and propensity to blow the close games.
Halfback the new Quarterback?
In the NFL if you lose your quarterback for the season to injury you are basically screwed. It is a quarterback driven league, if you have a Top 10 quarterback you’re almost a lock to make the playoffs. Whilst halfback does not quite have the same importance in Rugby League it is not far off. The Roosters lost Mitchell Pearce here before kick off and were never in the contest. Pearce also missed the first 8 games of the season, and the Roosters lost 7 of those. The halfback, especially ones like Pearce command a game plan, they are focal to everything about a side. All teams will need their halfback fit and firing in the finals, otherwise forget it.