Rep season unavailability livens up NRL
This Friday the NRL returns to normal, as the focus shifts from State of Origin to the looming finals series. The likes of the Dragons, Broncos, Storm and Cowboys will be at full strength once again, and if you’re Wayne Bennett, Anthony Griffin, Craig Bellamy or Neil Henry, it’s not a moment too soon.
The representative period is the thorn in the side of these teams, but for their rivals, it’s an all important window to find form against sides they perceive to be the real deal.
Yesterday, the Newcastle Knights wouldn’t have thought for a second they defeated a St George Illawarra side down on firepower. To them, they just took two points off the reigning premiers.
The confidence that will give the Knights can’t be underestimated, but will it make a difference at the end of the season?
A month ago, the most famous Stig to most Newcastle fans was the white-suited, non-speaking driver from the television show Top Gear.
Now, some say rookie halfback Ryan Stig could hold the key to Knights season just three games in to his NRL career.
Stig is the classic halfback. He runs with the ball out in front in an attempt to put defenders in two minds. It may seem simple and obvious, but it’s a skill that too few number sevens in the NRL display.
All of the halfbacks in the competition know how to play like Stig, but not enough feel sufficiently confident to do so when they hit the big stage.
Others feel suffocated by game plans and forget to play what is in front of them.
Dragons coach Wayne Bennett must have liked what he saw from the young gun.
It would’ve killed him that Stig was dismantling his side, but given Bennett could soon get his hands on the 21 year old, some part of him would’ve been smiling.
Strangely, Newcastle hasn’t moved to tie up the playmaker yet, with his contract running out at the end of the season.
Jarrod Mullen will reclaim the number seven jersey when he returns from injury in the next fortnight, but Kurt Gidley could be moved to fullback without too much hassle with Stig sliding out to five-eighth.
Genuine halfbacks are hard to find in the NRL and if the Knights aren’t careful another club could pounce.
Of more concern for now though is a season many thought had been written off ahead of the arrival of the Bennett in 2012.
Newcastle has nine games left in the season and are currently in sixth spot on the ladder on 20 points. They should win six of those nine games as well.
The Origin period has also given Cronulla new belief.
The Sharks have now won their last three games. Yesterday’s win over South Sydney was executed without inspirational captain Paul Gallen and prop Kade Snowden.
All of the available forwards stepped up and filled the void. Gallen wasn’t there to take that extra hit-up, make that extra tackle or play the minutes others couldn’t.
The representative period has been painted as the biggest evil in the game today, but it may have just livened up the competition.
The Dragons were steamrolling their way towards another title before the City/Country, Australian, New South Wales and Queensland jumpers were handed out.
Who’ll win the competition now? It’s anyone’s guess.
You can follow Luke Doherty on Twitter @Luke_Doherty and on Sky News Australia.
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