At the beginning of the season, I was asked several times who would win the premiership. After answering the Canberra Raiders, I would then mention how the more interesting question was which teams were going to make the top eight.
At the time, I thought there were only two teams incapable of making the eight – the Knights and the Dragons.
I envisaged a competition where seventh and eighth spot would come down to the final weeks, with several teams vying to play finals footy.
Having watched the opening three rounds of the competition, I was on the money.
If the first three rounds are anything to go by, a sneaky tip for this weekend might be for the Tigers to end the Storm’s unbeaten streak.
There have been some extraordinary upsets so far, serving as a stark reminder – particularly to teams that may have believed their own pre-season hype – that there are no guarantees when it comes to playing finals football.
Here are my biggest (and most surprising!) upsets so far.
St George Illawarra Dragons 42-10 Penrith Panthers (Round 1)
Before a ball had been kicked in 2017, the Panthers were considered premiership contenders and the Dragons were predicted to finish the season at the bottom.
And unsurprisingly so.
In 2016, the Dragons found themselves second last in almost every attacking stat recorded, including points scored, tries, linebreaks and try assists.
For those who thought the Dragons would offer more of the same in 2017, this game was them proving us wrong. You only had to look at Jack de Belin’s face when he scored his try to know that the home team had turned up to play football.
Much of the Dragons’ success in this game (and yesterday, against the Sharks) was due to a reinvigorated forward pack. Against the Panthers, Russell Packer and Paul Vaughan both played less than 55 minutes, but still managed to run for 174 and 189 metres respectively.
Even more impressive was that the Red V outran the Panthers by almost 700 metres.
While the hype has focused on Luke Keary as the buy of the season, this was Cam McInnes’s debut in the red and white jersey, and he certainly impressed, with a try and an assist over a highly effective 80 minutes.
There were some worrying signs for the Panthers and the signs continue, having won only one game so far, against a Tigers side which has been impotent (at best) in the last two weeks.
The next three games for Penrith are crucial, taking on the Knights, Storm and Rabbitohs. If they don’t win two out of these three games, a top-four finish becomes a challenging prospect (particularly considering the calibre of players the Panthers will be missing during the State of Origin period).
Gold Coast Titans 26-14 Parramatta Eels (Round 3)
Who saw this one coming?
The Eels had been one of the most impressive teams in the competition, but against an injury-ravaged Titans, Parra played their worst football since June 2016, when the Cowboys scored five tries in ten minutes to beat them 36-30.
Impatience. Lack of respect. Poor options. This describes what the Eels dished up on Friday night.
On several occasions, they decided to try and pop the miracle ball and failed miserably. With a 74 per cent completion rate and 13 errors, Parramatta were their own worst enemy.
The errors that hurt the most though were those of Semi Radradra, who dropped two simple passes inside his ten-metre zone in the space of ten minutes and put tremendous pressure on the team, who went from having a two-point lead to trailing by six in a short period of time.
Expect the Titans to be without Jarryd Hayne, Will Zillman, Dan Sarginson and Tyrone Roberts next week. But even with these injury concerns, the Titans were able to pull off one of the most stunning upsets of the season so far, thanks mainly to the short kicking game of Ash Taylor, and the efforts of Jarrod Wallace and Ryan James.
North Queensland Cowboys 8-30 Manly Sea Eagles (Round 3)
This was not a performance fans are accustomed to seeing from North Queensland. Missing several key players, including Matt Scott, Antonio Winterstein and Lachlan Coote, the Cowboys made an uncharacteristic 12 errors and conceded 11 penalties.
What interested me the most about this game though was that the dominance we have come to expect from their forward pack was still present. Scott Bolton ran for 176 metres, Ethan Lowe for 158 and Coen Hess for 144. This is in comparison to the Sea Eagles, who looked to their backline for those sorts of metres, with Akuila Uate and Tom Trobojevic (among others) cracking triple digits.
If Manly are going to make any impact on this competition, they need more from their forwards, with Brenton Lawrence the only one to make the 100-metre mark.
Defence does win games, as the Sea Eagles discovered this weekend – but to win this year’s NRL competition, you’ll need a bit more than that.
I would also like to commend both the Dragons and the Knights on their efforts so far this year.
The Knights currently sit 12th on the ladder, having won one game out of their first three. Considering Newcastle only won one game in total last season, 2017 is already looking positive.
Their losses were to the Warriors and the Bunnies, by six points or less on each occasion. While Knights fans probably won’t be expecting a top-eight finish, a season with six or seven wins is certainly achievable.
And as for the Dragons, who said they had no chance of making the top eight?