Contenders to pretenders: The Warriors, Panthers, and Raiders assessed

Tim Gore Columnist

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    Last weekend marked the first big milestone of the NRL season. By the end of Round 10, it is a 65 per cent chance that the season’s eventual premier is already in the top four.

    The stats from all seasons after 1998 further tells us that 85 per cent of the time they are already in the top eight.

    By this stage last year, seven of the final top eight were already in the eight. Only the Titans forced their way in afterwards.

    So the chances are high that the premier will be either the Storm, Sharks, Roosters or Broncos.

    Conversely, there are a few sides that were talked about as potential premiers in February that statistically now have bugger all chance just two and a half months into the season.

    Following their great finishes to the 2016 season, the Raiders and Panthers were touted as red hot chances to lift the silverware on the first weekend in October. Both are now very much rated as outsiders.

    There was also a fair bit of talk that Kieran Foran joining the Warriors – along with Stephen Kearney taking the helm – would see them finally achieve their massive potential.

    They haven’t. They are as disappointing and inconsistent as ever.

    So what has gone wrong? And is the dream really over for each of these clubs in 2017?

    Let’s take a look.

    Kieran Foran New Zealand Warriors NRL Rugby League 2017

    (Image: AAP/David Rowland)

    The New Zealand Warriors

    Current record:
    Four wins – Knights (h), Titans (h), Eels (h), Roosters (h)
    Six losses – Storm (h), Bulldogs (a), Dragons (a), Raiders (a), Storm (a), Penrith (a)

    The Warriors have lost all five of their away games, including blowing a 22 point lead against the Panthers.

    13+ losses: two (Storm, Dragons)
    1-12 losses: four (Bulldogs, Raiders, Panthers, Storm)
    1-12 wins: Four
    13+ wins: Zero

    I’m sorry, but a side boasting Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, David Fusitua, Shaun Johnson, Solomone Kata and Kieran Foran should be putting sides to the sword, at least sometimes. The Warriors biggest win was against the Eels by 12.

    Good stats:
    Metres gained: 1419 (+25 NRL AVG)
    Errors: 9.3 (Best NRL – AVG 10.6)

    Bad Stats:
    Tries scored: 2.8 a game (NRL AVG 3.3)
    Tackle breaks: 23.1 per game (worst NRL – NRL AVG 29.75)

    What is strange about the Warriors stats generally is that they are virtually bang on average for every other statistical category.

    As to those four stats, their go forward is decent without being stellar, and their error rate is the best in the competition.

    However, their tries scored per game rate is dismal. Only the Knights and Wests Tigers are worse. Further, their tackle breaks per game are the worst in the NRL.

    What has gone wrong?
    For all the fanfare of Kieran Foran supposedly helping Shaun Johnson explode into the player we all hope he can be, the Warriors – once known for their free scoring but leaky defence and soft underbelly – now have a problem with scoring enough points.

    Johnson certainly isn’t cutting loose, Tuivasa-Sheck is not asserting himself on games, Tuimoala Lolohea is badly out of favour, Foran is taking off at seasons end and Simon Mannering, Jacob Lillyman and Ryan Hoffman – while playing great footy – ain’t getting any younger and can’t do it all by themselves.

    Equation to make the finals:
    To accumulate the 28 points that usually scrapes a side in for a finals berth, the Warriors will have to win eight of their remaining 14 games. Seven of those are at home. There is a distinct possibility this can happen.

    The 36 points needed to ensure a top four berth will require the Warriors to win twelve of their last fourteen.

    They won’t make the four. However, if the Warriors can hit some form they might just make the finals. That will depend upon some tough love, discipline and work ethic – of the sort that the great Kevin Campion instilled in the side in the early 2000s – materialising at the club very quickly.

    Is the dream over in 2017?
    Yes. Yes it is. The Warriors are no better than a five per cent chance to lift the trophy in 2017.

    Christopher Grevsmuhl NRL Rugby League Penrith Panthers 2016

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    The Penrith Panthers

    Current record:
    Three wins – Wests Tigers (a), Knights (h), Warriors (h)
    Seven losses – Dragons (a), Roosters (h), Storm (a), Rabbitohs (h), Sharks (h), Eels (a), Broncos (a)

    The Panthers have only won three games but two of those were by 30-plus margins. However, all three wins have been against sides in the bottom five.

    13+ losses: four (Broncos, Storm, Sharks, Dragons)
    1-12 losses: three (Eels, Rabbitohs, Roosters)
    1-12 wins: One (Warriors)
    13+ wins: Two (Knights, Wests Tigers)

    The four sides that have cleaned them up are in the top five, suggesting that the Panthers side that was so competitive last year has seriously dropped away.

    Good stats:
    Line Breaks: #3 in the NRL
    Tackle Breaks: 33.3 a game (NRL AVG 29.75)

    Bad Stats:
    Missed Tackles: 32.3 per game (NRL AVG 29.7)
    Errors: 12 per game (worst NRL – NRL AVG 10.6)

    The problem for the Panthers is that these good stats have been drastically pumped up by the floggings of the Knights and Wests Tigers. Their attack isn’t penetrating the good sides’ defences. Further, their defence is pretty bad and they’ve got to stop shooting themselves in the foot with their high error rate.

    What has gone wrong?
    Firstly, it is very rare that the absence of a winger can make a huge difference, but make no mistake that Josh Mansour’s kick returning, determined ball running, and line breaking, are sorely missed.

    How many times in 2016 did the bearded one put the Panthers on the front foot? Plenty.

    He was their leading metre gainer, line breaker and try scorer in 2016 and they miss him badly.

    Wunderkind Nathan Cleary is having a tough second season in the top grade. However, the kid is the goods. If he is this good now he’ll be a superstar by 25.

    From an outsider’s perspective, something seems rotten in the state of Penrith. For the club captain to get dropped for stepping out of line is a very big deal.

    While Trent Merrin is a bit down on his 2016 form, Matt Moylan is well down on his. Further, Bryce Cartwright may be playing injured because he is certainly underwhelming in 2017.

    Last year Cartwright, Moylan, Tamou and Merrin were all serious contenders for State of Origin. This year I’ll be very surprised if any are even being considered.

    Equation to make the finals:
    To manage to tally 28 points, the Panthers will have to win nine of their remaining 14 games. Only seven of those are at home. That means they can only lose five more games if they are to scrape into the eight.

    However, don’t give up yet Panthers supporters.

    Although some good form is required quick smart, of the sides currently in the top five, the Panthers only play one of them (the Dragons) in their last fourteen games. The away games are winnable. It is possible.

    Making the top four, however, is not. It requires only dropping one more game out of 14.

    No way will they make the four. But they may make the finals. Their run home is pretty friendly and their comeback from 22 points down against the Warriors showed that they have some fight in them yet.

    Is the dream over in 2017?

    Sure is. There will be no premiership in 2017 for the mountain men.

    Aidan Sezer Canberra Raiders NRL Rugby League 2016

    (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

    The Canberra Raiders

    Current record:
    Four wins – Wests Tigers (h), Eels (h), Titans (a), Wariors (h)
    Six losses – Cowboys (a), Sharks (h), Broncos (a), Sea Eagles (h), Bulldogs (a), Knights (a)

    In 2017 the Raiders have not beaten a side that is currently in the top eight. Their pumped up ladder position is due to their demolitions of the badly depleted Titans and Wests Tigers.

    13+ losses: Two (Sharks, Knights)
    1-12 losses: four (Cowboys, Broncos, Sea Eagles, Bulldogs)
    1-12 wins: Two (Warriors, Eels)
    13+ wins: Two (Titans, Wests Tigers)

    The Raiders have fallen into their 2015 trap of losing close games. All four of their 1-12 losses they could have won, but they didn’t. Coulda, shoulda, woulda…

    Good stats:
    Tackle Breaks: 36.9 a game (NRL AVG 29.75)

    Bad Stats:
    Nothing really bad. Just a lot of beige. Beige doesn’t win competitions.

    The Raiders put sides to the sword in 2016. Their defence was top notch and their attack deadly and adventurous. The passes stuck.

    This season they may be sitting on average errors but it is where and how they are making them. They are pushing too many passes and handing over lots of ball in their red zone. While their defence has only been badly compromised in Round 2 against the Sharks, the Raiders aren’t scoring freely and sides are beating them in arm wrestles.

    What has gone wrong?
    There are a few factors.

    Firstly, Coach Ricky Stuart is right: sides have worked them out and now have strategies to counter and frustrate the Raiders game plan.

    Secondly, their depth isn’t what it was in 2016. Nor could it be. Raiders management had to make tough salary cap decisions about who they kept and who they let go. Last season when Josh Papalii or Shannon Boyd were out, Stuart could call on Paul Vaughn and Shaun Fensom. This year he must call on honest toilers Clay Priest and Dunamis Lui instead.

    Last year he had Sam Williams and Kurt Baptiste in the squad who could come in and do a job when needed. Baptiste has only just come back from an Achilles injury and Williams is in England.

    Further, after a few years of winning with left field purchases, the signings of Jordan Turner and Dave Taylor have yet to bear the fruit that is hoped for.

    At the beginning of the season Josh Papalii, Blake Austin, Jarrod Croker, Jack Wighton, Shannon Boyd, Junior Paulo and Joey Leilua were all in contention for Origin jerseys. After the Raiders start to 2016, I expect only Josh Papalii will get the call-up.

    As much as it will pain a side that has so enjoyed playing a free-spirited style of entertaining football, they must roll up their sleeves and play some low error grind football to get their season back on track.

    Equation to make the finals:
    For the magical 28 points number, the Raiders will have to win eight of their remaining 14 games. While lots of their tough remaining matchups are at home, they have to travel to Cronulla and Melbourne. To be certain of a top four spot they can only lose two more games.

    The Raiders squad is too good to miss the finals but they are making it hard for themselves. However, they’ll need some extremely good fortune to make the four. And as we know, no side in the NRL era has won the Premiership from outside the top four.

    Is the dream over in 2017?
    As much as it pains me to say it, most probably, yes. Yet I still hope…

    Tim Gore
    Tim Gore

    Tim has been an NRL statistician for ABC Radio Grandstand since 1999, primarily as part of their Canberra coverage. Tim has loved rugby league since Sterlo was a kid with lots of hair but was cursed with having no personal sporting ability whatsoever. He couldn't take a hit in footy, was a third division soccer player making up numbers, plays off 41 in golf and is possibly the world's worst cricketer ever. He has always been good at arguing the point though and he has a great memory of what happened. Follow Tim on Twitter.