What a month of NRL action. We’ve had a resurgent Dragons outfit challenging for top spot until injury saw them slip a little. While pre-season favourites Penrith, and to a lesser degree Canberra, has struggled with consistency.
Manly are proving to be a tipster’s nightmare and our good mates in The Bunker are continuing their outstanding performances. The rumour mill is in overdrive, suggesting The Bunker will replace the Brisbane Bronco’s current No.1 sponsor NRMA Insurance in 2018.
Ray advised me YouI will be the Storm’s new main sponsor in 2018, after being impressed after signing Cam Smith as an ambassador and mentor of the current crop of officials in 2017.
Meanwhile, over the ditch the New Zealand Warriors are about to part ways with Vodafone and link up with GEP (Global Energy Products Inc.), suppliers of choke products. While the Raiders are close to inking a deal with Jenny Craig to replace the struggling smartphone Huawei.
With so much turmoil off the field we now turn our attention to the on-field action of the past month. Here are the Chopping Block’s standout performers.
Joey ‘BJ’ Leilua
From NSW State of Origin centre to potential ISP Cup Mounties centre, that is the predicament at the alarming drop in form of the damaging Raider.
Leilua’s performances have been a reminder of his days with the Knights where inconsistency, poor missed tackles and handling errors where part of his weekly highlights reel.
Whatever has happened needs to be addressed and fast as the Raiders’ season is slowly slipping away from them after an inept performance to the Knights, a side who recorded only their second win in 26 games last Sunday.
Maybe a stint in NSW Cup might do Leilua the world of good as it appears to have worked for Sydney Roosters youngster Latrell Mitchell.
BJ’s drop in form has also had a major effect on the scoreboard as most of the Raiders’ points are now coming from the usually less prolific opposite side of attack via Jarrod Croker and young Neville Cotric.
The halves are not helping the cause, it must be said, with a very low assist rate between them. For the Raiders’ season to fully catch fire, they need their big physical centre to find his mojo and fast.
Ray reckons BJ might be destined for the forwards if he can’t sort out his defence and rediscover his form. I disagree, as the Raiders already possess too many 35-minute forwards in their pack!
The Warriors’ highest paid player of all time has failed to suit up in the second half over the last month. Taking away slotting a penalty goal in the gritty win over the Roosters, Johnson has looked tired, down on confidence and more prone to making poor options after the interval and when his side is under the pump.
Is it coach Stephen Kearney taking a conservative approach tactically or the cardio levels of his forward pack letting him down? Who knows, but one thing’s for sure, Johnson has been average and inconsistent in defence and lacks game management or patience in the clutch periods.
Take his defence in the Anzac Test, which was one of his highlights in a sub-par attacking performance, and then compare it with the lack of purpose displayed at Pepper Stadium on Saturday. It’s clear he is still inconsistent, much like his side.
Excuses can’t be accepted given the amount of years and experience he has under his belt. Johnson’s desire to be the club captain and leader will never be realised until he addresses the major flaws in his performances. The difference between his best and worst is still miles apart in all aspects of his game.
What will happen now over the Origin period will be the usual false dawn that has all long-suffering Warrior fans salivating and media types labelling them dark horses. Only for the current form to fade into the sunset during the last four or five rounds.
The No.7 holds the key to destroy this annual phenomenon, but he needs to start showing consistency every week in defence and attack under pressure. Maybe then he can justify his price tag and realise the importance and influence he has on his team’s fortunes.
Sounds like we have an agenda on dynamic attacking players in this edition, maybe other sides have finally worked on gameplans to mute their influence on performances. However, a common theme has surfaced on Cartwright’s game, and that is missed tackles.
Last year a large majority wanted him on the bench for the NSW Blues and were gobsmacked he was overlooked. Defence was often a response. Well, it’s clear to see it was and is still a major issue.
It’s hard to fathom he is the nephew of the great Hoss Cartwright, who barely if ever missed ironing out an opponent in his time with the liquorice allsorts.
Penrith’s coach has shifted him into the No.6 role, a role that the skipper and fullback should be claiming, and the opposition attack is still targeting him frequently and successfully in the defensive line. For all his attacking ability, hopefully he turns it around sooner rather than later.
It would be a tragedy if he is added to the long list of overhyped youngsters we’ve seen all too briefly over the years.
Here are just a few: Dave Taylor, Barney Haslett, Matt Gafa, Tulsen Tollett, Chris Sandow, Owen Craigie, Paul Hauff, Siuatonga Likiliki, Royston Lightning, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Harry Siejka, Billy Noke, Jason Martin, Jack ‘Barry’ Elsegood, Billy Weepu, Jamie Olejnik, Mark McLinden, Lenny Beckett, Jermaine Ale, Tim Smith, Steve Michaels, Daniel Mortimer, Ryan Stig and plenty more.
I usually enjoy the banter and views of the crew on Talkin’ Sport – Peter Tunks, Gavin Robertson, Brett Papworth and rugby league’s version of Richard Wilkins, Graeme Hughes. But of late they are showing their age and not getting any facts or advice before voicing an agenda.
A few weeks ago they hammered the Warriors Under-20s’ drop in performances over the last few years and questioned the club’s recruitment. A quick check on the club’s website will point out some clear facts why, starting with the age of the squad.
Most of their current NYC squad are aged between 16-18 and several members of their current ISP Cup and NRL squads are still eligible for NYC in 2017. At least two seasons ago the Warriors announced they would make a pathway for their elite youngsters via the harder and more physical ISP Cup.
With the NRL scrapping the Under-20s from 2018, the Warriors made the right move to develop the likes of Ata Hingano, Nathaniel Roache, Bunty Afoa, Erin Clarke, Isaiah Papalii, Toa Sipley and co. against seasoned ex-first graders.
From memory the last time the club won the Under-20s title, they finished eighth and stacked the team in Week 1 of the finals with members who had played NSW Cup or first grade and qualified to play in the NYC finals.
They defeated the Broncos in the decider, a team boasting Ashley Taylor, the Nikorima brothers, Jayden and Codi, and Tom Opacic. The Warriors included Brad Abbey, Roache, Solomone Kata, Tui Lolohea, Sam Lisone, Ken Maumalo, Afoa and Hingano in their squad.
Now for the focus to shift on the star performers over the past six weeks starting with Titans young gun Ash Taylor.
This young kid will not only be the future halfback for Queensland but most likely the long term No.7 for the Kangaroos. He already shows poise and skill under pressure, toughness, a real competitive streak not unlike the current Maroons No.7 and has developed more than any other half around the same age bracket in 2017.
Without him the Titans would be hanging out with the Knights on the NRL ladder. Sometimes a footballer comes along and you just know they are going to be an elite player. Hopefully he stays with the Titans and doesn’t return to the Broncos.
Long-term contracts these days have about as much credibility as a Today Tonight reporter. I don’t want to sound all Gus Gould but the kid was born a footballer and has the DNA that other talents such as the above trio on the Chopping Block missed out on – calmness under pressure and belief in his own ability.
Jack De Belin
The young Saints forward has grown another leg this year and become a key component in the NRL’s best balanced back-row combination including Tyson Frizell and Joel Thompson.
De Belin has added another bow to his game, showing he possesses some decent ball-playing skills in the long term absence of Gareth Widdop. He should at least be in the conversation for Origin selection but will in all probability miss out.
Ray suspects the removal of the man-bun has been key to his exceptional form on 2017. I believe it’s the yards the props and back three have improved on in 2017 which has given the back-row the luxury needed to show how good they really are.
With Russell Packer moving to the Tigers in 2018, don’t be surprised to see the Dragons make a play for a similar type of front row forward for next season and beyond.
The timing of Packer’s departure is not ideal, but they did gain a gem from the Raiders in Paul Vaughan and a similar pick-up could be on the cards if they stay patient. Clubs will look to shed players to stay under the yet to be determined 2018 salary cap.
Over to you readers. Add any players you feel deserved to make the over-hyped list. Ray originally nominated Mitchell Moses, which I felt was unfair to Parramatta Eels fans.