The top eight storylines heading into the NRL finals

Tom Rock Columnist

By , Tom Rock is a Roar Expert

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    State of Origin is mercifully over for another year, so it’s time to shift the focus back to where it belongs – club footy. With only seven rounds left until the finals, here are the top eight storylines that I’ll keeping an eye on.

    Sky Blue thinking
    Ok, one more bit of Origin before we completely move on. There’s still the small matter of who’ll coach the New South Wales side in 2018 and beyond. The general consensus is that Laurie has done his dash, and discussions around who’ll replace him have been spreading faster than Cameron Smith platitudes in the Courier Mail newsroom.

    I would encourage the Blues to think big. Take all perception of cost, availability and allegiances off the table, and identify the best possible candidate for the job. The person capable of taking the talented collection of players Daley has assembled, and transforming them into winners.

    That man is Craig Bellamy, but only if he can take the job on a full-time basis. Bellamy possesses an unrivalled combination of passion, technical nous and man management skills, and the Blues could do with a healthy dose of all three.

    I know he previously came up empty at Origin level, but he was juggling the job with his Melbourne commitments. If he can completely commit himself to the task, I have complete faith he will be successful.

    Will Griffin get the Hook?
    The Penrith Panthers were deserved pre-season favourites. Gus Gould had assembled a cracking roster, Matt Moylan had the look of rugby league’s next superstar, Nathan Cleary was the competition’s most promising young halfback, and a breathtaking brand of ad-lib footy had just carried the Panthers deep into the 2016 finals.

    And yet, after 19 rounds, Penrith are sitting ninth on the competition ladder and are in real danger of missing the top eight. So what happened?

    According to Griffin, it’s all a matter of perspective. The coach believes those who labelled Penrith as pre-season premiership contenders don’t know their footy. I believe that Griffin’s statement is a complete cop out aimed at taking the pressure off his players and saving his own skin.

    The reality is that Hook is under immense pressure to retain his job at the foot of the mountains. The performance of his squad has fallen well below expectations, and he needs to be held accountable. If the Panthers qualify for the finals, Griffin keeps his job. If they fall short, well, maybe he can apply for the New South Wales gig.

    Anthony Griffin

    (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

    Better Knights to come
    At this point, not even Super Hubert can save the Knights from being awarded their third consecutive wooden spoon. To avoid this inglorious honour, Newcastle must win at least four of their remaining seven games. And while this might not seem overly challenging, for the struggling Knights, it’s the equivalent of climbing Everest with your shoelaces tied together.

    But the hopelessness of their situation doesn’t mean that there’s nothing left to play for. On the contrary, with the likes of Kalyn Ponga, Aidan Guerra, Tautau Moga, Connor Watson, Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Herman Ese’ese joining the squad in 2018, many in the current side are playing for their future.

    That desire to impress was on full display on Saturday evening against the Broncos. For the third time in a month, Newcastle stood toe to toe with a genuine contender, and almost produced a stunning upset. The Knights might not win another game this season, but they loom as an uncomfortable speed bump for a few aspiring top-eight sides.

    Can anyone weather the Storm?
    Watching the methodical manner in which Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk destroyed the Blues last Wednesday night, it begs the question – can anyone stop the Storm from hoisting the Premiership in 2017?

    The Sharks? Maybe. But probably not. Melbourne’s squad has significantly improved from last year’s decider, while the Sharks have slightly regressed with the loss of Mick Ennis and Ben Barba. How about the Roosters? They’re a chance, but a lot will rest on how Mitchell Pearce responds after yet another failed Origin campaign.

    North Queensland? Don’t think so. Not without Johnathan Thurston.

    The Broncos just struggled to beat the Knights, Canberra are no certainties to make the finals, and Manly might still be another year away from being legitimate contenders. Short of Melbourne’s spine contracting an acute case of spondylolisthesis, I cannot see another team halting this southern juggernaut. They just have too much quality across the park.

    In fact, one to 17, this may well be the strongest roster the Storm have assembled during their decade of dominance. Craig Bellamy is famous for turning water into wine, but he hasn’t even had to get his hands dirty this season. When you start off with a bottle of Grange, all you need to do it pop the cork and pour.

    Sea Eagles soaring
    I’ll put my hand up as one of the many people who wrote off Manly prior to the season. I thought Akuila Uate was finished, that Daly Cherry-Evans was overrated, that Martin Taupau would spend the season at the judiciary, and that Trent Barrett was way out of his depth as a first-grade coach. And once again, I have proven myself to possess the prognostic prowess of a used handkerchief.

    The Sea Eagles have been sensational this season – they are the real surprise packets of the competition. Bob Fulton’s keen eye for talent has stocked the cupboards with quality footballers, and Barrett has moulded them into a very tight-knit and tenacious unit. But are they a legitimate premiership threat in 2017?

    I would say yes. Unlike the Panthers and Raiders, who run very hot and cold, Manly play a very sustainable brand of footy. They have a quality spine, an improving pack of forwards, and strike power along the backline.

    The only factor that may prevent them from going deep into the finals could be their lack of big game experience. Pencil them in as contenders in 2018.

    Jimmy in debt
    With Origin now out of the way, expect to hear a lot more from James Maloney regarding his contract. The Cronulla playmaker believes he’s underpaid, and it’s hard to argue with him.

    Maloney has played almost 200 first grade games and nine Origins for NSW and has two premierships to his name. He’s also set to be paid less than Luke Brooks.

    Unfortunately for Maloney, he’s only got himself to blame for his current contractual conundrum. He agreed to these terms with Cronulla, and the Sharks are not obliged to change them just because Maloney’s not happy with his end of the bargain. They don’t have to, but they will.

    Releasing Maloney from the final year of his contract would be a smart move by the Sharks. They would rid themselves of a defensive liability and potential distraction, while simultaneously opening the door for Cooper Cronk.

    The addition of Cronk to the already formidable core of Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Valentine Holmes, Wade Graham and Josh Dugan would make Cronulla early premiership favourites in 2018.

    James Maloney Cronulla Sharks NRL Finals 2016 Rugby League tall

    (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    Flat brims at ten paces
    I understand where the players are coming from. They see themselves as rugby league’s primary revenue stream, and as such, they want a bigger slice of the pie. They’re also looking for a seat at the grown-ups table when the game’s big issues are being discussed and important decisions are being made. I get all that.

    However the players need to tread carefully. As it stands, the general public are indifferent on this issue. With club footy serving as a convenient distraction, the ongoing pay dispute between the NRL and the RLPA is just an annoying sideshow that people hope will just go away by itself.

    But as the Aussie cricketers are discovering, public sympathy for highly paid athletes wanting more money quickly evaporates when the threat of a strike is on the table. The players dragged this private matter into the public domain by using their Origin soapbox to criticise the NRL, and it will be interesting to watch how they navigate the uncertainties that lie ahead.

    Monday Madness
    The Monday following the final game of the regular season is fast becoming one of my favourite days of the year. Despite stern warnings from club and NRL officials, someone, somewhere, will do something stupid and find himself on the back page of the Telegraph.

    It’s inevitable. When you’ve got eight groups of young blokes on the cans all day after nine months of arduous training, something’s gotta give. And it will. Sometimes it involves an animal, other times it’s women’s clothing and there might even be a fight or two. But one thing’s for sure, it’ll be entertaining.

    5th Tackle Option
    Here are five quick thoughts on the action from Round 19.

    1. Unbelievable conditions on the Gold Coast. I expected to see Kevin Costner sailing past in his post-apocalyptic catamaran. The water pooling on the field combined with the blinding glare reflecting off of it were like nothing I have ever witnessed. It was like watching ice hockey at times, with bodies flying in every direction and nobody quite sure where the ball was. Sensational stuff.

    2. That was a massive win by the Panthers. With their season well and truly in the balance and their skipper on the sidelines, Penrith made the tough road trip to Manu Vatuvei Stadium and came away with the two points. Even more encouraging for Penrith fans was the performance of Nathan Cleary. The young halfback has delivered a steady sophomore season so far, but this was by far his most dominant performance to date. Good signs of things to come.

    3. And while I’m on the subject, it would be remiss of me not to praise the Warriors for their fitting farewell to club legend Manu Vatuvei. The Beast has been an incredible contributor to the game for both the Warriors and the Kiwi side for over a decade. He leaves the game with 226 first grade appearances, 28 Tests for New Zealand, 152 NRL tries (18th all-time), a grand final appearance, and a whole lot of respect.

    4. A Dave Taylor sighting!

    5. I’m not sure how much cardio Anthony Milford did during his stint on the sidelines, but he was looking very heavy on Saturday night. You have to wonder if the extra weight he’s carrying is having any impact on his speed and acceleration.

    Tom Rock
    Tom Rock

    A fair-weather Newcastle Knights fan, Tom doesn’t leave anything on the field. He always gives 110% and never forgets to give full credit to the boys. But in a game of two halves, it’s important not to look too far ahead, so Tom’s just taking it one week at a time. Follow him on Twitter @_TomRock_.

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