Thirteen talking points from NRL Round 23

Scott Pryde Roar Guru

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    The minor premiership is all but wrapped up for the Melbourne Storm, but there are still three rounds to go, top eight spots to wrap up and plenty to chat about from Round 23. Here are my NRL talking points.

    To call it a penalty try or not?
    I’m undecided as to whether Suliasi Vunivalu should have been awarded a penalty try or not. On one hand, I don’t think you can be 100 per cent sure he was going to get that ball down. On the other, he was the man leading the race to the ball and he was denied a fair chance to see if he was going to.

    What is undisputable is that Latrell Mitchell committed a professional foul, and that should have put him in the sin bin at the very least.

    Whether it should have been a penalty try – well, the only man who can answer that is the one controlling the green and red buttons in the bunker. The rule book states that “The Referee (or Review Officials) may award a penalty try if, in his opinion, a try would have been scored but for the unfair play of the defending team.”

    So, before you rubbish the decision, read it to the letter of the law. It say nothing about the certainty of a try, and also that it’s down to an opinion rather than anything else.

    You can never be certain a try would have been scored – would he have been able to ground it? Would the ball have taken a weird bounce? But what you can be certain of is that Vunivalu was leading the race and denied an opportunity for what looked like a try thanks to the unfair play of Mitchell.

    Suliasi Vunivalu trains for the Melbourne Storm (Naparazzi)


    The Titans have lost all interest and it’s time for Jarryd Hayne to go
    Watching the Titans on the defensive end of the park over the last fortnight, you can tell this is a team who want Mad Monday to come around sooner rather than later.

    They are broken, and it would be fair to say have lost all interest in competing from week-to-week. The 54-0 drubbing at the hands of the Broncos last week was bad, but everyone is allowed one bad game.

    When you respond by going down 22-0 by halftime the following week though, it’s clear something is badly wrong.

    While the Titans did manage to mount some sort of recovery in the second half against the Red V, it simply wasn’t good enough.

    They have let in 96 points across their last 120 minutes of football, which includes 17 tries. That’s not good enough at any level, let alone in the NRL and there are certainly times it looks as if the Titans have just chucked in the towel.

    It’s tough to ping all of that on one player, but it really appears that since Jarryd Hayne arrived on the Gold Coast at the back end of last year, a wheel has fallen off the bus.

    Arguably, they have played their best footy this season without the Blues Origin back and his form has gone out the back window. Add that to revelations Neil Henry apparently never wanted him at the club, and you start to get the picture of a much wider story – one we have heard about but is really rearing its head now.

    Given the Titans season is over, it wouldn’t be a bad decision to drop him to the Queensland Cup for the remainder and see if the Gold Coast can pick up something over the last few weeks. Even if that’s returning to their usual gritty and hard-nosed style of play, but it’d surely be better than getting thumped over and over again.

    Jarryd Hayne Gold Coast Titans NRL Rugby League 2017

    (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

    Penrith no longer the team most in danger of missing September
    If you had earmarked that Round 25 game between the Panthers and Dragons as the one that would decide the final place in the top eight (like most of us – me included) you may want to rethink it.

    With the Panthers notching up a huge win over the Cowboys on Saturday night at the foot of the mountains, they have moved up to sixth on the ladder. Manly’s loss to the Tigers at Leichardt came as a big shock, but the Panthers fans would have been cheering it on to the final seconds.

    Because of a superior for and against, Penrith now jump up the ladder to sixth, with the Sea Eagles and Cowboys slotting in behind them and the Dragons back to ninth, again two points out of the eight.

    So while the Panthers game will be a bigger part of the picture for the men in Red V, it’s now the Cowboys and Sea Eagles who look most in danger of dropping out.

    Here is a quick look at the run home for the Panthers, Sea Eagles and Cowboys.

    Team/Round Penrith Panthers Manly Sea Eagles North Queensland Cowboys
    Round 24 Canberra Raiders (a) Canterbury Bulldogs (a) Cronulla Sharks (h)
    Round 25 St George Illawarra Dragons (h) New Zealand Warriors (a) Wests Tigers (a)
    Round 26 Manly Sea Ealges (h) Penrith Panthers (a) Brisbane Broncos (a)

    At this point, it’s clear the Dragons have to win all three. As for the others, it’s tough to see the Cowboys winning more than one with their injury situation, which could knock them clean out – the Dragons though, do face Brisbane and Penrith on the run in.

    If the Dragons or Cowboys win more games than expected though, the Round 26 game between the Panthers and Sea Eagles could be the one to decide the eight.

    Exciting times ahead, to say the least.

    Errors, penalties and extra defence finally catch up with the Sharks
    Despite never looking to be fully on top of their game or playing that well, the Sharks have been sitting in the top four all season.

    It looks like their time of riding the wave might be over though. After being beaten soundly by the Canberra Raiders last week, they produced their worst performance of the season on Friday in Brisbane.

    It wasn’t just errors and penalties that hurt the men from the Shire throughout the season though. They have had to do a stack of extra defence each week, and along with having to find ways to come from behind, as well as having every single team up to beat the premiers – they look dead tired at this point of the season.

    Brisbane ran up a score on them and seemingly they didn’t even need to try at points. This is a Cronulla side who modelled their game on being tough and grinding out wins.

    It appears that element has disappeared off into the sunset. Not because they don’t want to try anymore, but because being premiers and not playing well, as well as a trip to England before the season starts takes it out of you – big time.

    It’s going to be a tough month for the Sharks and their fans, and if they by some miracle manage to finish in the top four, don’t be surprised to see them bounced out of the finals in straight sets.

    Paul Gallen Sharks

    (Photo by Jason O’Brien/Getty Images)

    Cooper Cronk is still at the top as Melbourne claim the minor premiership
    Cooper Cronk – his maturity and sense of just knowing the right play for almost every situation is one of the greatest things to watch in Rugby League. He is clinical and barely puts a foot wrong.

    Melbourne have actually shown a few signs of vulnerability over the last fortnight. They were nowhere near their best on a five-day turnaround against the Cowboys, and then made some uncharacteristic mistakes early on against the Roosters.

    Still, they got themselves into the game (whether a run of penalties helped or not) and then set about holding it.

    The Roosters did get close and at one point looked to have the game won with a Luke Keary field goal, but the Storm, as they always do, found a way back in.

    Cooper Cronk’s maturity on the match-winning play shows he is still at the top of his game. A lesser half would have rushed a field goal and probably put it dead, resulting in a seven tackle set. Cronk though, summed up his options, found Joe Stimson and sent him over for the try.

    It’s not the first time he has done it and it’s clear he is passing that knowledge onto younger teammates, with Brodie Croft doing something similar earlier in the year against the Cowboys.

    He is going to be a huge loss for the Storm next year, but if he does end up in a coaching role – well, that’s to the benefit of the purple horde.

    Brisbane have taken the mantle as the team to challenge Melbourne
    We have already talked about the plight of the Sharks in this column, but who is the team to take their spot in the grand final against the Storm?

    All year, it’s been built as another decider between the might of the Storm and Sharks, but it’s becoming more and more evident with each passing week that the Sharks won’t be there.

    Instead, the Broncos and Roosters – two teams who I have gone to town on at different points during the year appear to be there to take over.

    The Roosters, for mine still have ways to go before we can genuinely talk about them as part of the top two – and that’s only because the Broncos have discovered something approaching top form, even without Andrew McCullough on the park.

    The last fortnight for Wayne Bennett’s men has been as close to perfect as you’d like, and he always seems to find a way to get his sides peaking at the right start of the year. Ben Hunt coming off the bench and playing hooker is working a treat, while the combination of Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima appears to be firing in the halves.

    Their pack is as strong as ever, Darius Boyd is popping up, and their outside backs are strong out of their own half, which is something you absolutely have to be to compete with the Storm and their brilliant kicking game.

    Brisbane are the team to challenge Melbourne – whether anyone can even get close to the Storm on October 1 though? It’s anyone’s guess.

    Sam Thaiday Brisbane Broncos NRL Rugby League 2017

    (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

    Reagan Campbell-Gillard is surely the leader of the Penrith pack
    We need to quickly pay some acknowledgement to Campbell-Gillard because he put in a wow of a performance against the Cowboys on Saturday.

    Coming off the bench, the Panthers front rower made 230 metres in 19 runs and added 38 tackles to his night’s work. He played 65 minutes straight and never looked like he needed a break.

    He blitzed the Cowboys pack, was a foil for the always dangerous Jason Taumalolo and more importantly, made it easier on his sides three-man halves rotation of Nathan Cleary, Matt Moylan and Tyrone May, the first two playing exceptionally well on the back of his handy work.

    Newcastle have three straight against the odds – can they avoid the spoon?
    Against all the odds, the Knights have come out and won their third straight match. It’s the first time the Newcastle club have done so in ages, and while it continues to highlights just where the club are going to go in 2018, it also continues to ask the question of whether they can pull off any more upsets and just maybe escape the wooden spoon.

    Let’s be honest, beating the Eels was unexpected. So was getting over the Dragons in the first of their winning run. The Warriors one in the middle might have been a little bit more expected, but with a tough run home it’s going to need to be an upset if they are to win again.

    And if they do, then the Tigers had better watch out. They somehow got the better of the Sea Eagles on Sunday afternoon to keep themselves ahead of the Knights, but whether they would be able to win another game is anyone’s guess.

    It’s hard to see the Knights winning again, but I said that last week.

    Daniel Saifiti Newcastle Knights NRL Rugby League 2017

    (AAP Image/Darren Pateman)

    How the mighty have fallen
    Thursday night’s round opener was one of the worst displays of Rugby League I’ve ever seen – bar none. The Rabbitohs and Bulldogs, who both played in the 2014 decider have played a game that would be in the decider for worst game of the decade just three years later.

    Once upon a time, their packs were feared, their coaches respected and backlines marvelled at. Adam Reynolds and Josh Reynolds were two of the best halves in the game, Sam Burgess and James Graham were among the best forwards and their game plans weren’t matched by anyone.

    Unfortunately for supporters of the two clubs, the game has moved on. Their coaches haven’t. They are stuck in 2014, trying to employ the same game plan, but without the same level of cattle to do it.

    It creates a boring, error-ridden brand of footy that was on full display on Thursday night. 2018 can’t come quick enough for either side, but is there a point getting excited? Will they change?

    Have Manly dropped their bundle?
    As already highlighted, Manly are just starting to get a little too close to the bottom of the top eight for comfort, and a loss to the Tigers will be making fans concerned beyond anything they have felt this season.

    Manly, despite having a good lead at the halftime break over a side in the battle for the wooden spoon, switched off, made silly errors and came away without two competition points.

    What seemed like the surest game of the week was suddenly an upset, and a huge one at that. Penrith have jumped them on the ladder, the Cowboys are equal with them and the Dragons just two points behind.

    But really, what more can you expect when you complete at under 75 per cent and miss a staggering 54 tackles? It’s simply not good enough, and sums up the last few weeks for Trent Barrett’s men, who have lost three of their last four. That was only interrupted by a comeback win over the Roosters last week.

    It very much appears Manly have dropped their bundle and are going to struggle to reverse it. If they can’t get the better of a terrible Bulldogs outfit next week, then where do they turn next?

    Tom Trbojevic Manly Sea Eagles NRL Rugby League

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    Eels still a chance at the top four
    Parramatta had a shock loss to the Knights on Friday night, one that has put their top four hopes back up in the air. Despite having games against the Titans and Rabbitohs on the run home, they also have to play the Broncos and find a way to pick up competition points on the Sharks, all the while holding off the chasers.

    Cronulla, of course, don’t look like they are going to be winning anything soon, but then again, neither do the Eels based on that effort against Newcastle.

    They didn’t turn up to ANZ Stadium. It appeared the team never came out of the dressing sheds, and at this point in the season, that’s a major concern.

    Of course, the Eels are still a chance at the top four, but given the way they have shot up the ladder in recent weeks, it makes you wonder if their run is going to be short lived and their chances snuffed out by teams who have struggled all season long.

    Mitchell Moses Parramatta Eels NRL Rugby League 2017

    (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    Can Gareth Widdop get the Dragons into the finals?
    In one word, yes. Widdop has been the best player by a considerable margin for the Dragons this season, and proved it again against the Titans on Saturday afternoon.

    The half has come up with a staggering 18 try assists and ten tries in just 18 games this season – he has the equal most try assists in the competition alongside Daly Cherry-Evans and has led the Dragons around the park brilliantly.

    It does help he is playing on the back of a forward pack featuring Paul Vaughan and Jack De Belin who are two of the best offloaders in the game, along with Tim Lafai who has racked up a half century of offloads this season.

    That puts defences on the back foot and makes life a little bit easier for the Dragons half. He still has to execute though, and he has done all season.

    It’s not going to be easy for the Dragons, but there’s no reason he can’t lead them into the eight, despite their ridiculous inconsistencies over the second half of the season.

    St George Illawarra Dragons player Gareth Widdop

    (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Robb Cox)

    The Raiders keep winning, but surely the top eight is beyond them?
    I’m not sure what to make of the Raiders. It’s like someone has flicked a switch on them. As soon as they were put into a position where they absolutely had to win every single game and have other results go their way to make the eight – well, they have held up their part of the bargain.

    It’s left them as the final team in the hunt for the eight, and they put on another strong display against the hapless Warriors on Sunday.

    The attacking combination of Joseph Leilua and Jordan Rapana is starting to roll with two tries scored on that edge and both running for more than 100 metres. Their forwards are starting to live up to what they are supposed to be, and it’s making life easier on last year’s most damaging attacking combination of Blake Austin, Aidan Sezer and Josh Hodgson.

    The Raiders can only hold up their end at this point, but with a game against the Storm to come and both the Dragons and Panthers winning, surely the top eight is now beyond them?

    It’s going to take a miracle for them to get there, being four points out with three rounds to go, anyway.

    Roarers, what did you make of Round 23? Drop a comment below and let us know.

    Scott Pryde
    Scott Pryde

    One of the mainstays of The Roar, Scott Pryde has written over 1,100 articles covering everything from rugby league to basketball, from tennis to cricket. You can follow him on Twitter @sk_pryde.

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