With half of the 2017 season already in the books, how is your team travelling? Are they top of the class? Or writing lines after school?
Here are the grades for each team based on their performances so far this year.
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» Expert reaction to the Queensland team
» Expert reaction to the NSW team for Game 2
» State of Origin Game 2 teams
Season So Far: It’s been a liquorice allsorts kind of season from the Broncos. They’re travelling quite well on the ladder, but their performances have been streakier than a bachelor’s toilet bowl.
Brisbane’s defence has been characteristically frugal, a hallmark of a Bennett-coached side, but their attack just hasn’t clicked. They always leave me wanting and expecting more.
Outlook: The Broncos will do it tough over the next month or so, with several key players missing time through Origin duty and injury, but I expect them to come home with a wet sail.
The return of Ben Hunt, the emergence of Kodi Nikorima and the re-emergence of James Roberts should give Brisbane an attacking arsenal that would make Kim Jong-un blush. If Brisbane can earn a home final, they could be very tough to beat.
Season So Far: An absolute bludger. Teams have figured out how to neutralise Canberra’s scintillating attack, and the Raiders are yet to return serve. Having a winger as the centrepiece of your offence isn’t sustainable or consistently reproducible.
What’s more, Josh Hodgson’s form has regressed, and the development of Sezer and Austin seems to have stalled. With that roster and Ricky at the helm, I expected more.
Outlook: I hate to agree with Gus Gould, but the competition this year feels a little soft. And much like Gus himself, it’s softest around the middle. The Raiders have shown enough of their frightening potential to make me believe they will expose Top 8 pretenders such as Parramatta and the Gold Coast, and claim the eighth spot on the ladder. From there, anything is possible.
I would hate to be facing Canberra in a week one elimination final.
Season So Far: With Parramatta keeping off the back page, Cronulla focusing on football, and the Roosters making headlines for all the right reasons, rugby league was faced with a controversy void. Enter the Bulldogs.
The family club have been a hot, sticky mess this season. Boardroom brawls, salary cap sagas, contract and coaching calamities – the Dogs have had them all. And it’s a good thing too. The off-field shenanigans have distracted fans from the God-awful brand of footy Des Hasler is dishing up each and every weekend. Stale. Rigid. Out-dated. Ineffective. Unwatchable.
Outlook: The season isn’t lost, but it’s entering Jack Shephard territory. The Bulldogs have the talent and experience to pull themselves out of this tailspin, and they’re only a couple of wins outside of the top 8. But I just can’t see it happening this time. Their focus seems to have already shifted to 2018.
Season So Far: With a host of players on the wrong side of 30 in addition to the loss of Ben Barba and Michael Ennis, I expected the Sharks to be nursing a Premiership hangover. Instead, they have actually taken their football to another level. The forward pack remains the best in the competition, and their style of play perfectly personifies captain Paul Gallen – tough, rugged, aggressive, arrogant and antagonistic.
Outlook: Things are looking pretty good for Cronulla’s Premiership defence. They play a very simple brand of footy, which is easily replicated on a weekly basis. The one hurdle that could trip them up is their draw: they face Manly, the Roosters (twice), Canberra, Brisbane and North Queensland down the stretch.
As long as Cronulla’s veteran forwards can maintain their current level of intensity and aggression, and James Maloney doesn’t let his contract status become a distraction, the Sharks are a real chance of going back to back.
Gold Coast Titans
Season So Far: It’s been a tough year for the Titans. A horror injury toll has robbed them of any opportunity to build combinations and develop cohesion. But despite these trying circumstances, their efforts have once again been phenomenal.
Neil Henry’s side fights like a junkyard dog, even when victory is well beyond reach. Not all sides can say the same. I’ve been particularly impressed with the progression of Tyrone Roberts, who’s been brilliant in whatever position he’s selected. If Mitch Moses is worth $700k a season, Roberts can safely put a down-payment on that small tropical island he’s always wanted.
Outlook: The finals are looking out of reach in 2017. Unless Ash Taylor suddenly transforms into Johnathan Thurston (which is not as farfetched as it sounds), the Gold Coast have left themselves with too big a mountain to climb. But with Jarryd Hayne re-signing, Nate Peats looking likely to do the same, and Ash Taylor blossoming into one of the best halves in the game, watch out for the Titans in 2018.
Manly Sea Eagles
Season So Far: Manly have been the surprise packets of 2017. Even the most ardent Fibro can’t deny this stunning Silvertail season. Led by a rejuvenated Daly Cherry-Evans, Manly has got incredible value out of little-known journeymen and discarded veterans: guys like Frank Winterstein, Akuila Uate, Brian Kelly and Curtis Sironen.
And how about the form of Dylan Walker? The classy centre has more try assists than the likes of Blake Austin, Mitchell Moses and James Maloney. Still not sure how South Sydney let him escape the burrow.
Outlook: I’d be shocked if Manly can’t hold their position on the ladder and qualify for the finals. They play a very sustainable brand of footy. Much like the Raiders last season, the Sea Eagles aren’t overly reliant on the performances of one or two individuals, but rather receive significant contributions across the paddock.
With the spine of DCE, Blake Green, Tom Trbojevic and Api Koroisau getting stronger every week, expect Manly to feature heavily in September.
Season So Far: The Storm have maintained the exceptional standard of football that saw them fall 15 seconds short of winning the 2016 decider. Their defence remains stingier than the NSW health budget, and their attack has become even more lethal with the re-introduction of Billy Slater. They are deserved front-runners after 14 rounds.
Outlook: The Melbourne Storm will be the Premiers in 2017. They have the strongest roster, the best coaching staff, their form is outstanding and they are odds on to be granted a home final. Add in the fairy tale factor of this being Cooper Cronk’s final season at the Storm, and you can start etching their name onto the trophy already.
Season So Far: The Knights have been better, but still not good enough. Two wins from thirteen starts is below even the meagre expectations Nathan Brown will have set for his young side. Injuries to veteran signings Rory Kostjasyn and Jamie Buhrer certainly haven’t helped, nor have calamitous refereeing decisions.
At least there have been some positives, with the development of Sione Mata’utia, Brock Lamb and one of the Saifiti twins (not sure which) giving fans some hope for the future.
Outlook: Pretty grim. On a good day, they are competitive enough to challenge a bottom eight side, but Newcastle seem to have less ‘good days’ than John Grant. The reality is that the Knights are staring down the barrel of a hat-trick of wooden spoons; an unfortunate feat not achieved since the Gold Coast Chargers did it in the early ’90s. And with precious little in the way of recruitment, 2018 might not be much better.
North Queensland Cowboys
Season So Far: Although the Cowboys are hovering around the fringes of the Top 8, they should be very pleased with their performance to date. Without the services of Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, North Queensland have remained competitive, which is testament to the culture Paul Green has created.
Their attack has been a bit clunky and their defence a little soft through the middle, but that is to be expected when you lose two world-class players.
Outlook: With Thurston back in the side, the Cowboys must be treated as genuine premiership contenders. And having spent the best part of two months watching on from the sidelines, Thurston will be fresher and healthier than he has been in years. Outside of Melbourne and Cronulla, North Queensland are the most likely side to give this competition a decent shake.
Season So Far: Based on the strength of their roster, Parramatta have played precisely as well as expected. They have been solid without being spectacular, good without being great. A breakout season from Clint Gutherson has added a new dimension to their attack, and enabled the Eels to cope with the absence of Corey Norman. But they still aren’t ready to go toe to toe with the big boys.
Outlook: I’m not a fan of Mitchell Moses, and I think signing him was a mistake. Displacing Gutherson to accommodate the former Tiger will have a disruptive effect on Parramatta’s attack and make it hard for the Eels to qualify for the finals. The partnership of Moses and Norman may be the long-term scrumbase solution, but I’m not expecting to see any dividends this year.
Season So Far: The pre-season hype around Penrith was completely overblown, and the Panthers have played like a side that spent the summer reading their own press clippings. They entered 2017 expecting to continue the white hot form they showed last season, but it just hasn’t happened.
The magic passes haven’t stuck. The miracle plays are now ending in mundane turnovers. The infectious enthusiasm has given way to intense pressure to perform. Overall, it’s been a disappointing start to the season from the Mountain Men.
Outlook: I think they can turn it around. They have one of the strongest and deepest rosters in the competition, and the shift of Matt Moylan into the halves seems to have energised the side. I worry about Penrith’s resilience, particularly when they fall behind early, but that comes with experience. If they get on a roll, who knows?
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Season So Far: The loss of Greg Inglis in Round 1 ended South Sydney’s season before it had even begun. But even with Inglis in the side, I don’t think things would have panned out much differently.
The Rabbitohs are facing a rebuild, whether they like it or not. They simply don’t have the depth or quality to contend, and that’s clearly shown up in their performances on the field. Outside of Cody Walker, there have been few positives for the Bunnies to take from the last three months.
Outlook: This season is a write-off. South Sydney should spend the remainder of 2017 evaluating which players can be salvaged, and the rest should be moved on. They look to be a couple of years away from playing finals football.
St George Illawarra Dragons
Season So Far: Paul McGregor has done an incredible job this year. Under intense pressure to keep his job, the canny cue ball has remained remarkably calm. When starting halfback Drew Hutchison was lost for the season, McGregor didn’t panic.
He just stood back, gave his roster a little tszuj, and backed his men to get the job done. And they’ve rewarded him with the most stunning transformation since the Coogee Pavilion. Gareth Widdop has been particularly impressive. This is his team now.
Outlook: So long as Widdop and Dugan can remain on the field, there is no reason to think that St George Illawarra won’t continue on their current trajectory. Their success is based on a power running game, similar to that of South Sydney in 2014.
And provided you have the cattle (which the Dragons do in Paul Vaughan, Russell Packer and Tyson Frizell) it can be a simple yet highly effective style, and very difficult to contain.
Season So Far: You can’t keep the Roosters down for long. After an off year in 2016, the Chooks are back to being a premiership force. The signing of Luke Keary has proven to be a masterstroke, with the diminutive former Bunny acting as the perfect foil for Mitchell Peace.
Lapses in concentration are still an issue, as cheap penalties and handling errors are produced with maddening regularity. But this is a dangerous football side.
Outlook: Trent Robinson would be quietly confident in his side’s chances this season. A top-four finish is a distinct possibility, and from there the Roosters could easily win it all. They have the class, they have the experience, and they have the attacking firepower to match teams like Melbourne, Cronulla and Brisbane.
New Zealand Warriors
Season So Far: To borrow an expression from Forrest Gump, the Warriors were once like a box of chocolates. These days, they’re more like a box of black jelly beans, with each new mouthful just as unpleasant as the last.
Despite boasting the New Zealand spine, a wealth of talent in the outside backs and experience throughout the forwards, it’s been the same old Warriors. They looked incredible on Saturday afternoon in their destruction of the Titans, but their chances of backing that up next weekend are about the same as this article winning a Walkley.
Outlook: Put a line through them. While you’re at it, put a line through them for next year as well. It will save you time.
Season So Far: Best not to ask.
Outlook: Like D:ream once harmonised, things can only get better. And with Ivan Cleary at the helm, things are already looking up. This season is done and dusted, but Cleary will use the remaining rounds to get a clear picture of who he has at the club and which players fit with his rugby league philosophy.
Rock bottom is now a distant memory. They will be better next year.
5th Tackle Option
Here are five quick thoughts on the action from Round 14.
1. It’s strange how you can hate a player when he’s playing for a club side, and then love him the very next week when he lines up for your Origin team. I find myself in that situation every time I watch the Sharks.
They are such a grubby, rotten side. Their games are full of cheap shots and niggly tactics. But then I’ll happily cheer them on for NSW. Maybe it’s just me.
2. There’s a massive gulf between the premiership contenders and pretenders. The quality of rugby league on show during the Melbourne versus Cronulla clash dwarfed what we witnessed on Saturday evening between Penrith and Canberra. While the latter two sides were highly touted pre-season favourites, they aren’t even in the same stratosphere as the Storm and Sharks.
3. I am struggling to understand what Michael Maguire is hoping to achieve by constantly switching Cody Walker between fullback and five eighth. Walker was outstanding during the early rounds when playing in the six jersey, leading the competition in try assists. So why move him? And then why move him back once the season is already on life-support?
4. I’d hate to be a referee. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Send a decision upstairs, and you get criticised for not using your own judgment. Make a snap decision on the field, and your boss publicly shames you and demotes you on the spot. You couldn’t pay me enough to take that job.
5. Johnathan Thurston…