We are just two weeks into the 2018 NRL season, but it’s already shaping up as an evenly-contested, competitive and exciting ones. More upsets headlined Round 2 as teams start to get into their rhythm. Here are my talking points from the weekend.
Cronulla will miss the top eight
I can already read the comments of Cronulla fans lighting up below. I’m probably making the moderators’ job busier by writing this point.
But to hell with it. I’m making the call. The Sharks will not play finals footy in 2018.
Cronulla have shown enough in the first two weeks to suggest they are going to struggle. Their ball handling has been atrocious, defence inconsistent and their attack looks a bit all over the place.
The role of Valentine Holmes (more on this later) is unclear, Josh Dugan and Matt Moylan aren’t fitting into the puzzle and their creativity appears out the back window.
While the first half they displayed against the St George Illawarra Dragons on Thursday was of a high quality, they have put up three halves of footy so far which will have fans and coach Shane Flanagan more than a little bit concerned.
This competition isn’t like what we saw in 2017. It’s closer, tighter and toucher. There aren’t going to be many ‘easy’ games, and certainly starting behind the eight ball with plenty to work on isn’t the place to be.
The other problem with Cronulla is age in the forward pack. Paul Gallen is 36, Luke Lewis 34, Matt Prior 36 and others – including Wade Graham and Andrew Fifita approaching 30.
It doesn’t give a great outlook and unfortunately, injuries happen.
Add to that their upcoming draw – Parramatta, Melbourne, the Roosters, then the Dragons again – and there is every chance the Sharks could be at best two and four, at worst zero and six to start the season.
Based on what they have dished up so far, zero and six is looking almost worthy of a bet given the right odds. From that position, there is no recovery for a top-eight run.
Broncos performance highlights importance of trials
The Brisbane Broncos were far from perfect in their first win over the season in the Queensland derby against the North Queensland Cowboys on Friday, but the performance was almost a polar opposite of what they served up in Round 1.
Their season-opening loss to the St George Illawarra Dragons would have set alarm bells ringing at Broncos’ HQ. They looked short of a gallop, without combinations and frankly, all over the place.
You could have sworn a different team took to the field in Round 2 though and a lot of that might be down to the quality of trial matches the Broncos played.
While they had one NRL-quality trial against the Gold Coast Titans in Toowoomba, all three of their other matches came against Queensland Cup sides, including a trip to Port Moresby.
While there’s no problem promoting the quality of the Queensland comepeition, there is a major problem with Wayne Bennett’s side coming out in Round 1 and looking like they were playing their first trial against a Dragons side who looked ten-fold better.
Losing the season-opener is never a good way to start, but the Broncos were better for the run and showed as much in their fightback against the Cowboys.
They will be better again next week and while the jury is still out on the Brisbane-based team’s prospects in 2018, improvement was on display in Round 2.
Are there cracks appearing for Melbourne?
No Cooper Cronk was always going to be an issue of some sort for the Storm, but the question coming into the season seemed to be ‘how much?’ and ‘could the Storm mitigate the impact’?
Based on their efforts in Round 1 against the Bulldogs, when they recorded a handy win in Perth, it almost looked to be situation normal.
But then Billy Slater was back, Cameron Munster back into the halves and the Storm suffered growing problems against a gallant Tigers side.
18 penalties (a record, by the way) later, Melbourne had lost to a team who are surprising everyone except their most optimistic fans.
Their attack seemed stagnated with Slater back in his 300th game. Munster was exceptional at fullback in Round 1, but his combination didn’t flow with Brodie Croft in Round 2 and 16 errors goes to show it. That’s an insane amount, especially for a team who are trying to live up to the standards set by Craig Bellamy.
Melbourne have things to work on and while they will be in the top eight, they are not the same dominant force they were in 2017 – and in a much closer competition, that doesn’t read well.
Parramatta look lost
Attack, defence, Round 1, Round 2. It’s barely made a difference for the Eels what they have been trying to do this season, they have looked like a team well and truly under siege. Like a team who won’t trouble the top four.
I get that it’s early in the season and making sweeping statements (okay, this isn’t exactly the first one I’ve made) is not the smartest thing to do, but I just don’t know what’s happening at Parramatta.
They have a heap of talent in the squad and even with the injury to Clint Gutherson, their last three halves of footy have been abysmal.
If you only watched the first half of last week and then ignored the scores until now, you’d be forgiven for asking what on earth happened. It just doesn’t make sense.
Their defence against the Sea Eagles was horrific. More than 50 points against them indicates that and while they had very little ball on a scorching day in Sydney, it just isn’t good enough to be down 30-0 at halftime with the game already over after giving the game away so meekly against Penrith last week.
Parramatta will face a fellow winless side in Cronulla last week and with the competition looking closer than it did last year, that game is going to be crucial.
Furthermore, no team has ever conceded 50 points and won the premiership. Food for thought.
Should Johnathan Thurston have been charged?
It was missed by the referees, but the fact ‘JT’ was let off without as much as a charge for what looked very much a clear shoulder charge during the Cowboys’ Round 2 loss to the Broncos is baffling.
While the ‘shoulder charge’ didn’t have a great deal of force behind it, to the letter of the law, it was one. He turned side one, tucked the elbow and then ran into Corey Oates.
That, in anyone’s book, is a shoulder charge.
How the match review committee can turn around and use the argument that it didn’t have enough force to warrant a charge is beyond me.
The shoulder charge is outlawed and while many want its return, while it’s written this way in the rules, it must be policed by referees and the MRC alike. Based on Friday’s nights example, it’s not.
Paul Vaughan must play Origin in 2018
From among the scrappiness that was Thursday night’s second half, Dragons prop Paul Vaughan further placed his name firmly in the New South Wales Blues Origin side.
He ran for almost another 200 metres after a strong effort in Round 1 and defending up the middle third of the park, he made solid contact every time.
It was baffling the Dragons’ prop was overlooked last year and while talking about Origin after just 160 minutes of footy for the season seems somewhat absurd, Vaughan must be a shoe-in.
Andrew Fifita is unlikely to play Origin after pledging his allegiance to Tonga ahead of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup and so leaving Vaughan out as a replacement would be absurd. Vaughan also scores a surprising amount of tries for a prop, getting eight last year.
He won’t be the only Dragons forward in contention for Origin, with Jack de Belin and hooker Cameron McInnes also likely to be in calculations. The competition between them for spots in the Blues’ side is only likely to spur on the Red V, and with so much talent in the pack, they seem a well-rounded team for 2018.
While it was a scrappy win against the Sharks, they sit 2-0 to start the season with things looking positive, despite memories of 2017.
What to make of the Valentine Holmes dilemma
I briefly touched on this issue above, but it’s becoming so big – both in the media and on the field – that it needs it’s own talking point to work out exactly what is going on in the Shire for the supposed future of the club.
The role of Holmes has been talked about all off-season. After scoring a ridiculous 11 tries in two games for Australia during the World Cup, the debate about what his best position is have picked up big time.
Reports have run rampant that Holmes wants to play fullback because he wants fullback money, but his best position may not be there. His Round 1 performance against the Cowboys at the back, was, to put it short, abysmal.
Not only that, but he has made his name in the Shire playing on the wing. He has pace, acceleration, agility and an incredible finishing ability out wide. Why a player who excels on the wing would want to move to the back is beyond me, especially when he has shown so little there so far.
In terms of fitting into the Sharks team balance, it isn’t doing much either. Cronulla already have plenty of ball-playing at the front line through their halves and second row, with Wade Graham and Luke Lewis being two of the most talented edge runners in the comepetition.
For that reason, they can easily get away with leaving Josh Dugan at the back. Not only will Dugan bring them strong starts to sets more often than not, he is one of the best defensive fullbacks in the competition in terms of reading plays and being in a good position.
Put simply, it makes no sense for Holmes to play at the back in the current set-up.
How do the Panthers play for 80 minutes?
The Panthers might be two wins and no losses to start the 2018 season, but they could be making things a lot easier for themselves by starting games on the front foot.
In both of their first two games, the Panthers have won by coming home with a wet sail, rather than starting with a lead.
Against the Eels and Rabbitohs, they made slow starts. They went into halftime with no points on the board against the Rabbitohs on Saturday and while the amount of travel South Sydney had to do coming back from Perth might have made a different, the men in black can’t continue to start games so slowly.
It will catch up with them and in a lot of ways they are beginning to remind us of the 2017 Sharks side, who would just find ways to win games are being behind and having to do a tonne of defence.
While James Maloney has brought them stability, he isn’t the answer to their slow starts. It’s a mentality they need to change in a hurry.
Are the Warriors finally the real deal?
I’m always hesitant to harp on about the Warriors’ chances to do anything good. They have started seasons well before, had runs through Origin and nearly always find a way to become inconsistent and fade.
The jury is still out on the coach, the forwards, the whole team really. It’s all going to come down to consistency for the Auckland-based club, who have always had the talent to finish in the top eight, but rarely found a way to live up to it.
Shaun Johnson looks a lot more comfortable at the helm of the side this year with Blake Green alongside him. Johnson played some of his best footy a few years ago when Chad Townsend was the settling influence in the side, and with Green shopped away from Manly, he may be one of the best buys for 2018.
But it’s not just the halves. Their job is being made easier by a rolling forward pack and the form of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who has started the season strongly at the back.
It must be noted beating the Rabbitohs and Titans isn’t the holy grail, but the signs are positive for the Warriors who have a trip away to Canberra next week.
What is the potential of the Sea Eagles?
Well, that was a smashing. Manly have absolutely thumped the Eels on Sunday afternoon, running up a half century of points.
They were written off by many before the start of the season, with most unable to see how they kept up their 2017 form without Blake Green.
Enter Lachlan Croker. He made a strong start in their controversial golden point loss to the Knights last week and was again impressive against the Eels, fighting on after a head knock.
The influence he has had allows Daly Cherry-Evans, who for mine was one of the best halves in 2017, to play his natural game. The short-range kicking game of Cherry-Evans was possibly the best in the competition and he continues that in the raid against Parramatta.
Add to that the impressive signing of Joel Thompson, the continued improvement of the Trbojevic brothers and the always threatening Martin Taupau – I think you get where I’m going.
Furthermore, the Sea Eagles bench has been strong. Shaun Lane has begun to return to the form he showed during the initial segment of his career at Canterbury, Kelepi Tanginoa looks like a new man and Lloyd Perrett was strong.
This is a side with a heap of potential and anything less than what they achieved last year would be a failure for Trent Barrett’s men.
How do the Raiders replace Joey Leilua?
Gun Raiders centre Joey Leilua went down with injury during their clash against the Knights on Sunday evening, and all reports point to syndesmosis – a high sprain of the ankle. Depending on seriousness, it could leave him out from anywhere between two and six weeks.
That’s a long period of time to be without one of your most damaging players. While Jordan Rapana will still be on the wing, there is no doubting how key Leilua is to Canberra’s effort.
Given the side named during the first two rounds, Michael Oldfield or Brad Abbey seem the options to play centre, but no matter who the Raiders put there, it’s not going to be a replacement for Leilua.
Using the other side of the park in their attack will become a key option, as will getting Rapana more quality ball.
In short, it’s going to be hard to replace the productivity of the big centre.
Luke Keary the key for Roosters
There are still growing issues for the Roosters, but having Luke Keary back in the fold worked wonders for the tri-colours against the Bulldogs.
While all the hype over the pre-season has been about key signings in Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco, they were beaten by the Tigers in Round 1.
The Roosters were far from perfect in Round 2, but running up 30 points against the Bulldogs and controlling the game almost from start to finish had plenty to do with the return of Keary. I thought he would be a bit rusty, but he looked anything but, getting heavily involved in the attack and combining well with Cronk.
Gone were their first round issues with balls consistently going to ground in good attacking positions and in were smooth plays which results in points and plenty of repeat sets.
While there are still plenty of questions about the Roosters depth, if their top 17 stays fit, they will be hard to beat.
Roarers, what did you make of Round 2? Drop a comment below and let us know.