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It’s now or never for the bottom five

The Bunnies host the Roosters. (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)
Expert
21st March, 2018
118
2337 Reads

This weekend, there are five sides in danger of going winless through the first three rounds of the 2018 season.

Just three short weeks ago, everyone had had a great pre-season and was raring to go. There was optimism and hope in hearts of players and fans. Now, just 21 days later, over a third of the teams need to win this weekend or kiss their chances goodbye.

In the last 40 seasons, only one team has lost their first three games and then gone on to lift the premiership trophy: the North Queensland Cowboys, in 2015.

Almost as scary is the stat that in the NRL era sides that lose their first three games only make the finals 25 per cent of the time.

So, statistically, this weekend is a make or break for the Eels, Bulldogs, Rabbitohs, Sharks and Raiders.

What has gone wrong at each club and what do they have going for them? Let’s take a look.

Parramatta Eels

After the first 27 minutes of their Round 1 game against Penrith, Parra must have thought this footy business was pretty easy. Leading by 14-0 and powering through the Panthers, surely they were right back into their 2017 groove. Right?

Wrong.

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Since that moment, the Eels have not scored a point in 133 minutes of football, while they have conceded 78. That has included their biggest ever loss to arch-rivals Manly.

What has gone wrong?
In the game against the Panthers, the Eels just seemed to stop dead in the water. The subsequent sin binning of Mitchell Moses certainly didn’t help either.

However, their stats for that game weren’t too bad. They had six players who made over 100 metres and missed just 26 tackles. They were essentially overcome by a determined unit after they seemingly relaxed.

The match against the Sea Eagles was another matter. There are reports that the side did a 40-minute ‘warm up’ in the 40 degree heat and humidity at Brookvale Oval. If that is true, then their trainer made a huge error. Parramatta looked cooked from the kick off and found themselves down 18-nil after just 13 minutes.

They had only 39 per cent possession in the first half, which translates into them having to defend for an extra nine minutes in those conditions. By that point, it was 30-0 and the game was truly gone. That they only conceded 24 points in the second half is a positive.

What do they have going for them?
Their team will be stinging from that loss and has the talent to make amends. The Sharks can expect a very physical encounter this weekend, with the likes of Nathan Brown and Manu Ma’u keen to make amends.

Brad Arthur – who is indisputably a good coach – will be ensuring that his boys man up on Saturday night too. Out of the side are Brad Takarangi and Will Smith, with Beau Scott and Kenny Edwards coming in.

When Parra have actually had the ball – and were not totally gassed – their attack has looked reasonable too.

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Can they do it?
They sure can. However, standing in their way are the equally desperate boys from the Shire. Saturday night at ANZ Stadium should be a cracker but Cronulla might get them.

Mitchell Moses Parramatta Eels NRL Rugby League 2017 tall

Cronulla Sutherland Sharks

The 2016 Premiers recruited strongly for season 218, bringing in Josh Dugan and Matt Moylan. Further, young Jayden Brailey is showing promise of being an excellent hooker, and Andrew Fifita, Wade Graham and Valentine Holmes are all stars.

While Luke Lewis and Paul Gallen come to the ground using Zimmer Frames these days, they are still good contributors.

So why are they without a win in 2018?

What has gone wrong?
There is absolutely no disgrace in losing to the Cowboys in Townsville. Further, the Sharks got back on level terms in the 69th minute and it was only a late try to Gavin Cooper that split the sides. They also lost debutant Sione Katoa early in the game with a broken jaw.

They looked great against the Dragons, up 14-0 after 28 minutes. The only score they conceded in the first half was a freak try to Nene Macdonald. However, they stopped dead in the second half and were overrun by a St George Illawarra side that is growing in confidence.

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Both losses were only by four points, against good opposition. It’s not ideal, but it’s also not terminal by any stretch.

What do they have going for them?
As stated above, their list has quality players on it, capable of really challenging opposition sides. They’ve also got strong leadership, and lots of top-level experience. As well, they’ve got a great and boisterous home crowd.

Can they do it?
Absolutely they can. I’ve got a feeling the new combinations just need a bit of time to click. However, that clicking better happen this Saturday night or they are statistically in big trouble.

I reckon they’ll win.

Andrew Fifita of the Sharks

Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs

2017 wasn’t good for the Doggies. Their attack wouldn’t have scored on Oxford Street on Mardi Gras. Des Hasler got the boot, Raelene Castle went to Rugby AU and now Ray Dib is off the board. A big broom has gone through Belmore, with James Graham, Josh Reynolds and Brenko Lee all departing. In have come Kieran Foran and Aaron Woods, and new coach Dean Pay.

What has gone wrong?
Playing Melbourne in the first round is never ideal, as the Storm make a habit of winning first up. The Dogs only missed 17 tackles and beat their average score in 2017 by six points, but the premiers scored 36.

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Against the Roosters, they missed seven fewer tackles and made eight fewer errors, but were again beaten by 18. It seems the tackles they miss often become tries and when they have the ball they still lack venom.

What have they got going for them?
Well, their defence on the surface seems committed. Josh Jackson and David Klemmer are top-line players, while Will Hopoate, Moses Mbye and Kieran Foran have excellent attacking credentials.

Throw in the experience of Aiden Tolman and the Morris twins and the side is OK on paper. Then, of course, there are the Doggies fans, who’ll continue to show up and be an excellent 18th man, because that’s what the Belmore faithful do.

Can they do it?
Maybe… While I’m sure that Pay will instil discipline and order, I’m still not sure they have the attacking chops to really threaten.

This Friday they face the in-form Panthers, who know how to put on a try. The Dogs must fire, although I suspect Penrith will once more get the job done and Canterbury will be also-rans in 2018.

Aaron Woods of the Bulldogs

Canberra Raiders

So much was hoped of the Raiders this year but the moment Josh Hodgson’s ACL went while playing for England, they have been scrambling for a solution. The hope is that they can still be competitive by the time he returns in July.

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There were many issues in 2017 and two have returned to haunt them again this season.

What has gone wrong?
Two injuries, both at crucial points in their first two games, exposed their bench. Joe Tapine’s dislocated thumb was the turning point against the Titans, the Gold Coast having struggled in attack and defence against the young Kiwi.

Similarly, the reshuffle forced by Joseph Leilua’s ankle injury further exposed a makeshift right-side defence to the attacking prowess of Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga. They constantly went there with great success.

Canberra may not have the depth to cover those injuries, or the nerve to win the close games.

Further, Josh Papalii is out of form and out of shape, having failed to have any impact against the Knights. In spite of his side having an extra eight sets and four and a half minutes with the ball than their opponents in the second half, he was clearly struggling with the pace of the game.

What have they got going for them?
Like last year, they can still put on a try, having scored 56 points in the first two rounds. Nine tries show what a deadly attacking force they can be.

Further, the likes of Jack Wighton and Shannon Boyd may be in career-best form, with Blake Austin seeming to have discovered his excellent running game and Jordan Rapana still as good as ever.

Further, they are overdue to get a refereeing effort that actually does them any favours at all.

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Can they do it?
Yes, but they’ve got to get two points this weekend against the resurgent Warriors anyway they can. Toss a coin.

Jarrod Croker Canberra Raiders NRL Rugby League 2017

South Sydney Rabbitohs

I saw this one coming. I didn’t think the Rabbitohs would do well in 2018. I had plenty of questions over their players and whether Anthony Seibold could coach, however Souths haven’t lost in the way or for the reasons I thought they would.

What has gone wrong?
In the match against the Warriors in Perth, the Bunnies were on the end of a few poor refereeing decisions, which amounted to at least 12 points – the margin they lost by – and a lot of momentum.

Against the Panthers, they were up 14-0 before being overrun – captain Greg Inglis getting concussed didn’t help matters there.

In general, they have played relatively well, without being brilliant. However, while they aren’t too bad in regard to missed tackles, their error rates have been high – 14 against the Warriors and 12 against the Panthers; too many if you want to win games.

Losing Adam Reynolds isn’t ideal either.

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What have they got going for them?
Against the Warriors seven of their players made 100 or more metres. Against the Panthers six of them did. Further, they’ve got stars to burn with Angus Chrichton, Sam Burgess, Dane Gagai and Greg Inglis. Damien Cook and Alex Johnson are pretty handy too.

As well, they’ve got improvement in them. It won’t take much to get them into the groove.

Can they do it?
It would be handy not to be coming up against an in-form Manly this weekend, when it is a must-win game. They can win that match – I just don’t think they will.

So there you have it. The Sharks are the side most likely to get the win this weekend and remain in the hunt for the title, with all of the others right up against it.