The 2018 NRL season continues to surprise and amaze, with more upsets during Round 5 causing mayhem for tipsters and bringing with it plenty of intrigue. These are my talking points from the weekend that was.
A note before we get going – apologies for being a little shorter this week. As you may be able to appreciate, the Commonwealth Games have ripped the time I have to write these in half.
This year’s top eight is going to look very different
Five weeks into what has been a crazy start to the season, and if one thing has become clear in the first month and a bit, it’s that the top eight come September is going to look very different to the one we had last year.
The Tigers, Warriors and Dragons are all on fire. Last week, I commented on the fact I was ready to give up tipping, but let’s focus on the positives. Last year, it felt like there were a lot of predictable games in what was something of a dud regular season at times.
Six teams last year, from almost the halfway point of the season, knew they weren’t going to be making the finals. While it might have been mathematically possible, it was never realistic for most of those clubs.
This year, any team can beat any other team on any given day, as evidenced over the first five rounds.
At this early point of the season, it looks like the Warriors, Tigers and Dragons will all be there, and I reckon that’s going to ruin a majority of people’s top eight predictions big time.
Speaking of the top eight…
The Eels are gone
Having zero wins from your first five games is a quickfire way to make sure making the finals is going to take a miracle, but even that might not be enough for the Eels anymore.
For a side who were widely tipped to finish in the top four this season, their start to the season has been abysmal, ending in another loss to the Penrith Panthers on Sunday afternoon.
How they turn things around is anyone’s guess at this point. Their forwards are being bullied, their backs aren’t operating anywhere near the top of their game and they aren’t getting enough support from the bench.
Brad Arthur has a monumental task ahead of him and things won’t get any easier from here with Canberra and Manly ahead.
They were an improved side better against the Panthers, but only scored one try and never really looked like they were going to win after being down 10-0.
Let’s make the call now – the Eels won’t play finals footy in 2018.
Newcastle’s rebuild comes full circle
When Nathan Brown called Wayne Bennett out in his press conference on Saturday evening after the Knights’ win over the Broncos, one thing became clear.
This is a very different Newcastle. They are here to play in 2018, and while issues still exist, it’s no longer a rebuild for the proud club, who have not once dropped off in crowd sizes or dedication to the cause during what has been a very difficult couple of years.
While Brown had a crack at Bennett, saying he wouldn’t have needed to rebuild the club if it wasn’t for the current Broncos coach’s time at the club, Newcastle have come full circle this year.
They have won three of their first five, and while a lot of that has to do with signings to the club, local junior Brock Lamb has been a revelation.
Beating their former coach’s club would have been sweet for the Knights, especially in front of an adoring home crowd.
They aren’t a premiership contender yet, but the Newcastle fans who deserve so much have every chance of supporting their team into September this season.
What’s wrong with the Cowboys?
I’m not going to lie here – I very vocally proclaimed the Cowboys would win the premiership before the season got underway.
Apart from the fact that’s probably the sole reason they have started the season horribly, the Cowboys don’t look like the team who made the grand final in 2017.
Nothing like it.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what is going on with the Cowboys, but they have now lost three straight and have very little cohesion seemingly in attack.
The performance of Jason Taumalolo has been one of the key assets over the last few years, but he hasn’t been up to his usual level. Combine that with the factor Johnathan Thurston and Michael Morgan’s halves combination not flowing and you start to get an idea.
What will be interesting to see is if they can improve with Lachlan Coote. He is a key part of the Cowboys, both in attack and defence, but is yet to play this season with injury.
They need him back urgently and the Cowboys must start winning, or in this close compeition, September will start looking a long, long way away.
Are the Dragons really as good as their record suggests?
The Dragons are sitting at the top of the NRL table having started the season five and zero, and while it’s better to be playing from in front than behind, they can’t afford to get complacent and be happy with what they have shown so far.
There are glaring issues on both ends of the park for the Dragons.
For most of the first hour, they appeared to dominate the contest against the Rabbitohs, but were reduced to kicking penalty goals and scoring just two tries, one of them coming from an upset to gun young fullback Matt Dufty.
That doesn’t scream great things about their attack, despite what they have shown at times in the first month of the season, headlined by running 40 up against the Titans.
Their defence, despite holding one of the best records so far in the competition has been solid, but also inconsistent at times, letting in some soft tries.
While there is no point being at peak performance this early in the season, the Dragons have had a reasonably straightforward start to the season draw-wise, and with matches against the Sharks and Roosters coming up, they are going to be properly put to the test.
Is Matt Moylan a half?
The Sharks slumped to their third loss in five games to start the season on Friday at the hands of premiership favourites the Roosters, but there are pressing issues for the Cronulla club.
The loss of James Maloney and how they recovered from it was always going to be one of the key problems for the blue and white this season, and it’s proving to be tougher than they could imagine.
Chad Townsend doesn’t look himself playing alonside former Panthers fullback Matt Moylan, who has been converted into a half at the Sharks.
While it’s impossible to get consistency in combinations when players are out injured every second week, which seems to be what’s happening for Shane Flangan’s side early in the season, the Sharks should be going better than what they are, and a big part of that might be the issues Moylan and Townsend are experiencing in the halves.
Ricky Stuart’s swipe at Canberra delivers success
Last week, the Raiders hit rock bottom when they lost to Manly.
Coach Ricky Stuart tore into his men in green at the press conference after fulltime, calling them soft and asking them to show passion for the jersey.
Five days later, they turned out against the Bulldogs and picked up their first win of the season with a spirited effort.
There are still issues for Canberra to work out. Understanding their solution in the halves and spine is going to be a large part of the battle for coach Stuart, but they did the little things right on Thursday. Whether it was defensive effort on the line, making opportunities count with the ball or playing the game at their pace, they found a way to do it for 80 minutes, which is something they haven’t done at all this season.
Consistency moving forward is going to be a major issue for the Raiders, given their start to the season, and proving they can do it against better opposition is going to be crucial, but they now have positives to build off.
The Broncos made a mistake letting Jai Arrow go
I know the argument from others will be that you can’t keep everyone, and fair enough. It might have felt like a good decision at the time for the Broncos to let the second rower go, given what he had served up in limited opportunities at Suncorp.
But when you consider what Arrow has done throughout the juniors, it might be a bad decision.
In hindsight, looking at the Broncos pack this year, it’s an even worse one to allow the Titans to snatch up the youngster.
Tevita Pangai Junior has been a shining light for the Broncos in the pack, but they are getting very little other production and it’s hurting their on field performance badly. It isn’t the only issue, and not one Arrow could fix on his own, but it’s one he could help improve.
Arrow has made a splendid start to 2018, beginning to fullfil the potential he showed as a junior, and was one of the Titans best in their victory over Manly on Sunday.
Canterbury need to work on their attack – in a hurry
The Bulldogs have been inconsistent to start the season, but in a worrying trend, their attack looks poor.
While they showed a little bit on Good Friday against the Rabbitohs, their execution was still off at times. Couple that with shutting things down far too early as they tried to protect a lead, and they found a way to lose that one.
Things went from bad to worse in the nation’s capital on Thursday. Dean Pay’s side looked lost at times, only scoring 12 points in the game.
Kieran Foran’s role looks a little stunted at times, and while both Moses Mbye and Michael Lichaa have played satisfactorily, their pack aren’t doing the job, and nor is Foran’s new halves partner Jeremy Marshall-King.
Again, there is potential there. The side have shown at times during their one and four start to the season they are there and abouts, but consistency is lacking, as is an ability to run up points when they dominate games.
Keep playing like that, and they will be out of the finals race soon enough.
Roarers, what did you make of Round 5?