Can you believe it? We are already a quarter of the way through the NRL season, with this strange new world continuing to play out. Bottom teams are at the top and supposed top teams are at the bottom. Here are my talking points from the weekend that was.
Who is going to be the best buy of the year?
Being a quarter of the way through the 2018 season, it’s now time to start assessing who the best buy of the year has been so far.
There are three clear candidates at this point. Ben Hunt for the Dragons, Blake Green at the Warriors and James Maloney at the Panthers.
All three have their clubs humming along at the top of the ladder, with the Dragons undefeated. Ben Hunt’s combination with Gareth Widdop has been superb. He has come in and allowed the Englishman to play his natural game, with the Queenslander doing the main organising.
Blake Green has played a similar foil role at the Warriors, but it’s exactly what the two clubs needed.
It’s clear to see the difference at the Manly Sea Eagles this year, compared to that of last year when Daly Cherry-Evans turned himself into one of the best halves in the comp playing alongside Green.
Maloney must also enter the top echelon of the conversation. He has been stunning for Penrith, especially in the absence of Nathan Cleary. For a team who were, at best, expected to be on the fringe of the eight, he has them ticking along at five and one, controlling their attack and dominating games from start to finish.
Behind that group, Benji Marshall would appear to be the next obvious one. He wasn’t originally going to be in the best 17 for the Tigers, but with an injury to Josh Reynolds early in the season, he found himself in the starting side and hasn’t looked back, now forcing Reynolds onto the bench as he makes his return.
Marshall put in another strong performance on Sunday afternoon against Manly, as the Tigers won at Brookvale.
Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce have also started the season well in Newcastle, while Russell Packer is another proving to be a very good buy at the Tigers.
Still, it’s impossible to go past the top three, who are almost impossible to split for the honour a quarter of the way through.
How good are packed out suburban grounds?
Memo to Mr. Greenberg. Did you flick your TV on for the Dragons and Sharks on Friday night and see exactly how full the hill was at the Wollongong venue?
It was superb. A less than ideal Friday night game, starting just half an hour after a heavy downpour and yet there were almost 18,000 fans at WIN Stadium.
The atmosphere (and I can speak from experience) was electric for the local derby, the ground packed from end to end, side to side.
Brookvale on Sunday afternoon was similar, with a huge crowd flocking in to witness the action against the Tigers.
Despite what anyone may want or say, the NRL will never be the AFL. Sydney doesn’t have the same supporter culture as Melbourne and crowds are never going to be averaging in the multiple ten’s of thousands.
You have to pick what works, and for the NRL, that’s suburban grounds. There is, for alot of NRL fans – and I’d argue the majority – nothing better than standing on the hill, telling the referee to ‘get ’em onside,’ with a pie in one hand and a beer in the other.
Nothing better. And the crowd’s this weekend proved it.
The Sharks left-edge defence needs urgent work
Speaking of the local derby, and it’s hard to ignore the issues facing the Sharks left-edge defence.
While some will point to the injury of Wade Graham as a key reason why, four of the six Dragons tries were scored on the Dragons attacking right side, with Gareth Widdop, Ben Hunt and fullback Matt Dufty causing havoc.
Dufty, in particular, was able to cut his way through the line with ease at times, while Cameron McInnes’ try in the first half was almost embarrassing for the black, white and blue.
Compare that to the right side of the Sharks defence, led by Josh Dugan (who I might add, was not liked one little bit by the vocal crowd) and Luke Lewis and it’s like day and night.
The right didn’t let in a single point all night, with the closest the Dragons got being a try just next to the uprights. It’s because they couldn’t get through Dugan and Lewis. It just wasn’t happening.
Compare that to the other side, where Trent Hodkinson and Edrick Lee made defence look like rocket science, and it’s clear change is needed if the Sharks want to stay in games. Any team worth their salt are going to raid one side over and over again and frankly, find it pretty easy to score through weak defence.
Maybe more pressing was the fact Matt Moylan wasn’t even in the picture for the first two long-range tries as fullback, but that’s another point for another day.
Is Ivan Cleary the best coach in the game?
Of all the coaches in the league, I’m struggling to see any who have done a better job than Ivan Cleary over the first quarter of the season.
Cleary was always going to be a good signing for the Tigers, but he faced an uphill battle when he arrived at the club.
Dating back to the days of Tim Sheens, the Tigers have been an attack-first club. Their culture didn’t often include the word defence as a key point – or at least, it seemed that way looking from the outside – and Cleary was tasked with changing the attitude of the club.
He has succeeded and in fine fashion.
His first step was weeding anyone out who didn’t want to be on his bus, playing under his rules and to his intensity level. The next step was building the squad he wanted and from there, it’s been all systems go for the joint venture.
Sure some of his signings raised eyebrows, but who are we to question Ivan and his great wall now? It’s worked a treat and while the season is a long one, the Tigers attack is starting to build now.
They have ran up points in a couple of games now, including against the Eels and of course, against Manly on Sunday.
It’s positive footy, built off their determination and will not to concede points and for that, coach Cleary deserves full credit.
Where do the Cowboys turn now?
The Cowboys fell to yet another loss on the weekend, losing the seemingly impossible game at home against the Bulldogs.
It was a poor display to say the least, and with Lachlan Coote back on the park, it was anticipated things were going to become easier for the Cowboys.
Coote’s influence over the last few years has been simply that he takes the pressure off Johnathan Thurston and Michael Morgan to do everything. His return from injury last year was one of the key reasons North Queensland made the top eight.
It allowed Morgan to play his natural game and become the competition’s standout performer.
That may take some time to happen this year, but sitting with a record of one and five, they don’t have time for things to start happening.
They need it to happen urgently and without a win against the Titans next week, changes from Paul Green may be inevitable.
Are James Tedesco and Cooper Cronk going to be worth it?
I don’t think anyone thought we were going to be asking this question a month ago.
The two most high-profile recruits for 2018 didn’t even rate a mention in the first talking point of this article, and it’s scary to say, but they simply aren’t gelling at the tri-colours.
Whether it’s the structure they are trying to play, the forward pack they are working with or the ability of others around them, something just isn’t clicking.
Cooper Cronk was, in my opinion, always a risky signing. The biggest problem for Cronk is he has never played outside of the Melbourne system, which is the most professional in world rugby league.
That’s not to say the Roosters aren’t professional, but playing under Craig Bellamy is a huge advantage for any player, and he will need to try and work into Trent Robinson’s structure as the season goes on.
Tedesco is also in awful form. Some of the basics just aren’t working for the New South Wales fullback and at the moment, he wouldn’t be in the top ten fullbacks in the game, form-wise.
While consistency is an issue for the Roosters and they have shown glimpses of what they are capable of, Cronk and Tedesco weren’t paid big money at Bondi to perform every second or third week.
That’s not how it works if you want to win the grand final on the last Sunday in September.
Damien Cook is on fire
There were plenty of positives from the Rabbitohs big win on Thursday, but at the top of the pile was the performance of hooker Damien Cook.
After six weeks, he has well and truly locked down the hooking spot at South Sydney, with Robbie Farah now no longer in the picture, stuck playing for the North Sydney Bears.
Some (myself included), were critical of the fact Cook never seemed to be able to play 80 minutes, but he is proving us wrong this season. He looks fit, fast and is reading the play wonderfully, which has always been a talent of his.
He seems to know the perfect time to run, and be able to tell when there’s going to be lazy marker defence.
Cook barely misses an opportunity to make something happen, and you’d have to think at this point he is the front runner for the New South Wales number nine jersey ahead of Cameron McInnes come Origin time.
When will the Eels win their first game?
The Parramatta Eels have won zero of their first six games. That’s a sentence I didn’t expect to be writing six weeks, or even three weeks ago.
Parramatta are playing woeful footy to start the year. There is no way around it, with the club scoring just two points and being held tryless against the Canberra Raiders away from home on the weekend.
Sure their injury and player availability situation hasn’t exactly helped them, but the fact they are zero and six with the talent they have on the roster is embarrassing.
Looking ahead, and it’s hard to see, even if the Eels do manage to build some continuity in positions, where their first win is coming from.
It’s not going to get any easier. Next week, they take on Manly who haven’t been good away from home, but will be out to make a statement after being thumped this week, before the Eels take on the high-flying Wests Tigers, the Cronulla Sharks and the Bulldogs in Round 10.
The Bulldogs contest seems like the best bet out of the next four, and with the Broncos and Warriors to follow that, they need to win, and win soon.
It just doesn’t look like happening.
Manly losing at home is a major concern for Trent Barrett
To this point in the season, the Sea Eagles had been hanging onto the fact they had won all their home games, and won them well for the most part.
Turning up to a packed Brookvale Oval on Sunday afternoon though, the Sea Eagles were awful.
They ended up getting shelled to the tune of 38-12, with their defence almost non-existent and their attack not much better.
The second half had a few positive moments in it, but the first half looked as if the men from Manly would have prefered to have been anywhere else than playing footy.
There was no passion in the jersey, no commitment on the line. Trent Barrett should be very concerned, given their performances away from home to start the season.
It’s not the first time Manly have given up a score, but it certainly is the first time they have given up a score at Brookvale and while they are a long way from being in a position where things are looking difficult, they can’t afford to get into a rut.
The Storm are back in business, but can they be consistent?
It feels weird, asking if a team coached by Craig Bellamy can be consistent, but here we are I guess.
It never felt right asking if they were going to lose their third game on the trot against the Newcastle Knights at this stage of the season ever, but we were all doing that on Friday.
Of course, they didn’t, with the Storm running away to a thumping 40-14 victory following two less than impressive performances against the Tigers and Sharks where they scored a combined 14 points in 160 minutes.
The change of Brodie Croft for Ryley Jacks was a much-needed one and seemed to work well against a Newcastle team who have been playing like a team in control of their situation and with enough upside to reach the top eight.
The Storm being consistent in the coming weeks will be the biggest challenge – and for Jacks to prove he is the right man for the job – and that all starts on Friday against an up and down Brisbane outif.t
The Gold Coast switch off far too easily
While the Titans weren’t helped along by injuries against the Panthers on Sunday afternoon, it’s not the first time they have fallen asleep on the defensive end of the park.
The trend actually began at the end of last year. You immediately remember games like the 54-0 thumping they received at home against the Broncos just weeks before the end of the season.
Brisbane scored ten tries that day, but the scary thing for the Gold Coast was how many of them came from long-range.
They did it again against the Dragons when they were beaten 54-8 in Round 3 this season, and again on Sunday. James Maloney simply toyed with the Titans defensive line, sending either himself, Dylan Edwards or Tyrone Peachey through at will to keep the scoreboard ticking.
It’s embarrassing to watch on replay, for a professional defensive line to conceed tries like that and they need to find a way to concentrate for 80 minutes in defence, or it’s going to keep happening.
Roarers, what did you make of Round 6? Drop a comment and let us know down below.