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Nine talking points from NRL Round 9

St George are back where they belong. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Editor
6th May, 2018
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It’s Sunday night, another round of footy is in the books and that means it’s time for my NRL talking points from Round 9. What a weekend it was as well.

Enough’s enough: The Dragons will finish in the top four and are premiership contenders
After eight wins in nine weeks, I’m finally ready to talk the Dragons up. No, not #talkthegameup, but talk the Dragons and their premiership chances up.

Come to think of it, a successful Dragons is pretty good for the game as well. 19,173 fans packed out Jubilee Oval on Sunday afternoon to watch the Red V beat the Storm in a big way.

I’m not going to sit here and say they were perfect, let’s get that out of the way. Five penalty goals isn’t really the best way to beat another team, but they found enough possession and took the opportunities they were presented. It’s hard to argue the Dragons were the better team, taking on a Storm team who have really found their mojo over the last three weeks.

It’s also fair to say the Storm didn’t play well, but I’m over people wanting to talk the Dragons performances down because no one, with the exception of the Warriors, has played well against them yet.

No longer is it time to occupy that line of thought. It’s now time to talk about how teams are playing poorly because of a very, very good Red V outfit.

The Dragons will run into some bumps over Origin, and there also the thought bubble that they have hit form too early, that there will be nowhere to improve once September comes.

They are both valid lines of thought, but I’d argue to say even today, the Dragons still have a lot of improvement in them. Paul McGregor’s men made 14 errors, missed 27 tackles and clearly still have points to work on in their execution.

It might not be perfect, but this is the best team in the competition right now and should, for all money, finish in the top four. It’s going to be a painful second half of the season if they don’t, but with the Storm now in the rearview mirror, this is a club who are finding ways to get it done and playing some very good footy in the process.

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St George Illawarra Dragons

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The Rabbitohs left side spells danger
The Rabbitohs have won three of their last four and the biggest bright spot in a team with plenty of them, the attack on the left edge has been the best of the lot.

Cody Walker is in some rare form to spark things, but the players outside him have to be there to finish things off and run the right lines, and that’s exactly what they are doing.

Veteran second rower John Sutton has been in form not witnessed for some years – almost career best – while the men outside him Greg Inglis and young winner Robert Jennings have also been superb for the red, white and green.

The way Sutton has been running the ball has almost linked the left side together. Even when the Rabbitohs weren’t winning at the start of the season, Sutton was on fire. He has played all nine games and is averaging just over 100 metres per contest. While the number doesn’t seem amazing, for an edge second rower, it’s about how damaging those metres are.

Playing inside Inglis, he has seven offloads and 13 tackle busts to his name, as well as a couple of line breaks. He runs the ball with intent every time and it’s visible to see how it’s working outside, with Sutton having the creativity of a third half.

While Sutton and Walker are the key linchpins of a firing left-hand side for the Rabbitohs, Jennings is the biggest beneficiary. He has seven tries, as does Walker, while Inglis has five and Sutton a pair.

Walker has the potential to be the most dangerous player in the competition and it only gets more dangerous when Adam Reynolds heads over to that side of the field.

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It was evident again on the weekend with the Rabbitohs belting Newcastle 36 to 18, three of the tries coming on that edge and plenty more opportunities being created.

Simply put, if the Rabbitohs are going to keep winning, the left side is probably a big part of the reason why.

Cody Walker South Sydney Rabbitohs.

(AAP Image/Daniel Munoz)

Can the Eels build off a comeback which resulted in nothing?
It was so nearly the comeback to end all comebacks for the men in blue and gold, but it ended up resulting in zero competition points and a loss for the second time this season to the Sharks.

For 75 minutes, the Eels looked out of ideas. They looked, quite frankly, like a team who would have prefered to be anywhere else.

It was, in truth, their first major test after a couple of victories. Beating an embattled Manly Sea Eagles side at home along with a gritty Wests Tigers proved they were back into the swing of things, but it didn’t prove exactly where they were at against good opposition.

After six straight losses to start the season, they had to get the couple of victories, but they were back to their old ways against the Sharks despite the best efforts of Clint Gutherson.

The last five minutes brought them to within a conversion of golden point though, scoring 16 points in that time as the Sharks clocked off and struggled to switch back on.

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Still, the Eels are now two from nine and must win at least ten of their final 15 games to have a hope of qualifying for the top eight. It seems near on impossible, but if they are going to pull it off, they must attack like they did in the final five minutes against Cronulla.

Not for the full 80 – it’d be hard to keep that level of attack going and of course, defence will be a lot better for the most part. It’s the confidence they need to take though. Just the knowledge that second phase play can work, early shifts with intent can get them through defensive lines and more than anything else, they have the talent to match it.

Clint Gutherson, Mitchell Moses and Corey Norman should be a superb spine. They haven’t been anywhere near it this year, but if they can play like they did in the last five against Cronulla, the Eels stand a chance of making the eight.

Clint Gutherson Parramatta Eels NRL Rugby League 2017

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Is this a sign of things to come for the Cowboys?
While the North Queensland-based outfit didn’t quite string 80 minutes together playing in Bathurst, they got out of the blocks at a million miles per hour against the Panthers and it told on the final scoreboard.

It wasn’t a badly performing Panthers which let them motor ahead either. Before anyone knew what had hit them, the combinations started to flow for the Cowboys with Lachlan Coote, Michael Morgan and Jake Granville all putting in their best halves of the season alongside the greatest of all time, Johnathan Thurston, to take a 20-0 lead.

Okay, they probably aren’t at the level which qualified them for the 2017 grand final, but Thurston showed glimpses of the player he was 24 months ago and when that is combined with the talents of current Australian representative Morgan and the two aforementioned players, the Cowboys are close to unstoppable.

Things fell apart in the second half slightly, but it was then their forwards who picked up the slack. Jason Taumalolo, rated the best lock in the game by the length of the straight coming into the season, put in his best performance as well, running a crunching 204 metres throughout the contest.

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If Taumalolo can pick up his form and get the pack rolling in the right direction, Paul Green’s side have more than enough talent to run up the points, and so that’s where it seems to start and end for the Cowboys. Up front. If they can dominate the middle third of the park, there are going to be very few teams who compete with them.

They haven’t done that for 80 minutes or many extended periods at all this season, but the first half against the Panthers shows they are finally getting the bus in motion. The battle now is to do it for 80 minutes and week in, week out, and the test against the Wests Tigers next week will help to tell us where both teams are at, with the Tigers hitting the struggles as well.

Cowboys Johnathan Thurston and Jason Taumalolo

(AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

The Broncos can win games through second phase play and continuity in the halves
It’s fair to say a record of five and four isn’t an accurate reflection of the talent Brisbane have in their side. They have been a little off the ball to start 2018, but seem to be picking things up the further the season moves along.

They have now won three of their last four matches, beating the Warriors away from home and getting out of prison twice against the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs. While it wasn’t convincing, they are finding ways to get their job done and their loss to the Storm in between away from home was somewhat encouraging, despite falling by 16 points.

The Broncos are quickly finding that they have a reasonably versatile and agile side. Big bodies on the edges mean early spreads are working a treat, and an ability to be creative and spark things spontaneously up the middle are also adding to their advantage.

Offloading is a big part of their attack and with forwards like Tevita Pangai Junior in incredibly good form, it’s not hard to see why.

They came up with 13 offloads against the Bulldogs on Thursday night, with some directly resulting in tries. While Jack Bird was slow off the mark, he grew into his role during the second half, Anthony Milford was explosive and it some of it came on the back of forward offloading.

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There is no question the Broncos are at their most dangerous when they play the game in front of them, rather than trying to adhere to a structure and they will need plenty of it going forward with increased output from an out of sorts Darius Boyd if they are to contend with the top teams in the competition.

Jack Bird

(Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

The Roosters need to make a statement but did anything but
The Sea Eagles made 11 errors against the Roosters on Sunday evening to close Round 9. The Roosters, won the match by just two points with more of the same issues plaguing a team who should be going so much better than what they are.

While the win will keep the Roosters in the top eight at the end of the round by virtue of for and against, they are struggling. Big time.

Manly have been embattled to say the least and while brave on Sunday, the Roosters, dripping with the talent of Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco, should not have been down 10-0 to go on and win 22-20.

They shouldn’t have let in 20 points either. Their defence isn’t up to scratch, as the Dragons have already proven on Anzac Day.

If Tedesco is really the best option New South Wales have at fullback, then the concern should be real. His form is atrocious, while the Roosters forwards are soft and Jake Friend can’t be all that far away from getting a kick back to reserve grade. Dropping a team captain is never something which should be done lightly, but his form is all at sea as well.

Don’t get me wrong, credit Manly for making it close, but on paper, that was the game where the Roosters needed to turn up and dispell any theories of problems over their attack. Instead, they made it worse.

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Put simply, Trent Robinson has a lot of issues to work out with his side and if they simply allow the cracks to be papered over because of a less than convincing win after losses, they will lose more than they win moving forward.

Cooper Cronk

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Has Valentine Holmes finally learnt how to play fullback?
After being earmarked to become the Sharks permanent fullback at the start of season 2018, Holmes made a shocking beginning to his new life and was then banished to the wing with fullback duties switching between Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan, the latter looking ever the part when he was there.

With Dugan going down to an injury for up to the next six weeks, Shane Flanagan made a smart decision in the lead-up to the Eels game on Saturday. By leaving Matt Moylan in the halves, it allowed the spine to stay somewhat organised, with Moylan sticking alongside Chad Townsend.

It’s the reason Moylan was signed to the club originally and in terms of building on combinations, plays and defensive ideals, it’s no good him going to the back every second week, as has seemed to be the case this season.

Instead, he stayed in the halves and Holmes had his best game – maybe ever – at fullback.

While the Eels didn’t put up a great deal of resistance at times, Holmes combined beautifully with Moylan throughout the contest. His ball running was sensational and he always seemed to be looking to take the line on, while he was also involved in the creation of some excellent plays.

Defensively, he wasn’t caught out of position until the final five minutes when the Sharks clocked off.

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He is going to have up to six weeks to make the fullback slot in black, white and blue his own and he is off to a good start.

Valentine Holmes

(Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

The Warriors have a damaging back five
There were plenty of bright spots for the Warriors in their big 26-4 victory over the Tigers, but the biggest of the lot was their back five, who have started this season as one of the best in the competition.

The Auckland-based club have had the talent on the flanks for at least two seasons now, but between injuries to Shaun Johnson, poor form and a bunch of other factors, it’s never had a chance to gel and reach the potential it possesses.

Sparked by Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who it would be fair to say ran rings around the Tigers, as he has done to other clubs this season, they were able to combine for most of the Warriors tries.

Tuivasa-Sheck is finding some of the form he seemed to leave at the Roosters when he moved clubs, but he is being made to look excellent, as is Johnson, but his outside men.

David Fusitu’a and Ken Maumalo – the two wingers – bothhave plenty of size about them and are very hard to stop when they get motoring. It showed against Wests, with Maumalo running 180 metres and Fusitu’a doing similar, adding three line breaks to his tally in the process while they got a try each.

Being a winger is not easy in modern rugby league, but the Warriors are pair are making it look that way.

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Peta Hiku has been a great pick up for the Warriors as well. Playing in the centres alongside the man mountain Solomone Kata, teams are struggling to stop them on the edges and it’s hardly a surprise. Their finishing ability is right up there and when you’re playing outside a halves combination as complementry as Johnson and Blake Green, there will be opportunities to score all match.

The Warriors, for the moment at least, are making the most of them.

Jacob Saifiti, left, and Tyler Randell of the Newcastle Knights tackle Roger Tuivasa-Sheck of the Warriors

(AAP Image/David Rowland)

Why was Kane Elgey dropped a fortnight ago and should he return?
On one hand, with just three wins from their first seven (now nine) games, I can understand why Titans coach Gareth Brennan thought it was time for change. The halves are so often the first place to get an overhaul when a team is struggling, but the Bryce Cartwright experiment has to stop.

He brings absolutely nothing to the Titans which Elgey doesn’t in the halves and also cheapens his own game by not being a dominant edge runner, which the former Panthers has the power to be.

Since the dropping of Elgey, the Titans scored just nine points against the Sharks and then were belted by the Raiders on Saturday, going down 32-18.

Their inability to control the game at either end of the park couldn’t be squarely blamed on Cartwright, but Elgey’s kicking game, out of sorts as it has been, would have helped them in terms of possession and territory.

Now, I rate Brennan highly as a coach and I’m sure he has plans for Cartwright, but the way things are going for the Titans, they need to get Ashely Taylor and Elgey back on the park together to try and build some continuity as the halfway mark of the season rapidly approaches.

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Roarers, what did you make of Round 9? Drop a comment below and let us know.