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It’s hard to believe we’re already over a third of the way through the 2018 NRL season, but as they say, time flies when you’re having fun.
Given that we already have a decent sample size to analyse each team’s play this year, it’s time to review how each club has looked, and ascertain just how full fans should consider their team’s glass.
The twist? I’m going to be a Negative Nancy – which is off-brand, I know – and look at each team through the prism of extreme pessimism. Which, granted, is a lot easier to do for some teams.
St George Illawarra Dragons
The Dragons have surprised many, though – humblebrag alert – I did have them finishing in the top four. Given their 8-2 record, one would assume it’s hard to be too pessimistic, and to be honest, one would be right.
Ironically, it’s the Dragons’ strong start that may end up being the issue, as Ben Hunt, Jack de Belin, Tyson Frizzel, Paul Vaughan and Tariq Sims may all earn Origin call-ups, testing the club’s depth, along with creating the dreaded ‘Origin hangover’ issue.
Good problems to have, but problems nonetheless.
The Panthers currently sit in second, despite missing gun half Nathan Cleary for a fair chunk of the season, so there’s not a great deal to be cynical about here.
However, they have had a pretty easy draw, playing cellar-dwellers Parramatta twice, along with beating the other three teams in the bottom four – the Titans, Bulldogs and Cowboys.
Throw in a victory over the Knights, and Penrith’s early-season success should be taken with a grain of salt. Let’s see how they’re tracking once the Storm, Dragons, Warriors, etc, have been played.
New Zealand Warriors
The Warriors have been another surprise packet, but they’ve teased us with their potential almost every season.
It would be too easy to say the cause for concern here is that the Warriors have traditionally always run hot and cold, but it’s actually the 50-12 and 32-0 blowouts versus the Storm and Roosters that are the real drama.
Big losses like that are seldom on a premiership team’s CV, even allowing for the fact that Shaun Johnson was out for both games.
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Despite sitting in their customary spot in the top four, the Storm have looked a little off this season, and a fair gauge of where they’re at is how easily the Dragons dismantled them in Round 9.
I fully expect Melbourne to still be there at the business-end of the season, but with Cooper Cronk already moved on, Cameron Smith retiring from rep footy, and Billy Slater’s imminent retirement hovering, the Storm’s golden era is certainly inching closer to its inevitable finish.
It may even already be over.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Maybe Anthony Seibold being a rookie coach will become an issue for the Bunnies at some point? Perhaps even when it matters most, the finals? There’s a chance that a more experienced coach will undress him under the harsh spotlights of September.
Otherwise, it’s hard to be too bleak about Souths based on the footy they’ve been playing. In short, they’ve been very impressive. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that they also appear to be playing with confidence, and having fun.
The only (minor) concern is that Sam Burgess will be required to start paying rent at the NRL judiciary soon, such is the amount of time he spends there.
Much was made of the Chooks’ off-season, when they snared the signatures of prized recruits Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco. Sadly, both have been somewhat disappointing.
Cronk looks like exactly what he is: a brilliant ‘system player’ who is playing is a brand new system with new teammates. Meanwhile, Tedesco has been so poor that he has surely played his way out of his NSW jumper.
If these two don’t start looking comfortable soon, the 2018 premiership will be an unattainable dream. Also (*whispering*) I think this pack is overrated and often poor defensively.
It’s probably influenced by the amount of Tigers fans that I’m surrounded by in my life, but I do enjoy putting the boot into this club every chance I get. Sadly – for me – there hasn’t been a lot of opportunities to do that this season, because the Tigers have been great.
I’ll have to settle for the potentially misguided viewpoint that their bubble will burst soon and they’ll be brought back to earth with an almighty thud, as I just can’t escape the notion that they’ve overachieved greatly thus far.
After all, ‘Reality bites Tigers’ is a great headline.
The Sharks have produced some courageous wins this year, but the reason why they’ve been courageous is the exact reason fans should be anxious: their horrible injury toll.
Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Josh Dugan, Wade Graham and Andrew Fifita isn’t a list of Cronulla rep players, it’s a list of the players who have missed time this season. Quite simply, they need to stay healthy if they want to be a contender.
Oh, and star recruit Matt Moylan not playing like dirt would help too.
When Jack Bird is playing halfback, some red flags should go up. Pinpointing exactly what is the cause of those red flags is a little bit trickier.
Is Brisbane’s lack of quality in the halves the death knell for their season? Has the game gone past Wayne Bennett? Do the Broncos have an uneven roster? Are they legitimate contenders, or legitimate pretenders? Can Ben Hunt please come back?
There are questions galore to mull over, and they’ll need to actually answer some of them if they’re to be a serious threat.
I’d argue the Knights have been the gutsiest team in the NRL for a number of seasons now, and this year is no different. You could never accuse them of the effort not being there.
However, depth was always going to be a worry for them, and they couldn’t afford injuries to key players. Sadly, Newcastle had a lot invested in Mitchell Pearce, and his injury all but ended their promising start to the year.
Canberra just can’t win the close games. They lost their first three matches by a combined five points, and have been in the contest in almost every game they’ve played, yet sit in 11th spot with just four wins.
In this competition, a few measly points will end up separating the eight from those watching the finals on TV.
I can’t help but think the Raiders’ close losses will come back to haunt them.
Manly Sea Eagles
The Sea Eagles have committed their future to Daly Cherry-Evans, signing him to an eight-year contract in 2015.
Can you win the comp if DCE is your best player? I say yes. Can you have a strong team culture, with a collection of players that all get along, enjoy playing with each other, and avoid gossipy headlines about rifts and personality clashes, if DCE is your club captain? Hhhmm. The jury is well and truly out on that one.
That’s all without even mentioning the messy, political, off-field dramas that seem to always be prevalent with Manly these days.
The Dogs look putrid in attack, and their fifth-tackle options remain limited and poor.
That analysis in isolation may not seem that bad, as it should be able to be fairly easily addressed, but the problem is that fans have been saying it for five years.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the looming salary cap disaster means that a team that is struggling to win games now will also have to ditch some talent at the end of the year. Yuck.
North Queensland Cowboys
I don’t subscribe to the theory that Johnathan Thurston has played on one season too long, but his slow return to elite form from injury has stilted the Cowboys.
North Queensland don’t look cohesive in attack, and have struggled to score tries in a number of games.
There is plenty of time to turn it around, but the 3-7 start is certainly not what we expected of one of the pre-season favourites.
Gold Coast Titans
The Titans’ biggest issue is that they have no identity as a team. They don’t have a style of play. They don’t have a superstar player or strong leader. With all due respect, they’re just making up the numbers in the competition. They’re like room-temperature water.
They have enough talent that they’re not an embarrassment, but they need a personality or clear direction.
They made a major mistake not signing the Walker brothers as their coaches; it would have at least given them a genuine point of difference, and generated some interest.
Your halves are the metaphorical ‘brain’ of your football team. You rely on your halfback and five-eighth to be level-headed, calm, mature, and direct the team around the park, while also being cerebral players who make smart decisions.
The Eels’ halves are Mitchell Moses and Corey Norman.
The prosecution rests, Your Honour.