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Eleven talking points from NRL Round 12

Nathan Cleary of the Panthers passes the ball during the Round 12 NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the St George-Illawarra Dragons at Panthers Stadium in Sydney, Saturday, May 26, 2018. (AAP Image/Daniel Munoz)
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27th May, 2018
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Saturday was supposed to be one of the best days of the season, but it came with underwhelming results. Despite their lopsided nature, there is still plenty of interest to come out of the last full round ahead of the representative season. Here are my talking points from Round 12.

Will Penrith be able to keep the intensity up?
It was supposed to be the match of the round on Saturday evening as the Panthers took on the Dragons at the foot of the mountains, but it ended up being all one way traffic.

The Dragons were never able to get out of first gear because the Panthers simply belted them up the middle, got off their line quickly all night and didn’t take a step back.

It was clear from the first minute that the Panthers had pumped themselves up for the match and weren’t going to be backing down, no matter the circumstances. Their defence was some of the best you are ever likely to see, holding the Dragons to just two points.

What was probably more impressive though for Penrith was the way they were able to keep their intensity high, dominate the contest and remain patient despite not being able to skip away with things early on.

After half an hour of action, they only had a penalty goal to their name, leading two points to nothing. While they ran on four tries between then and the end of the contest, it was always going to happen with the Dragons struggling to get out of their own end more often than not.

Penrith focused on the basics. They completed their sets, made 600 post contact metres and with 14 smart offloads to go with a 90 per cent tackle efficiency for the contest, it was little surprise they were able to jump away on the scoreboard.

Their smart and concentrated play allowed James Maloney and Nathan Cleary to weave their magic throughout the contest, with the duo key to their hopes moving forward.

It’ll be interesting now to see if the Panthers can play with that level of intensity every week. They have been great to sit at the top of the table given all the injuries which have struck the club down so far, but Saturday brought their best performance of the season so far.

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Now it’s about consistency for the men from the foot of the mountains.

Nathan Cleary Panthers.

(AAP Image/Daniel Munoz)

How close is Nick Cotric to a sky blue jumper?
Sometimes, it’s hard not to forget the Canberra Raiders winger is only 19 years of age.

He already has 35 first grade to his name and it’d be fair to say he is getting better with each passing week as he gains in experience and value to Ricky Stuart’s Raiders.

This season alone he has scored seven tries from the first 12 games. For a 19-year-old to become a permanent fixture in the NRL and not be dropped at this point in their career is stunning.

In 2018, from the first 12 games, he has 11 line breaks to his name (second in the competition behind Josh Addo-Carr), a couple of offloads, a strong tackle efficiency and more tackle breaks than you could poke a stick at.

To go with his seven tries – including another couple on the weekend against Manly – he must be close to a State of Origin jumper, which feels absolutely insane to be saying about a player who is so young.

The Canberra winger has the whole package. Speed, power and a high rugby league IQ which allows him to see plays from a long way out. His finishing ability on the wing is already up there with the best in the competition as well.

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Nick Cotric

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

There is something about these Sharks
The Sharks have now won six straight and it’s time to sit up and start taking notice of the boys from the Shire.

While they started the season in a rut and then had injuries and a lack of form curtail their progress, it’s looking more and more like I was foolish to write them off after just a handful of weeks. Parramatta, on the other hand… So I’ll take one from two.

Anyway, back on point.

Cronulla are more or less back at full strength after battling through for a few weeks and even without Andrew Fifita, absolutely dominated the Knights today away from home, racking up 48 points.

While there are still questions surrounding the best position for Valentine Holmes and whether their halves combination will be able to stand up against the best sides, those questions are rapidly beginning to fade in the background.

With Josh Dugan at fullback and Matt Moylan finding his feet in the halves, today was the first time Cronulla really flowed in attack.

The last five weeks have been a case of doing what needs to be done for Shane Flanagan’s side. They hadn’t won any of that group by more than eight points, getting out of jail late in the piece on more than one occasion.

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If you were to look at their dominant effort for 75 minutes over the Eels for example though, it’s clear to see they are building on the back of an unrelenting defensive line and remaining patient at the other end, which is something they struggled with last year when James Maloney was at the helm.

They are happy to play the style which suits Cronulla – being, win the battle up the middle and score on the back of it.

If they can continue doing that, there is no reason these Sharks won’t finish in the top four at the end of the season, although I’d still be hesitant to write them in there as certainties just yet.

Valentine Holmes

(Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

The Bulldogs are letting themselves down
Canterbury have major problems to iron out if they hope to be anywhere near playing in September.

Despite holding a lead against the Tigers during the second half on Sunday afternoon, they put on a display of almost incompetent rugby league during the second half to squander it and the result. It was as if they were trying to protect a lead.

From Kieran Foran looking more like a spectator in the side than a genuine leading half, to a forward pack who were dominated and poor last tackle options at every turn, the Tigers were better in most departments during the second half of a somewhat scrappy and unappealing game.

The proof really is in the pudding, and while the Bulldogs attack was originally going to be the main focus of this write-up on the blue and white, you can’t go past their defence and inability to wrap the ball up.

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Wests made a ridiculous 23 offloads in the contest. In 38 sets of six, that’s better than one offload out of every two sets. Compare that to the Bulldogs eight, who again, didn’t have the creativity to do much with the ball, showing on the final scoreboard with just ten points to their name.

It follows a run of low scores for Dean Pay’s men who have only scored 20 points once in their last six games. While you can win games scoring less than 20 points, it’s not working for the Bulldogs who slump to a record of three and nine with their finals chances fast disappearing.

It’s not that they are a bad footy team. They have shown at different times this year, especially since they made some changes a few weeks ago that they can play. They have also had their fair share of bad luck, whether from 50-50 refereeing decisions or other circumstances, but the bottom line is they aren’t good enough to switch off and go through the motions.

They have to be at their best for every minute of every game if they want to win, and they aren’t anywhere near it at the moment.

Kieran Foran Bulldogs

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Jahrome Hughes is the future of Melbourne
For those who have read my work before, you’ll know exactly how much of a Billy Slater fan I am. And no, I’m not talking about certain ‘tactics.’ I’m talking about the genuine level of skill he brings to the field.

Whether you like him or not, there is no denying he is one of, if not the greatest fullback in the history of the game. That’s not overstating it either.

It’s little surprise ‘Billy the kid’ has been part of one of the best teams in the game’s history as well, but with injuries and father time catching up with him, a changing of the guard is not all that far away, and when it does, there is a ready-made replacement in the wings with youngster Jahrome Hughes proving on Friday he is ready to take over the mantle.

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While Melbourne’s victory over the Cowboys was somewhat scrappy and unappealing – the final score reading 7-6, the play of Hughes was the standout from the contest. He led all players for running metres with 161, had a line break and often looked dangerous with the ball in his hand.

Even though it’s hard to get a read from just one game, he is the future of the men in purple at the back and his combination with half Cameron Munster – unless they swap around with Munster to play at the back – could be lethal in building a new dynasty for the Victorian club.

The curious case of the New Zealand Warriors
Following their Round 7 victory over the St George Illawarra Dragons, the New Zealand Warriors were starting to firm, with confidence among fans and neutrals in their ability finally rising.

The Warriors have always been one of those clubs where you never jump the gun in talking up their chances in doing something good at the end of the season, because they have nearly always (2011 aside) found a way to mess it up down the stretch.

Starting the season strongly has never been a strong suit of the Warriors though, who normally make their big run over the upcoming State of Origin period. While they still enter this year’s Origin period in the top four, they are starting to run into problems.

Injuries can be pointed to, with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Shaun Johnson and in-form hooker Issac Luke all spending time on the sidelines across the first 12 weeks of the season, but they can’t be blamed for being beaten soundly by the South Sydney Rabbitohs 30-10 at home on Saturday.

The Rabbitohs deserve their own wrap – and they have gotten a few in this column over the last few weeks – because they are looking more and more like a top four team, but the Warriors now enter the Origin period uncertain of their form. In the last five weeks, they have picked up two unconvincing wins over the Wests Tigers and Parramatta Eels, but it’s 50-0 and 32-0 losses against the Storm and Roosters to go with their loss this weekend which should be the concern for Stephen Kearney and his troops.

They should be able to turn things around, but the lessened impact of the Origin period will also hurt the Auckland-based club this year. At full strength, they might be right, but they need to find a way to get back on the winner’s list and make a statement about their form after their bye next weekend.

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Blake Green

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Is Wayne Bennett’s time up?
This is such a tough question to answer. Bennett is, undoubtedly, one of the best coaches we have ever seen, racking up first grade game number 800 on the weekend.

But, with speculation mounting Craig Bellamy will go to the Broncos to finish his career, there is genuine talk the game may have passed Bennett and his structure by.

The current Broncos mentor is still the best man manager there is. He has proven it by taking teams from zero to hero. He turned the Dragons around, had an amazing first season in Newcastle and got the Broncos to the preliminary finals last year when, on paper at least, they maybe should never have gotten that far.

He has a way of working his teams into good positions, but there is enough there to suggest he won’t be around next year.

Bellamy is a little bit more on the modern side of the game than Bennett. He and the Storm have reshaped the way the game has been played in the last decade, and like it or not, you have to respect it.

The Storm play their style in an uncompromising manner. While Bellamy has had the tools in Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater for the most part – three of the best we will ever see – they have dominated and revolutionised the NRL.

If the Broncos had an opportunity to bring that level of talent in, why wouldn’t they?

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Bennett, you’d expect, will never leave Brisbane again, so if his club decides to bite the bullet and bring Bellamy in, whether next year or the one following, that may be the last we see of the super coach.

The Roosters are starting to roll, but need to be consistent
Trent Robinson’s side came away with another big win over the Gold Coast Titans on the Central Coast on Saturday, with the development of the tri-colours continuing to come along in a thumping second half.

But after a loss against the Brisbane Broncos last week and a very sloppy first half against the Titans, it’s no wonder the same old questions regarding whether they actually have what it takes to challenge for the premiership are following them around like a bad smell.

The Eastern Suburbs-based club need to become consistent. They have shown what they can do when at the top of their game – in fact, what we all knew they could do.

When you have named like James Tedesco, Cooper Cronk and Boyd Cordner in the side to go with a young and talented backline, they deserved to be premiership favourites in the lead up to the season whether they had enough depth or not.

Picking based on the starting 17, it was hard to identify many issues with the Roosters, which makes their start to the season all the more baffling.

In their 32-0 win over the Warriors a fortnight ago and their second half on Saturday, it proved beyond all reasonable doubt the Roosters can run up points, but that’s against two poor teams. Whenever they have been tasked with a genuine challenge, they have crumbled and for Trent Robinson, it’s high time to iron out those kinks in the armour ahead of the Origin window.

Should Dragons fans be worried?
In short, absolutely.

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And that’s not really a reference to their ladder position, given they are still equal first at the end of the round and only behind Penrith because they lost to them with the for and against’s of the two sides even.

But it is a reference to 2017. This isn’t the same side as 2017 and they won’t fade as badly, but we saw what happened last year without a huge impact from Origin. This year, the Red V could have as many as seven players selected for the annual coach and form killing series.

Whether that comes to be or not is almost irrelevant though, because the Dragons have issues in the way they are playing.

On one foot, it’s a credit to the club to sit at the top of the table without actually playing really good footy yet this season. It can also be a flicker of hope for frustrated fans of the Red V, who haven’t seen their team win a final since the 2010 grand final, that they still have improvement to come one way or another.

But at the same time, they were shown up against the Panthers on Sunday. Sure, the Panthers were fantastic in defence and the Dragons were only allowed to play as well as their opponents let them, but it’s not the first time they have scrapped around this year.

Their attack was all off and when the Dragons have been on the back foot this year, players like Ben Hunt and Matt Dufty have gone missing a little bit. St George Illawarra are great front-runners, but they are yet to genuinely prove they can get themselves out of difficult situations.

Sure they scrapped against the Canberra Raiders last week in Mudgee, but that was an error-ridden Raiders side.

Don’t get me wrong, the Dragons are good and will make the top eight, but to call them favourites or certainties for the top four at this stage of the season would be ludicrous.

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James Graham

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Things are getting ugly for the Knights and won’t turn around any time soon
Thank goodness Newcastle have the best fans in the competition. After years of heartache and a few wooden spoons on the trot, there was a genuine feeling they would turn things around this year with a number of high profile recruits and more experience around the youthful side which were demolished more often than not last year.

Unfortunately, they are being shown up again. After a bright start to 2018, they are now not able to match it on either end of the park with most of the top teams in the competition.

Let’s start with their attack, where, obviously, there are going to be issues without the guy you built your pre-season around.

While the issues are expected, the extent of them were not. Nathan Brown’s men have got into a rut, where Jack Cogger’s kicking game is conservative at best and awful at worst, Connor Watson’s input is minimal and their ruck speed when Slade Griffin is playing hooker is slow.

The bright spot is Kalyn Ponga, but up against a good defensive side like the Sharks on Sunday, he could do nothing about it. The problem seems to be that teams are starting to work out he is their only real spark in attack.

The Knights aren’t helping issues. Whenever they run out of issues or need a play, their structure disappears with a mantra of ‘pass it to Kalyn and see what happens.’

That isn’t how you score tries in the NRL.

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Then there is their defence. The issues at that end of the park are a whole lot more unforgivable, but even coming into Sunday’s clash, they were letting in 26 points per game.

The Sharks then ran up 48 on them without raising a sweat. There were soft tries up the middle, lazy defensive efforts in wrapping up the ball and overlaps galore on the edges.

Next week, Newcastle take on the last-placed Parramatta. It’s a must-win situation for both teams, but even with a win, it’s hard to see the Knights, playing like they did on Sunday, being anywhere near the top eight at season’s end.

Roarers, what did you make of Round 12? Drop a comment below and let us know.