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Nine talking points from NRL Round 14

Sea Eagles players react after conceding a try during the Round 13 NRL match between the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles and the North Queensland Cowboys at Lottoland in Sydney, Thursday, May 31, 2018. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)
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11th June, 2018
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The State of Origin window has well and truly arrived, but there were some stirring performances during Round 14 of the NRL season as a few more teams made their path to September tougher. Here are my talking points from the weekend that was.

And yes, before we start, I’m leaving that Titans-Rabbitohs game in the past, exactly where it should be. 30 errors – what a disaster. Hard to take anything from that.

Who can be ruled out of finals contention?
With the edge of the top eight already kicking away to be on 16 points as we enter the second half of the season, there is a very real chance the mark to qualify for the 2018 finals is again going to be 13 victories.

For this season, it’s best we use a measure of victories rather than points. In years gone by, 12 victories would equal 28 competition points, but this year, with only a single bye, it moves back to 26 competition points.

But then, if we get to 13 wins, it’ll be 28 again.

Anyway, the Broncos, even after losing to the Storm yesterday have won seven of their first 13 games, so with 11 to go, it’s a very real chance the top eight is going to move up by another six victories, which is going to make it extremely hard for teams who have started the season slowly to make headway and qualify for September.

If we were to correct the ladder, adding byes to the teams in the bottom ten who are yet to have them, here is what it would look like.

Pos. Team Points F/A Added bye points? Out of contention?
7 Cronulla Sharks 20 31 Yes
8 Wests Tigers 16 1
9 Brisbane Broncos 16 -48
10 Newcastle Knights 14 -108 Yes
11 Canberra Raiders 12 0
12 Gold Coast Titans 10 -111
13 Manly Sea Eagles 10 -40 Yes Yes
14 North Queensland Cowboys 10 -55 Yes Yes
15 Canterbury Bulldogs 8 -55 Yes
16 Parramatta Eels 8 -118 Yes Yes

At this point, it’s fairly obvious the Eels are out of contention with just three wins from 14 games. Even with a 12-win qualification mark, they would need to win nine of their last ten games – not mathematically impossible, but realistically, it is.

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The North Queensland Cowboys, given their rubbish effort on the weekend can just about join them (more on that shortly), while the Sea Eagles and Gold Coast are going to need big efforts from here on out to make the finals. The Titans don’t look to have the arsenal to get to the end of the season, and while the Sea Eagles do, they have a lot to sort out.

The other team you’d go close to writing off at this point with ten games to go per team is the Bulldogs, who, you feel, had to win today. With their bye already gone, they probably have to win eight of their last ten to make the top eight and based on what they have dished up in attack specifically, it’s just about curtains for the boys from Belmore.

Manly Sea Eagles lose

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Where to now for the Cowboys?
Speaking of teams who are going to struggle to make the eight and the most dramatic has been the Cowboys slide from pre-season premiership hopefuls to potential wooden sponers halfway through.

They lost to the last-placed Eels on Saturday night in Darwin in a game which should have suited them. The conditions were warm and North Queensland should have been suited to that against an Eels team playing without half Mitchell Moses, who picked up a knee injury last weekend.

I’ve been trying to tell myself all season long the issue with the Cowboys is just a lack of form, rather than anything more sinister, but their effort on Saturday shows there are issues in the club, not just those out on the footy field.

It’s a dramatic fall from grace for a side who last year made the grand final without their two best players for the better part of the season, but maybe not unsurprising, as age catches up with their stars who simply haven’t slotted back into the system.

Paul Green’s mettle as a coach, which was so strong during 2017 is being given a thorough working over now as well. He is refusing to make changes to a side who clearly need it, although Ben Hampton was dropped on the weekend for some unbeknown reason, given the utility has been one of the Cowboys best. By all reports, he put on a show in the Queensland Cup for the Blackhawks playing against Burleigh.

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Regardless, it’s time for a change at the Cowboys. They won’t drop Matt Scott or Johnathan Thurston, but their outside backs and rest of the pack needs rotation. One bleedingly obvious change is Coen Hess back to the bench for Ethan Lowe, with the form of the Queensland interchange second rower way off where it was 12 months ago.

North Queensland are still a strong side on paper, but now reduced to playing for pride for the rest of 2018, they must make changes and sort out the issues at the club if they are to succeed in 2019. The planning for which starts now.

North Queensland Cowboys loss to Parramatta Eels.

(AAP Image/Dan Peled)

Cameron Smith is still the best
The Storm again weren’t at their absolute best in a come-from-behind 16-point victory over the Brisbane Broncos on Sunday afternoon, but it’d be fair to say the recently representative-retired Cameron Smith put in his best performance of the season by a considerable margin.

It was evident the Storm skipper was there to play from the opening minutes. He took the reigns through his kicking game, long an underappreciated and undervalued skill. With the rest of his game standing out head and shoulders above the rest of the hookers, his kicking sometimes gets overlooked, but it helped the Strom stay in the contest at times on Sunday.

He would constantly turn the Broncos defence around from out of his own with kicks early in the count. He wasn’t neccesarily going for 40/20s, but he would always make sure Darius Boyd, Corey Oates or Jamayne Isaako (just quiely, he keeps going from strength to strength) were always bringing it off their own line and not starting sets in positive positions.

It put pressure on the Brisbane forwards to get back onside to help with the effort in getting out of their own end and also allowed the Storm defensive line to set a good chase and pin them there.

While his kicking game was the standout yesterday, he got the better of Brisbane hooker and his successor in the Queensland team Andrew McCullough in every way.

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Smith was picky about when he ran the ball, making an impression every single time and popped up to help with creativity when needed as well, as he always does.

But in a season where the Storm have been well below their best, Smith finally got his side clicking on the same page during the second 40 minutes yesterday. They started out like they have played so many other games this season and the general thought from Craig Bellamy would have been something along the lines of ‘here we go again.’

But by fulltime, they had limited their errors, defended better and won the battle of the middle and a large part of that is thanks to the work of Smith.

Cameron Smith runs the football.

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

The Dragons must play direct to succeed
While the Dragons got away with the two competition points on Monday afternoon, they have plenty to work on.

The Dragons started the game like a house on fire at Homebush. They ran the ball hard up the middle, bust the line plenty and made easy metres, bending the defensive line nearly every play in the first ten minutes.

The next 70 minutes were just a case of hang on and hope they could stay in front through, with the Red V not enjoying the same dominance up the middle which had been making life easy for their halves Gareth Widdop and Ben Hunt.

It’s a trend which has followed the Red V around this season. When the club plays well, it’s led by their forwards, and that’s hardly a surprise given the names they have on their team sheet each week. Tyson Frizzel, Jack de Belin and Tariq Sims have been among the best second rowers in the competition this season, while James Graham and Paul Vaughan have proven their worth.

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With runners like that, their strategy should be to play up the middle and bully other teams as well. They got done by the Panthers who beat them at their own game a fortnight ago though and it seemed to shake their confidence around when they went to play Canterbury, despite the good start.

At the end of the day, two points is two points, but the Red V have a lot to work on if they are going to get back to where they were at the start of the season.

St George Illawarra Dragons

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The Roosters collect two points, but must improve
Roosters fans will accuse me of being harsh against the tri-colours again, but here we go.

Beating the Knights by just two points without their best player when you have 54 per cent possession and complete 31 out of 34 sets just isn’t good enough.

While the completion rate would indicate the Roosters can take some positives out of the win (and they can), the fact they only scored three tries in 80 minutes with those sort of numbers against a team who have been defending very poorly doesn’t exactly scream premiership possibilities for Trent Robinson’s men.

Even worse was the way the Roosters failed to close out the game. When they scored directly after halftime to move ahead 16-8, it should have been a clear signal to put the foot down and kick away with the game, putting a big score on the Knights.

Instead, they crumbled and only just held onto the win, having to defend out the final play as they did against the Tigers last weekend.

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It marks two weekends in a row where the Roosters have been the better side in the contest, but haven’t made it count on the scoreboard, having to go right to the 80th minute to secure the two competition points.

While the win means they have won two in a row and are now comfortably entrenched inside the competition’s top eight, playing like they are must be frustrating for coach Robinson. He has seen what this team can do at their best, like when they belted the Warriors, but at their worst, they look poor.

That’s the biggest problem for the tri-colours though. There is simply too much of a difference between their best and worst, with inconsistency likely to kill them down the stretch this season as they gun for a premiership.

Cooper Cronk

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Is Kyle Feldt the best finisher in the NRL?
There have been some wonderful efforts from wingers in the past few weeks which have prompted this question, one which is almost impossible to give a definitive answer to.

The try provoking this question was Kyle Feldt’s miraculous effort on Saturday against the Eels in what was otherwise a pretty bleak performance against the Eels.

While Feldt is at the top of the list, there are some incredible fliers in the competition. Campbell Graham’s spectacular effort against the Sharks springs to mind, as do some of the efforts from the Warriors wingers or Nene McDonald in Round 2 against the Sharks.

Long story short, it’s expected in today’s game that wingers will be able to score from anywhere, and make anything into a try-scoring situation.

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But in terms of consistency, it’s hard to go past Feldt as the most consistently good winger in the game. He has scored the best try ever? No, probably not, with that honour belonging to either Brett Morris or David Nofoaluma for their efforts, with Morris in particular hanging upside down over the sideline to plant ball.

Feldt is there every week though, scoring tries and making defensive lines look silly. He has the plenty of golden efforts to his name already this season in a struggling Cowboys outfit and it’s hardly a surprise his name would pop up in a question like this.

Kyle Feldt North Queensland Cowboys NRL Rugby League 2017

(AAP Image/Michael Chambers)

The Warriors pack is their best asset
The Warriors have been one of the surprise packets this season, and there is absolutely no doubting that. The rugby league community keeps waiting for them to fail, but with a big win over the Sea Eagles in Christchurch on Saturday, they are still sitting on the edge of the top four and moving closer to qualifying for the finals come September.

While they were a popular pick for the wooden spoon before the season got underway, their pack have been superb in leading the way for a team who have often struggled fitness and attitude-wise on the ground in previous seasons.

They refuse to fall away, and with the form of Issac Luke continually going from strength to strength, the pack seems to be rallying around him both attack and defence. They are getting good service out of dummy half, know they have a reliable kicking game in the shape of Shaun Johnson and Blake Green and will score points if they hold enough possession and territory.

Their defence, one of the few to shut down the St George Illawarra Dragons this year has been superb. They are rushing teams, getting off the line quickly and playing with intensity from star tto finish.

Players like Tohu Harris, Isaiah Papali’i, Agnatius Passi, Sam Lisone and Bunty Afoa have all be in great form, leading the way for the Auckland-based club.

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If that continues to the end of the season and they get home ground advantage at any point in the finals, they are going to be very tough to stop.

(AAP Image/David Rowland)

Is Valentine Holmes learning how to play fullback?
The Sharks fullback conundrum has taken a backseat for the moment due to the injury Josh Dugan sustained, but the form of Valentine Holmes has helped it disappear into the background.

While he is coming off a superb performance for the Maroons in State of Origin, he backed up for the black, white and blue four days later, running another 200 metres in a huge performance against the Tigers as Cronulla got back into the winner’s circle.

The greatest part of Holmes game this year has been his ability to transfer between positions. While the first month were more or less forgettable, he then got moved to the wing, reminded everyone he is the best in that position, then got back into the groove of playing fullback and his last two cracks at it have been high quality.

There is no question the creativity of Holmes makes him a solid fullback and probably, team balance-wise, the best option for the Sharks, but it’s hard when his personal best position is undoubtedly on the wing.

He is working hard to change that and make fullback his best position, but if he becomes the best fullback in the side, there is nearly no doubt Cronulla will improve, with Josh Dugan proving himself in the centres time and time again at rep level. His combination with a ball-playing Holmes or Matt Moylan on the inside could prove deadly.

Valentine Holmes

(Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

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The Raiders do it again
I would absolutely hate to be a Raiders fans. I don’t know how they do it.

Consisntently, their team find ways to be the worst team in the competition during the final 20 minutes, giving up games they look to be in positions to win.

It’s not the first season this has happened and it doesn’t seem to matter what personnel they have at the club, it’s the same result season after season.

Friday night’s loss to the Penrith Panthers, with a slew of bad decisions in the second half was just another in a long list of games the Raiders have squandered which will ultimately cost them a spot in the top eight at the end of the season if they can’t find a way to turn it around.

You look back to losses like those against Manly or the Dragons this year and just shake your head. Close but not quite there in the final 20 minutes seems to be the way for the Green Machine. In a team with enough talent to be well inside the eight and with a pack who knows how to hold their own, the week-in, week-out, mind-meddling madness they dish up simply isn’t good enough.

Roarers, what did you make of Round 14? Drop a comment below and let us know.