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Eleven talking points from NRL Round 15

Daniel Tupou of the Roosters celebrates with team mates after scoring a try during the Round 15 NRL match between the Sydney Roosters and the Penrith Panthers at Allianz Stadium in Sydney, Friday, June 15, 2018. (AAP Image/Brendon Thorne)
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17th June, 2018
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It’s been a weekend of big games – games which could well go a long way to deciding the top eight – with some surprising scorelines ensuring there is plenty to talk about heading into the rep weekend break. Here are all the big points from Round 15.

There is nothing magical about the NRL’s magic weekend
Okay, so it didn’t exactly happen on the field, but it sure did happen. The NRL’s worst-kept secret was confirmed on Sunday morning at a press conference in Brisbane, with Todd Greenberg announcing it will be played next season during May.

All eight games at one stadium has worked quite well in the English Super League, but the NRL have got the concept all wrong in the way they are going about trying to replicate it.

First things first – how on Earth is the Suncorp Stadium turf going to handle eight games in a week? It’s going to be at a very similar time of year to the one where there were problems with the ground this year. There was a reason, something about the sun not getting onto certain parts of the ground for long enough during winter, but newsflash – these games are going to be played during, yep, you guessed it, winter.

So how the ground holds up for eight games in a weekend is anyone’s guess. When a player inevitably goes down on the Sunday afternoon with injury due to the turf, what sort of compensation will be offered? How does that team then cope without a star for the next six weeks?

Sure, injuries can happen anywhere, but they shouldn’t happen due to a dodgy ground.

Of course, that’s not the only problem with the so-called ‘magic weekend.’ The whole idea of putting 16 teams in the one place is to expand the game – to introduce a new audience.

With the NRL on the cusp of expansion in the coming years, this would be an ideal opportunity to find out if there was a real desire to have a professional team in say, Perth, Adelaide or Wellington. Taking one game there and getting a decent crowd doesn’t count, but doing it three days in a row sure would.

The argument of not taking it to an expansion area is that it’s ‘risky.’ Let me tell you, it’s risky taking the weekend to Brisbane, particularly with it already being announced the Broncos will play on Friday evening.

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It might be a rip-roaring success, but I, along with many others, have doubts about exactly how many people will or won’t show up for the games on Saturday or Sunday.

I sincerely hope this goes well, but there are so many risks and roadblocks standing in the way, it’s hard to see this as a positive step.

Suncorp Stadium

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

The Roosters make an emphatic statement
It’s becoming extremely difficult to get a read on where the Sydney Roosters are really at this season.

15 rounds in, and they have gone from high to low and back again multiple times. It’s an absolute roller-coaster ride at the moment, with the side putting in one of their best performances yet to smash the high-flying Panthers on the weekend.

It doesn’t make sense though that, the previous two weeks, they were pushed to the final seconds of matches against the Wests Tigers and Newcastle Knights, with a spluttering attack and defensive line which could was being breached far too easily.

Their consistency is down the toilet and it’s an area coach Trent Robinson must address, but at their best, they are going to be hard to stop when we get to the finals. At the moment, it’s ensuring they a) get to the finals and b) can string together three or four fantastic games in a row to end up where they were supposed to be this year – in the grand final and holding the trophy aloft on the final Saturday in September.

While it’s far from disastrous yet for the Roosters, their win against the Panthers needs to spark a run through the second half of the season. They have a tendency to drift in and out of games, but playing like they did on Friday, will beat most teams.

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A frustrating one for tri-colours fans right at the moment.

The Roosters celebrate during their win over the Panthers.

(AAP Image/Brendon Thorne)

Why are Manly so conservative?
An interesting trend I’m starting to notice in the Sea Eagles is their trait of taking the conservative option far too often.

While the current NRL rules make kicking into the in goal dangerous, with the potential of giving away a seven-tackle set, their preference more often than not seems to be simply to bang the ball over the sideline when in attacking possessions and ensure the opposition have to work it out of the corner.

It was evident to see again during the first half against the Dragons. There are at least three occasions I can think of off the top of my head where an attacking kick could have been used, but they instead simply decided to play the possession and territory game.

Now, there is nothing wrong with playing the territory and possession game if they were under the pump, but they do it so many times when they have the other team under the pump.

The reason could be anything, but surely it’s not what Trent Barrett tells his troops to do in the pre-match?

It’s almost as if Daly Cherry-Evans, who had one of the best short kicking games in the competition last year, doesn’t feel confident in his own ability anymore without Blake Green lining up next to him in the halves.

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Even if he proved what he could do when the Sea Eagles threw the kitchen sink at the Dragons in the first half, they may never have been in that position with an extra try or two during the first half, which, again, while risky, could have been created with the aforementioned talents of Cherry-Evans.

The gameplan on the attack needs tweaking for Manly, because they aren’t going to win a heap of games if they continue to play conservatively during the first half when on the attack.

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Melbourne’s experience will count for plenty in September
The Storm still were a long way from their best on Sunday afternoon as they ran up an 18-point win over the Knights, but their experience counted for plenty in windy conditions.

Playing into a gale during the first half, they managed to split possession with the Knights and play the game down their attacking end of the field more often than not.

While it took a deflection from a grubber and run away try from Josh Addo-Carr to break them down and take a lead into the sheds, they would have been more than happy to settle for a tied scoreline at the break.

The Storm then had to fight back early in the second half as the Knights started dominantly, but with the wind at their back, the control of Cameron Smith was evident to see. For a second straight week, his kicking game out of dummy half was pin-point accurate and it had Newcastle on the back foot more often than not.

Cameron Munster and Ryley Jacks are both playing well above their experience level suggests, but that’s down to the players they have supporting them.

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Smith was on the park today, but throw Billy Slater and Jess Bromwich back into the side, as well as Will Chambers, who plays inside Josh Addo-Carr out wide, along with Ryan Hoffman and you start to get an idea about just how much the Storm have going for them.

It would take a very brave man to write Melbourne off, despite their up and down form over the first half of the season.

Cameron Smith runs the football.

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Josh Hodgson has the potential to turn the Raiders season around
Well, that’s what the Raiders have been missing in 2018.

They have been in contests, let themselves down in the final 20 minutes of games and put in some poor performances, but the spark and energy returning hooker Josh Hodgson was able to provide them was a key catalyst in their big win over the Tigers.

His return has been long-anticipated by coach Ricky Stuart and his team, with the side struggling to break into the top eight, but after their big win away from home over the Tigers, it now looks like Canberra have the missing piece of the puzzle.

You have to remember how good Hodgson was in 2016 on their run to the preliminary final to realise exactly how good the English hooker can be.

His energy, running game, creativity and defensive awareness has been a key for the Raiders ever since he signed with the club and will need to be over the final 11 rounds if they are to go on a big run of victories and crack the finals.

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While it’s looked like the Raiders were a long way from the top eight, based on how they were throwing games into the bin week after week, having Hodgson back seemed to lift the whole club. Even though it’s hard to judge after just one week, the Raiders will be a much more dangerous team from this day forward.

So good was Hodgson’s performance, you wonder if it’s seven months or seven days he has missed.

Shaun Johnson’s kicking game could be the difference for the Warriors
While the work of Blake Green sometimes goes under the radar for the Auckland-based club, Johnson’s kicking game as they held the Cowboys at bay on Friday night didn’t.

The Warriors have had a very tough time of it in Townsville throughout history, with the club winning just a handful of games in nearly 20 attempts, so even against a struggling Cowboys outfit, it was going to be a tough assisngment on Friday.

But Johnson controlled the game for all but the first 20 mintues. The New Zealand half had a heavy hand in nearly everything, involved in all of the Warriors three tries during the first half as they built a lead, before he ensured the Cowboys back three had to work it out of their own end nearly every single time.

It’s normally the role of Blake Green to play the organiser, but Johnson proved he can do that and more against the Cowboys, as he found a fantastic mix between aggression and conservatism.

In the end, his kicking game was almost undoubtedly the difference between the two sides. Sure, they were only playing a poor Cowboys unit, but if the Warriors are to maintain their spot in the top four and go deep into the finals, Johnson is the key.

Shaun Johnson runs the football.

(AAP Image/SNPA, Martin Hunter)

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The Bulldogs may not win again in 2018
Houston, we have a problem.

I feel sorry for Canterbury fans. This has never happened before and probably never will again, but it goes to show just what a dire state the club is really in as we head into the second half of the season.

The books are in a bad state, as we all too well know, but they look broken on the field. The only player who did anything good in their loss to the Gold Coast Titans on Saturday, Moses Mbye is now off to Tigers as well, having played his last game in the blue and white.

They were dysfunctional on the weekend though, and have been for much of the season, despite a somewhat gallant effort against competition leaders the Dragons on the Queens Birthday public holidays.

There can be no excuses for how poorly they are playing on the field. Contracts and where they most with the 2019 salary cap is one thing, but to conceed 32 points at Belmore – their spiritual home – to a team barely scoring 18 per game coming into the contest simply isn’t up to NRL standard.

Dean Pay can chop and change his team all he likes in the coming weeks, but the bottom line is this.

Canterbury’s season is done. They must, for the second season in a row, begin preparations for the next early. But then, how can they do that when they don’t know who will be at the club, who won’t be at the club and whether they have any money to sign anyone at all?

It’s an impossible task for the Bulldogs board, but the way they played on Saturday with no sign of the off-field issues abating would suggest they are in a spot where they may not win again this year.

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Dean Pay

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Cronulla are their own worst enemy
Would you believe it if I told you the Sharks were the better team against Brisbane, but lost cause of their errors?

Well, of course you would, because it’s a narrative which has followed Cronulla around like a bad smell ever since the start of their premiership defence in 2017.

While it seemed to be disappearing at points this year, even their run of six straight wins was littered with mistakes at times.

They really struggled on Saturday, making 12 errors as they invited the Broncos back into the game time and time again. They looked the more threatening of the two teams and had opportunities to score time and time again, but butchered them, their execution way off.

While the Sharks have always got by on their reputation of having a gritty defence which won’t let anyone in, there is only so much it can do, and it was eventually cracked by Wayne Bennett’s side.

It means Shane Flanagan’s side, who had won six straight, have now lost two of their last three and are back on the cusp of the eight, urgently needing to get back to basics and post a win after the bye when they make a tough trip to Auckland.

Euan Aitken has the potential to become the best centre in the game
Now, before the Broncos, Roosters, Rabbitohs and whichever other fans with a gun centre start to have a major crack in the comments, just hear me out.

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Aitken will never have the flashy attacking still of James Roberts or Latrell Mitchell. He will never have the speed or acceleration and that’s just a fact of live. He doesn’t have the genetics and fast-twitch muscle fibres of the other duo.

But what he does have is an excellent footy mind, a brilliant IQ on the game and strength. By the bucketload.

Some of the defensive plays Aitken has managed to pull off in his short career are simply fantastic. His attack has also been good this year, with the Dragons centre having eight tries and more than 100 metres per game to his name, to go with 40 tackle busts and nine offloads.

Just this weekend, he was involved in a stunning try saver with fullback Matt Dufty on the much larger Joel Thompson and while nothing stood out in his attacking game, he has been consistent all season long.

While injuries have spoilt the last two seasons for the youngster from Wollongong, he has remained healthy this year and it was little wonder he was in the Origin conversation – an arena he will no doubt one step foot in.

For now though, he will continue to be one of the Dragons best, week in and week out as he continues to grow his staus in the game.

Euan Aitken and Matt Dufty celebrate a try.

(AAP Image/Darren England).

Should South Sydney be worried by their first half?
In short, probably not.

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The long version though is that the Rabbitohs have four players playing in State of Origin and took far too long to find their feet in an eventual win over the Eels.

While they came away with a win and all four players found their stride eventually – with Damien Cook, Greg Inglis, Dane Gagai and Angus Crichton given a chance to rest last week in their win over the Titans – the problem arises from the fact the effect of Origin isn’t going to get any better as we move further through the series.

The obvious fatigue and slow start-up will only worsen their effort over the coming weeks, and the Rabbitohs will be hoping and praying it doesn’t have a negligible effect on the rest of the season.

It shouldn’t, but it has done so before. It’s derailed teams who looked certain for the top four before the Origin window (trust me, I’m a Dragons supporter – I understand these things). It’s not as if the Rabbitohs won’t have their protocols in place to ensure it doesn’t happen, but a shorter came leading into Origin 2 followed by the expectation those four players will play could hurt, as it will for whichever state loses the series.

We shouldn’t be death-riding the Rabbitohs, but we should be cautious about being too optimistic for a side who weren’t expected to be top four material this year, but, along with the rest of the top four, unexpectedly find themselves sitting there.

Greg Inglis

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Will the Tigers squeeze into the top eight?
After being thumped by the Raiders on Sunday afternoon, the answer, frankly, is starting to look a lot like no.

They are sitting outside the top eight now, four points behind the eighth-placed Broncos. The game against the Raiders was something of a four-point turnaround, as the Green Machine replace the Tigers in ninth spot.

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It’s been something of a strange season for Wests. They have been up, down and all around. It might have been a strong start to the season, but the wheels have officially fallen off the Ivan Cleary bus at this point in time.

Their defence, which they prided themselves on at the start of the season – and did a good job of doing so it should be added – has fallen to bits. They let in almost 50 on the weekend and are now right on the back foot.

While the finals are far from gone, realism has to come into the equation. They were never expected to make the finals before the season started and don’t look like doing so now.

It’s almost time to put a line through the Tigers unless they come out of the bye spitting fire.

Roarers, what did you make of Round 15?