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We are now past the midway point of the NRL and with the regular season pausing for this weekend thanks to the representative weekend, let’s take the time to look back at the first half of the season.
After fifteen rounds, the St George Illawarra Dragons lead the way with 24 competition points, followed by the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Penrith Panthers and New Zealand Warriors, who each have 22 competition points.
Perennial finalist the Melbourne Storm are fifth, while the Sydney Roosters, Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks and Brisbane Broncos round out the right, while the Eels prop up the ladder with only three wins so far in 2018.
The Dragons, who have an 11-3 record, entered this season as the team to watch after landing the prized signatures of James Graham and Ben Hunt during the off-season.
Their arrivals were expected to help bolster the club, which started last season strongly only to crash and burn and eventually miss the finals after losing to the Bulldogs in the last round.
It marked the fifth time in the past six years in which they were absent from September, while the club has not won a finals match since winning the 2010 premiership under the coaching of Wayne Bennett.
But true to form, so far this year they have performed well above expectations, defeating the Broncos, Storm, Roosters and Sharks (twice) but also losing to fellow top four teams the Rabbitohs, Panthers and Warriors.
The most recent of those losses, against the Panthers in Round 12, was quite easily their worst performance of the season but it came against another very good side that has also exceeded expectations in 2018.
After the off-season from hell, during which they lost their captain Matt Moylan, many predicted the mountain men would fall out of the top eight and their coach Anthony Griffin would be the first coach to be sacked.
However, after landing the signature of James Maloney in return for Moylan, the Panthers have surprised many in 2018 and briefly took the premiership lead in Round 12 before suffering a reality check against the Roosters in Round 15, losing by 32-6.
Maloney was left to captain the mountain men against the side whom he guided to the 2013 premiership, following the sudden retirement of veteran Peter Wallace due to a series of persistent injuries.
The recently-turned 32-year-old has formed a lethal halves partnership with Nathan Cleary and both were rewarded for their good club form with selection for New South Wales in the opening Origin game.
With eleven rookies in the side – the most by either state since Queensland fielded ten debutants in 2001 – the Blues won by 22-12 and have the chance to clinch just their second series win since 2005 this Sunday night at ANZ Stadium (a preview of the second game will be provided later this week).
After two years out of the finals, the South Sydney Rabbitohs have rediscovered the attacking flair that was a highlight of their 2014 premiership win, the 380 points they have scored so far this season the most of any side and 29 points more than the second-best side, the Dragons.
Captain Greg Inglis has made an impressive return from the knee injury which sidelined him for all but one match in 2017, while former captain John Sutton, the Burgess brothers and Damien Cook have also impressed as the side continues its revolution under first-year coach Anthony Seibold.
They have won their last seven matches, and with five straight games at ANZ Stadium to follow after their club bye in Round 17, they are well-positioned to claim a double chance in September.
The one club not many expected to be in the top four, let alone the top eight, are the New Zealand Warriors.
Widely tipped to take out the wooden spoon, the perennial underachievers have instead surprised even their most loyal fans with the way they have gone about their business in 2018.
They started the season with six wins out of their first seven matches, including defeating the Roosters and Dragons in rounds four and seven respectively, but have occasionally fallen back to old habits, as evidenced in heavy losses to the Storm and Roosters (at home in Round 10).
Last Friday night, they defeated the Cowboys for the second time this season and all but certainly sentenced the 2015 premiers to miss the finals for the first time since 2010.
After qualifying for last year’s grand final from eighth place, Paul Green’s side have proven to be the biggest disappointment of this season, winning just four matches to currently be languishing in 13th place on the ladder.
Many have suggested that co-captain Johnathan Thurston, who will retire at season’s end, went on one season too late after a serious shoulder injury suffered nearly twelve months ago left him stranded on 299 NRL games.
If he had not suffered that injury last season, which saw him miss his side’s Cinderella run to the grand final, he would have played his 300th game and would probably be retired now.
The 35-year-old would eventually notch up the milestone against the Sharks in Round 1 but other than that, the season has been a forgettable one for the Cowboys and their fans, and it is inevitable the game’s greatest player will not bow out of the game with a third premiership medallion.
Instead, the club faces the prospect of being absent from September for the first time since 2010, when only the Melbourne Storm’s salary cap scandal saved them from the embarrassment of the wooden spoon.
It would also be the first time the club misses the finals under the coaching of Paul Green.
Three clubs that almost certainly won’t be participating in September are the Sea Eagles, Bulldogs and Eels, who have all disappointed to a degree in 2018.
The Sea Eagles and Bulldogs are coming off recent losses to the Dragons, and the Eels, despite a recent good record against the Red V, could be next when they head down to Wollongong on June 28.
With favourite son Jarryd Hayne back at the club, many expected the Eels to build on last year’s effort in which they reached the finals for the first time since 2009 and lasted until the second week.
Instead, the weight of the Hayne Plane has proven to be fatal with the club having propped up the ladder since Round 2, when it was thrashed by the Sea Eagles by 54-0 at Lottoland.
They showed signs of the good football it is capable of producing in its Round 14 win over the Cowboys in Darwin, but old habits returned when they were beaten 42-24 by the Rabbitohs in their last outing.
If things don’t improve for the better, then the club could end up with a third wooden spoon in seven years, and it would be a massive fall from grace for a club many expected to be contending for the premiership this year.
Wooden spooners for the past three seasons, the Newcastle Knights, have shown signs of improvement in 2018, but their progress has been impeded by the absence of halfback Mitchell Pearce, who has been sidelined since Round 7 with a pectoral injury.
The former NSW halfback had made an impact on the success-starved side, kicking the match-winning field goal in an opening round golden point heart-stopper against the Sea Eagles and sparking scenes not seen in Newcastle since the 2001 grand final.
After winning five of their opening eight matches, the Knights proceeded to lose five of their next six, but have the chance to get things back on track when they host the Bulldogs at the end of this month.
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Salary cap dramas have weighed down on the men from Belmore to the point where they have recently released fullback Moses Mbye, while Aaron Woods will also almost certainly leave the club barely a quarter into a four-year deal with the Bulldogs.
Woods has failed to deliver for the blue and whites, which is a stark contrast to the man he replaced in the club’s front row, James Graham, who swapped out blue for red and has led the Dragons to the top of the ladder.
There is no doubt Bulldogs fans won’t be happy seeing their bitter rivals from Kogarah top the standings, while their own side remains locked in a fight to avoid the wooden spoon.
As for Graham, well, he’s enjoying the last laugh.
Those are just some of the stories that have been told in the first half of the NRL season, and there will no doubt be more questions asked as September draws closer.
Can the Dragons continue to maintain their place on top of the ladder and eventually take out their first premiership since 2010? Can the Rabbitohs and Warriors prove they are the real deal? And can Parramatta eventually find some spark to move off the bottom of the ladder?
All those questions, and more, will be asked when the first-placed Dragons face the last-placed Eels at WIN Stadium in Wollongong on June 28, following the representative weekend during which the second State of Origin will take place.