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Your NRL team sucks. Here’s why

The Raiders desperately missed Josh Hodgson in 2018. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)
Expert
15th August, 2018
111

While Ivan Cleary’s orange and black-striped bus still has a chance of rolling into the finals, there are now seven teams actively planning their Mad Monday activities for September 3.

Each of these sides started the year with at least a sense of optimism, some feeling that they could be there when the whips were cracking.

So why did it all go wrong?

North Queensland Cowboys

Currently propping up the ladder and in danger of winning the fourth wooden spoon in their 24-year history – and first since 2000 – the Cowboys have followed up last year’s fairytale run to the grand final with a stinker.

I, like many others, thought they’d be premiership contenders for sure. How wrong I was.

What went wrong?
After winning their first-up lash against the Sharks, North Queensland then lost five straight games, and have only managed to win four matches since.

Their only big loss was to the Raiders, by 24 points, the majority coming by fewer than two converted tries, which must be hard to swallow for the fans of a side that has been so good at winning the close ones.

The Cows got hit pretty badly by the injury fairy, losing prize forward recruit Jordan McLean in Round 4. When Michael Morgan was ruled out for the season from Round 12, things were dire.

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To compound this, many players’ form deserted them. Matt Scott hasn’t had the impact he used to, Justin O’Neill was dropped to Reggies for poor form, and Ethan Lowe has been there with him or on the bench. Jake Granville has gone cold and Lachlan Coote, well apparently he’s possibly off to England. Further, Coen Hess has not had nearly the same impact starting as he had off the bench last season.

All this has meant that Paul Green’s side hasn’t had the go-forward needed for a backline to operate effectively behind. However, the major issue that people have been espousing is that their talismanic leader, Johnathan Thurston, has gone one season too far and is a shadow of his former brilliance.

Johnathan Thurston

Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

Watching him, it does seem that the fire has gone out.

In 2016 – his last full season – JT had 26 try assists to his name over 23 games played. That hasn’t dropped too much, it is 21 so far this season, but what has dropped is his willingness to take on the line. In 2016 he ran the ball an average of 6.8 times a game, breaking 1.8 tackles and making six line breaks. This year he is down to 4.1 runs for 1.1 tackle breaks and two line breaks. He doesn’t pose the danger with the ball in hand he once did.

What’s more, he is making far more errors – for the whole of 2016, he had 23 to his name, but this season he already has 40.

And since Round 12 there has been no Morgan to back him up.

Will it improve in 2019?
Almost certainly. Morgan will be back and fresh to lead the side around, joined by the best wrecking ball in the game, Jason Taumololo. Hess will have another year under his belt and McLean is a star.

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Further, assuming he doesn’t get poached by the Broncos, there is coaching stability with Green at the helm.

Prediction
Expect them to challenge for the finals in 2019

Parramatta Eels

After storming into the 2017 top four, many thought the Eels might be on the cusp of a successful era. Jarryd Hayne was signed, Clint Gutherson would be back and the team would still be a force.

It didn’t work out that way though.

They lost the first six matches straight by an aggregate score of 152-46, which included an absolute thumping in Round 2 at Brookvale, when Brad Arthur inexplicably had his men ‘warm up’ for 30 minutes in 40-degree heat, while the Sea Eagles stayed in their air-conditioned change room.

While they won six of their next 15, with a vastly increased aggregate of 308-290, the season was already gone.

Rumours of discontent started circling, questioning the coach’s position, his relationship with playmaker Corey Norman, and there was focus on Mitchell Moses’ particular methods of motivating his forwards to play the ball quickly.

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So what went wrong?
Gutherson didn’t return from injury until Round 6. Kenny Edwards had another brain explosion and was cut. Nathan Brown got injured, as did Beau Scott, who subsequently retired. Hayne failed to have the hoped-for impact, in fact drawing lots of criticism.

And, of course, Semi Radradra was not there. Without the big unit on the wing, the Eels’ scoring dried up.

They have the second fewest line breaks in 2018 and Norman and Moses are the third-worst try-assisting halves combination in the NRL this year, while missing an average of 5.3 tackles a game between them.

Parra have been forced to take more dropouts than any others side, averaging two a game, and have had eight players sin-binned, which is the equal highest in the league.

Not much has gone right. The only decent upside is that there are just three games to go until the pain is over.

Parramatta Eels

The Eels won’t be playing finals footy (AAP Image/Craig Golding)

Will it improve in 2019?
One can only hope so. Junior Paulo returning will give them much needed grunt but I don’t see too much changing really.

Prediction
It could be yet another bottom-four finish coming up.

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Canterbury Bulldogs
What the hell did Dean Pay do to deserve this homecoming? The club has been beset by issue after issue.

The salary cap debacle saw them lose James Graham and Josh Reynolds before the season started, new recruit Aaron Woods failed to set the world on fire – although he did get a very funny haircut – then was shipped out to the Sharks pre June 30, while Moses Mbye also left to go to the Wests Tigers.

When Kieran Foran was ruled out for the season with injury and David Klemmer started talking about leaving the Kennel, I was wondering just how much worse it could get.

So what went wrong?
Apart from the above? Well, unsurprisingly the Dogs only won one of their first five games and only three of their first 14. They have scored the fewest tries of any side this season and have made the least line breaks. They also concede more metres per match than any other side.

The Dogs of War have been pretty toothless this season.

Dean Pay

Bulldogs coach Dean Pay. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Will it improve in 2019?
This is Canterbury we are talking about: a proud club that fights hardest when they are down.

And there have been some bright spots – Rhyse Martin has been a real find and Lachlan Lewis looks to have plenty of promise. Add to that David Klemmer is a superb player, as is Josh Jackson, and they’ll dig their way out.

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Prediction
Just miss out on the eight in 2019.

Gold Coast Titans

The Titans have been up against it from day one when they entered the comp in 2007. In those 12 seasons, they’ve only made the finals three times and won’t make it again this year.

With a new coach in Garth Brennan, and a few good signings before the season, it didn’t look too bad. And when they stole the Round 1 game against the Raiders, it seemed that they might be alright.

So what went wrong?
The Gold Coast then followed up that unlikely victory with only two victories from the next nine games and the season was over. They suffered regular injuries and suspensions, including Ryan James, Jai Arrow and Jarrod Wallace. Further, Kane Elgey and Konrad Hurrell completely lost form.

And best we not even discuss Bryce Cartwright.

In spite of what looks like a really solid pack on paper, the Titans average the second-worst metres gained this season and their tackle breaks are the worst of any side. Their average completion rate of just 73 per cent is also the worst in the NRL.

Their errors are only just second worst to the Cowboys and their penalties conceded are also the second worst. Their line breaks conceded, at a massive six per game, are the worst I can remember seeing for a side in the last ten seasons. Their second-highest rate of missed tackles supports that stat.

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Bryce Cartwright

Bryce Cartwright (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Will it improve in 2019?
Well, Elgey and Cartwright are going and Tyrone Peachey is arriving with big Shannon Boyd, which should improve things.

Alex Brimson looks a great prospect and their wingers, Phillip Sami and Anthony Don, are absolute quality. And, as I said, a front row of Jarrod Wallace, Nathan Peats and Ryan James is pretty damn good.

Add Arrow, Boyd, Kevin Proctor and Ash Taylor and there are the makings of a very good side – especially if Brenko Lee and Konrad Hurrell can achieve their undoubted potential.

Prediction
I’m calling it. Titans will make the finals in 2019.

Manly Sea Eagles

It has been a rough year for the Brookvale boys and their faithful. Their punishment for breaking the salary cap started to hit, and will continue to hamstring them for a couple of years. The Jackson Hastings scandal didn’t help matters, nor did their trip to the Gladstone strip club.

Now coach Trent Barrett is quitting at season’s end and they still may get their first-ever wooden spoon.

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So what went wrong?
The biggest problem has been injuries, losing Curtis Sironen, Kelepi Tanginoa, Lachlan Croker, Aku Uate and Apisai Koroisau to season-enders in a year when their list just couldn’t cover those losses. Dylan Walker provoking Curtis Scott until the latter busted his face wasn’t ideal either.

While Daly Cherry-Evan and Tom and Jake Trbojevic have battled valiantly, aided well by Martin Taupau, Joel Thompson and Shaun Lane, it hasn’t been enough.

They’ve suffered six 20-plus-point losses and only won seven of their 21 games.

There aren’t too many bad stats to examine here – most are mediocre at worst, with some quite good. Oddly, with Turbo Tom at the back, Manly have the second-worst kick-return metres in the NRL this year. However, the really bad statistics are that they average the second-highest points conceded, with 24.4 a game, as well as the second most tries conceded.

Tom Trbojevic

Tom Trbojevic (AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)

Will it improve in 2019?
If they get themselves a coach and some injured players back, it must improve. I’m not sure how much assistance Kane Elgey or Bryce Cartwright will provide, but a fit Api Koroisau and Curtis Sironen will surely help a lot. Pity they are losing Shaun Lane.

Prediction
Another tough year on the Northern Beaches in 2019.

Newcastle Knights

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Watching Kalyn Ponga play this year I really had to wonder what the Cowboys were thinking in letting him go and, once he had signed elsewhere, not really playing him much in 2017.

He has been a revelation for the Knights. At just 20 years of age his best is surely ahead of him and it is going to be good.

However, even the arrival of Ponga, Mitchell Pearce, Aidan Guerra and Herman Ese’ese couldn’t get the Knights to the finals.

So what went wrong?
Injuries really hurt. Pearce’s bicep put a handbrake on the year, as did Slade Griffin’s knee. Nathan Ross has been in and out, while Jacob Lillyman – well, he’s 33 now.

Their list has improved out of sight, but a lot more work needs to be done.

And that work needs to be in defence. The Knights are the worst points and try conceding side in the NRL. Further, they’ve conceded the second-highest metres per match, just being shaded by the Bulldogs. They are also fourth-worst for points scored and average the fewest metres per game. Their tackle breaks are the second lowest as well.

Oddly, their completion and error rates are excellent… Go figure.

Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce.

AAP Image/Darren Pateman

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Will it improve in 2019?
Not necessarily, but if the team can stay fit and attract a few more players, they might go better. If they don’t, Nathan Brown might be looking for work.

Prediction
About the same in 2019.

Canberra Raiders

If the 2017 season was a disappointment for the Green Machine, then this one has been a travesty. For fans it’s been a recurring nightmare. The team has so much potential but totally failed to realise it in 2018.

So what went wrong?
When marquee player Josh Hodgson did his ACL playing for England in the World Cup, the NRL refused to give the Raiders any cap relief to enable them to sign Irish hooker Mickey McIllorum, who played so well in the global tournament.

Siliva Havili tried his best but an assortment of players in the number 14 jersey didn’t quite work out. The Raiders really missed Hodgson. By the time he returned, the season was already on a knifeedge. Canberra lacked poise in pressure situations, losing seven games by six points or fewer, and five times they lost after leading by ten points or more.

Stats dug up a few rounds ago showed that if games only went 60 minutes, Ricky Stuart’s team would be top of the ladder. And that is the problem: too many players unable to play 80 minutes.

Junior Paulo and Shannon Boyd only are capable of 40 minutes and if required to do more become extreme defensive liabilities. And their impact with ball in hand just hasn’t been good enough to compensate.

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Jack Wighton’s suspension and Jarrod Croker’s injury exposed a lack of depth in the backline that crippled any hope the season had.

The Raiders have the highest average points scored and tries scored in 2018, but they also have the fourth highest points and tries conceded. They are also the worst penalty conceding side.

Will it improve in 2019?
Yes. The arrival of Ryan Sutton and John Bateman from Wigan will add versatility, big minutes and depth.

Further, the Green Machine are really due some luck.

Prediction
A return to the finals in 2019.