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We have another round in the books and with just two to go, the top eight appears to be finally settled, but picking a premiership winner is just about impossible. Here are my talking points from Round 23.
How should we feel about the Tigers 2018 season?
When wrapping a teams season, it’s always important to go back and look at what the pre-season expectations were.
While the Tigers finished with nothing more than a whimper and will come back to regret some very poor performances in the final month of the season, the expectations on Ivan Cleary’s side were virtually none.
Most would have said before the season began if the Tigers avoided the spoon or escaped the bottom four, it would have been something of a decent season.
Instead, they had plenty of high moments and probably got fans hopes up early in the season when they beat teams like the Roosters and Storm. At one point, they were five from six and living the good life, seemingly destined for September footy.
But then, it all fell apart.
It’s hard for a team to maintain a bash and barge style for 25 weeks of footy at the highest level (just ask Dragons fans), and the Tigers have found out the hard way.
Unlike the Dragons though, they haven’t looked all that tired or gassed. It’s clear off-field coaching rumours have hit the club, as well as a lack of form on it.
It’s their inconsistency which is most frustrating though. Losses to the Bulldogs in Round 20 and on Saturday to the Dragons just about sum things up.
With their season on the line and in front of a sold out crowd at Leichhardt, the Tigers simply couldn’t hang onto the ball. After dominating the first half, they should have cruised into the halftime break with a huge lead, not being behind on the scoreboard.
It was frankly embarrassing. Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall are back, but they have been rocks and diamonds playing on the back of a forward pack who seem to know how to get the job done, but again, not with any consistency.
Their creativity breaks down in attack and with defensive lapses, Ivan Cleary must be pulling his hair out.
Again, it has to be taken relatively. They outperformed pre-season expectations, but Farah and Marshall aren’t going to get any younger, so there are some big decisions needing to be made over the off-season, because anything less than a finals appearance next year won’t be good enough.
Of course, the Warriors could still capitulate this year and leave it mathematically possible, but the top eight is as good as set in stone now.
We must fix the sin bin mess
Let me get something very clear before I go any further – the sin bin being used is a very good thing. Players being put there because of professional fouls or repeated indiscretions is what the game needs.
What the game doesn’t need is fans, players and coaches not knowing the process to be sent to the bin. What it also doesn’t need is players taking a month of Sundays to reach the sideline.
Let’s start with the first of those gripes.
It seems the requirements for a player to be sent to the sin bin because of repeated infringements are differing from game to game, referee to referee.
No one has any idea, quite frankly. The three penalties principle is fine, but within what time frame? At what distance to the line? Does the warning then carry the whole way down the field? Does the warning carry over an extended period of time?
One minute it seems to, the next it doesn’t. The inconsistency in putting players in the bin is absolutely mind boggling and at this rate, will absolutely cost a team when we get to the semi-finals.
While that’s a blight on the game, it’s got nothing compared to players taking about three and a half weeks to get off the field.
Cameron Munster’s performance on Friday night for the Storm was particularly ridiculous. He walked up the sideline, not even five metres from it, all the way to halfway, then stopped for a few seconds before finally taking the final few steps over it so the game could get back underway.
It’s becoming blatantly obvious that this needs fixing.
When one of the keys to drawing fans and TV ratings is pace of the game and how long the ball is in play for, having the clock stopped for 30 seconds is not good.
There are ways to fix it. Adding time to a players sin bin would be a reasonable start, but the ultimate is probably sending said player off if they don’t at least attempt to jog from the field. That will get them, and the game moving quick smart.
Will the real favourites please stand up?
This competition is so intriguing right now.
The NRL’s top eight race might have been more or less over for weeks (with the exception of one spot), but the race for top eight positions and form heading into the finals is anything but.
Just when you thought the Roosters and Rabbitohs were run away favourites, it no longer appears to be the case.
More on individual clubs and their respective plights later, but this competition is just so unpredictable at the moment.
I think that’s shown up in a majority of people’s tipping records. They are going from bad to worse over the last fortnight, with teams from outside the top eight winning, teams in the top eight not looking anything like their further self and picking a premiership winner about as useful as throwing darts at a board.
The Chooks loss to the Raiders sends them hurtling in the wrong direction again, while the Rabbitohs loss to the Broncos raises questions. The Panthers are all over the shop and who knows about the Dragons, Warriors, Broncos and Sharks.
It leaves one club – the Storm. They have so much experience and in a competition with no clear favourite, the reigning premiers almost become favourites by default.
But in saying that, there are no favourites. September is going to be incredibly difficult to tip, but as a fan, bring it on!
The Panthers sacked the wrong man starting with G and will struggle in September
I’m not going to stand here and proclaim Anthony Griffin is the right man to coach the Panthers, but he is far from the wrong man.
Given he has been there all year, the decision to send him packing a month from the finals was madness.
He has done a good job with Penrith over the years. Often struggling with injuries and inexperience on his roster, to have the men from the foot of the mountains challenging for a top four spot this year was a mighty fine effort.
Obviously, for him to be sacked, there had to be problems, but there is now no way in the world we can stand here and say he was the only problem at the inconsistent club.
Since he was sacked, the Panthers required two tries in five minutes and golden point to get past the Gold Coast Titans, then they fell to the Newcastle Knights.
Cameron Ciraldo has been thrown straight in the deep end trying to coach a team to a premiership with a month of preparation, while the players don’t appear to be on the same page.
There are major problems to sort out, but at the stem of the issue appears to be Phil Gould.
What his impact on the club, gameday selections, roster, coaching and everything in between is only he and those closest to the Penrith management will know, but whatever is happening, there appears to be a toxic attitude at the club.
It’s incredibly hard to see Penrith making a push in September right now. Clubs have been known to put in runs in the face of adversity before, but not this time.
How do the Broncos put together six straight wins?
At least the equation is incredibly simple for the Broncos. Win six games from their next six outings and they will lift the premiership trophy.
Of course, with the Tigers losing on the weekend, they don’t absolutely have to win all of their games from here to the end of the season, but it’s almost imperative they do.
The Broncos have spent most of this season being inconsistent, so following their win over the Rabbitohs, they need to teach themselves how to start stringing together complete performances on the trot. When they get to the finals, there will be no second chances.
Get out there and win, or it’ll be curtains.
For a Wayne Bennett-coached team to be inconsistent doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but they are, and they now need to find a way out of it.
Their win over the Rabbitohs showed qualities we haven’t seen often from them this year though, but now is a very good part of the year to start bringing it out.
They could have easily capitulated when the Rabbitohs ran on 18 straight points to tie the game early in the second half, but they refused.
Instead of going on to suffer yet another heavy loss, their defence, for the first time in three weeks showed some mettle and they refused to crack, getting their attack right to go on and win the game.
Now, the Rabbitohs have some issues, but the way Brisbane won, with their forward pack dominating and controlling the ruck with ease was impressive. They controlled the key areas of the game, dominated the rest and ran away with a handy 20-point win.
Playing like that, the Broncos could make a run in September, but they have just been unable to string wins together for any prolonged period this year.
Now would be a good time to start.
Paul McGregor should consider giving Ben Hunt a week or two in reserve grade
Ben Hunt is badly out of form and at this point, it’s not even worth arguing the first point.
His dropped kick-off against the Tigers, combined with a 40/20 out on the full, some poor defensive options and attacking plays which did very little to boost the Dragons status in the game are of major concern to Paul McGregor and his coaching staff.
Hunt is not a player who is simply going to regain his form playing first grade. We have seen it before and will see it again this year – the longer he spends in first grade, the more his confidence unravels.
The supposed easy run home isn’t even that anymore given the race for the wooden spoon that’s heating up and the Dragons struggles against the Bulldogs, as well as their final match being old boys day in Newcastle.
It may well pay, even at this late stage of the season, to throw Hunt back into reserve grade for a week.
This is a double-edged sword for the Dragons though. If Hunt can regain his confidence back there, it would be beneficial, but the Dragons have Kurt Mann and Jai Field, who looked very good as a combination when Hunt was sent to the sin bin against the Tigers on the weekend.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say it was the best St George Illawarra’s attack has looked in weeks. It won’t be an easy decision, but with their defence showing more guts than it has in two months on Saturday, McGregor might need to bite the bullet and take a gamble.
AJ Brimson and Lachlan Lewis are the future of the Titans and Bulldogs
The Titans and Bulldogs haven’t had a heap of bright spots throughout the 2018 season, but if there is one, then it’s the form of boom youngsters AJ Brimson and Lachlan Lewis.
Starting with Brimson, and while it really wasn’t the best defensive effort in the world from Manly (more on that soon), he cut them in half on multiple occasions.
The decision to finally move him to his more preferred position of fullback by coach Brennan seems to be an absolute masterstroke. He is running the ball at a million miles an hour, taking on the line and getting involved creatively at all the right times.
Obviously, Brimson still has a lot to prove, but he has been earmarked as a future representative player and with good reason.
Lewis again showed his worth to the Bulldogs on Sunday afternoon, sinking the Warriors with some brilliant plays, including the eventual match-winning field goal.
Standing up to slot the field goal so early in his career under immense pressure was a positive sign, but there have been positive signs for the young half since the moment he made his debut.
His ball-running is impressive to watch, as is his decision making for a player in a struggling team without a great deal of experience.
I don’t want to put them way up on a pedestal, because there are a stack of talented youngsters floating around, but Brimson and Lewis are rising up that list with each passing performance and could be key reasons if their teams manage to turn things around in 2019.
A fired up Andrew Fifita makes Cronulla dangerous
Andrew Fifita is one of the most frustrating players in the competition to watch. If he could be at his best week in and week out, he would rival players like Jason Taumalolo as the best forward in the game.
Instead, he runs sideways far too much, commits silly errors and gives away dumb penalties.
When he is focused on the task at hands, he is nearly unstoppable, which is exactly what the Sharks need heading into the finals.
Cronulla are a very solid team, but they need Fifita as their X-Factor type player to really light things up and pave the way for them to dominate the battle in the middle third of the field.
For that reason, playing him limited minutes on the weekend and firing him up – by any means necessary really – was well worth it.
He finished the game at a million miles an hour, running the ball like a freight train and coming up with a try. There is no question more of that will make the black, white and blue one of the favourites heading into the finals, because all of the other pieces have fallen into place quite nicely.
You only have to stretch the mind back to the 2016 decider to know the impact of Fifita. He should have won the Clive Churchill Medal that day, but it’s getting those performances each and every week which have been the battle of the Sharks.
The battle which could decide their fate in 2018.
The Rabbitohs look fatigued
The Rabbitohs have been one of the best teams this season and there is no doubting that, but the questions are (rightly) starting to be asked about whether they have peaked too early.
Don’t get me wrong, the punishing injury toll on cardinal and myrtle is making life a little bit tough right at the moment, but it’s mainly backline players who have gone down and are missing games, which is a major concern based on how things went on Thursday night.
The Bunnies biggest issue is that they look tired.
The style of play South Sydney have had all year is to dominate the game through their forwards, led by the Burgess brothers.
The efforts up front, landing on their stomach to get quick play the balls have allowed them to put simple plays on and control ball handling and completion rates, which are areas they have struggled with in recent years.
With that being said, those areas look like they are starting to slip. Nine straight wins had us writing their praises as premiership favourites, but they struggled for a fortnight, then have lost another two on the trot here, including to the Broncos on the weekend.
Granted, the game against the Roosters from an understrength position was never going to be easy, but it’s their forwards and Damien Cook who set up wins for the Bunnies, not their backline where they are missing players.
Even when they get Greg Inglis, Alex Johnston and Campbell Graham back on the park, they aren’t going to be able to do much about the form slump should the forwards continue not dominating and allowing Cook to play his best game, with the hooker also looking on the tired side.
Anthony Seibold has a delicate balancing act on his hands in the run to the finals.
Manly will be lucky to avoid the spoon
Manly’s second half defensive effort on Friday night was one of the worst I have ever laid eyes on.
Letting six tries in across a 23-minute window is simply not NRL quality. Full credit to the Gold Coast Titans, but they didn’t even need to do a great deal to crack the Sea Eagles open time and time again.
A stack of witches hats and some tackling bags would have put on a better defensive effort than Trent Barrett’s Sea Eagles.
Even more concerning was that they were dominant during the first half, but even then, every time their defence was challenged they looked about as useful as some wet lettuce leaves.
Blame coach Barrett and his halftime talk all you want (and I know Manly fans will), but there is no excuse to be getting a pay cheque and defending like that.
Manly have been soft in defence throughout the season, but even a team with no coach and no structure should have done a better job than that against one of the NRL’s worst attacking sides.
Obviously, there are going to be major changes coming to the Northern Beaches over the summer, but that was embarrassing on Friday night and heads must roll next weekend, or they could get absolutely towelled up by the Tigers.
Roarers, what did you make of Round 23? Drop a comment below and let us know!