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Seven talking points from NRL Round 1

Michael Morgan of the Cowboys. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)
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17th March, 2019
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The first round of 2019 is in the books, and it was an absolute cracker. Close games, free-flowing footy, the Sydney Cricket Ground back in action, and some big crowds highlighted the weekend. Let’s get going with the first edition of talking points for the year.

Michael Morgan plays his best footy when in control
Don’t be surprised if Michael Morgan wins the Dally M medal this year and returns to his former status as one of the best in the game.

When Johnathan Thurston was out during the back end of 2017, Morgan led his side all the way to the grand final, when just weeks from the end of the season, it looked like North Queensland might have missed the top eight altogether.

Morgan struggled during the first half of 2018 before he got injured and missed the remainder of the season. His form wasn’t by any means poor, but he just didn’t look comfortable in a Cowboys’ side who were struggling in a big way.

Their first round game this year though saw a complete performance in ugly conditions at home against the St George Illawarra Dragons.

Michael Morgan was the key to that, especially when the heavens opened and the rain became torrential. Of course, he was aided by a forward pack gunning for victory (Jason Taumalolo ran for 300 metres), but Morgan’s decision making, control over the game and kicking game were fantastic.

Add that to the timing of when he ran the ball and got involved in attacking plays, and it was just about the complete performance from Morgan.

For someone who hasn’t played a first grade game since the middle of last year, the performance was all the more spectacular, and it’s becoming clear this will be his team. No more Thurston.

This is Morgan’s Cowboys.

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Michael Morgan NRL Finals North Queensland Cowboys Rugby League 2017

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Wayne Bennett is still a good coach
I’ve had my doubts over Wayne Bennett these last couple of years, and have written about it previously in this column, so there is no hiding that.

But, Bennett looks like he is going to rise to the top of the game again at South Sydney, where he finally has a roster good enough to win a grand final again.

Not since he left the Dragons in 2011 has Bennett been coaching a competition heavyweight. Of course, he dragged the Broncos to the grand final in 2015 and the Knights to a preliminary during his spell there, but Bennett is still a great coach, regardless of his results in Brisbane these last few years.

Last year was a particular struggle, but when you are coaching a team with two runners in the halves, rather than someone able to go out and play the game plan, it makes life incredibly difficult.

While Souths fell apart in the preliminary final against the Roosters last year (after previously losing to the Storm and only just getting past the Dragons), they had a strong season, but not a great one.

Bennett might make all the difference. He has made plenty of changes, with Greg Inglis playing on the right the biggest of the lot, but he now has the dream halves combination in the runner (Cody Walker) and the controller (Adam Reynolds), and a pack he can use to employ a Wayne Bennett style of footy.

There is a long way to go, but it’d take a very brave man to be tipping against the Rabbitohs being at the top end of town come the business end of the season.

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Just quietly, Adam Reynolds might be a fairly reasonable shout for the Dally M medal this year. At any rate, he is going to hit top form if he can stay injury free.

Wayne Bennett

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The penalty for attacking a kicker’s legs must be harsher
Round 1, and already we are going to have players suspended for taking out kicker’s legs in the air. First, Matt Lodge in the opening minutes of the season, then Addin Fonua-Blake charging into Benji Marshall on Saturday afternoon.

It’s a dangerous play, and one which must be stamped out of the game before one of the stars suffers an injury which is going to rub thm out for a significant period of time.

I have no problem with pressure being placed on the kicker – it’s an integral part of the game – but it has to be done smartly, and not dangerously, as was the case of Lodge and Fonua-Blake.

Suspensions – as both of them are going to face – is all good and well, but there needs to be immediate penalties, as we saw when Michael Jennings was sent to the sin bin on Sunday afternoon against the Panthers for a high shot on Isaah Yeo.

Granted, Yeo took no further part in the game and that appeared to be a large part of the reason for the sin binning as he had to immediately leave the field for a HIA, but we need consistent rulings to stamp this out.

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Again, I’d call for the return of the five-minute sin bin, but for an offence such as attacking a kickers legs in the air, I also have no problem with a player spending ten on the sideline.

David Klemmer is the best thing to happen to Newcastle in years
Having a competitive team again? Sure. Having Kalyn Ponga plying his trade? Sure. Getting Mitchell Pearce to be a consistent leading light? Check.

Having a really good forward to lead the pack? The Knights can now also check that box, and that final question links back directly to the first one, where a Klemmer-led Knights pack are suddenly better than competitive.

The Sharks have always been known as a team who are able to grind their ways to victories on the back of a pack which is ridiculously strong. For the Knights to be able to bully them up the middle third was an impressive effort, and Klemmer’s numbers – while not exactly in the Taumalolo ball park – were outstanding.

He ran with intent, always threatened to offload, and you could feel he made everyone playing on the same side as him a better player on the night.

By the time it was all said and done, Klemmer finished with 186 metres from 20 runs, added three offloads and had 25 tackles without a single miss.

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They are solid numbers in anyone’s books and outside of Taumalolo, give him the best running stats of any forward in the competition this weekend.

He gives Newcastle fans a reason to be optimistic – a reason to think the combination of Ponga and Pearce can work. The extra time and space they had after a Klemmer run allowed them to get their kicking game right and force mountains of possession and pressure on the Cronulla line throughout what was a scoreless first half.

It might have been scoreless, but points will come as the combination gels throughout the season if Klemmer and the rest of his pack can keep that level of intensity and effort up.

David Klemmer of the Newcastle Knights

(Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

The Tigers must find a place for Josh Reynolds
Full disclaimer, the weather was foul at Leichhardt, so the Tigers do have every excuse in the world for their attack being barely functional for the first hour against the Sea Eagles.

When they did get it going of course, they found ways to score against a Manly backline which should have had defensive deficiencies everywhere, but the first hour was a concern.

While I don’t contend to know more about rugby league or the Tigers set up than coach Michael Maguire, the fact he can’t find a starting – or at the very least, bench – spot, is baffling.

Reynolds adds so much spark in attack to any team he plays in, and at worst, could have come on during the second half last night, given Robbie Farah a break, and added some real spark to the Tigers through a tiring middle third in very difficult conditions.

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Don’t be surprised to see him in there in the coming weeks.

Anthony Seibold still doesn’t know how to use the bench, but he needs to get positions right first
The South Sydney Rabbitohs were a very good footy team last year, but the more I see of Anthony Seibold in action, the more I tend to think it was the roster, rather than the coach, who should be taking credit.

Now, the first factor which needs to be remembered is that James Roberts was taken off the park with injury after just five minutes.

That meant Kontoni Staggs played 75 minutes, and I’m not convinced he would have played more than 20 otherwise.

Out of their subs, only Tevita Pangai Junior played any significant minutes, running around for almost 49. All reports suggest his break during the second half was not needed as well.

David Fifita only making his appearance during the second half was also baffling, and while he played from the 51st minute mark onwards, his fresh legs and hard running could have been used earlier by a pack who were under fire from Melbourne, who were rolling.

The final substitute was Thomas Flegler, who only played ten minutes.

Now, if they were rolling, cruising towards the win and not struggling, all of that is understandable.

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The bottom line is they weren’t doing any of that, and their forward pack were getting smoked at times.

Unfortunately, it’s not the first time Seibold has refused to use his bench. It cost Souths during the finals last year, and may continue to be a problem in 2019 for Brisbane.

Furthermore, even if Seibold did get his bench rotation right, I’m not convinced Brisbane had the pack to win the contest. Matt Gillett is one of the best back rowers in the world and should have been there on his return.

He might be able to move there when Pangai Junior returns to match fitness and form, thus being able to start in 13, but they need a short-term fix, because neither Jaydn Su’A or Alex Glenn played like they are worthy of a spot in the starting 13 when Brisbane host the Cowboys next weekend, while Matt Gillett is playing in the middle.

But then, replacing Josh McGuire was never going to be an easy thing to do.

Anthony Seibold

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Parramatta’s urgency in defence is a sign of their clean out
The Eels were fantastic on Sunday afternoon (and cost your columnist a monster payout on the punt in the process). While their attack still needs work, their urgency in defending a lead and stopping most things Penrith threw at them (while they had 13 on the field, at least) was outstanding.

In fact, outside of the time Michael Jennings spent in the sin bin, they didn’t let in a single point, which is a monster effort, even if Penrith couldn’t hold onto the ball.

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It was the exact statement Parramatta needed to make early on this season. Brad Arthur and his side are facing all sorts of pressure this year after their wooden spoon in 2018, but they have made significant strides to improve the culture – and attitude – in the defensive line this year.

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Shipping out some high key names, like Corey Norman, Jarryd Hayne, Kenny Edwards and co. indicates this is a club ready to change.

Dylan Brown reportedly won his spot in the halves by pushing so hard in the pre-season he fainted, and it’s that dedication and commitment which will hold Parramatta in good stead, even if they do have a rough season results-wise, because on the evidence presented, their attack still needs a lot of work.

That will come, and 2019 might be about building the foundation for future years through culture, attitude and defensive work ethic, rather than flashy brilliance and finals games for the blue and gold.

Roarers, what did you make of the opening round in 2019?

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