Magic has come and gone in the NRL, and what a weekend it was. One premiership hopeful put the foot down, some clubs continue to have questions thrown on them, and another continued to stun with their inconsistency. Here are my talking points for Round 9.
Magic Round works. Now let’s get this show on the road
Magic round is a concept which has been floated previously by the NRL, but never picked up despite the relative success of it in the English Super League previously.
In 2019, the NRL decided it was worth a shot, and it’s worked like a dream.
Reasonably strong crowds all weekend long, and a good quality of footy, as well as the carnival-like atmosphere in Brisbane reportedly has state governments lining up around the block to get the concept on the road for 2020 and beyond.
And given the way it’s gone this weekend, with many travelling from interstate or even overseas, there is no reason to think it can’t work in a non-rugby league heartland, although the NRL were smart to give it the first test at a world-class venue in a rugby league city.
The trend right across the weekend was positive in terms of raw numbers.
|Thursday||8:05pm||Titans vs Sharks||17,113||N/A|
|Friday||6pm||Tigers vs Panthers||35,122||N/A|
|7:50pm||Broncos vs Sea Eagles||41,388||6,266|
|Saturday||3pm||Knights vs Bulldogs||25,292||N/A|
|5:30pm||Warriors vs Dragons||37,521||12,229|
|7:35pm||Storm vs Eels||41,612||4,091|
|Sunday||2pm||Roosters vs Raiders||29,686||N/A|
|4:05pm||Cowboys vs Rabbitohs||34,564||4,878|
While the numbers published above have no way of tracking just how many people left the ground, what can be established, is that people who bought tickets were showing up for the earlier game.
Friday is the best example, when a clearly large portion of Broncos fans were in the house for the earlier clash between the Tigers and Panthers, while Saturday’s numbers were also solid across the entire afternoon.
If you’re going to try and tell me the Tigers and Panthers would have got even to anywhere near what Leichhardt or Campbelltown hold on a Friday night, I’d say you’re going mad, while the figure for Newcastle and Canterbury was probably also an increase on what you would have seen either in the Hunter or at Homebush.
What that does show is that if we want to take magic round around the country, or even internationally, then there is scope to do so.
The other huge advantage of the magic round concept is that, for people not living in a rugby league heartland, they can take one weekend off and see all 16 teams.
One thing which must happen for it to be a success down the track though is the reduction to three days, with the Thursday night fixture scrapped for an extra one on Sunday afternoon, where matches could start at around 1:30pm.
The other consideration, of course, is the surface. Considering eight games have been played, Suncorp Stadium actually held up remarkably well, but some other grounds would have issues.
What on the planet is Paul McGregor saying at halftime?
No, genuinely. I don’t have the answers.
Playing the snake charming violin and putting his players to sleep, perhaps. Or, I don’t know, using some men in black style shenanigans to wipe their memory of the game plan which worked well in the first half?
It just doesn’t make sense, the difference in how the Dragons have played in the first half, and the second half, over the last fortnight as the club fell to both Parramatta last weekend and New Zealand last night.
It was somehow worse against the Warriors, even if because it was only the second week of it happening.
The forwards were rolling during the first half, Jai Field’s impact was obvious, and Matt Dufty was solid.
But what followed was awful as all that went out the back window.
One interesting tidbit picked up from the game (and for the record, I think it continues to show how McGregor fails to understand the needs of his roster and squad, which has been a major thorn in the side of the Dragons over the last two years) was that just a single interchange was used in the first half.
Sure, the Red V have some big-minute forwards, but the lack of rotation meant that, in the last 10 or 15 minutes of the match, McGregor had all four bench players on the park, while players like Paul Vaughan, Tyson Frizell and James Graham, who should all be on the park in the crunch stages of any footy game, found themselves exhausted and having a breather on the pine.
That roster management makes it little surprise the Dragons are continuing to struggle in the second halves of games, but some of their fundamental skills and the like seem to drop away in the second 40.
That, frankly, may not be the worst thing in the world from a season management perspective, given the club obviously haven’t peaked yet, but with three straight losses and realistically only one super impressive performance against a hapless Bulldogs in 2019, there is a lot for the Dragons to work on in the coming weeks, as they drop from the NRL’s top eight.
The fact Paul McGregor has already been re-signed by the Red V is a concern. A big one.
The real Melbourne have finally arrived
Last week, I talked about how Souths had finally arrived at the party. Three horse-premiership race is back on though, because this week, it was the turn of the Storm to get their season into gear as they racked up 64 points against the Parramatta Eels.
I’ve covered some one-sided games here on The Roar in my 220-odd NRL calls – Cronulla’s 62-0 flogging of Newcastle in 2016 being the top of the list – but this match comes in a close second.
One of the key traits about Melbourne over the years has been just how ruthless they get. Once your behind against them, there is no coming back.
They have struggled with that so far in 2019. Ball handling and the like has been really poor on occasion, while their attack has looked disjointed, and on the back foot, their defence has looked vulnerable.
That’s not to say they have looked like a bad team, it’s just to say they were showing no characteristics of a normal Melbourne Storm outfit during the first eight weeks of the competition.
But then, Craig Bellamy fired up. He got angry. He put his players on notice. And by jee does it show the value of a well-timed, good coach rant, threatening players with a holiday in the Queensland Cup if they didn’t get it right.
And didn’t they get it right?
Running up more than 60 points, the Storm were the Storm of old. Ruthless. Clinical. Use whatever word you want, but it describes the Storm’s performance on Saturday night, right to the last minutes.
Their run will Maika Sivo was in the sin bin was phenomenal, as was the scenes of Bellamy blowing up deluxe as Curtis Scott bombed what would have been an almost certain fifth try in the ten-minute window.
That Storm can win the competition. They aren’t going to play like that side consistently, but it proves the competition is once again back to being a three-horse race.
As a side note out of this game, the Eels chances at a premiership are now over. No team has ever conceded 50 and won the comp, so put a line through Parramatta, like we did with Penrith some weeks ago… Of course, the line through Penrith has been re-done in about six different colours of ink by now.
Newcastle and Canberra’s real test starts now
This is a double-barrelled point, so let’s take it one club at a time.
Starting with those Knights, and after five weeks, people were just about prepared to slot the Knights in as a bottom four club for ever.
This was supposed to be the year they turned things around, and they just weren’t doing it. Nathan Brown didn’t seem to know how he wanted his team to run onto the park, and the Knights didn’t seem to like defending their goal line very much.
But the last three weeks have been really good for the men from the Hunter as they picked up vital wins against the Eels, Warriors and Bulldogs which have kick-started their season.
Kalyn Ponga being back at fullback is a vital cog in the wheel of how they play, while the form of Mitchell Pearce seems to have gone from strength to strength since the switch was made.
But now comes the real test for the Knights. They have played lowly-ranked sides, and frankly, done a pretty good job of it, but the pressure now comes in the form of the desperate Dragons away, followed by the Roosters, Rabbitohs and Storm.
Over a three-week period, the Knights will play the three competition heavyweights, and need to do a good job of it if they want to make a serious fist of 2019.
The Raiders, on the other hand, have pressure and a test coming up for a different reason.
After some really high-quality wins for a club tipped to struggle in the first eight weeks of the season, Canberra went to Brisbane and were blown out of the contest by the Sydney Roosters in the first half an hour.
They came back against an injured line-up, but let’s not beat around the bush here – the scoreline flattered them greatly by the time it was all said and done.
The Green Machine now need to find a way to bounce back with some tough matches coming up and a heavy road schedule during the second half of the season.
Injuries aren’t going to help their cause either, but you feel they need to arrest the momentum slide with a win, or at least a very competitive battle, when they take on South Sydney next weekend in another candidate for match of the round.
Brisbane need to make momentum count this time
The Broncos have had two false starts in 2019, but they can’t afford a third.
I wrote them off completely last week for their chances of making the eight, and frankly, still have them in that category.
But they put in a strong performance in a must-win game over a decimated Sea Eagles on Friday night, and going forward, now must make momentum count if they are going to end up in the eight, or anywhere near it.
Their win didn’t so much come out of the blue this time, but the other two victories this season – seeing them beat the North Queensland Cowboys in a (thought to be at the time) boilover and Cronulla Sharks both proved to be blips on an otherwise very negative radar for the club.
This time, they need to take the momentum and run with it. Their forwards need to get on the front foot, Anthony Milford needs to steer the team around, and they need the changes made to stick.
Their two games leading into the bye will see them play the Roosters and Warriors on the road, so it’s either get it right, or start really planning for 2020.
Cameron Murray and Damien Cook the key to South Sydney’s premiership push
When you think of the key reasons the Rabbitohs might win the competition, Damien Cook and Cameron Murray probably aren’t at the top of the list.
South Sydney have a stacked side, featuring two of the most in-form halves in the competition, a strong fullback, good outside backs and the Burgess brothers, all being coached by one of the best of all time in Wayne Bennett.
But it’s a combination of the hard-hitting Murray up the middle third and Damien Cook running the ball out of dummy half which could create the time and space needed for others to go to work and play the Rabbitohs to the top of the compeition, and ultimately, glory on the first Sunday in October.
Murray’s form this year has been unbelievable. He is an almost certain bench player for the Blues when their side gets announced in a couple of weeks, and it’s little surprise to see him performing so well.
While his running and tackling games are what will bring Murray the most credit, it’s his passing at the line and ability to get a quick play the ball which take him to the top of the locks in the competition.
Murray may well be the best ruck speed winner in the game at the moment, and it’s showing with the form of Cook going up through the gears, as it did, particularly in the first half against North Queensland to close magic round.
Cook has a great vision for the game, and his ability to pick when to run and when to pass leaves Souths in good stead, especially when marker defence is tired and lazy, as it often is against the big, fast-moving Souths pack.
New South Wales centre stocks dwindling as Latrell cops groin injury
Another weekend, and another injury in the Origin arena.
It’s hard to lament the lack of depth in the Blues centres when you look at what is happening north of the border (no, seriously, Edrick Lee could wind up in Maroon yet), but Latrell’s potential injury has caused a problem.
He had one of the three-quarter jumpers sewn up. In fact, he was just about the first player picked in the side.
But if the groin issue does prove to be serious, a man nominated by many as the likely best player in the game over the next couple of years will be ruled out for the Blues.
While the Blues centre depth felt okay last year, it doesn’t this time around. Tom Trbojevic is injured, Curtis Scott now also injured, James Roberts dropped altogether, and Euan Aitken is being used sparingly off the bench.
The options are now starting to look paper-thin.
Jarrod Croker, the man who has been passed over for Origin right throughout one of the most underrated careers of the modern era surely jumps up the queue, as does Clint Gutherson, who can play any position in the backline.
There will be others vying for the spots, of course, but the Latrell injury is a concern for Fittler and his coaching staff.
Luke Brooks and Benji Marshall are probably the best halves combination for the Tigers
The Tigers thumped the Panthers on Friday night. There is no way around making that statement outright.
And didn’t the Tigers look better with Benji Marshall back in the side, returning off his injury lay-off.
I know, I know. Josh Reynolds is supposed to be the marquee player for Michael Maguire’s side, but given he was struggling to crack first grade before Marshall was injured, and given the performance of Marshall on the weekend, it might be a long way back into the starting side for Reynolds if he can get fit again.
The Tigers just looked a hell of a lot slicker on Friday night, particularly during that first half when they ran rampant over the struggling Panthers.
Of course, we probably need to see more given the opposition, but the Marshall and Brooks combination just seems to click for the joint venture, as opposed to the Reynolds and Brooks one we have seen at other points of the season.
I don’t want to write off Reynolds as a first-grade player, far from it. He can still provide plenty from the bench, but at the moment, while Marshall is fit and firing, it’s hard to see him being dropped from the starting gig as his career comes full circle.
Roarers, what did you make of Round 9? Drop a comment below and let us know.
As a sidenote, I’m about to take a week off ahead of what is going to be an incredibly busy couple of months featuring NRL, State of Origin and a Cricket World Cup and Ashes series, which means, for the first time since I started writing this column at the back end of 2016 – yes, there have been about 64 weekly instalments of talking points now (not including finals) – I’ll be passing it over to colleague Andrew Jackson next weekend.
I’ll be back to chat footy with you in Round 11 as the build-up to Origin intensifies.
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