We have gone past the halfway point in 2019 this weekend, and just when you thought you could get a grip on the competition, things are changing again with numerous surprising results. Here are my talking points from the week that was in NRL.
Wade Graham provides the force Cronulla need to be a premiership contender once again
The Sharks have won for of their last five after a demolition job against the Eels on Saturday night. The final scoreline may not look like that was the case, but the Sharks ran on 40 points and really clocked off towards the end as Parramatta scored three consolation tries in the last 15 minutes.
That is only mildly concerning for the Sharks, who will be looking to really make the most of their momentum moving forward and push into the second half of the season strongly, and with only one Origin player in Josh Morris, they are extremely well-placed to do so.
While they had won a couple on the hop, including a big win over the St George Illawarra Dragons in Wollongong before the bye, they looked a slightly different side on Saturday night, and a lot of that was oweing to the return of Wade Graham.
There can be no question that Graham is one of the best second rowers in the competition. He was an Origin incumbent before he fell over with injury and missed the first half of 2019.
He picked up right where he left off as well. Eased back in off the interchange bench for the Sharks, Graham only played 31 minutes, but made a dominant impact on the edge, running for 125 metres in 12 runs, and regularly going searching for the footy.
But it’s more than his running game. Graham is like an extra half on the field, and at times, it’s the spark Cronulla have lacked this year with a changing fullback role, the rock-solid Chad Townsend, youngster Kyle Flanagan and hooker Jayden Brailey making up the spine.
Graham probably has the best vision of any second rower in the NRL, and always seems to understand the right time for a pass, a kick or a conservative run.
Add to his jamming defence, where he tends to make so few errors, and the experience he brings, and Graham is the man who adds something to the Sharks which puts them in the running for the competition.
He will more than likely be back in the starting side next weekend, and it’s the exact remedy Cronulla and their fans have been looking for as they work their way into the season.
There is a good reason throwing punches is outlawed
Look, I’m not a fan of push, shove and handbags at ten paces any more than the next fan of the sport, but if Friday night told us anything, it’s that there is a pretty darn good reason why you’ll be sitting down for throwing a punch.
I fail to subscribe to the narrative that by not allowing NRL players to throw punches, the game has gone soft.
Look, sure, there is a point where it’s probably better to blow off a bit of steam to stop it just turning into 80 minutes of niggle, which is what we saw in the Origin arena a couple of years ago, shortly after Paul Gallen went to town on the forehead of Nate Myles and forced the rule to come in, but it’s not really the answer.
The first major factor to note is that the way the rule is, it’s black and white. There are no ifs and there are no buts. If you throw hands, you’ll be taking a seat in the dressing room. It makes it easy for everyone to know where the boundaries are.
The second big issue around it is that it makes the sport a lot more appealing to the grassroots. Like the banning of the shoulder charge, it needed to be brought in to keep sponsors and fans with young kids coming back to the game – they are the future after all, and if they aren’t allowed to play, then there is no sport at the top level in 20 years time.
On to the incident on Friday night then, and it erupted. There is no question there should definitely have been three sin bins, although, having watched the footage numerous times, I still can’t work out why Lachlan Fitzgibbon was given his marching orders.
Nonetheless, the referees made a statement and got back in control of the game pretty quickly, and that’s exactly how it should be moving forward if this sport is going to keep progressing from the juniors right through to the top level.
The Titans looked better without Ashley Taylor
I hate to say it, because it’s a real shame for Ash Taylor, but the Titans looked about ten times better without him on the park – and that’s no exaggeration.
Before I go any further, I want to wish Ash all the best with whatever might be happening off the field for him, and hopefully, his privacy is respected during what is a very difficult time for the youngster.
But back on the field, the Titans were really, really good.
While their forwards put in one of their better performances of the year in the victory over the Broncos, it was the control and crispness with which they used the footy, led by AJ Brimson, Tyrone Roberts and the solid back-up Ryley Jacks which won them the contest, while the return of Nathan Peats from injury also provided plenty for the Gold Coast.
I’m not saying this is a side who are about to start climbing the ladder, because their defence still needs to improve – the Broncos botched a number of tries and struggled with the footy – but it was a major improvement for the Titans.
They need to take the momentum built up by a rare win and run with it though because it’s clear that between rumours surrounding the future of coach Garth Brennan, player Tyrone Peachey, the dropping of Shannon Boyd and the Taylor situation, something is not quite right at the club.
Jason Taumalolo – the most underrated, unbelievable forward in the NRL
I know, I know, Manly won. Manly won and they bloody well earnt it. A tough, grinding sort of win on the road where they really had to put the skates on in the second half. They needed it as well after a couple of losses.
And you know, I could write about them, but I’m going to do just that while talking about Jason Taumalolo.
What made the victory so impressive was that they did in the face of yet another ridiculous performance from Jason Taumalolo, who just continues to stamp his dominance all over the competition as the best forward by the length of the straight.
He made a ridiculous 311 metres during the game, ripping in from start to finish, with 112 of those metres post-contact at an average of almost four per carry, which, when you make over 30 runs, is just a staggering number.
Maybe the worst bit about the Taumalolo performance is that no one seems to care. It’s almost a case of standing around and going yep, situation normal. Not that impressive.
If any other forward got 300 metres though, you can bet we’d all be waxing lyrical about them.
But, back on the Sea Eagles. They weren’t perfect – far from it – as they allowed the Cowboys to come back through the end of the first half, but with combinations still coming back into shape with the first sighting of Daly Cherry-Evans and Tom Trbojevic in weeks away from home, their efforts were superb in playing the game the way they wanted to during the second half.
They can’t afford 15-minute letdowns like they had moving forward, but they were still outstanding during the second half, doing their best to shut down Taumalolo and keeping the rest of the Cowboys forwards quiet as they held on for the win.
I’m not convinced my point from last week doesn’t still have legs, but they work from this victory, and have an important two competition points to boot.
The English… Ahem, Canberra Raiders, keep on keepin’ on
The Raiders were always going to hit some stumbling blocks at some point after their ridiculously strong and, to many (well, me anyway), surprising start to the season.
That stumbling block came in the form of a couple of losses while they had a mountain of talent sitting on the sideline.
To be fair, they still do, but they have bounced back strongly in the last fortnight with a real gritty win over the Bulldogs without Origin stars last week, followed up by a 28-0 drubbing of the Wests Tigers on Friday night at Bankwest Stadium.
To come to Sydney and beat the Tigers on a Friday night like that with Jack Wighton, Nick Cotric and Josh Papalii backing up from Origin, while there was also a late swap in the halves, speaks volumes of where the club are at under the guidance of Ricky Stuart right now.
It’s their English cohort who are guiding the way though, and it may be some of the smartest recruitment in the history of the NRL from the Green Machine.
To go to England in numbers like they have done is a major risk, but they have just found good’un after good’un, with John Bateman and Ryan Sutton the two going gangbusters this year.
It’s no surprise they have won two straight since Bateman returned to the side from injury, while Sutton’s performance against the Tigers was one of the key reasons for their success as he picked up 46 tackles and ran for 163 metres.
The time has come now to admit that I was wrong with my pre-season prediction, and for everyone to stop sleeping on Ricky Stuart’s side as a potential dark horse.
Melbourne’s bench may be the strongest in the competition
I don’t think it would be an understatement to say Christian Welch is up there with the most underrated props in the competition, and his impact was really felt off the bench on Saturday against the Warriors in Auckland.
He provides a mountain off the bench for the Storm, and when you can consider he was reduced to a bench role in his return from injury on Saturday in Auckland, it shows you exactly how good this Melbourne forward pack is.
While there is some youth throughout the pack and they do make errors at times, Craig Bellamy, as he has always done, has a real knack of getting the best out of guys who would otherwise probably be considered average players – and that’s not a knock on them, but guys who are more or less toilers.
Welch may well return to the starting side next week, but that would only be at the expense of big Nelson Asofa-Solomona, who has the potential to turn himself into the biggest impact player of the competition with his size, athleticism and appetite for taking on defensive lines.
Alongside those guys, you’ve got the unheralded Joe Stimson, who has been picked up by the Canterbury Bulldogs for next year in what is a really strong signing, the immensely talented Brandon Smith and Ryan Papenhuyzen.
That doesn’t even mention the back-up brigade, led by Tui Kamikamica, who couldn’t buy a spot in the 17 on the weekend despite some strong recent showings.
Everyone who has come off the bench for the purple horde this year just have a way of ripping in, and they are a big reason why, even not playing anywhere near their best as a team, they are sitting at the top end of town and looking good for another strong run into September.
The Dragons needed Corey Norman back
They might have only been playing a pretty poor Bulldogs outfit who simply can’t be relied on for a good performance in 2019, but the Dragons’ Round 13 victory was absolutely crucial as they snapped a fairly heavy losing streak.
During the losing streak, there are no real questions around just how poor the Dragons have been. Their attack has been clunky at best, the kicking game poor and the whole side just looked to be missing something.
Norman slotted straight back into the side for the Monday game against the Bulldogs though, and those losses of the last month were a thing of the past.
While Norman had many superb touches with the ball, especially in the first half as he scored a try of his own, the real advantage to the Dragons is the pressure he takes off Ben Hunt, who had his best game in weeks.
Even though Jai Field was a solid replacement in the halves, he simply wasn’t what Norman is. The former Eels and future Maroons hopeful brings speed, vision and elusiveness that can only come with years in first grade, which is something Field simply doesn’t have on the park.
As much as he can at times frustrate fans with his inconsistency, Norman was strong at the Dragons before his injury, and showed no signs today that he was going to let a lay-off slow him down moving forward.
The Panthers must make the most of some momentum
The Penrith Panthers have finally turned in a performance they were capable of. There is no question the Roosters were understrength, but Penrith’s nine-point victory over the defending premiers and in-form tri-colours is just about their best performance of the season, and one they absolutely must find a way to build on moving forward.
It’s Nathan Cleary and James Maloney who have had the hammer fall on them the most this year, but they managed the game well on the back of a forward pack who finally put their hands up to try and control the position of where the game was being played on the park.
The big boost for the Panthers was the production the left edge from big Villame Kikau. The second rower put his hand up as the breakout star of last year, but hasn’t had the same work rate this year as he struggled with injury, which he originally sustained during the pre-season.
Having him back at his best allows the Panthers to play with time and space, and it appeared he was approaching that level with 152 metres and a couple of tries in an 80-minute performance.
But it wasn’t just Kikau. The Panthers have some extremely talented names across their pack, with players like Reagan Campbell-Gillard and James Fisher-Harris simply not performing to expectations this season, while Frank Winterstein is another who burst onto the scene in his first year at the Sea Eagles, but has struggled since.
Penrith’s pack and their halves have talent and good things written all over them, but it’s not about making it click, and rolling forward on the back of the momentum they picked up on Sunday afternoon.
Roarers, what did you make of Round 13? Drop a comment below and let us know.
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