Another round is in the books, and with some very close games, a couple of milestones and refereeing controversy, there is plenty to discuss. Here are my talking points from Round 17.
We need to talk about the referees… Again
Outrage has been flowing for a couple of weeks now about the refereeing in this competition, which has steadily been seeming to go downhill.
Unfortunately, I can’t hold off talking about it any longer in this column.
For a multi-million dollar business and sport, with hundreds of thousands of fans, media coverage and paying spectators, the quality of officiating is a joke.
There is no beating around the bush here. I didn’t come out all guns blazing against the officials last week, but something has to be said, because it’s going to cost someone come the finals.
From the interpretation of what a knock on is, so the first and second halves of State of Origin Game 3 looking like a different sport because of the way they were officiated, the code can’t afford to stand for this level of incompetence.
Now, I’m not going at 50-50 calls here, and I’m not going for the officials in particular. I get that it’s a hard job, and those calls are going to happen, but when they are paid fulltime to be officials, it’s not good enough to get to every Monday afternoon footy review and have apologies dished out for multiple decisions.
Whether it’s the game management, blind eye to rules or touch judges seemingly not doing anything near their job in terms of calling forward passes, it’s not a good look for this sport.
You wonder how on Earth any new fans will be attracted to the game when every game is refereed a different way, and when no one can agree on the correct interpretation of rules.
I hate going after the referees and attacking them, but the NRL must demand better than the dipping standards we have seen in the last month, where it seems like there are issues coming out of just about every game.
Milestones should be celebrated
The NRL brought in two huge milestones this weekend. Cameron Smith has obviously been given a mountain of air time for racking up his 400th NRL game, and good on him.
I chatted specifically about Smith last week and have made it clear time and time again that in terms of longevity and the professionalism he has brought to the game whether it’s finals, Origin or a meaningless Round 22 clash against the bottom of the table side will never be beaten.
But it’s not just Smith this weekend, with Benji Marshall and Gavin Cooper becoming the latest members of the 300-game club against the Eels and Roosters respectively on Sunday afternoon.
To reach that many games is a rare milestone, and obviously, in the case of Smith, it’s even rarer. In the history of the game, Marshall is only the 38th player to reach 300 games.
It puts into perspective just how much longevity, talent, skill and luck with injury you need to have a successful career of this nature.
While I’m not for the world stopping over a 50-game milestone, to play 300 games should be celebrated. It’s a special achievement, and puts you in the elite class of NRL careers.
The Knights can’t afford to slip down the pole
I know, I know the Knights have been playing fairly understrength the last fortnight and had a lot of players backing up from Origin on Friday night, but they just can’t afford to be losing games at home to the New Zealand Warriors and Canterbury Bulldogs.
They are two sides who are all but out of the running to play finals footy, and while the Knights are firmly planted in the top eight, a slip and slide out of the finals this year could just about crush the spirit of the club.
It’s been a long rebuilding phase for Newcastle – that there can be no question of.
The patience of the fans, the club, the coaches and even the players has to be admired by anyone who appreciates this great story.
But it’s now reached a critical juncture. Two weeks ago, talk of Newcastle missing the finals was absurd after the club had been on a winning streak of seven out of their last eight games.
But all of a sudden, with the table so congested ni the middle, they are in with a real danger of slipping away.
With a young team like Newcastle have, momentum can be a crucial thing, and that’s the way their season has gone so far. They absolutely must fight to turn it around next week before the questions ramp up and things start to look like an uphill battle.
So far in 2019, the Knights have had the following streaks:
That, to me, spells worry when they start losing. They lost five at one point and just couldn’t find a way to snap it, and now, they have lost two again.
With a bit of uncertainty around player roles and positions due to the talent out or playing under fatigue, it’s only going to make that turnaround tougher.
When you consider their next couple of weeks feature the Roosters, Tigers, Sea Eagles and Eels, the battle to get back to their best isn’t going to be an easy one.
As I said at the top, it’s hard to be super critical of what they are doing because of the players in Origin, but it’s those sort of factors that separate the good from the great.
It’s why I won’t analyse the losses too much, but two losses in a row and the side now sitting in the bottom half of the eight is a major cause for concern.
The Panthers: Six straight and they can still get better
The hallmark of a good footy side is being able to win games when you’re not playing good footy. Think of the Roosters last year for the first half of the season, and think of the Storm this year during the first two or three months.
Now, it should be clarified, the Panthers are not to be lumped along those two teams, but they have now won six games on the trot without playing all that well.
Of course, it should also be noted that this is a patch of the season where results can surprise thanks to Origin pulling the competition in half.
However, the form of Penrith, who have their own interruptions and distractions, has been fairly impressive.
They are finding ways to win, and the kicking game and control of James Maloney is impressive.
More importantly, it’s their youth who are standing up and getting the job done after they were called in to try and get this side firing on all cylinders, which they clearly weren’t with a more experienced line-up during the early part of 2019.
There is a real feeling the Panthers can get better than where they are at right now though. I had tipped them to just miss the top four before the season got underway, and while I certainly wavered on that prediction, Ivan Cleary finally looks to have the club going the way he wants to.
What we are reaching now though is the critical point of the year. We come out of Origin, players will have had a chance to recharge the batteries, and most are back to full strength.
Can the Panthers keep it going? You’d think, looking at the upcoming draw, that they need to win three out of their next four against the Dragons, Raiders, Bulldogs and Sharks to prove exactly where they are at as Nathan Cleary re-enters the fold.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is a freak
While the man known as RTS is never going to go down as the greatest player to play this game, there can be absolutely no one denying his talent level.
Even though the Broncos and Warriors fought out a draw on Saturday night which would have left both clubs frustrated in their search for vital points to keep finals hopes alive, Tuivasa-Sheck reset a record he had held, but had broken only a couple of weeks ago by Tom Trbojevic.
That’s because he ran a ridiculous 357 metres.
Just let that sink in for a minute. 357 metres. That is a crazy figure for one player to run in a game. If your fullback and two wingers ran that much between them you could sometimes get away with calling it a pretty solid performance.
Now, is Tuivasa-Sheck the best fullback in the game? No, probably not.
Is he the best player at the Warriors, the rightful captain of the club and a guy anyone would love to have on their team? Absolutely.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “I don’t want Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to play at my club,” and it’s because of performances like Saturday that it becomes the case.
He has ran for over 300 metres a couple of times in his career now, and while he maybe isn’t the most consistent player, he has the potential to become the most deadly attacking weapon in the NRL, and on his day, is already there.
Garth Brennan had to go, but how do the Gold Coast attract a good coach?
A couple of weeks ago, I made the point in this column that the situation between Garth Brennan and his job at the Titans was starting to look untenable.
Today, all reports suggest he has been axed from the club with immediate effect.
Given the way the Gold Coast have gone since their inception to the competition, the way every other sporting code goes in the party capital of Australia, and the way the team are playing this year, the job looks like a bit of a poisoned chalice.
But, like the Warriors, what the Titans need more than anything else at their club right now is an experienced coach who knows how to rebuild from the start.
Brennan was thrown into an impossible situation at the Titans after impressing for so long at the lower levels of footy, but just had no chance in turning the Titans into contenders.
From here, the Titans must explore all options, but the off-contract department looks grim. Kevin Walters has confirmed he will stay with the Maroons, and you’d hardly expect Mal Meninga to take over.
The Walker Brothers are an option, as is Trent Barrett and any number of assistant coaches, while there is no chance Neil Henry would return to the club based on the circumstances of his departure.
At the moment, it’s hard to see the misery being turned around for the Titans.
Manly are the most likely side to cause a boilover
With the Sharks disappearing off the face of the Earth and other teams showing real inconsistency, it does feel like the NRL is back to a three-horse race with a couple of teams who could make something happen.
Of course, it’s never quite that simple. The NRL is a wild beast, and the finals are as good as the start of a new season for the teams who make it.
What we do know is that Melbourne are going to be minor premiers, and the Roosters and Rabbitohs will be there come September.
The Sea Eagles though, a side who the majority thought would be at the wrong end of the competition come the end of the season, are the side shaping up as the most likely to cause an upset.
When you get to the finals, it’s four games. That’s all you have to win. Maybe three if you can sneak into the double-chance positions.
And the Sea Eagles could yet finish there, but while they lost to the Rabbitohs on Saturday, a squad without a really good balance across the board and with players picked out of nowhere fought all the way to the finish line and have done that every single week.
They have upset teams, beat teams and fought with the rest. Sometimes, the ability to play for 80 minutes is one of the biggest assets a club can have in September, and the Sea Eagles, under Des Hasler, have that going for them, as well as the excellent Trbojevic brothers and kicking game of Daly Cherry-Evans.
Do the Roosters have cause for concern, or can they blame Origin?
I approach this question with hesitation, however, feel it needs to be addressed. I honestly didn’t have an answer when it was posed to me on Sunday afternoon.
While they did have players backing up against the Cowboys, there should be absolutely no excuses to lose to an ordinary side without Michael Morgan.
The good news for the tri-colours is they don’t need a complete overhaul. It’s not as if their structure is a complete mess or they are a side without hope.
So, no, in the grand scheme of things, they shouldn’t be too stressed. They still have incredible talent and are going to be in the finals, likely the top four.
On the other side of the coin though, they should be better with Luke Keary back, with Latrell Mitchell missing Origin, and their forward pack more or less in tact.
The way they have struggled for crisp service out of dummy half is a concern, and some of the execution looks to be more of an attitude problem than anything else.
It’s something they can’t afford to let rot into their game plan, or things could take a turn for the worst as we approach the golden month of September.
Before I sign out this week, a quick tip of the hat to Brad Takairangi for scoring his first hat-trick. Wonderful effort, and a very underrated player.
Roarers, what did you make of Round 17? Drop a comment below and let us know.
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