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Eight talking points from NRL Round 18

The Dragons are all but out of the finals race, but there are bigger problems at the club. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
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21st July, 2019
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A round full of big, one-sided victories in the NRL has left plenty of fans celebrating, and others fairly disappointed. There is plenty to talk about, so let’s get into it.

The Dragons become the third team to have their finals hopes extinguished
Say what you will about this NRL season, as a fan of the sport, it’s been a hell of a lot better than 2018.

By this time last year, we were looking at nine or ten teams left in the finals picture, with a massive game to the remaining teams who had, or were about to be, bowled out of finals contention.

This year, only the Bulldogs and Titans are pasted to the bottom of the ladder, while the Dragons loss to the Panthers on Friday basically rules them out.

And while, sure, even this year, there are teams sitting just beyond the eight like the Warriors, Broncos and Tigers who maybe aren’t expected to be there, they have the potential to play finals footy because they have the ability to string some wins together.

While it’s all good and well for the competition, the fact the Dragons let in 40 points in a must-win game against a team like Penrith who had only scored more than 20 points on three previous occasions this year, and were yet to crack 30, is embarrassing.

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It’s embarrassing for the club, it’s embarrassing for the players, coach Paul McGregor, all of his staff, and the fans who rock up week after week.

I’m going to try and stay as neutral as possible here, but there is no doubting that it doesn’t matter which club you are – 40 points let in during a must-win game is just beyond the joke. It’s not NRL standard in the slightest.

I’m not going to try and make excuses either, but it’s clear there is something badly wrong at the club. I’ve talked enough about the Dragons and what I think of their management, from coach decisions to player retention, in this column throughout the year, so we aren’t going to repeat it all here.

But it’s been a season which started with promise, and no matter what’s actually happened with the Jack de Belin situation, this was a team who looked lost on Friday.

Tariq Sims more or less watching a grubber roll into the in goal just about summed up the entire season for mine. It hasn’t been good enough, and as a result, Mad Monday will come early.

Things need to change big time for 2020, because a team with a forward pack who all play representative footy, two representative halves and some strength in the outside backs finishing in the bottom four just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Tuesday’s board meeting will be bloody interesting as well, just quietly.

Paul McGregor

(Photo by Matt Blyth/Getty Images)

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Have the Sharks forgotten how to win?
From ordinary goal kicking to squandering leads and getting hosed last week in Cameron Smith’s 400th, the Cronulla Sharks have had a shocking month.

Basically, since I wrote how they were back in the premiership victory, they have done anything but ram that point home.

The worst factor for Sharks fans is that they really aren’t playing awful footy. In four of their last five losses, they have scored more tries than their opposition, but still found a way to lose.

While John Morris’ side have had problems with goal kicking, that wasn’t it on Friday in Wellington, and it might be that the rot has set in.

Now, that’s not normally a statement you could write about Cronulla. They have enough experience in the right areas that a run of losses shouldn’t just render them completely incompetent moving forward.

But it has.

To blow a 12-2 lead against the Warriors was a really ordinary way to go about things, but what’s even worse is that they had ample opportunity to win the game, only to make dumb decisions and move away from the Cronulla style of grinding footy.

Andrew Fifita’s sin-binning was the heigh of silliness from the Sharks, and now with five straight losses under the belt, they have dropped out of the eight and below the Broncos.

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Origin is always a tough patch of the year, and trips to New Zealand can tend to be not much better, but they had better find a way to turn it around against the Cowboys and Rabbitohs in the next fortnight, or they will really start to feel the heat.

Shaun Johnson of the Cronulla Sharks

(Tony Feder/Getty Images)

The Roosters make the statement they needed to make
Last week, I made the point that while the Roosters shouldn’t be all that concerned by recent losses, they did need to take it as a wake-up call.

And boy oh boy did they.

While I’m not quite sure what to make of the Knights, who have lost three on the trot now and are looking like they might fade, the tri-colours reintroduced everyone to their best form, particularly in the second half.

What was impressive for mine was the way the Roosters managed to grind through the first half while the Knights were playing some pretty decent footy, then step on the gas in the second once their opponents dropped their level ever so slightly.

That is the mark of a good footy side. Grind, grit and stay in the game while you’re not playing all that well, but then recognise when the opportunity presents itself to go up the gears, and play great footy to put the game away.

Their biggest weapon is of course, James Tedesco, who ran almost 300 metres on the weekend and was fantastic from start to finish, but his combination with Luke Keary is stellar, while Cooper Cronk seems to have a load taken off his shoulders with the return of his halves partner.

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Latrell Mitchell played his best game in weeks, and the forward pack for the men from Bondi were rock solid.

They aren’t going to win every game by that sort of scoreline we saw on Saturday, but it’s the statement they needed to make to remind everyone why they were the favourites before a ball was kicked in anger in 2019.

James Tedesco scores a try.

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad has completed the Raiders
I wrote about Chanze Nicoll-Klokstad after Round 12, at the time, highlighting that he may be the best value buy of the season.

I don’t think there is any doubt about that being the case anymore, but you can also put a tick in the box to the question “Will he give the Raiders a complete spine to push for a premiership?”

The fullback, who is also one of the nicest men in the game off the field, has been outstanding in 2019, and was again in the Raiders big win over the Tigers on Saturday evening.

But Nicoll-Klokstad doesn’t need to be a stand out every week in the Raiders side, because there are heaps of them, and they are all playing roles which suit them.

Nicoll-Klokstad allowing Jack Wighton to move into the halves on a fulltime basis this year has been a masterstroke from Ricky Stuart, and while the halves partner is still less than settled, it hasn’t disrupted the flow of the green machine too much.

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In fact, nothing has stopped the green machine all that much.

Their win over the Tigers on the weekend was a complete team effort, and their English forwards have all stood up in outstanding fashion throughout the course of the season.

However, whether injuries or distractions, Nicoll-Klokstad seems to be able to avoid getting involved in it, and worst case scenario, he will do his job week in and week out.

Every premiership team of the last decade has had a good fullback.

Nicoll-Klokstad may not be in the same class as James Tedesco, Billy Slater and Ben Barba, but he has brought this Canberra side together for a genuine shot at good knockout footy this year.

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Is the writing on the wall for Dean Pay, or was that a genuine Broncos resurgence?
Thursday night’s game is one I’m really struggling to know what to make of.

The Broncos are suddenly somewhat back on track, but are they really?

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It’s always hard to tell when a team makes a sudden resurgence during the Origin period, like Brisbane and Penrith have, for example this year.

The Broncos have always had the talent, but consistency was going to be the big issue in 2019 with so much raw talent in the forward pack.

They have now had two wins a draw in their last three starts though to keep their hopes of making the finals alive and well, and the victory over Canterbury on Thursday was superb.

Tevita Pangai Junior played well, Payne Haas played to his full potential, and more importantly, Anthony Seibold’s switch of Anthony Milford and Darius Boyd worked a charm.

They get another week to work on it with the Titans up next, but then will come the real test for the Broncos, with the Storm, a trip to Townsville, and the red-hot Panthers to follow.

There is no question that if the Broncos do sneak into the eight, they are a team no one will want to come up against, because on their day, they are hard to stop up front.

But what do we actually take from Thursday, because it was against the struggling Bulldogs.

Dean Pay is, at the moment, battling with McGregor as worst coach in the NRL, now that Brennan has gone. Some of the decisions Pay has made this season have been absolutely baffling.

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From the release of Rhyse Martin, to team selections, it would appear he is looking for quick fixes when there isn’t one, and it was on display on Thursday as his side clocked off time and time again.

There is plenty of talk surrounding the blue and white that just maybe, Pay won’t be there next year, and based on Thursday’s effort, it’s hard to argue.

Dean Pay, coach of the Bulldogs

(AAP Image/Michael Chambers)

Memo to Melbourne: Find a way to get Ryan Papenhuyzen in the starting 13
Ok, a disclaimer – misleading headling on this one, because I really don’t have an answer on how this is supposed to work.

What is for certain is that Ryan Papenhuyzen is a gun, and one hell of a freakish talent.

In a lot of ways, he reminds me of a young Billy Slater. Maybe he doesn’t quite have the defence, vision and communication skills of the former Melbourne champion fullback, but he sure does have the pace, agility, acceleration, ball handling and passing game to match.

While Papenhuyzen has been great on the bench for Melbourne this year, he showed exactly what he was capable of on Sunday afternoon in a high-scoring victory over the Gold Coast Titans.

His performance, for the most part, was one of perfection, and while there are those defensive fragilities from time to time, he is only going to get better at his job as he spends more time in the top grade.

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While he isn’t going to go and fill a spot in the forwards, the question for Melbourne, is do they prefer the set up with Jahrome Hughes partnering Cameron Munster in the halves, allowing Papenhuyzen at the back, or do they prefer to play Brodie Croft?

Until now, Croft has been the answer, and while he hasn’t done much wrong to get sacked, the full-scale emergence of the long-term replacement in the Victorian capital to Cooper Cronk is taking a long time to come on and get to the level we all know he is capable of.

Now, the control of a genuine half at the back end of the season will be important, but so will the explosiveness of Papenhuyzen.

It’s a tough spot for Craig Bellamy, but on all the evidence presented, Papenhuyzen is one of the best young guys in the Melbourne system and there needs to be a bigger role for him than what there currently is.

Ryan Papenhuyzen runs the ball up against Cronulla Sharks and the Melbourne Storm at Shark Park.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Ethan Lowe finally rediscovers his potential
Ethan Lowe’s situation is one which has always confused me.

When he first burst onto the scene at the North Queensland Cowboys, he was looking like one of the best second rowers to come into the game for years.

He had it all. Running, tackling, good vision, passing. He didn’t have the Wade Graham kicking game, but he sure did have everything else, including goal kicking. And goodness does he have an ability to find the tryline.

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But then, for one reason or another, his form disappeared and the Cowboys went stale on him.

He struggled to get game time, and it was clear a freshen up was in order. So, late in the pre-season, South Sydney come in and sign him for diddly squat.

What a buy it’s turned out to be. The quality of Lowe is obvious to anyone who has watched his career progression, and clearly South Sydney talent managers were some of them.

Lowe had been doing his job off the bench for South Sydney during the early going of 2019, but then, out of nowhere, swooped into the Queensland Origin side with a starting gig.

He had an unbelievable game there, and the form has ticked back over to club land. He was a huge part of the reason Souths beat his former club on Saturday night, and while he will get shuffled back down the pecking order at some point, Lowe is an important cog in the Souths machine.

Ethan Lowe celebrates.

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Why Daly Cherry-Evans and Tom Trbojevic are perfect for each other
There are plenty of reasons why the Sea Eagles were able to roll on past the Eels on Sunday afternoon in dominant, yet by the end not so dominant, fashion, but there is one which has been a constant in their big wins this season.

It’s the combination created between half Daly Cherry-Evans and fullback Tom Trbojevic.

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When you look at the attributes each player possesses, it’s a match which might as well have been made in heaven – or, I’m sure Manly supporters will tell you the Northern Beaches of Sydney.

Daly Cherry-Evans, who has stood up to captain his state this year, is an excellent game manager, but more so, he has one of the best kicking games in the competition.

Certainly short-range, but both long and short, he is one of the best there is, with only Adam Reynolds and Cooper Cronk able to come close to him on a consistent basis.

Trbojevic, on the other hand, has size, agility, pace and a great leaping ability. In fact, he is one of, if not the most dangerous player in the air across this competition.

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So, when you have one player landing high kicks on a five-cent coin, and Trbojevic having no problems running into an aerial challenge for the footy at full speed, you get danger.

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That was on full display during the first half on Sunday.

But you also get the mix of control and flare from your two best players. That’s not to say Cherry-Evans can’t play with flare, but he doesn’t have to, because Trbojevic, running off guys like Manase Fainu, Addin Fonua-Blake and Martin Taupau will do that for you.

And likewise, Trbojevic doesn’t have to take his foot off the gas and simply play the percentages, because when that needs to happen, the Queensland skipper will stand up and do it.

If Manly are to be there on grand final day, you can bet the duo will be a big – no, the – reason why.

Tom Trbojevic and Daly Cherry-Evans celebrate.

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Roarers, what did you make of Round 18? Drop a comment below and let us know.

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