A weekend that started with one of the worst-ever games of NRL ended with two of the best, and had a bit of everything in-between as the September picture continues to make itself clearer. Here are my talking points from NRL Round 21.
The post-mortem for Newcastle won’t be pretty
2019 was supposed to be the year for Newcastle.
It was supposed to be the making of Nathan Brown as a coach, and the making of a whole bunch of players who had come together to have their fans believing that finals were finally going to be on the agenda after years of pain at the foot of the table.
And for a long while, it looked like just that was going to happen. That the Knights were finally going to return to September.
Heck, it might have had the optimistic among their fans believing they could run deep into September.
But the last couple of weeks have proven they were never going to get there, and with a loss to the Eels in Parramatta last night sticking another nail in their coffin, just playing in September looks like it’s going to be a bridge too far.
Now, don’t get me wrong – lots of teams around the edge of the eight after struggling with their footy, and the cut off to make said eight is going to be a lot lower this year, but the Knights are now a long way away from looking like they are going to qualify.
Put simply, the Knights will need to win four from four in the final month of the season just to finish on 26 competition points, which you’d think will be the bare minimum to qualify. Their for and against is good, but chances are, the Knights are cooked.
All four of their games are winnable from now to the finish line, but this is a young team on a six-game losing streak playing without a shadow of the confidence they had during the middle third of the season when they went on quite a stunning winning streak.
There is no sugar coating just how bad this has all been for the Knights though.
They have quite literally fallen apart, and while injuries and other circumstances have played their part, it really was top eight or bust this year for the club, and it looks very much like they are going to fail in that endeavour.
It’s hardly a cause for yet another clean out. They have to keep rolling with what they have, given the amount of talent that has been brought to the club, but for a success-starved fan base, it’s not good enough.
Nathan Brown should be there in 2020, but mark the cards if he doesn’t get this team deep into September in 12 months time.
The top four are miles ahead
If Sunday proved anything, it’s that the top four sides in this competition are the top four for a reason.
As a rugby league fan, it was hard not to get excited about the games which were slated for Sunday afternoon, and they didn’t disappoint in the slightest.
While Manly still hold a candle to the top four (more on them shortly), it’s pretty clear at this point that the Storm, Rabbitohs, Roosters and Raiders are the favourites to take out the premiership.
In a pair of probably first week finals previews, the four sides put on two of the best games of the season.
From the Raiders defence to their flair in attack after the Roosters early onslaught, not being afraid to ping the ball around and offload despite the obvious risk, to the Roosters ability to come back and trust their kicking game in the first game.
Then there was the second game of the day, with some of the best end-to-end rugby league you’ll see. Melbourne had to defend for for much of the middle third of the game, but still had it within them to put the attacking display at the end together to take the victory.
And the credit must also go the way of South Sydney, who could have been blown off the park after finding themselves behind 12-0 in as many minutes, but they refused to go away, putting an excellent display together to hang in the game for the best part of 70 minutes.
As it stands, the possible injury to Adam Reynolds might be an issue, but other than that, there is no question that the top four sides were the ones playing on Sunday, with the Sea Eagles behind them the only side likely to challenge for the competition.
It’s time to change the held up rule
An alarming new trend sneaking into the game over the last couple of weeks is the happiness and willingness of teams dragging a ball carrier into the in-goal when attacking the try line, holding them up, and then having a chance to reset the defensive line.
The held-up rule has never been utilised in this way before – at least, not in the deliberate manner that’s starting to creep into the game – and it’s something which the NRL must put a stop on in a hurry.
Obviously at this late point of the season we can’t go changing rules, and it’s hardly the biggest black eye on the game at the moment, but it should be high on the agenda in post-season meetings.
Going back ten metres was always thought to be something of an advantage to the attacking team in year’s gone by as it gave them some space to work with, and a chance to set up what they wanted to play.
But in a game where defensive teams are happy to slow down the attacking side by whatever means necessary, normally by way of giving away a penalty, this new fad allows them to do that without the referee having to get the whistle out.
It’s causing the game to be played at a slower pace, forcing more stoppages, and allowing defensive teams an advantage to simply numbering up and ensuring the ball won’t find the ground, which in this age of wrestle and tackling high, it’s easy to do.
The easy solution is simply to have the player play the ball on the goalline and get on with the game without waiting for them to run back ten metres, the markers to follow them and everyone to stop for a moment.
One of the biggest problems around this is that it’s normally forwards in the middle who are being dragged over. Their job is to open up space out wide in the attacking 20, but by having to walk back ten metres, this just won’t be allowed to happen.
The NRL should be doing everything in its power to keep good, fast attacking play as the competition normal, and by changing this rule, they take a step in the correct direction.
Manly shouldn’t be concerned by Friday night
Are there lessons to be learnt from being thumped by the Warriors in Auckland? Yeah, sure.
But, contrary to what I have seen from some Sea Eagles fans both on The Roar and on the Twitterverse, there really isn’t that much cause for concern.
Every team is entitled to a bad performance. The sort of game which delivers the wake-up call that every team will need to have before the finals roll around.
Melbourne had it when they played Manly a couple of weeks ago and haven’t looked back and the Roosters had it when they lost to the Cowboys a couple of weeks ago.
The Sea Eagles have been miles ahead of where pre-season expectations had them pegged for, and the style of footy they are playing is indicative of a side who look like they can make a charge through September.
Going to Auckland at this time of year is a double-edged sword. Firstly, the travel and Friday night game after a long-season is a really tough ask, and secondly, you just have no idea what side to prepare for.
If the Warriors played like they did for the first 70 minutes on Friday every week, there would be few games they’d lose throughout the season, so for Manly, it’s hardly a cause for concern.
However, like the Storm and Roosters after their respective wake-up calls, Manly have to come out next week and serve up a big one against the Tigers.
Is Cameron Munster the NRL’s new best player?
This is a question, rather than a statement, for obvious reasons.
There are plenty of players who would want to challenge it if you made a statement. James Tedesco, for one, but the skill and ability, to go with the control and vision of Cameron Munster is something to behold.
Even those who jut don’t like Munster, those fans who dislike the Melbourne Storm more than anything, would be likely to admit Munster is, at worst, a top five player in this competition.
His game has come on in leaps and bounds in 2019, but it’s not just the attacking flare, a killer step, turn of pace and vision which he is known for anymore.
This year, his ability to control the game and get the Storm out of situations has come on in leaps and bounds.
Don’t get me wrong, he is still playing alongside Cameron Smith who calls the plays for Melbourne, but Munster has had a noticeably bigger hand in the side’s kicking game, as well as the execution of set pieces, and it’s showing for Melbourne.
When their attack works, it’s among the best in the competition, and Munster is a big part of the reason why.
His kicking game, alongside Brodie Croft, with the Storm on the back foot against Souths on Sunday afternoon, was superb, but as was his ability to take the initiative and try to flip the momentum of the match multiple times with short side raids, dangerous plays out of his own end, and a killer left foot step, which created a try for himself to break the game open.
How the mighty have fallen
The once might Queensland derby, one of the biggest rivalries of the last decade, is no longer mighty.
I almost didn’t write this point. Anyone who followed my ramblings calling the game for The Roar all the way back on Thursday night will know I became more and more lost with it the longer it went along.
In fact, I made the comment at one point that we should burn the tape and never speak of it again.
But, it’s a Queensland derby, so we just have to make mention of it.
Just a matter of years ago, both of these clubs were consistently at the top end of town, and the way they would rise to play cracking encounters which went right down to the wire time and time again was phenomenal.
Thursday night in Townsville couldn’t have been any more different or any further at the other end of the scale.
It was woeful, to the point where as a neutral onlooker, you’d swear neither team actually wanted to win the match. There was errors, dumb decisions in attack, slow movement from both sides, and barely an ounce of good footy between them.
In fact, it was kind of fitting that come the end of the game, it was won on a try where the ball was picked up off a pass to ground by Jake Turpin.
The energy and effort of the youngster for the Broncos was one of the only bright spots from the game, and while the Cowboys finals charge is over, Brisbane’s isn’t.
After the last two weeks though, you’d be a brave man to say they will hang on and make the eight, let alone do anything of substance if they manage to get there.
James Graham – love him or hate him, you can’t knock him
James Graham. You throw the name up in a conversation about footy, and you’ll either go “Yep, love him,” or you’ll turn around and go “What a grub. Hate him.”
There really is no in between. Most have a strong opinion on the Dragons prop, but there is no denying what he has been able to do in a long career across both England and Australia, now through 400 first grade matches.
While we all celebrated Cameron Smith’s journey just a couple of weeks ago (and rightly so), the journey of Graham has been just impressive.
As a middle third forward, especially one who is never scared of rolling up the sleeves and getting involved to take a tough carry and help his team, playing 400 games across the top two rugby league competitions in the world is no mean feat.
It’s rare in Australian rugby league history for an English player to come out here and make such a big impact. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty doing it at the moment (just look at the Raiders), but the fact is, Graham, along with Sam Burgess and Gareth Ellis, paved the way and showed just how good they can be.
Graham is all heart on the field as well. Whether it was during his time at the Bulldogs, or now at the Dragons, there is no character like him in our great game, and he deserves to be celebrated for such an achievement, no matter what you think of him.
Andrew Fifita needs a rest
The Sharks loss to the Panthers on Friday night is a major concern, but maybe more concerning to the club and their finals hopes, which are dangling dangerously, is the fitness of Andrew Fifita.
The big prop, who I’ve long said in this column and other areas on this site could be the best in the game, is really struggling at the moment.
It was abundantly clear to anyone paying attention to the game on Friday night that Fifita most probably shouldn’t have taken the field, struggling with the injured knee.
He failed to finish the game after coming from the bench, and while I’m no doctor, you’d have to think he pushed for his inclusion in the matchday 17, noting just how big the game was for Cronulla if they wanted to play finals footy in September.
And maybe it was thought from behind the scenes that it was worth the risk, but it’s certainly not if he isn’t playing good footy.
While Fifita is an exceptionally hard player to replace due to his ability, size and aggression, the Sharks are blessed with one of the best benches in the competition.
Whether it’s Braden Hamlin-Uele or Jack Williams, the Sharks may be better off coping with the loss of Fifita than any other side in the competition, and so, if he is going to be detrimental to team performance because of his condition, there is very little point keeping him in the side until he is back to full fitness.
Roarers, what did you make of Round 21? Drop a comment below and let us know.
Catch all the best NRL highlights and key moments from every round on Kayo. Sign up now.