The final make-up of the top eight is beginning to take shape with just three weeks of footy to go, and with plenty of entertaining footy during Round 22, there is plenty to go over. Here are my talking points from the weekend that was.
Full disclaimer – I completely missed Sunday’s games, so don’t really feel equiped to comment, but, the Roosters are rolling and the Sharks won’t be challenging anyone playing like they did today from the bits I did see.
How much time does Paul Green have to right the ship in Townsville?
Let’s not waste any time here. The North Queensland Cowboys are in their second straight season of underperforming.
And not just underperforming. If you were to think of the team who have been most disappointing with regard to what their expectations were over the last 24 months, the Cowboys are it.
Despite a roster featuring a State of Origin and international half, a forward pack with, on paper, some of the best players in the game, and some youthful talent in the outside backs, the Cowboys just haven’t been able to string anything together.
Falling from the great heights of the 2017 grand final, where they snuck into the eight on a rich vein of form before going all the way to the big dance, the club are a shadow of their former self.
In fact, you’d say the only real bright spots this year are the continuation of Jason Taumalolo being a wrecking ball and the emergence of Jake Clifford, who, when he breaks structure and runs the footy, looks as dangerous as anyone in the competition.
While they did have a few wins through the middle of the season and were sniffing around the tail of the top eight for a while, they have well and truly fallen away now.
And even though they were missing representative forwards Tauamlolo and Josh McGuire on Saturday afternoon against the Knights, their performance was dismal in the club’s biggest-ever loss against Newcastle.
While their attack has been a mess for weeks, their defence was an even bigger worry on Saturday, and the Cowboys are now staring at an ugly ending to their season.
There is nothing left to play for in 2019, but the pressure is surely, slowly building on Paul Green.
The side he has should have played finals last year, and they should be playing finals this year. The roster is too good not to be. Blaming luck and injuries can only get you so far, as can that 2017 miracle.
Green is running out of time, running out of chances, and fans are running out of patience.
Fighting adversity a sign of how far the Raiders have come
When you go out in Melbourne, spend 20 minutes in the first half with just 12 men and slump to 18-0 down, the last thing you do is expect to head home with two competition points.
Most sides would be just trying to avoid what happened to the Eels earlier in the year when they conceded 60 points to a red-hot Storm.
And while the Storm had been much-improved in the last fortnight since their loss to the Sea Eagles at home, the Raiders’ excellent work caused them to fall apart during the final 50 minutes of Saturday evening’s famous win for the Green Machine.
While it might be the best win the club have had in a decade, it’s also a performance which finally proves that Ricky Stuart’s men are going to be in a position to fight for the premiership.
The Raiders have all but sealed the deal on a top-four berth with the victory, and while they lost to the Roosters last week, it’s two weeks in a row they have come out and put the pieces together in a high-intensity, high-stakes game of footy.
There are still rightly questions being asked about the Raiders, such as their halves, but they will quieten a little after this performance.
They won’t be able to start like that against a side like Melbourne in knockout footy of course, but if they had of done that 12 months ago, there is every chance Canberra would have rolled over and been hammered.
Instead, they rolled up the sleeves, toughed out the periods when a man in the sin bin and came away with the win, and that’s a quality which should be admired.
They are an exciting team to watch as well. Offloads, strips, spreading the footy out of their own end. They aren’t afraid to play what’s in front of them and look to take every chance to go on the attack, so they are going to be dangerous in September.
Just how far can the Bulldogs go in 2020?
I’ve neglected to write about the Bulldogs for the last couple of weeks, but gee have they been on some sort of run.
Of course, it’s all too little and too late to play finals footy, but it really bodes well. This is a young side playing for each other, defending like their lives depend on it and fighting for every tackle, point, kick and metre.
It’s impressive to see, and even more so given just how poor their attack has been. That’ll be the major sticking point, thorn in the side if you will, to their 2020 ambitions, but Canterbury should have finals on the mind if they can start executing better and playing a little more consistently.
Of course, 2019 was always going to be a long year for the Dogs. They have a squad with plenty of rookies, but guys who are now standing up to be counted in defence.
Love or hate what he has done – the majority would be somewhere in the middle – the team are now clearly playing for Dean Pay.
The end of one season isn’t a complete guide to the next, but the last weeks have had plenty of positive signs for the kennel.
Addin Fonua-Blake will be the man to make a difference for Manly in September
While Martin Taupau often gets most of the credit for the way Manly’s forward pack go about their business – and to a certain extent, why not, look at the guy – Addin Fonua-Blake could make all the difference come September.
You know what you’re going to get out of big Marty day in and day out. Strong runs, offloads and big hits.
But what Fonua-Blake brings to the side allows them to be constantly at their best.
Apart from the fact he often plays a longer first stint than his front-row partner, giving the bench players something to go with and aim up to when they come on, there is also the fact he maintains the rage when Taupau is on.
Defensive lines know they are looking at defending two plays from the duo per set early in a match, and have to run through them to get anywhere.
Fonua-Blake is a proverbial brick wall, and while it is hard to read too much into a win over the struggling and injury-depleted Tigers, his form looks great.
Payne Haas could be the game’s best forward by the end of 2020
Of course, some will disagree with this headline, mainly because they think he is already there.
The only bridge left to conquer for Payne Haas, after his breakout 2019, will be doing what he does at his best on a weekly basis for a long period of time.
Like most of the Broncos forwards, he has had some off moments but he has had fewer than the rest, and held his end of the bargain at both ends of the park.
The fact he was given an Origin debut and didn’t let a single man down speaks volumes of where he is at in his development.
While the positive stats have been publicised about Haas – like his 83 tackle breaks, his 1100 post-contact metres, 182 metres per game or 13 offloads – what hasn’t been widely talked about is just how tidy he has been in the stats which truly define great players.
Tackling at 92 per cent efficiency, for example, is a number which is high enough to be considered in the upper echelon of the game. In fact, he has been credited with just 17 missed tackles all year.
Or how about the fact he has only made five errors in 2019? That is an incredibly low count for someone trying to push offloads and keep the ball alive.
But away from the stats, it’s moments like that try on Friday night which tell you where he is at.
That was one of the all-time great tries for a prop, and while he isn’t the best forward in the game yet, he is up there, and should be competing with Jason Taumalolo for the mantle by the end of 2020.
How worried should Souths fans be?
The Rabbitohs’ run is just starting to reach that worrisome level. To be fair, they are still tracking to finish around the top four, although the double chance might slip them by if they can’t turn things around in a hurry.
But they look tired, out of ideas, and – even with injured players starting to come back – like they are struggling.
Last week’s loss to the Storm in Gosford wasn’t the worst in the world, but they did have a lot of possession they couldn’t do anything with, and that trend continued on Saturday against Dean Pay’s Bulldogs.
But this week’s loss without scoring a try is a major cause for concern.
Sure, Canterbury at their best have a way of dragging opposition teams down to their level, and games between the Bulldogs and Rabbitohs often bring the best out in each other, but the Bunnies weren’t good enough.
Their attack was full of one-out plays and a general lack of direction, and while their defence wasn’t horrendous, that won’t be the problem when September rolls around.
Now, it should be noted here that Wayne Bennett has a knack of having his teams peak right in time for the finals, and so it would take a seriously brave man to write South Sydney, but they are going to need a mighty quick turnaround, because time is running out.
If it was only the last two weeks, one of those against the likely minor premiers, you could brush it off, but Souths haven’t played their best footy since Round 1. Their recent victories haven’t been at the level required, and it’s clear to see they were just scraping through.
They are going to make the top eight, but Souths better be prepared to run out with a completely different style in knock-out footy, or they will be doing just that – getting knocked out.
Parramatta need a fit Blake Ferguson to make anything out of the finals
This shouldn’t be taken as a knock on the versatile Brad Takairangi, who has been filling in on the wing for the Eels while Blake Ferguson has been injured, because he has been doing a pretty fine job in a team who are flying high.
But if Parramatta don’t have Ferguson fit and firing come the finals, they will not be going anywhere.
It’s as simple as that.
And to say a winger is the key in any teams would be blaze and doing things the easy way, but Ferguson is a big part of any side he plays in.
He was at the Roosters last year, and he was in Games 2 and 3 of State of Origin this year.
The Eels are currently flying under the radar as the team who are on a great run, but no one seems to be paying them a second thought. They have obviously been helped in that department by the success stories of Canberra and Manly, but Parramatta are lurking.
It’s doubtful that they can make a run for the premiership, but Ferguson – who gives 100 per cent every time he is on the field and often runs for well over 150 metres per game, with many of them kick return and post contact – gives his side a huge boost every time he plays.
There is still a spot for Takairangi in the best 17, but Ferguson helps the forwards, he helps the halves, and he does a stellar job so long as the defence holds up.
Roarers, what did you make of Round 22? 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.