Just a fortnight from the NRL finals, the competition has been flipped again with a series of stunning results across Round 23, in what was a wild weekend of footy. Here are my talking points.
So, who makes the eight?
Well, it’s finally that time of the season where the top eight picture is looking just a little bit clearer, and we can start to work out who will be playing September footy with a reasonable amount of certainty.
Trick statement of course – the last round is actually in September. Everyone gets to play September footy.
Terrible attempts at humour aside, what we do know for sure if that the Melbourne Storm will be minor premiers. The Sydney Roosters will make the top four after their big win over the Dragons, probably finishing second, while the Canberra Raiders, Manly Sea Eagles, South Sydney Rabbitohs and Parramatta Eels are into the eight.
At the other end, the Canterbury Bulldogs, New Zealand Warriors, North Queensland Cowboys, St George Illawarra Dragons and Gold Coast Titans, who will pick up the wooden spoon, are gone.
That leaves five teams fighting for the final two spots.
Out of those sides, here is the ladder, as well as respective runs home.
|7||Sharks||24||34||Raiders (h), Tigers (a)|
|8||Broncos||23||-42||Eels (h), Bulldogs (a)|
|9||Tigers||22||-22||Dragons (a), Sharks (h)|
|10||Panthers||22||-89||Roosters (a), Knights (h)|
|11||Knights||20||-23||Titans (h), Panthers (a)|
Now, the Sharks and Broncos have their own fate in their hands, but Cronulla’s run, despite being in the best position of all five sides, isn’t straightforward.
A tough test against the Raiders awaits next week. Win that, and they take one of the two spots. Lose that, and all of a sudden they might need to beat the Tigers.
The Broncos as well, even with their poor for and against, are fine with the odd point. Parramatta coming off a loss at home won’t easy, and the Bulldogs have been wrecking everyone’s season late in th piece, so again, not an easy task.
The Tigers might be the team to sneak in. They play a woeful Dragons outfit at the Sydney Cricket Ground next week, and if the Sharks were to lose to the Tigers, then the sides would be even on points heading into the final round with a shootout for a spot possibly to follow.
The Panthers would need to overcome the Roosters to have a chance in the final round, so you could just about stick a fork in them, while the Knights would need to win both of their games and have the Broncos lose both of theirs, as well as the Tigers dropping at least one of theirs. They would leapfrog Penrith even if they did beat the Roosters due to a superior for and against.
That’s all the scenarios with two weeks to play, but how is it actually going to play out?
Well, let’s say the Sharks lose to the Raiders, the Broncos lose to a fired up Eels at home, the Tigers beat the Dragons, Penrith lose to the Roosters and the Knights beat the Titans next week.
That seems the most likely scenario, and would leave us with the Sharks and Tigers to battle it out for seventh, with the loser in the drop zone should the Broncos beat the Bulldogs as they would then go to 25.
If they don’t, then the Knights, if they manage to put the cleaners through both the Gold Coast and Penrith to stop the loser of that game from still making the eight, could still make it, unless Penrith win the final game of the season by 100.
Given the Tigers play the Sharks, and Penrith play the Knights on the final day of the season, we are in for a thrilling final four hours of action.
To put it on record, here is how I have the first week of finals playing out.
QF 1: Melbourne Storm (1st) vs South Sydney Rabbitohs (4th) at AAMI Park
QF 2: Sydney Roosters (2nd) vs Canberra Raiders (3rd) at Sydney Cricket Ground
EF 1: Manly Sea Eagles (5th) vs Wests Tigers (8th) at Lottoland
EF 2: Parramatta Eels (6th) vs Cronulla Sharks (7th) at Bankwest Stadium
And yes, that means I have the Broncos losing both of their remaining games to drop out, allowing the Tigers to cling onto eighth despite losing their final game to the Sharks, while the Panthers miss out on for and against after beating the Knights in the final game of the season.
Manly and Canberra’s performance under pressure will decide whether they can hang with the Storm and Roosters
And yes, before you ask, I have left the Rabbitohs out of that headline. They just aren’t in the picture, premiership-wise for mine at the moment. More on them in a bit though.
The Raiders and Manly have played a lot of high-pressure games in the last couple of weeks. Manly’s effort in Melbourne, Canberra’s effort against the Roosters and then in Melbourne, and on Sunday when the sides faced off together.
In a game marred by penalties, and stop-start sort of rhythm, there is no real point trying to analyse what happened on the park and how it might impact the finals, although the result is huge.
What we do know is that the two teams have been good against top-four opposition and rose to the occasion again on Sunday in a close contest that went down to the wire.
The bottom line, and it’s been proven in results, is that anyone in the top four can beat anyone else in the top four on any given day.
The big thing will be pressure though. If it gets to you, forget about trying to win the competition, and this is where the Raiders and Manly let themselves down on the other three sides in the hunt.
Sure, they have a couple of Origin players, and the Raiders made a preliminary final as recently as 2016, but compared to last year’s grand finalists, there just isn’t the proven track record in big games.
That’s not to say they can’t do it, but Manly and Canberra will both need all of their big names to lead the way in the finals, because the talent is there to push for the ultimate prize.
Maybe the Knights were right to part ways with Brown
This isn’t a massive knock on Nathan Brown, but just maybe, it was the right time for the Knights to part way with the coach.
I wrote just a couple of weeks ago, when the Knights season was hanging by a thread, but till realistically alive, that the post-mortem should they miss the finals wasn’t going to be pretty.
While I’m not sure the timing of letting Brown go is really correct (mid-week while finals are still a chance coming off a win seems a strange one), in the long-term, it’s probably going to be best for the club.
Brown has done a phenomenal job getting the Knights off the bottom of the table in the last 24 months. He has had to rebuild them from absolutely nothing after Wayne Bennett left the Hunter, along with the failed Tinkler ownership, but it was time to go, and their loss on Saturday to the Tigers – a monstrous loss to the Tigers – sums it all up.
I’ve mentioned in the opening point this week that the Knights are still technically alive, but it’s going to take a miracle, and the way they played on Saturday more or less shows they have clocked out.
Brown built more or less the team he wanted this year, and nothing short of the finals was going to be a pass mark for the coach in the eyes of the passionate fans at the one-team town.
Saturday’s loss following Brown’s axing, given the circumstances and timing of the game, may have been the worst since the dim dark days of the early rebuild, and while there is enough talent on the roster, they simply haven’t put bodies on the line enough in defence, or kicked on enough as an attacking side.
Brown has come a long way with his coaching since his first stint at the Dragons, where he really should have had a premiership in 2005 or 2006, and he will grab another gig somewhere into the future, but he was nice to the players one too many times and seemingly, the respect has been lost during this recent losing streak.
As colleague Joe Frost wrote during the week, it’s a dignified end for Brown in the Hunter, the the town of Newcastle “will be forever grateful to a man who took on a thankless task and brought pride back to a club that was perilously close to the brink.”
It’s hard to disagree with a single word of that.
Good teams don’t lose like the Eels did
Last week, I wrote in this column that Parramatta needed a fit and healthy Blake Ferguson to do anything in the finals, but it might be a whole lot more than that after Thursday’s loss.
They still were without Ferguson, and coming up against a gritty Bulldogs side who just refuse to go away at the back end of the season as they begin building for 2020, but the performance wasn’t good enough.
This is, as I said, taking nothing away from the Bulldogs, who have now conceded just five tries in their last four games, which, for a team (sorry optimists) who have been all but out of finals contention for those weeks, is a pretty stunning effort.
But, the Eels attack was poor. It wasn’t a terrible game considering only three tries were scored, but a litany of silly mistakes and frustration in attack wore away at the Eels as they failed and failed again to crack the defence of a gallant blue and white army.
They made 13 errors, only a pair of line breaks and had some really silly plays. That’s not to mention the lack of impact from the back for Parramatta, with a grand total of just 112 kick return metres in the game, which included 85 from Clint Gutherson.
That’s not going to get the job done against the Bulldogs, let alone the top sides. While this team, as I wrote last week, need Blake Ferguson back urgently, they need a lot more than that.
More from the forwards, more from the halves, and a heap more from the back five.
While every team is entitled to a bad week and the run Parramatta have been on is fairly phenomenal, winning seven of their last eight leading into this week, the signs are there that things are just souring a little bit.
It’s must-win for the Eels next week when they take on Brisbane away from home. Not in terms of making the finals, because they will be there, but in terms of stopping any potential slide from coming into effect.
Shaun Johnson and Chad Townsend can be a premiership-winning halves combination
Before the season started, there was plenty of talk around jut what Shaun Johnson would be able to do with a change of scenery and a potentially better set-up behind him.
While he has, for mine at least, fallen well short of expectations, there is no reason why Chad Townsend and Shaun Johnson can’t be a pemiership-winning halves combination, even if it’s not this year.
Saturday showed them at their best, as the Sharks ran riot over the Warriors in a dominant display.
Cronulla do still need to win one of their remaining two games to make the finals, but from there, with a gritty forward pack and the spark of Johnson playing off the control of Townsend, anything is possible.
It’s strongly doubtful Cronulla have what it takes to win the competition this year, coming from outside the top four. They would need to string four of their best games in a row together, which is not something they have done all year.
But, if they get a bit of luck, injury-wise next year, and manage to string things together with their improving young crop of forwards like Jack Williams and Braden Hamlin-Uele, as well as the full-scale emergence of Blayke Brailey, there is no reason they can’t contend.
There is still this year’s finals campaign of course, where Cronulla’s young guys and halves combination need to learn a lot about high-pressure footy, but Johnson and Townsend have completely contrasting styles, and should make a splendid halves combination – if only they could stop getting injured and get Cronulla’s style fit to suit.
Mary must fall on his sword
I’m going to try and write this point from a completely neutral perspective, which is going to be difficult, because, at the core of things, I’m a frustrated Dragons fan.
But objectively, Paul McGregor must fall on his sword this week.
He should not still be at the helm of the club come 2020, and he shouldn’t be at the club on Monday morning following what was a trainwreck of a performance against the Roosters.
Down 28-0 at halftime, the Dragons players looked like they would prefer to be anywhere else. It’s the first time I can remember feeling happy about having other commitments which stopped me from watching the Red V, and I sure won’t be chasing up a replay like I do with just about every other game I miss live.
It was abysmal. To run out at Kogarah, the home, and beating heart of a proud club with so much history, wearing the once mighty Red V and put in a performance like that is just not on.
What makes it even more frustrating for Dragons fans is that the roster is not that bad. It’s littered with Origin players, representative players, and players who have just flat out underperformed all season.
Take nothing away from the Roosters, because they are building for a tilt at another premiership, and looking infinitely better than they did at the same point last year in doing so, but the Dragons are just not good enough.
They don’t want to play for their coach, and while there are more problems than McGregor at the club, there is a reason Wayne Bennett didn’t want the proud Illawarra man on his staff during his stint at the club.
As the same proud Illawarra man watching his club fall into the bottom four after wasted runs in the last two season, it’s time for him to disappear into the background once again, with the entire club needing a cleanout before 2020 becomes a waste of time as well.
Penrith’s display sums up their 2019
That was torrid from Penrith.
Heading to Townsville for Round 23, taking on a woefully poor Cowboys outfit, they should have come away with a huge win – one which put them on path for the finals.
Instead, they return home with their tails firmly tucked between their legs, and chances of playing finals now hinging on getting an upset win against the Roosters.
Based on what the two sides dished up this weekend in their respective games though, it’s going to be one-way traffic, with the tri-colours running up a cricket score.
Penrith were, frankly, insipid.
While young hooker Mitch Kenny came away with 61 tackles, he was the only bright spot for the men from the foot of the mountains, as they struggled to turn extra possession and territory into points, then failed to stop the Cowboys when they came onto the attack.
Penrith’s winning run through the Orgin period is a distant memory now, and the club who seemed destined to feature in the top eight just a month ago, have fallen right away.
When you’re playing a side like the Cowboys, who let in 40 points last week, finishing a game with 54 per cent possession should be enough to win, but instead, it wasn’t even close.
Unfortunately, it’s been the story of the year for Penrith. With the exception of the phenomenal run they went on through the middle third, they have had it, but not had it at the same time, and will now miss out on top eight footy.
South Sydney must play a more direct brand of rugby league
The Rabbitohs finally got back on the winner’s list this weekend, and boy oh boy did they need to.
While Wayne Bennett continues to hold sway over Anthony Seibold in their coaching ‘rivalry’ (sure, let’s call it that), the Rabbitohs were still a long way away from their best as they fell over the finish line in a two-point victory.
The Rabbitohs are still not playing the style which has made them so successful over the last couple of years. Direct. Fast. Speed the game up as much as possible.
That, of course, isn’t helped by their disjointed attack making so many errors, but it’s disjointed because teams have figured out that if you slow them down, slow the play the ball down that is, Damien Cook and Cody Walker fall in a massive heap.
Injuries and suspensions in the forward pack haven’t helped the men from Redfern in that department this year, but only Cameron Murray is providing them any real pace of play, and even that’s a struggle, because the Rabbitohs are struggling to hang onto the footy for more than a set at a time.
They had such a simple, but brilliant formula when things were going right. Play fast, let Cook and Walker make the most of tired defence, and have Adam Reynolds kicking game to either keep them on the front foot, or boot them out of trouble.
But it’s fallen apart.
There were signs of it in Friday’s win, but they need a full-scale re-emergence of it immediately if they are to either finish in the top four, or make anything of the finals.
Roarers, what did you make of Round 23? Drop a comment below and let us know.
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