The news that Tom Trbojevic would miss the rest of the Sea Eagles season because of a pectoral industry is shattering for the Northern Beaches club.
The only matches Manly have lost this year when Trbojevic has been playing was last round against the Storm – and notably he suffered the injury in the seventh minute of that game – and the Round 21 loss to the Warriors.
With the second oldest Trbojevic playing, the Sea Eagles have won 10 out of 12 (83.33 per cent). With him out of the side they’ve won just four of 11 (36.36 per cent).
While anyone who writes a Des Hasler coached side off – especially when the referees have been instructed by Graham Annesley to let the game flow (which has equated to plummeting rates of sin binnings) – is a fool, surely the odds of the Sea Eagles winning the competition this year just went down significantly.
That has to be pretty disappointing for the Manly faithful who were feeling quite buoyant after having just missed their first ever wooden spoon by one meagre victory in 2018.
Tom Trbojevic has the magic X-Factor. He is a game winner.
Without him the Sea Eagles have to hope the likes of Rueben Garrick, Brendan Elliot, Moses Suli and Jorge Taufua can really turn on some magic. Maybe they can, but it’s a fair guess to say that Manly’s chances have all but evaporated.
All of the other remaining eight teams in the hunt for glory in 2019 will be in same the boat if they lose a key player themselves.
So who are those key players?
The Wests Tigers
The Wests Tigers have to get over the Cronulla Sharks this weekend just to make the finals. While a jam packed Leichardt Oval may help them to do that, the reality is that they’ll be making up the numbers even if they do make the final eight.
While young Luke Brooks has more try and line break assists to his name, there is little doubt that the general who gives the team direction is veteran half Benji Marshall.
Now in his 17th NRL season, the 34-year-old Kiwi has many tricks in his bag and a calm under pressure forged in the hottest of battles. If the Wests Tigers were to lose him to injury or suspension their extremely slim chances would totally evaporate.
The Cronulla Sutherland Sharks
I know I’ll be ridiculed by many for saying this, but I think that the Sharks have a team that can actually win the premiership from the elimination spots in 2019.
If they can actually get Josh Dugan, Shaun Johnson and Matt Moylan on the field at the same time – and have them stay on the field – I believe they have the talent to beat any other top eight side. However, that is only true if Wade Graham is playing.
Not quite yet 29, Graham is a 12-season veteran, a bone fide representative player and a match winner – as I pointed out earlier this season.
When he is on the field, The Sharks look poised, calm and dangerous. When he isn’t there they can look like a rabble. If they lose Graham from their side they’ll be doing mad Monday straight away.
The Brisbane Broncos
There is a lot of excitement about members of the Broncos pack right now. Payne Haas, David Fifita, Tevita Pangai Junior and Joe Ofahengaue have the mustard and maroon faithful full of hope for the future.
However, their backline just doesn’t provide the venomous danger required to win a competition right now. Rookie halfbacks are highly unlikely to be able to seize the nettle effectively at the business end of the season.
If Brisbane are to be truly competitive in September – and even possibly into October – their forward pack must be dominant. If that is to happen their hooker Andrew McCullough must be playing. He imposes the order and organisation on the Broncos pack that they need to be competitive.
Further, he is a great defender and a very experienced campaigner. While I don’t think the Broncos are a real threat this season, they certainly won’t be without McCullough.
The Parramatta Eels
I don’t want to be unkind but seriously, how are the Eels in sixth spot? At no stage this season have I seen anything that demonstrated to me that they are a genuine contender. Yet there they are. Qualified for a week one home final.
Credit must go to Brad Arthur and his boys on rising ten spots from being last year’s wooden spooners. Further, four of their 13 wins so far this season have been against sides in the current top eight. So they must be contenders.
However, while there is a lot of good cattle indeed, there isn’t a single superstar in their ranks. To win this Parramatta side needs to have their attack click into gear and make the most of their opportunities.
That is reliant more than anything on their 24 year old half back in Mitchell Moses really playing at the top of his game and feeding the likes of Clint Gutherson, Blake Ferguson, Maika Sivo, Michael Jennings and Waqa Blake with great passes and kicks. If he doesn’t – and he can’t if he isn’t on the field – the Eels won’t be a contender.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs
Rugby league can be a very cruel sport. No one knows that more than the 52 players who boast just one appearance for NSW.
While an Origin debut can be a real launch pad for a player’s career, sometimes it can have the opposite effect. Of those 52 only eight (15 per cent) experienced a win.
While that half century of players does include names of legendary players like Graham Eadie and Steve Edge who had distinguished careers, for the most part it reads like a list of one hit wonders.
A group of players who were pretty good but didn’t quite cut the mustard. For a number of those the moment when that was established – whether fairly or unfairly – was after their one game in sky blue. They were then dropped. That can really knock a players confidence around.
The Rabbitohs won 10 of their first 11 games in 2019 and the sensational form of Cody Walker was a key reason. If he wasn’t scoring tries, he was setting them up. By round 11 Walker boasted 11 tries, nine try assists, 8 line breaks and 42 tackle breaks.
Then came Origin One. In the ten games he has played since that point he has scored just three tries, assisted nine tries, broken the line six times and made 24 tackle breaks. The Rabbitohs have won only 50 per cent of those games.
If South Sydney are to win in 2019 Walker must rediscover his best form. But having said all of that, the Redfern based side cannot win without their Alpha Wolf Sam Burgess. He is a gun player and he is fearless and determined in leading his troops into the fray.
If he was out then the Rabbitohs will be too.
The Canberra Raiders
Only a catastrophe this weekend can stop the Raiders getting a top four spot. The Warriors need to beat the Green Machine in Canberra, the Rabbitohs need to beat the Roosters, and the Sea Eagles must beat the Eels by enough to bridge an 88 points differential.
There is no question that what has improved this season for the Raiders is their gritty defence. The addition of Ryan Sutton and John Bateman to the pack, as well as shifting Jack Wighton to five eighth, has seen their average points conceded a game drop from 22.5 in 2018 to 15.2 this season. Their worst defeat has been by 12 points.
It is that defence that has got them into the top four. However, to actually win the premiership they must outplay the top sides. If there is a criticism of the Green Machine in 2019 it is that, of the nine games they have played against the other top eight sides they have only won four.
Further, they have only won one of five games against the other top four sides. On the upside, their average losing margin has been just four points.
While the likes of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, John Bateman, Josh Papalii, Jack Wighton and Elliot Whitehead have starred for the Raiders this season, their success depends on their co-captain Josh Hodgson.
After Mal Meninga, Hodgson is the best established player the Raiders have ever signed. He is clearly in the elite category of current players. Not only does he lead Canberra statistically with try and line break assists, he directs the side around the park.
While the Raiders have won all three games they played without him this season, it is highly unlikely they’ll lift the Provan-Summons Trophy without him playing.
The Sydney Roosters
I have been saying since before a ball was kicked this season that I thought the Roosters were a red hot chance to be the first side since the Broncos in 1993 to go back-to-back.
The Roosters have a mighty squad and they are all playing great football at the right time of the year. Sam Verrills has filled in for Jake Friend and shown himself to be more than capable. The pack is immense in ability and effort too. However, the reason the Roosters will win the whole thing again this year is that they have Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco.
As we saw last year, Cronk is the lynch pin of the side. That they played him with a busted shoulder tells you that they know that.
He guides the side around the paddock with a surety and intent that no other half back in the NRL can match. This year Luke Keary has raised his game another couple of notches too to really augment the Tri-Colours attack.
There can be no doubt that the Chooks backline is the very best in the competition. Alongside the halves you have Joseph Manu and Latrell Mitchell who are just stellar. However, the key to the whole thing is James Tedesco.
He is the best player in the game right now. His X-Factor is as good as Billy Slater’s ever was. In a tight arm wrestle of a game – and we are sure to see those in the coming month – he will prove the difference.
If he – or his mate Cooper – don’t take the field then the Roosters may well find it too tough.
The Melbourne Storm
The Storm are a fearsome machine created by Craig Bellamy and kept metronomically and fanatically inline by the same. Bellamy’s factory that turns meat and potatoes into new and brilliant automaton purple cyborgs is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen in professional sport.
This season they have lost just four games by a total of eight points. Their average score for a game is 26.4 scored and just 12.3 conceded. That’s an average winning margin of 14 points.
Since 1998 the Storm have won the minor premiership six times. This season will be the seventh. Four of those times Melbourne have not turned that home and away success into a grand final victory: 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2016.
However, with the exception of 2011, they featured in the grand final in each of those seasons. On two occasions (2017 and 2007) they won the minor premiership and then went on to win the premiership.
Those two seasons both featured the Storm losing just four and three regular season matches respectively – just like this season.
So the chances are incredibly high that the Melbourne Storm will at least feature in the final game of the season once more – taking their grand final appearance tally to ten.
However, their current success rate on the final day of the season is five from nine attempts. But, they’ve never lost two grand finals in a row.
The reality is that if they are missing Cam Smith – their 36 year old captain and veteran of 407 NRL games, including 36 finals matches and seven grand final appearances – they will not be able to win. He is the king pin that holds the whole purple horde together.