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Opinion

The NRL players under the pump in 2020

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Expert
13th November, 2019
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The glorious thing about a new season is the fresh start.

Before a ball is kicked off every supporter has the ability to be at least a bit hopeful about the coming season and allow themselves to envision a good season for their side.

However, there are a number of individuals attached to the game – players and officials – for whom the coming season holds great trepidation.

They’ve all had a bit of a rough trot and now they are well and truly under the pump. If things continue to go poorly this coming year some will struggle to get another contract, or one of any great value, or to not be sacked.

Anthony Milford
Do you remember when Milford was the hottest property in the NRL? I do. The Canberra Raiders had their $1.1 million dollar deal rejected by the now 25-year-old in 2014 and he subsequently headed to the Broncos. His move met with immediate success, his side going down to the Cowboys in extra time in the 2015 grand final.

But that’s a long time ago now. While he played twice for the Maroons, they were one-off games in 2017 and 2018. In the last two years his side – of which he is the chief playmaker (if you don’t count Alan Langer) – has been knocked out in the first week of the finals by big margins: 58-0 by the Eels this year and 48-18 by the Dragons in 2018.

The most powerful club in the NRL is struggling for relevance and the focus has now positively fallen onto Milford. He must have a very good season in 2020 or he may well find himself looking for a new club, with a lesser pay packet to boot.

Josh Dugan
Dugan is now at his third club. The player who left the Dragons in search of ‘fullback money’ played six games in the centres and five on the wing in 2019. Although he scored 11 tries this season – his biggest haul since 2010 – the speed that he displayed way back in 2009 when he won the RLPA Rookie of the Year is no longer with him.

Further, injury has plagued him throughout his 11 seasons. He has averaged just 17 games a season throughout his career. He has frequently drawn criticism for going off injured too easily. Now he is almost 30 and there are loud whispers out of the Shire that they’d like to offload the tattooed lad from Tuggeranong.

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If Dugan wants another contract of decent value, he needs 2020 to be a very good year where he stays on the paddock.

Josh Dugan looking dejected.

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Shaun Johnson
When Johnson was let go by the Warriors there were many suitors for the Kiwi product. At his best he is a total match-winner. While his defence has never been a feature, his passing and kicking can be superb, and his skill running the ball can be poetry in motion.

The problem is he often isn’t at his best. Often he drifts out of matches. Further, over the last five years he has missed an average of five games a season. Now nearly 30, that injury record is unlikely to be that attractive to possible suitors looking to sign him up. 2020 is the year Johnson must really perform if he wants to continue in the NRL.

Matt Moylan
I swear I am not deliberately picking on the Sharks. However, what is the deal with this guy?

I remember in 2016 when he was on fire at the Panthers. His attack was so good. He was so fast. He had – forgive me for using the phrase – the eye of the tiger. He played for NSW and Australia, with the Panthers making the second week of the finals.

However, since then we’ve him fade out. This season he played just 11 games with errors and missed tackles being a bigger statistical feature that line break and try assists. The boy from Baulkham Hills is not yet 29 so there is definitely time for him to return to his best form.

The question is will he? If he doesn’t do it this season he’s likely to quickly drift into obscurity.

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Coen Hess
In 2017 I thought Coen Hess was the next big thing. He monstered opposition sides, scoring 13 tries for the Cowboys en route to the grand final.

He played for Queensland in 2017 and 2018 and I thought he be a fixture going forward. However, the Bundaberg product – who bears more than a passing resemblance to Ivan Drago from Rocky IV – has not made the transition to being a starting second-rower.

This season he played ten games off the bench and four in the centres – a Paul Green experiment that bewildered the majority. His average of 79 metres and one tackle break a game are underwhelming to say the least.

If the 23-year-old Hess wants to have a lengthy career in the NRL he needs to get back to his 2017 form in 2020 or he may find himself in the Queensland Cup instead.

Ash Taylor
Taylor has a lot of talent. It is very difficult to display that talent when you only play ten games in a season as the Toowoomba product did in 2019. Not quite 25 years old yet, there is plenty of good years left in the young halfback.

However, for any club to throw the big money at him that was once touted he needs to get back on the paddock in 2020 and really hit top gear. The Titans struggled in 2019 with Taylor, Jai Arrow and Ryan James out for long periods.

With them back on the field they can be more than competitive. However, Taylor must realise his great potential or risk becoming another addition to the folio of “next big things” who weren’t.

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Paul McGregor
This season I defended ‘Mary’ because he has never really had any period without injuries or scandals kneecapping his side. The 51-year-old from Dapto is a foundation St George Illawarra player but his results in his five full seasons in charge haven’t been stellar with 57 wins, 63 losses and just three finals games for one victory.

In the last four seasons his Dragons have conceded a minimum of 450 points, with the 575 let in this year the worst during his tenure. The review of the Dragons football department has seen many support staff replaced. It is a safe bet that if the results aren’t good for the Red V early in the 2020 season, then McGregor will follow them out the door.

Paul McGregor

(Photo by Matt Blyth/Getty Images)

Paul Green
Last season I asked Paul Green if having Jason Taumololo in his side gave him happiness. His reply was that it helped him sleep at night.

After finishing runners up to the Storm in 2017, the Cowboys results have fallen away badly. Now in the post-Johnathan Thurston era, a lot is hanging on Michael Morgan and Taumololo if North Queensland are to get back into finals contention, let alone serious contention for the premiership.

Green has a 35.4 per cent winning record in the last two years, the club finishing in the bottom four for the first time in a decade in 2019. If the 2020 season starts poorly, Green’s tenure will be tenuous indeed.

Anthony Seibold
In Round 17 Kodi Nikorima missed two field-goal attempts in golden point extra time. Had he got one of them the Broncos would have finished the season with 11 wins and 13 losses.

The Wests Tigers’ better for and against would have seen them take eighth spot and Brisbane miss the finals for only the third time in the NRL era. Both coaches who were at the helm for those seasons – Ivan Henjak and Anthony Griffin – didn’t last long after that happened.

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Anthony Seibold arrived at Red Hill with a big reputation. The man he replaced took the Rabbitohs to the preliminary final and Seibold’s side just made eighth spot, only to cop their biggest ever flogging – 58-0 – in the first week of the finals. The Broncos were a total rabble.

While there are two great prospects at the club in David Fifita and Payne Haas, both have been in hot water. The spine is as weak as I’ve ever seen in a Brisbane roster and match winners are really not apparent. If the Broncos aren’t in the mix come the Origin period, Seibold will be looking for a new job.

Stephen Kearney
This one is a bit unfair as the Warriors are rubbish and it’s not Steve Kearney’s fault. In the Warriors’ 25-year existence they’ve only made the finals eight times. The two times they have made the grand final have both been with Australians at the helm.

Of their nine coaches before Kearney, only Tony Iro (who was a stand-in) and Ivan Cleary haven’t been sacked. I still can’t get my head around how the only side from an entire nation – a nation which has won a World Cup – can routinely be so mediocre. Kearney only has a 43 per cent winning ratio at the helm of the Warriors, and that is heartily boosted by their 2018 season when they made the finals for the first time in seven years.

While he is rugby league royalty in New Zealand, and a hell of a good man, if the Warriors don’t drastically improve in 2020, Kearney won’t see the season out. Four times they’ve sacked a coach mid-season and the average life span of a coach there is two-and-a-half years.

Graham Annesley and Bernard Sutton
On his second day in the job, the incoming ARLC Chairman Peter V’landys made very clear that he took his role of running the NRL seriously. An experienced and successful sporting administrator, V’landys immediately targeted refereeing as the biggest problem the game is facing.

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“Being from the racing industry there’s one thing that I’ve learnt, it’s that punters or fans don’t like to be ripped off,” he said.

“You can’t have them walk away thinking that they’ve been ripped off. We need to fix our systems and do whatever we can so that the fan walks away happy and content that he’s had a fair crack, and not walk away thinking that he’s been ripped off.”

The new boss went on to say that the NRL have put together a comprehensive report on the game’s referees and judicial systems and he expected to make changes over the coming months. However, it didn’t seem it was the referees themselves he was particularly targeting:

“There’s a high expectation on the human element. Referees and all of us will make mistakes, all we have to try and do as administrators is minimise those mistakes.”

You can bet that Bernard Sutton and Graham Annesley heard that message loud and clear.

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