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The 2019 NRL report card: The bottom eight

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4th December, 2019
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Last week we looked at how each of the finalists performed in 2019 and graded them.

This week we are going to do the same for the bottom eight. However, we are going to add another parameter: achievement in regard to expectations.

In other words, what the team was expected to do and what they actually did.

READ: The 2019 NRL report card: The top eight

The Wests Tigers
Achievement: D
Achievement in regard to expectations: C
Effort: C+
2018 finish: 9th, 12 wins, 12 losses, Missed finals, -83 points differential (PD)
2019 finish: 9th – 11 wins, 13 losses, Missed finals -11 PD

Not many gave new coach Michael McGuire and his squad much chance in 2019. I certainly didn’t. I thought they’d finish in the bottom four. They did a fair bit better than that but still couldn’t crack a finals berth.

Only three of the 26 players they used managed to play all 24 games: Luke Brooks, Esan Marsters and Ryan Matterson.

However, had their Round 25 loss to the Sharks actually been a win they would have finished 7th. But coulda, woulda, shoulda…

The joint venture club – by way of Campbelltown / Leichardt – missed the finals for the fourth straight year. Only three of their wins were against sides that finished in the top eight and five times they conceded 30 points or more in a match. So while they are technically the best of the rest, the gap is still large and they still lost ground on last year.

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Their effort was good though, especially considering the turmoil in the wake of Ivan Cleary’s departure. Alex Twal, Matterson, Marsters, Luke Brooks and Michael Chee-Kam all performed well.

While their prodigal son, Benji Marshall, had a really strong season, although he will be 35 this coming February. They’ve lost Matterson and Marsters, with Luciano Leilua and possibly Matt Moylan the incoming players. They’ll need something special to make the finals in 2020.

Old pals Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah

Robbie Farah (left) and Benji Marshall of the Tigers. (AAP Image/Joel Carrett)

The Penrith Panthers
Achievement: D-
Achievement in regard to expectations: E
Effort: D

2018 finish: 5th , 15 wins, 9 losses, Semi Finals, +56 PD
2019 finish: 10th – 11 wins, 13 losses, Missed finals -61 PD

Last week I lambasted the Brisbane Broncos for a horrid season. It would be unfair of me to not do the same to the Panthers.

I mean, at least the Broncos made the finals. Sure, the Panthers had injury issues. Yes, they had off field scandals. Yes, they had a new coach.

However, a side that finished fifth in 2018 and still had a very strong roster had little excuse not to feature in the 2019 finals – especially as their draw was one of the most favourable of any side.

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Of the 33 players they used over the season – the most of any side this year – only James Tamou, Moses Leota and James Fisher Harris played all 24.

By Round 10 they were sitting in 16th spot with only two wins. A big effort mid season led to a seven-match winning streak that got them up into seventh place at the end of round 18 and things were looking better. However, in the last seven rounds they fell away badly and they only managed two victories.

A poor finish to a poor season.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Nathan Cleary is going to be a superstar. James Tamou was very solid and provided good leadership. Isaah Yeo improves every year. Villiame Kikau was outstanding and James Fisher-Harris had some great performances.

Nathan Cleary

Nathan Cleary of the Panthers (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The mid-season departures of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Waqa Blake spoke of deep discontent at the club, which may also have been behind the departure of Reagan Campbell-Gillard to the Eels.

The signings of Kurt Capewell and Api Koroisau are both solid so there will hopefully be some improvement for the Panthers faithful. Because this year was awful.

The Newcastle Knights
Achievement: D-
Achievement in regard to expectations: D
Effort: D
2018 finish: 11th , 9 wins, 15 losses, Missed finals, -193 PD
2019 finish: 11th – 10 wins, 14 losses, Missed finals -37 PD

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The real difference between the Knights and the Panthers is that I expected more from the Panthers. While there was certainly some real talent in the Knights squad – David Klemmer, Kalyn Ponga, Mitchell Pearce, Tim Glasby and Jesse Ramien for example – it was incumbent on the Novocastrians to actually improve.

While they certainly showed some promise, their net improvement on 2018 was one additional win and an average scoreline that was 6.5 point better a game. David Klemmer was superb and Kalyn Ponga showed glimpses of excellence.

However, there wasn’t much more to write home about. The walk out of Jesse Ramien after Round 19 was not ideal at all.

Their 38-12 flogging of eventual premiers the Sydney Roosters was definitely the high point of their season. They climbed to fourth place on the ladder and it seemed that things might really have turned the corner, with a run of six straight wins.

However, they managed just four wins from their remaining 13 games, finishing the season by getting flogged by 44 points by the mediocre Panthers, with coach Nathan Brown having parted ways with the club after the 46-4 flogging at the hands of the Wests Tigers in Round 23.

While the club has improved considerably since their three wooden spoons on the trot between 2015-2017, they have only achieved mediocrity since that point and season 2019 will want to be forgotten quickly.

Newcastle Knights coach Nathan Brown.

Nathan Brown (Tony Feder/Getty Images)

The Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs
Achievement: D-
Achievement in regard to expectations: B
Effort: B
2018 finish: 12th , 8 wins, 16 losses, Missed finals, -46 PD
2019 finish: 12th – 10 wins, 14 losses, Missed finals -151 PD

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You can’t keep the Bulldogs down. As a club they are just too strong. They will dig deep. They will claw their way back.

While the ladder shows they finished 12th again, with a points differential that was 105 points worse, they won two more games. However, when you examine their season they improved massively.

The Dogs spent 12 of the first 15 rounds rooted to the bottom of the ladder and that’s where I thought they’d finish. A lesser club may have looked at punting coach Dean Pay, but not the Blue and White.

They stuck firm and they were right to do so. For the first 14 rounds the Dogs won just three of their 14 games, with an average game score of 12-24, with seven 13+ losses in that period.

However, from round 15 onwards they won seven of their last ten games, with an average game score of 15-14, to finish in 12th spot. That run included four wins over eventual finalists.

They finished the season on a very high note, beating the Broncos 30-14.

Why? Grit. Application. Effort. Team effort.

These are Bulldog characteristics and always have been.

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Josh Jackson was superb as captain. Will Hopoate had his best season for ages. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak – who arrived for Round 14 – took to the Blue and White like a natural. Reimis Smith did some great finishing. Corey Harawira-Naera proved to be a very good purchase.

Joe Stimson and Sione Katoa should be good signings for next year. So while their actual achievement is only worthy of a D-, there were points were I thought they were headed for an F.

Their effort was very good. Knowing the Dogs, don’t be surprised if the make the finals next year.

The New Zealand Warriors
Achievement: E
Achievement in regard to expectations: E-
Effort: D-
2018 finish: 8th – 15 wins, 9 losses, Qualifying final, +25 PD
2019 finish: 13th – 9 wins, 1 draw, 14 losses, Missed finals -141 PD

Before I start laying into the Warriors, let me say a few positive things. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is a superstar. He showed why again in 2019 after winning the Dally M in 2018.

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Roger Tuivasa-Sheck

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck of the Warriors. (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Ken Maumalo was possibly the best winger in the game in 2019. When Tohu Harris was on the field, he justified his purchase. Chanel Harris-Tavita showed some real promise for the future.

Overall though the Warriors are just awful. They lost 5.5 more matches in 2019 than 2018 and they were five points a game worse.

Leeson Ah Mau was their only forward to average over 100 metres a game. Unsurprisingly they are ranked 12th for run metres per game in 2019.

The side – for all of their flashy reputation – is only ranked 10th for points scored, with 18 a game. Conversely they are fourth worst for line breaks conceded and second worst for points conceded. Only once in 2019 did the side win back-to-back matches.

This is a side that represents an entire nation, not just a city. This is a country where you can wander down any street and find talented and promising players who – with the right development and guidance – can form part of a super team.

The Australia-based teams are testament to the rich recruitment prospects in New Zealand. Yet this side routinely under performs. That they have only made the finals once in the past eight seasons is inexcusable.

What exactly is the point of this side? What is being achieved by having them in the competition? Perhaps it is time to end the experiment.

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The North Queensland Cowboys
Achievement: E
Achievement in regard to expectations: E
Effort: D+
2018 finish: 13th – 8 wins, 16 losses, missed finals, -72 PD
2019 finish: 14th – 9 wins, 15 losses, missed finals -22 PD

I asked Paul Green at a post-match press conference this year if having Jason Taumololo in his side gave him joy – the brilliant forward having just having put in another match winning performance. His response: “It helps me sleep at night.”

The superstar forward missed six games this season and the Cowboys lost five of them. There was a lot of disruption for the Cowboys in their first season post Johnathan Thurston. Only four players – Francis Molo, Jake Granville, Gavin Cooper and John Asiata – managed all 24 games.

Michael Morgan missed four. Josh McGuire missed seven. Kyle Feldt missed eight. Scott Bolton missed six. This really exposed the Cowboys depth. Mixed with their continual travel, it really cost the Cows.

They copped six 13+ losses during the year. However, three of their nine wins came against sides that finished in the top eight – including both grand finalists on the road.

So there is definitely promise and potential in the side, and they did win one more match this season than last and were two points better a match. However, it was the team’s first bottom-four finish since 2010.

Josh McGuire

Josh McGuire of the Cowboys looks dejected. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Their backline – that will now be boosted significantly by Valentine Holmes and Esan Marsters – looked very weak at times, with the bizarre four game experiment of Coen Hess in the centres really highlighting that weakness.

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A host of players have left the club post season, that includes Matt Scott and Scott Bolton to retirement, while Jordan Kahu and Enari Tuala left to the Broncos and Knights respectively, with Javid Bowen, Gideon Gela-Mosby, Kurt Baptiste, and Te Maire Martin also leaving. 2020 must see the Cowboys back in the finals.

The big question is whether they can do it.

The St George Illawarra Dragons
Achievement: E-
Achievement in regard to expectations: E-
Effort: E
2018 finish: 7th – 15 wins, 9 losses, Semi Final, +47 PD
2019 finish: 15th – 8 wins, 16 losses, missed finals -148 PD

Wow… The Dragons’ season was just horrid. There were some mitigating circumstances. Captain and playmaker Gareth Widdop missing 14 games with injury followed on from star representative forward Jack De Belin being stood down by the NRL indefinitely, in spite of him pleading not guilty to the charges.

And the outs kept coming. Matt Dufty missed eight games, James Graham five, Corey Norman five, Korbin Sims eight and Tariq Sims five. Coach Paul MacGregor had to use 30 players throughout the season.

A number of players had underwhelming seasons too, with Euan Aitken and Matt Dufty particularly coming in for some stick from the Dragons faithful.

Paul McGregor

Is Paul McGregor the right man to lead the Dragons? (Photo by Matt Blyth/Getty Images)

After a poor start where the Red V lost the first two matches, the ship seemed to right with four straight victories. However, they then lost the next five straight and only won four of their 18 games from round seven on.

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Two of those wins came against the Titans, with the others against fellow non finalists the Bulldogs and the Cowboys.

Kogarah/Wollongong were not happy places to be. Along with a large part of the support staff, twelve players from the 2019 season will not be returning in 2020.

That includes Jeremy Latimore, Gareth Widdop, Luciano Leilua and Reece Robson who have gone to other clubs, with Mitchell Allgood, Jai Field, Lachlan Maranta, Patrick Kaufusi, Darren Nicholls, Lachlan Timm and Tristan Sailor unsigned.

The stats make for some bad reading. In attack the Dragons were mid table for virtually all of the stats. However in defence they were very poor.

They were the second worst in the NRL for points conceded (24 a game), tries conceded (4.2 a game), run metres conceded (1520 a game) and line breaks conceded (5.7 a game).

Ben Hunt personally conceded 25 line breaks in 21 games. Only Euan Aitken played all 24 games in the season and Paul Vaughn was the only forward who averaged 100+ metres a game (133).

Trent Merrin and Isaac Luke are the two signings of note for 2020. If things don’t markedly improve in 2020 expect the Red V faithful to go into full scale revolt.

The Gold Coast Titans
Achievement: F
Achievement in regard to expectations: E
Effort: E-
2018 finish: 14th – 8 wins, 16 losses, missed finals, +110 PD
2019 finish: 16th – 4 wins, 20 losses, Wooden Spoon -281 PD

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2019 saw the Titans get their second wooden spoon and their first since 2011. They won only four games. They lost their last eleven straight. Their coach got sacked after Round 17.

13 times they got beaten by 13+ margins. They were in the bottom four for most statistical categories, most tellingly bottom for points, tries, line breaks and missed tackles conceded. It didn’t really surprise most of us either.

Nathan Peats of the Titans run the ball.

Nathan Peats. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Their two big off season signings in Tyrone Peachey and Shannon Boyd were underwhelming, with the former scoring just two tries from 21 outings, and the latter averaging just 34 minutes a game for 86 metres over just 13 games. And Bryce Cartwright continued his decline.

However, there are big mitigating factors. Going into the season the Titans had a number of well credentialed players who, if they performed well, could lead the side to the finals.

Ash Taylor, Ryan James and Jai Arrow are all great players. However, they missed 14, 18 and six games respectively. Further, Nathan Peats missed 11 games and veteran Michael Gordon eight. Such wheels as there were fell off the wagon and they staggered to seasons end.

This team has the talent if they can just stay on the field and get some luck. Just a little luck. Otherwise Justin Holbrook will most probably not see out season 2020 in charge at Skilled Stadium.