The NRL contenders continue to rise to the top, the wooden spoon race looks more set, and rookies continue to shine. Here are my talking points from Round 9.
After the success that was the return of the National Rugby League from its COVID-19-enforced suspension, we get ready to do it all again with a number of blockbuster matches lined up for this weekend.
Thursday night sees the Sydney Roosters make the hit-and-run trip to Brisbane for a showdown against the Broncos, in which it’s expected the Chooks will fly out on game day and then return home on a chartered flight immediately after full-time.
The Rabbitohs will be expected to do the same for their clash against the Storm in Melbourne on Friday evening – and will also want to shake a huge monkey off their backs, having never saluted in the AFL capital.
All eyes will also be on the New Zealand Warriors as their season odyssey continues against the Panthers at Campbelltown, while the Knights will be out to spring another surprise when they face the Raiders at the same venue on Sunday.
To round out the weekend, either the Bulldogs or Dragons could find themselves further behind the pack when the two winless sides face off at Bankwest Stadium on Queen’s Birthday.
Here is your guide to Round 4.
Broncos vs Roosters
The first match of Round 4 takes us to Brisbane for the traditional grudge match between the Broncos and Roosters, which will indirectly mark the 20th anniversary of the 2000 grand final, won on that occasion by the northerners.
In what was the most recent NRL grand final to be played in the daytime, the Broncos capped off a dominant season, in which they won their most recent minor premiership, by beating the Roosters 14-6 in the decider with Darren Lockyer claiming the prestigious Clive Churchill Medal.
But since then, the Roosters have become the most successful team of the 21st century, winning four premierships from seven grand final attempts (not including the 2000 decider) – that’s one more than the second-best team, the Broncos (1998, 2000 and 2006).
This year the Chooks are attempting to become the first team in the NRL era (1998-present) to win three consecutive titles, and after two losses prior to the season suspension, they registered their first win of the rebooted season last Friday night, beating the Rabbitohs 28-12.
With captain Boyd Cordner playing his first game of the season, the Chooks made a mockery of what was supposed to be a tough clash with the Bunnies and Latrell Mitchell, dominating from lights to flag.
And while the Broncos are coming off a disappointing 34-6 loss to the Parramatta Eels at home the previous week, Trent Robinson’s men will be wary of the wounded northerners, who will be without captain Alex Glenn after he suffered a calf injury prior to halftime.
The Broncos had registered two victories before proceedings were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and were caught wanting against an Eels side which after three rounds have conceded just 14 points.
While the Roosters will start as favourites tomorrow night, recent history does favour the men from Red Hill, who haven’t lost to the Chooks on home soil since 2014.
However, I think the Roosters should take the points here.
Prediction: Roosters by ten points.
Panthers vs Warriors
For so long a target of criticism and ridicule after an underwhelming quarter of a century in the NRL, the New Zealand Warriors may have won over their detractors with one of the most polished performances in rugby league history last week.
Expected by many to struggle this season as they sacrificed their normal lives for the sake of restarting the season, the Warriors were barely threatened against an insipid Dragons side last Saturday, completing 45/47 sets and recording its first shut-out in Australia since 2006.
The victory was made all the more impressive given the situation the Kiwis find themselves in, being based in Australia indefinitely until a trans-Tasman bubble can be established, which would allow them to play games on home soil as early as Round 17.
Now the challenge will be to back it up against a Penrith Panthers side which would be kicking themselves after blowing a 14-0 lead against the Knights to be held to a rather frustrating 14-all draw at Campbelltown Stadium last Sunday afternoon.
Even without suspended playmaker Nathan Cleary, the mountain men shot out to that said lead after 22 minutes, but took their foot off the pedal thereafter, conceding three tries to a Knights side which lost captain Mitchell Pearce inside the first seven minutes.
It could have been so much worse, had the Knights not botched their final pass that could have led to their match-winning try in the first period of golden point extra time.
Rookie five-eighth Matt Burton was the chief offender, missing five field goal attempts including one in extra time which ricocheted off the upright and back into the field of play, after which the Panthers were pinged for being offside.
Cleary will again be missing as the Panthers attempt to get back on the winner’s list, and having seen the Warriors’ performance last Sunday, will surely not want to be taking the Kiwis lightly.
Prediction: Panthers by eight points.
Storm vs Rabbitohs
With the AFL season not due to resume until June 11, the Melbourne Storm will have the Victorian capital to themselves for the second straight week when they welcome the South Sydney Rabbitohs to AAMI Park this Friday night.
They will surely want to repay their fans after producing their worst performance at home for a while, losing 22-6 to the Canberra Raiders and being unable to crack the Green Machine’s defensive wall.
Coach Craig Bellamy said he was “embarrassed” by the team’s performance and surely he will be putting the onus on his team to bounce back against the Bunnies, who lost to the Broncos and Roosters on either side of the season suspension after beating the Sharks in Round 1.
Souths were never in the contest against the Roosters, crashing to a 28-12 defeat and putting their season and percentage into the red.
Latrell Mitchell continues to struggle in his early days as a Rabbitoh, but surely coach Wayne Bennett will back him to improve as the season goes on.
Five-eighth Cody Walker will also be unavailable due to an NRL-imposed suspension, which will further lengthen Souths’ attempt to break their duck in Melbourne, having never won in the Victorian capital.
Their previous visit to Bleak City ended in a heartbreaking 29-28 defeat in the 2018 qualifying final, in which a field goal from Cameron Munster proved to be the difference.
And I can’t see the Rabbitohs breaking through for a win this Friday night either.
Prediction: Storm by 14 points.
Eels vs Sea Eagles
Two of the most impressive winners from Round 3 go head to head in what is expected to be one of the most-watched games on Fox League this weekend.
The Eels recorded their best start to a season in over a quarter of a century after thrashing the Broncos 34-6 at Suncorp Stadium in the NRL’s return to play 66 days after the season was suspended.
They have also conceded just 14 points in three matches, which also marks the best start to a season defensively by any team in recent NRL memory.
However, their defence would be expected to get a workout when they face the Sea Eagles, who were nearly just as impressive in thrashing the Bulldogs 32-6 on the Central Coast.
The Sea Eagles’ win was masterminded by fullback Tom Trbojevic, who scored two tries and set up another three as the Silvertails won their second consecutive match, having also beaten the Roosters by 9-8 in Round 2.
With Brookvale Oval ruled out under the NRL’s phase one in their return to play, Des Hasler’s side will temporarily play their home games between now and Round 9 at Central Coast Stadium, one of the home grounds used by the Northern Eagles at the turn of the century.
But for their clash against the Eels, they will only need to make the rather short trip to Parramatta where a loss in Round 25 last season saw them settle for a sixth-place finish.
This will be the start of five consecutive matches at Bankwest Stadium for the blue-and-golds, and surely they’ll start favourites here.
Prediction: Eels by ten points.
Cowboys vs Sharks
Even the Sharks know it – it’s do-or-die for the men from the Shire when they travel to the tropics to face the North Queensland Cowboys on Saturday night.
The Sharks crashed to their third straight loss of the season when they blew a halftime lead to lose 28-16 against the Wests Tigers at Bankwest Stadium, and surely the frustration is starting to be felt among the players.
That followed from narrow losses to the Rabbitohs and Storm in the first two rounds, before the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the globe and forced the suspension of nearly all non-essential services, including sporting leagues, worldwide.
Their next task now is to face former club favourite Valentine Holmes, who is starting to settle into life back in the NRL after his failed stint in the NFL.
But they have been spared a confrontation with the game’s best forward, Jason Taumalolo, set to miss the match due to a knee injury.
The Cows broke their duck at the new North Queensland Stadium with a 36-6 thumping of the Gold Coast Titans, and will be favoured to make it three straight wins when they welcome the Sharks to the venue for the first time.
They’ll also want to settle a score against the Sharks, having lost to them in both regular-season encounters last year including by 42-16 at the now-discontinued 1300SMILES Stadium in Round 3.
Prediction: Cowboys by 16 points.
Raiders vs Knights
After producing one of their bravest performances of the post-Johns era against the Penrith Panthers last week, the Newcastle Knights will return to the scene of it when they face the Canberra Raiders at Campbelltown Stadium this Sunday.
Despite being without suspended five-eighth Kalyn Ponga, and losing captain Mitchell Pearce and hooker Connor Watson inside the first ten minutes, the Knights managed to keep the Panthers on a leash after they fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter of the match.
A try to Jacob Saifiti right at the death in the first half gave them a glimmer of hope, if there was any. Then, two tries to Bradman Best saw the scores level at 14-all, which would remain unchanged up to full-time, and then through the golden point extra time period.
The Knights had the chance to win the match outright, but they botched the potentially match-winning play when Edrick Lee fumbled the ball with the line wide open ten metres out from victory.
Now they will make the five-hour round trip to Campbelltown again for a clash against the Raiders, who made it a hat-trick of wins at the Storm’s graveyard with a 22-6 win last Saturday night.
While Ricky Stuart’s men dominated from start to finish, and deserved their win, it was their defence that won it in the second half as the Storm tried to look for ways to break the Green Machine wall.
It was the perfect result for Josh Papalii in his 200th game, right at the very venue of his NRL debut in 2011 (which just also happened to be a win against the Storm too).
The Raiders’ 3-0 start to the season is their first since 2005 – but they need not get carried away, because the last time they started a season with three straight wins (or four for that matter), they eventually collapsed to finish second-last, merely doubling their win tally after Round 5 that year (they had a bye in Round 1).
This year, the expectations are much higher, and it would not surprise me if the grand final this year ends up being between the Raiders and Parramatta Eels.
But first thing’s first – they need to take care of the Knights at their temporary home ground of Campbelltown Stadium, and won’t want to take the Novocastrians lightly on Sunday.
Prediction: Raiders by 12 points.
Titans vs Wests Tigers
The second of the two matches on Sunday sees the Wests Tigers make the quick-fire trip to Brisbane where they will face the Gold Coast Titans, still reeling after three heavy defeats which sees them occupy last place on the ladder.
The Tigers, who sat in ninth place on the ladder when the season was suspended at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, came from behind to beat the Sharks at Bankwest Stadium last Saturday night, with Benji Marshall again the architect behind the victory.
It goes to prove that the club is seriously intent on breaking its finals drought, currently the most active of any club, after finishing just outside the eight in three of the past four seasons.
Now they make their first trip out of New South Wales this season to face the Titans, whose coach Justin Holbrook is attempting to stay positive amidst the thrashings his side have copped to start the new season.
While they were beyond disgraceful in their loss to the Cowboys, they did score one of the tries of the round in the first half – but that was as good as it got for them.
And with Robina Stadium not being deemed an eligible venue under phase one of the return to play, it means the men from the holiday strip will have to temporarily play their home games at Suncorp Stadium until at least Round 9, when the NRL hopes to resolve the stadiums situation.
It’ll be hard seeing the Tigers not leave Brisbane without the points – in fact, the joint-venture won both their games at the cauldron last year, including beating the Broncos 22-16 in Round 5.
On that note, Michael Maguire’s side should make it four from five to start the season and leave the Titans without a win for nearly twelve months.
Prediction: Wests Tigers by 18 points.
Bulldogs vs Dragons
The final match of Round 4 sees the annual Queen’s Birthday clash between the Bulldogs and Dragons take place at Bankwest Stadium, with both sides desperate to put dismal losses behind them.
The Dragons failed to fire a shot in their 18-0 loss to the New Zealand Warriors, which has placed seventh-year coach Paul McGregor under pressure to retain his job.
McGregor had threatened to drop players if they did not perform, and he appears to be a man of his word, overhauling his side for their must-win clash against the Bulldogs this Monday.
That included moving misfiring halves Corey Norman to fullback and Ben Hunt to the stand-off role, with Adam Clune to make his debut in the number seven guernsey which has proven to be somewhat of a poisoned chalice at the club.
Meantime, the Bulldogs were just as disappointing against the Sea Eagles, going down 32-6 to crash to an 0-3 start for the first time since 1964.
Like his Dragons counterpart, the pressure is also building on Dean Pay, who has yet to take his club to the finals since being appointed as coach in 2018.
But in a major boost to the blue and whites, stand-off Kieran Foran will make his comeback from shoulder surgery, and in the process rack up his 200th NRL game which should give the Dogs a boost as far as on-field experience is concerned.
Though he may be past his best in terms of individual form, the team will surely want to lift for his milestone game and alleviate some of the pressure off Pay.
But a win by the Red V would also alleviate some of the pressure off Paul McGregor, who has only overseen two finals campaigns in over six years at the club for only one victory and has two years remaining on his contract.
Further, the Dragons haven’t beaten a Sydney-based club since the corresponding game last year, and I can’t see that happening this Monday at Bankwest Stadium.
Prediction: Bulldogs by ten points.