Just like that, a fifth of the shortened NRL season has passed, and while the first half of Round 4 went as expected, there were more surprise results than you could poke a stick at during the second . Let’s get into this week’s talking points.
Are blowouts a cause for concern?
One of the storylines out of the first two weeks has been how often blowouts have occurred. A faster game generally means more fatigue for a defending side, and there have been more lopsided scorelines as a result.
It’s common logic to suggest that was going to happen, despite the success of the six-again rule in speeding up the game.
|2020 Rd 1-2||2020 Rd 3-4||2019 Rd 1-4||2018 Rd 1-4||2017 Rd 1-4|
|% of games <10||62.50%||25%||40.63%||50%||43.80%|
Note: Margins of exactly ten are included in the less than ten column.
The numbers are damning. The average winning margin in the last two weeks has been higher than it has been in years, although it has arrested a slide in points per game.
But when you look beyond the numbers, even under the old rules, there could have been a number of bigger winning margins in this first fortnight.
In fact, it could be argued this whole season was always going to have bigger margins.
The Titans, Bulldogs, Warriors, Dragons, Tigers and probably even the Broncos were set to struggle big time in 2020, while the Roosters, Storm, Eels, Sea Eagles and Raiders at a bare minimum were always going to be leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the competition.
When you look at the match-ups in these last two weeks, you’ve had the Eels-Broncos, Roosters-Rabbitohs, Sea Eagles-Bulldogs, Roosters-Broncos and Storm-Rabbitohs, plus the Dragons and Warriors both being held to nil once.
Now you add the factor that teams were always going to be at different levels of fitness after a nine-week lay-off, to go with rule changes which were going to play on that issue.
It was never going to make the games closer, but as teams come to grips with these rules in the coming weeks, I’d expect to see this trend even out, and that can be based on the evidence of Manly-Parramatta and the Titans’ victory over the Tigers this weekend.
This rule must be given a proper chance before it can be blamed for bigger winning margins.
The bunker should be able to rule on forward passes, but Parramatta and Manly are both premiership contenders
Saturday evening was was billed as the game of the round and it lived up to it, the Eels and Sea Eagles putting on an excellent contest.
Unfortunately, it was marred by the finish, when an almost obviously backwards pass to put the Sea Eagles over for the match-winning try was ruled to be forward.
It’s in situations like these that the bunker should be able to rule on a forward pass, with the use of the captain’s challenge.
It’s not clear cut in rugby league a lot of the time, but when the ball so obviously comes out of the hands backwards as it did on Saturday evening, we should be aiming for the right decision.
Like a try, it would have to be conclusive to overturn the on-field decision. The video referee was introduced long ago, and technology has come along way since those days, so there is no reason we shouldn’t be trying to move with the times.
Back on the game, and it was a cliff-hanger. Evertyhing fans were expecting from such a contest.
While it looked like Parramatta were going to run away with it early, Manly’s spirited fightback put them in the game in the dying moments embodies what the club has become under Des Hasler: a team who will always work for each other, hang in the contest, get in the scrap and fight until the final whistle. It’s not the first time in the last 18 months Manly have done that.
Both teams had moments of brilliance and utter madness, but there can be few questions regarding the premiership credentials of either side.
The Roosters have arrived
There were plenty of legitimate concerns about the Roosters after the first two rounds of the season, following their losses to the Panthers and Sea Eagles.
Sitting with an 0-2 record, and a newly reduced season ahead, the pressure was on Trent Robinson’s side to recapture their form in a hurry once things got back underway.
And haven’t they answered their doubters?
While the victory last week against the Rabbitohs still had its issues, they slammed the door emphatically on their doubters in Brisbane.
I wrote extensively on Brisbane’s plight on Friday morning, but it’s talk up the Roosters. While they still have tougher games to come against teams like Melbourne and Parramatta, to win 59-0 and not look under pressure once is a great performance.
What made it all the more special for the Tricolours was the fact the undoubted number one player in the game, James Tedesco, was ruled out on gameday.
The remaining team took to their trip north like a duck to water, with every player standing up and doing the job required of them.
One of the key traits in a premiership side is ruthlessness, and the ability to play out the 80 minutes no matter the situation, which is exactly what the Chooks did. They were simply outstanding from whistle to siren against the Broncos, turning up well in defence late on to deny Brisbane a consolation try.
The intent to keep pouring on the points also was evident throughout, and with Tedesco to come back, the Roosters look to be on the right path for another deep finals run.
Paul Green will be the next coach to land on the chopping block
There are zero excuses for the Cowboys to be losing at home this year.
They hold an enormous advantage to play in Townsville during this period of the re-launched season, where teams from Sydney have to make a minimum three-hour flight.
While full credit must go to Cronulla – particularly given the pre-match scare where six players failed to pass their first temperature check – North Queensland are looking like something of a rabble again.
They may have beaten the Gold Coast last weekend, but that will count for nothing when overall performance is measured.
The Cowboys have been hamstrung by injuries the last few seasons, but the bottom line is their squad was good enough to play finals in both 2018 and 2019 after a stunning run to the decider in 2017.
Instead, they haven’t made the eight since, and another failed campaign in 2020 would leave Paul Green firmly on the chopping block.
Saturday night’s performance simply wasn’t good enough. Their attack didn’t consistently trouble the line, and their defence made it look at times like the team would rather be anywhere else.
They struggled badly in shutting down Jesse Ramien on Cronulla’s right edge, and lost the battle in the middle third. That could be attributed to Jason Taumalolo’s absence, but again, every team suffers injuries, and the Cowboys had more than enough talent to overcome it.
Green’s job status hasn’t been a major issue in the media yet, simply because Paul McGregor, Dean Pay and Anthony Seibold are all leading that race, but if the Cowboys are to lose against the Warriors and the Tigers in the next fortnight, the pressure will increase.
Could Melbourne’s premiership window finally be shut?
It’s been the never-ending premiership window.
Every year, it feels like the Storm are in the conversation to be premiers, and while the following must come with a disclaimer – it’s far, far too early to be making judgements on the premiership capabilities of a team like the Storm – their victories thus far have been not at a usual Melbourne standard, while their loss to Canberra last week should raise all sorts of alarm bells.
If they were playing the Roosters on Friday night instead of the Rabbitohs, it’s highly doubtful they would have won.
Calling the game against Souths ordinary wouldn’t do it justice, with neither team in any mood to hold onto the ball and, for a fair chunk of it, seemingly in a race to see who could lose the game.
By the time it was all said and done, Melbourne had completed at just 73 per cent, Souths at 63 per cent, with a staggering 31 errors between the two sides.
It made the game look schoolboy at best, with neither side able to build pressure.
While games between big-name sides can at times turn into a scrap or error-fest, the Storm should have been seething from the Round 3 loss to Canberra – the third time they have lost to the Raiders in Melbourne in a row.
But instead, they were having the same issues, and while their defence was strong, it’s unlikely defence – particularly in that traditional, slow Melbourne style – is going to win a premiership this year with the new rule changes.
In the coming weeks, it’s time for Cameron Munster to prove he can be consistent, for their young guns to stand up alongside Cameron Smith, and it’s time to get the basics right again.
Rugby league in 2020 is all about attitude
Now, this isn’t to discredit the Tigers’ win last week over the Sharks last weekend, because that was an outstanding performance. But let’s contrast the differences between the Tigers’ and Knights’ respective performances on Sunday afternoon.
Newcastle, who the week prior had come away with a draw against the Panthers despite playing with 15 players for 70 minutes, weren’t expected to go anywhere near the Raiders.
It was a game which was supposed to be over by halftime. Instead, the Knights did exactly what they did in Round 3: took their opportunities from start to finish, rushed up in defence and managed to put all sorts of pressure on their opponents.
Their plan was perfect, and executed to the point Canberra were actively off their game, making error after error and not looking anything like their normal selves.
It was almost as if they had arrived expecting to win, and as a result, the Knights now sit in second place on the ladder, with a huge head-start in the shortened season.
Meanwhile, the Tigers travelled to Brisbane hot off their stunning upset victory over the Sharks. It was one of those performances that should have laid the foundation for more improvement. They should have backed it up to make a statement against the Gold Coast. In fact, at one point, it looked like they were going to when they shot out to a 12-0 lead in as many minutes.
But that is where it all hit the fan. The Tigers switched off, and Michael Maguire couldn’t get them to switch back on, and the Titans claimed their first win in more than a year.
That’ll make all the difference in the teams fighting at the bottom of the top eight in 2020.
Matt Burton is a star of the future, but should he partner Nathan Cleary?
Nathan Cleary’s suspension for a breach of social distancing protocols before the NRL resumed has created a headache for his father when he picks his side to take on the Eels next Friday night.
While this was touted as a chance for Jarome Luai to stand up as the senior half in the side, he hasn’t done anything of the sort.
Instead, his younger halves partner, Matt Burton, has. His kicking game was phenomenal for the Panthers on Friday night against the Warriors, while he orchestrated the attack wonderfully.
As the old saying goes, Burton got his foot in the door and then smacked it off its hinges.
While his game management leaves a little to be desired after last week’s draw against the Knights, that wouldn’t be his primary role once Cleary is back in the side.
Given Luai’s seeming inability to adapt to first-grade standard, it may be time for the Panthers to make the change and bring Burton in as part of their best 17.
It would be a risk, but Burton is the future of the club, and could well be the future of his state. He would take the pressure off Cleary to run the kicking game alone, and generally should go some distance towards improving the Penrith’s creativity in attack.
Spoon bowl game lives up to its spoon bowl name
The Queen’s Birthday game has brought us some pretty turgid affairs over the years, but today’s was the worst of the lot.
It was never going to be a great came, given the respective talent of the two sides, who were sitting at the bottom of the table coming into it.
If anyone needed any reminder as to why, the first 15 minutes, full of intent but woeful execution, summed it up.
Things didn’t exactly improve from there for either side, with the game flopping around in spates of terrible attacking play, but with both coaches under the pump, neither side showed many signs of improvement.
There is little doubt that the two clubs – both sides with proud histories – are at low ebbs. The Bulldogs, at least, have begun their cleanout from the salary cap mess, but even then Dean Pay may not last much longer.
At least he has the excuse of not having the cattle.
At the Dragons, it’s a long road ahead with potentially more downhill to come first, but that journey can’t start until Paul McGregor is out the door.
After Monday, the only thing that is clear is that the wooden spoon seems bound for one of the two clubs.
Roarers, what did you make of Round 4?