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Opinion

Eight talking points from NRL Round 5

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14th June, 2020
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Another week is in the books and the inevitable has finally happened: the NRL had a COVID scare and were forced to postpone a game.

While the Roosters versus Bulldogs match will be played on Monday night, there have been seven other games this weekend throwing up some interesting contests, if not results, so let’s get into talking points for Round 5.

The NRL should be congratulated for their swift COVID action
The NRL could have attempted to sweep the fact Aiden Tolman needed a COVID-19 test under the carpet. The chance of him being infected was almost nil.

His results were also returned prior to the 4pm scheduled kick-off for the Bulldogs-Roosters clash.

And even then, Tolman could have just been removed from the match and the NRL could have proceeded without him.

The NRL didn’t need to postpone that game to Monday night and bring the Dragons-Sharks game forward, but they should be applauded for doing so.

If nothing else, it shows just how seriously Peter V’landys and the ARL Commission are taking the pandemic and the right to play through it even as society around the country begins to reopen.

The critics will no doubt come out this week asking why the NRL is back, but with so many safety measures in place and the quick decision to reschedule the last two days of the round, they are clearly looking after the players and the product.

Instead of waiting until it was too late to shift things around, the NRL pulled the pin early, pushed the Dragons-Sharks game forward and got things going with reasonable notice to all parties involved.

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It was textbook management of a difficult situation, and the NRL should be applauded for their actions this morning.

Peter V’landys

ARLC Chairman Peter V’landys (Matt King/Getty Images)

Winning games when you don’t play well is a true sign of excellence
The reaction by the masses to Parramatta’s win over the Panthers on Friday night has been marked by comments about how frustrated Penrith should be, or how Friday’s game proves Brad Arthur’s men aren’t really premiership contenders, or how the Eels’ inconsistency will haunt them.

And it might, but I wouldn’t mind being five wins from five games to start a disrupted and shortened season.

In fact if you had offered that to any coach, even with the disclaimer that two of those wins would be unconvincing, they’d take it every time.

When premiership teams have won games from behind or without playing well, the general consensus has been to discuss how important it is to win without being on top form.

Parramatta did just that against a pretty strong Penrith side who have been playing far above all expectations.

When they led the Eels 10-0 they looked destined to go on and win, but Arthur managed to turn his team around during the break. Mitchell Moses may have played well for only 20 minutes, but that’s all he needed to do.

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The win came down to the Parramatta forward pack turning up for each other on the goal line as Penrith poured on the pressure during the first half. To be down only 10-0 despite the way they played during the first 40 minutes was an achievement for the men in blue and gold, and when they finally did get into the game properly they were able to benefit from keeping things close.

Parramatta’s dream start has come from a fairly easy draw – outside of the controversial win against Manly, they have beaten the Broncos, Titans and Bulldogs – but you can only play what’s in front of you, and the Eels have done just that.

They are certainly in the premiership mix, but the next two weeks against the Roosters and Raiders will confirm where they stand.

Shaun Lane.

(Matt Blyth/Getty Images)

Will Corey Oates be the man to make way in Brisbane?
For a player who has been in and around the Queensland squad as a winger since 2016 and played all three Origins last year, there has been an enormous amount of talk about what Corey Oates’s best position is.

There had even been discussions about him wanting to play in the second row, and on Thursday night we finally got to see what that looked like.

It almost worked. While young gun Xavier Coates took all the credit for the way he dismantled Manly debutant Tevita Funa in the air, Oates quietly went about his business in the second row in a solid outing.

He may have only had eight runs, but almost half of his metres were post-contact, he made 34 tackles at almost 95 per cent efficiency and he didn’t make any glaring errors.

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It was about as good a performance as you could expect from a winger making the transition into the second row.

And yet Oates may still be the one to make way in the not too distant future. Anthony Seibold was in many ways forced to make the switch, whether it be through the side’s defensive struggles or the severe shortage of forwards the Broncos have available.

The fact that the Queensland winger was shunted away from his main position and that Brisbane have plenty of outside backs coming through – including Coates and Herbie Farnworth, who played on the wings against Manly – means Oates’s days in the starting side could be numbered.

When David Fifita and Alex Glenn return and Ben Te’o finds his feet back in the competition, the chance of the winger commanding a spot in the second row is next to nil.

He may still have his fingers on a utility bench spot, but he will need to show something very special in a hurry if he wants to make it as a second rower.

Corey Oates

(Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

The Raiders don’t need to carry a winger on the bench
Jordan Rapana’s signing after the Raiders let him go last year is making less sense by the week.

While the Green Machine got away with a scrappy win over the Tigers – and there are other issues the club must sort out – Ricky Stuart’s biggest concern must be the way he is using his wingers.

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When Rapana left the club they were well equipped to deal with it. Nick Cotric commands one spot, Bailey Simonsson was ready for a long run in the first-grade side and the backup brigade consisting of Michael Oldfield, Andre Niko, Harley Smith-Shields and Sebastian Kris was more than sufficient.

Given the club signed Curtis Scott in the off-season, it almost looked like they had dodged a bullet of having too much backline depth by losing Rapana.

But then they moved to bring him back, and ever since then they have been running with a winger from the bench.

On Saturday that was Simonsson, who the club won’t want to lose but may not have a choice if they continue robbing him of first-grade playing time.

What’s more, the Raiders need the extra forward on the bench, particularly under the new rules. They play a fast style, but it’s difficult to do that for extended minutes, which is a problem exacerbated by having reserve winger.

While there should be no problem with naming a utility there, the problem comes when that is not Siliva Havili. With him and a winger on the bench, it only leaves two players to rotate through the middle positions, and it showed at different points not just last night but also last week against Newcastle.

Sure, their ball-handling and other issues have let them down, but selection continuity is also important, so swapping between Rapana and Simonsson for the sake of it will not help Canberra.

Jordan Rapana celebrates a try.

Is Jordan Rapana in the Raiders’ best side anymore? (Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

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Tohu Harris is in special form
Oh, to be a Warriors fan.

They are the competition’s good news story this year given the sacrifices the squad from Auckland have made to keep the competition going.

But seriously, how do you support them?

Their last three weeks couldn’t sum up the club better. An 18-0 win over the Dragons, a 26-0 loss to the Panthers and then a 36-27 win over the Cowboys. It’s been an absolute roller-coaster.

What hasn’t been a roller-coaster is the form of second rower Tohu Harris. Long one of the most underrated and underappreciated players in the competition, he has been churning out numbers Jason Taumalolo would be proud of in the last three weeks.

It hasn’t been flashy, there hasn’t been a great deal of style associated with it and he hasn’t crossed the tryline, but he has been a workhorse, simply doing the job the Warriors needed him to do as they attempt to inspire themselves up the table.

With all the disruption it was hard to see who the New Zealand side were going to beat this year, but their performance above expectations is in no small part thanks to Harris.

He has picked up tackle totals of 48, 56 and 42 to go with running metres of 211, 217 and 193 in the last three weeks, with 76, 88 and 76 of those respectively post-contact. He has threatened the line, got a handful of offloads away and been rock solid in every element of his game.

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It’s little wonder the Warriors struggle when he isn’t on the park.

The Storm looked like the Storm again
For all but about ten minutes of Saturday night’s game against the Knights, Melbourne actually looked like the Craig Bellamy-coached team fans have come to know over the years.

They looked slick, professional and ruthless as they put Newcastle to the sword following a fortnight of average showings that comprised a loss to the Raiders and a sloppy win over South Sydney.

Sure, there was a ten-minute patch where the Knights started to mount a late charge, but as Melbourne have done so well over the years, they regained their composure and put the game to bed without issue.

While it’s hard to know exactly what to make of the game because Newcastle were overdue for a loss, the Storm needed to make a statement about what sort of footy they are playing this year and did just that.

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Instead of a low completion rate again, they got through 36 out of 40 sets, dominated in the middle third and the possession count and won the battle of the kicking games.

They will face tougher challenges than the one they had on Saturday, but getting back to their best had to start somewhere, so Bellamy will be more than happy to say it’s now underway.

Storm players celebrate a Brandon Smith try

(AAP Image/Darren Pateman)

Can we take anything from Latrell’s improved performance?
I’ve been grappling with the answer to this question since full-time in the Rabbitohs’ big win over the Titans.

On one hand, Latrell Mitchell needs to be praised for a strong performance. He barely put a foot wrong for South Sydney, scoring a try of his own, assisting in three others, getting heavily involved in Souths’ attack with 11 tackle breaks, a line break, a couple of line-break assists and an offload, and putting in his best 80-minute defensive effort.

You can’t knock those numbers, even if they came was against the Titans.

But then you remember he is supposed to be playing fullback and realise he again didn’t put his hand up running the ball back, making only 12 kick-return metres. It makes you wonder if he understands just how important that element of the game is to playing fullback.

That he again struggled to return the ball but came up with moments of magic only further suggests Mitchell should be playing in the centres.

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Wayne Bennett won’t make the change next week following Saturday’s win, and with the Warriors, Panthers, Bulldogs and Tigers next on the menu, it’ll be another chance for Mitchell to go big and prove to the world he is a fullback before the draw gets significantly tougher.

Latrell Mitchell runs the ball

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

A win doesn’t save Mary, but it’s alarm bells for Cronulla
The Dragons won a game. In case you can’t tell, I’m a little surprised.

It was hardly a pretty victory, but the Dragons looked better than they have since the return of the competition from the COVID-19 shutdown.

Whether it was the media circus following the club during the week, Ben Hunt playing at hooker or the squad finally deciding enough was enough, they performed infinitely better.

But this win doesn’t save Paul McGregor at all. He and his team will need to show a lot more in the coming weeks to save his job at the head of the Red V.

On the other hand, the Sharks are in major trouble.

Despite having what is widely considered as the easiest draw in the competition, they are now one and four.

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Their win against the Cowboys last week was solid but will count for little when performances are reviewed for the first month of the season.

While it would be hard to put John Morris’s job in the spotlight at this point in time, the Sharks have problems that need sorting out.

They have players who are susceptible to getting injured, have struggled for creative direction through Shaun Johnson and co, and are playing nowhere near their potential in the middle third of the park.

I won’t say they aren’t going to make the eight given their draw, but it’s a tale of Cronulla needing rapid improvement after Sunday.

Roarers, what did you make of Round 5? Drop a comment below and let us know.