In a game that’s often accused of giving second (and third, fourth, fifth…) chances to the wrong people, it warms my cold, cynical heart to see Jarrod Mullen back playing rugby league.
Midway through the NRL season, these are the questions I can’t wait to be answered over the rest of the 2020 campaign.
Can the Roosters regroup for a three-peat?
On the day this team is still the best in the competition. The combinations they have formed and the personnel they still possess means that when they turn it on, no one can go with them. But they have had some big, Origin-intensity games since the resumption and with ten rounds still to go, plus a finals series, can they regroup to threaten for a third title?
Since the resumption the Roosters surged to five wins a row, before dropping two of their last three. It has been the nature of those two losses that seem to have the Roosters in trouble, dropping games to the Raiders and Storm that in years gone by they would have won. Fatigue and injury looks to have set in, with lapses in effort and concentration costing them dearly.
Fatigue and injuries are going to play a big part in the run home. With no reserve grade, no byes, and the opposition coming to get them every week, it is going to be a real test for the Roosters to still be at their best in ten weeks. In seasons gone by they have done extremely well to manage their roster, injuries and Origin to have them firing at the right time. It will take every ounce of that experience this year to get the same result.
The top four is key for the Roosters this year, as ever. If they can get there, win week one and get a rest, they have the team in the competition to go again. But if they can’t do either of the latter, they may run out of puff this time around.
Can the boys from the west maintain the rage?
The new kids at the top of the ladder are the Panthers and the Eels. It is a rarity to see the two sides from Western Sydney so high on the ladder, let alone at the same time. They are playing exciting brands of footy, with confident young playmakers, but are also finding some consistency that has eluded them both for some time.
The Eels were brought back to earth by the Sea Eagles on the weekend, and probably needed the reality check. They were able to threaten late, and will be disappointed that they couldn’t get it done. They will welcome the challenge against a resurgent Wests Tigers this week, and probably need a sterner test sometime soon to gauge where they are at. They will also be keen to get Mitch Moses back. He has been in career-best form for them this season.
The Panthers have been similarly consistent, and have proven themselves against some quality sides since the resumption. Nathan Cleary is undeniably the leader, and when they looked vulnerable against the Cowboys on Sunday he was able to find the plays to seal the game.
It is not just his attack but his defence that has drawn praise, and he looks driven to propel the Panthers forward this season. It will be telling how the Panthers go in this second half of the season with the rest of the competition now on some sort of notice about their talent.
The Eels and the Panthers seem to have plenty of their players at their best and firing, the challenge for them will be to keep it going.
While teams like the Raiders, Storm and Roosters aren’t hitting top gear yet, they know how to do it when the finals rolls around. Beating them for two points during the season is one thing, doing it to keep your season alive is another.
Both have also enjoyed playing at home, or within Sydney, while other clubs have not been nearly as lucky. Anything could happen in the run home, and the Eels and Panthers could yet be playing big games in hostile territory. The Eels in particular need to aim up away from Bankwest.
Who is next to go in the coaches box?
Paul McGregor looked most under threat as the Dragons went 0-4 to start the season, but has bought some time now, with four wins since. The Warriors swung the axe to out Stephen Kearney in a pretty harsh scenario for him. Now Paul Green has been let go by the Cowboys after their sub-par start to the season, with just three wins on the board. The Bulldogs too have parted ways with Dean Pay, they find themselves at the bottom of the ladder after ten rounds.
Anthony Seibold is under enormous pressure. He got a brief reprieve after a win against the Bulldogs, but was brought back to earth with a thud, the Broncos thrashed 48-0 by the Tigers. It continues a trend of big scorelines against the club, going back to the 58-0 demolition job at the hands of the Eels in last year’s finals series.
While Seibold may yet make a great coach, the results at Brisbane in his tenure have been underwhelming and things have gone downhill quickly. The squad has enough experience and representative players to be doing better. It is as though the players have now decided the blame lies with him, and they don’t have a responsibility to aim up in the meantime.
If Seibold can endure, it will be a minor miracle. The Broncos aren’t just losing, they are being disgraced. They seem to put in very little effort, and be devoid of resilience in tough situations. The players certainly need to be accountable, but the fish rots from the head down, and until they do something, the results are unlikely to change.
McGregor has some time on his side now, and the Dragons are looking competitive on a weekly basis. But he has had a long tenure at the club, and there will be some pressure on him to get this team to the finals after a bad start to the year.
Will the real Newcastle please stand up?
The Knights find themselves in fourth at the halfway mark of the competition but have been a hard team to get a read on as it stands. Fantastic some weeks, they struggle for consistency, and time will tell if they can maintain their position in the top four.
The stage was set a couple of weeks ago, with a return to the Hunter, and a big game against the Eels to make a statement to the rest of the competition. They would go down in a low-scoring and dour affair, failing to really fire a shot in attack that afternoon. Up against the Rabbitohs on Saturday they got to 20-0 with barely 15 minutes to go. They would open the gate for the Rabbitohs and very nearly be beaten late.
The Knights just seem to lack that ruthless and professional edge of other teams. They have put their eggs in a basket with Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga, and need them at their best each week. Pearce is a premiership-winning half for the Roosters, but always had quality around him to take some pressure off. At Newcastle he has and is going to be their key player.
Likewise with Ponga, who has signed a rich, long-term deal. These two need to have their DNA all over the team each week. Andrew McCullough adds even more experience in the spine, and you get the feeling that this is the best opportunity the Knights have had in some time to make an impact in the finals if they can get their act together.
Last year the Knights were top of the table mid-way through the season, before an alarming slide out of the eight that saw them part ways with Nathan Brown. They need to avoid that happening this year.
Are Manly the biggest dark horse in the competition at the moment?
I was startled to realise the Sea Eagles were tenth on the ladder. Yes, I wasn’t going anywhere near them against the Eels, with Tom Trbojevic still on the sidelines, but this is a tougher team than they get credit for. They showed as much in beating the Eels, hanging on late to show they are still competitive without Trbojevic at the back.
They have managed to beat the Eels, Roosters and Raiders to start the year. They were robbed in a second clash with the Eels, and could consider themselves unlucky not to get a shot at extra time against the Knights. Win either or both of those and they are in a far loftier position, with their record still at 5-5.
Tom Trbojevic is a massive out for this team. The statistics don’t lie, and they win far more with him in the team than out. He was in close to career-best form before his injury and it is unfortunate for the game that so often he is sidelined.
You get the feeling that once again if Des Hasler can get this team to the finals, he has the nous to get them further. They were plucky in September last year, and they will only be better for that experience. Not far from a preliminary final, some questionable decisions saw them bow out against South Sydney.
With plenty of other sides in good form, the Sea Eagles aren’t attracting the same headlines that others are. It should work to their advantage as the season wears on.