Another week is in the books, with impressive contenders all picking up victories and some very high-scoring games making for an entertaining weekend. Here are my talking points from Round 12.
The Panthers are the real deal
In a game that had a Manly ambush written all over it, it was instead the Panthers who extended their winning streak to seven games.
Brookvale is a hard place to play at the best of times, but Penrith took to the old ground like a duck to water. And yes, Manly didn’t have Tom Trbojevic or a full 17 for most of the game, but their defence normally holds strong.
It was no chance of doing that with the Panthers attack in full flight.
Apisai Koroisau’s return was a big boost, and to run on 42 points shows this team is clicking on all cylinders with no sign of slowing down.
Nathan Cleary continues to settle into his role, while possibly the most underrated forward pack in the game continues to eat their opposition alive each and every week.
To keep their run of form going despite all the distractions surrounding the competition makes it even more impressive for the men from the foot of the mountains, and it would appear the only way they will be slowed down is if they have peaked too early.
With Ivan Cleary at the helm, this team moving into the beginning of a premiership window look unbeatable.
The Rabbitohs must play free-flowing footy
At 16-0 down within the first 15 minutes and Adam Reynolds sitting on the bench, it was looking like an uphill battle for the Rabbitohs to come back and beat the Dragons on Thursday.
But it was almost as if it was exactly what they needed to throw the shackles off and play free-flowing, attacking rugby league.
Dragons fans won’t agree, but it was a joy to watch from a neutral perspective as Latrell Mitchell found significant form, Alex Johnston continued to put himself in the shop window for a new contract, and Cody Walker took over the team.
Walker was the star of the show, playing his best game in two years. He dominated on the left side, scoring a double and setting up others, proving dangerous against the, at times, flaky Dragons defence.
Walker’s performance wouldn’t have been possible without the forwards doing their job. The Rabbitohs have always looked at their best when Damien Cook and Walker have space to work in and combine. With Reynolds out and a forward pack who won the battle, that’s exactly what they were able to do.
It was the first time in a significant period the duo were able to rekindle that pace to their game, and Souths looked all the better for it.
The Rabbitohs sit just inside the top eight at the end of Round 12, but if they want to play finals footy, the blueprint for how they must play was clear for all to see on Thursday.
Payne Haas must be the future of the Broncos
Another week, and another loss for the Broncos. It’s a broken record at this point.
This was a different kind of loss, though. A game where they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against the Sharks, who once again proved beyond all reasonable doubt that their attack with Shaun Johnson in form is hard to stop.
There might have been some positive signs for the Broncos, but ultimately another loss plunges the struggling side closer to a full-scale rebuild.
That rebuild must be centred around giant representative forward Payne Haas. The club might have lost David Fifita, but Haas is the future.
He turned in another remarkable performance in the front row on Friday, playing 66 minutes for 217 metres from 18 runs with 111 of them post-contact, to go with 43 tackles at almost 92 per cent efficiency.
It’s not even a surprise to see. Despite Brisbane’s forwards meekly surrendering for much of the season and their backs providing nothing, Haas has been the only shining light.
While he is on contract with the Broncos until the end of 2024, he is a future club captain, and the man to take them forward from what has been a shambles of a 2020 season, in which they have lost eight of their last nine.
Put him on a different team and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck could be as good as James Tedesco
If you were to ask most rugby league fans who the best player in the game is right now, the immediate answer would be Sydney Roosters fullback James Tedesco.
While there is no doubt that, based on the form he has maintained over the last two seasons, Teddy is the NRL’s top player, Warriors fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck gave a reminder that he should be in the conversation during the Warriors’ shock win over the Tigers.
There are plenty of negatives to take out of it for Wests, but it’s hard to stop Tuivasa-Sheck when he is in form. The fullback was a constant threat as he made 279 metres, seven tackle busts, provided a couple of offloads and had plenty of involvement in the Kiwis’ attack.
Amidst all the gloom and doom for the club, their captain always seems to be the bright spot.
He won’t drag his club into the top eight this year, but you’d think if Tuivasa-Sheck was playing just about anywhere else, with other talent around him like Tedesco has, he may well be challenging the Roosters custodian for the mantle.
The Eels are on cruise control, and it’ll bite them
The middle of the season always tends to be when top teams can get by not playing at their best. The Roosters haven’t been, probably for six weeks, but it’s a trend which is starting to hit the Eels.
The difference between the top teams is that the Roosters have been here before. They know exactly how to get out of a rut.
It’s not a major cause for concern yet, but the Eels haven’t played a complete game of footy in a month.
In that time, they have scratched past the Knights and Tigers, lost to the Sea Eagles without Tom Trbojevic, and today only just held out the fast-finishing Bulldogs.
They aren’t playing badly, but they just aren’t at the level which had a majority of pundits inserting them as one of the teams to challenge for a spot on grand final day.
While they have had their own share of injuries, habits can be hard to break, particularly when the standard of opposition isn’t the greatest.
That’s exactly what stands in the next fortnight for Parramatta, with the Sharks and Dragons their next two opponents. After that, it’s Melbourne.
Brad Arthur’s side desperately need to find their best form again before that match, or the doors could be blown off in spectacular fashion. Premiership teams have shown in the past the ability to get out of lean periods, and we are about to find out whether the blue and gold have it.
Newcastle’s premiership window isn’t open… yet
The Knights aren’t far away, and the rapid improvement they have shown this year has been special, but they aren’t a premiership contender yet.
Sunday afternoon’s game against Melbourne was a litmus test, particularly after some indifferent form over the last month which included losses to the Bulldogs and Eels.
It wasn’t just the loss which stings, but the manner of the defeat. They were never really in the game despite the illusion the scoreboard provided at times. Yes, injuries played their part, but they did too for Melbourne, with Cameron Smith and Jahrome Hughes both going down.
The difference in class between Melbourne, who could go on another deep finals run, and the Knights, was obvious.
This shouldn’t take anything away from what the club has achieved this year, and they will certainly be better for a run through the finals, but being able to challenge the Roosters, Storm, Panthers or whichever other contender sticks their hand up looks a little way off.
The Knights will have a premiership window, with their forwards all better for this season, and creative combinations gelling. It just won’t be this year.
Reece Robson can become one of the game’s best hookers
It’s rare to talk so positively about so many teams who were defeated, but there are individual players like Haas who deserve it.
Another is Reece Robson, the Cowboys hooker who went to the club seeking first-grade playing time behind Jake Granville and has since turned into a consistent starter.
Not just a consistent starter, but an excellent one, who is quickly living up to all the high-potential calls which accompanied his rise to first grade when in the Dragons system.
The 22-year-old has proven to be rock solid in defence, only failing to make 40 tackles twice in the eight games he has started, missing just 11 in that time, while his attack has brought something to the listless Cowboys.
Like his teammates, it’s not consistent, but Robson always seems to be a threat near the line, with five tries, a pair of assists and a handful more involvements to his name.
Robson has cemented his hold on the number nine jersey, and while it’s not good news for Granville, it is for Cowboys fans.