Surprise results, teams answering their critics and a couple of big blowouts. Round 13 had it all, so let’s get into another edition of NRL talking points.
NRL COVID-breachers should be suspended for the season
This seems a harsh way to start. But the competition is only running because of the detailed safety plan in place.
The Warriors and Storm are both living away from home, and every club has to follow certain procedures so the competition can continue.
So for Paul Vaughan, Tevita Pangai Junior, Wayne Bennett, Allan Langer and a few other Brisbane staff to break the rules is worse than any offence committed on-field, because it puts the whole competition at risk.
Everybody knows the rules. No restaurants, no pubs. Basically stay at home unless you’re going to rugby league. Sure, that’s a higher standard than the rest of society, but if players want to continue playing and be paid, these are sacrifices they must make.
One positive test will effectively derail the competition. The precautions in place are there for a reason, and every single person involved with the NRL must be made to realise this.
I’m not just talking about making an example of Vaughan, Pangai Junior or Bennett. A season-ending suspension should be the go-to punishment for anyone who transgresses.
Introduce a penalty like that and it’ll ensure players don’t do the wrong thing, and that those who are behaving don’t have their sport and pay packets put in jeopardy.
Injury excuse doesn’t cut it for Manly
There are no excuses for losing to the Warriors this season, regardless of the injury situation your club is in.
I’m sure Manly fans will disagree with me, particularly given Addin Fonua-Blake didn’t last more than a quarter of the game, but if you’re going to be a premiership contender, beating the Warriors is a must.
While there are other problems, the biggest among them is Tom Trbojevic still being out with a dodgy hamstring. Manly have played a lot of games without Trbojevic in the last season and a half, and yet still can’t find a way to perform consistently.
They have won some games, sure, but their attack still relies far too heavily on him, which is starting to become a knock on Des Hasler. The structure Manly play needs a superstar fullback and isn’t very adaptable.
While every club would benefit from a Trbojevic-type player, Manly still have options to get the job done. Their forward pack is great, Daly Cherry-Evans has the NRL’s best kicking game, and their outside backs are outstanding.
The fact they then went out and lost to the Warriors speaks volumes of a club who won’t challenge this year. A team like the Roosters or Storm would never have lost that game, even without star players, and it shows the difference between the top echelon of teams and those sitting behind.
Kyle Flanagan is in the Roosters best 17
The Roosters may have come away with a scratchy win over the Dragons on Thursday night in Wollongong, but if it proved anything, it’s that Kyle Flanagan should have his spot back.
Inexplicably dropped by Trent Robinson leading into the game, it seemed to suggest he hasn’t been living up to the lofty standards at the club.
While it’s great for a team to know their own levels of acceptable performance, the Roosters backline didn’t look anywhere near as fluid on Thursday.
James Tedesco struggled to get involved, and Lachlan Lam, while showing plenty of energy, didn’t seem to fit in properly in the starting side.
Lam does a great job as the bench utility, but without the performances of Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Luke Keary, it’s not certain the Tricolours would have won.
Flanagan is the competition’s leading point-scorer, and even if his form has been slightly off, the Roosters are a better side with him in it.
Kenny Bromwich doesn’t get the credit he deserves
Kenny Bromwich scored a double in the Storm’s rout of the Bulldogs on Saturday, and it gives us an opportunity to talk about one of the game’s most underrated second-rowers.
The New Zealand international doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but when he is playing alongside Cameron Smith, Cameron Munster and Ryan Papenhuyzen, not to mention brother Jesse and the rest of an excellent forward pack, maybe it’s to be expected.
Still, he is a vital cog in the Melbourne machine.
While he was a bench utility option until last year, he has stamped his authority on a starting spot and continues to go from strength to strength.
He is incredibly hard to stop when running the footy, but also has a deft passing touch which makes him so tough to close down. Commit numbers and he will make you pay, getting the ball to Melbourne’s speedy outside men.
Back off and he will find a way through the line. Add his punishing defence, tackling at over 90 per cent efficiency for the season, and you have a complete player.
He won’t get the credit he deserves while in the Melbourne system, but without him, the Storm may not be quite as successful.
What has happened to Coen Hess?
Coen Hess was going to be the next big thing. He burst into first-grade in 2015 and was playing State of Origin two years later.
After appearing for the Maroons, he struggled to keep his spot in the Cowboys best 17 last year, and while he might be playing there this year, he’s provided a series of inconsistent performances.
While he has always been noted for his excellent ball-running and an ability to find the tryline (he has 29 in 93 appearances, which isn’t a bad strike rate for a second-rower), even that has fallen away in 2020.
While his attack has declined, his defence has gradually gotten worse too. As the Titans ran in a plethora of first-half tries on Sunday, Hess was a key offender for the Cowboys, having missed six tackles by the break.
His performances have dropped to an unacceptable level, and are emblematic of the entire club, who are showing no signs of revival despite moving on coach Paul Green.
This is a side in dire need of a rebuild. Hess could be among the first moved on.
Nathan Cleary is Australia’s long-term halfback
It struck me during Saturday night’s game between the Panthers and Raiders that I haven’t written about Nathan Cleary in this column all season.
That, given his form, is unbelievable, although it says more about the Panthers’ stunning form that they’ve had other players more worthy of discussion.
Cleary has been consistently brilliant. Whether it’s his kicking game to get his side out of a rare tough spot, his attacking quality when he is on the front foot, or his probing running game, opposition defences have had no answers.
And while the entire Panthers 17 have been on fire, it’s impossible to play at the top without a high-quality halfback.
Cleary might have four tries, six try assists and just under a forced dropout per game, but allowing Jarome Luai to prosper outside him with his own running game has been most impressive.
He is in complete control of his team and is the form halfback of the competition. That form, to go with a level of maturity you’d not expect from someone his age, is a sure sign he will spend much of his career in sky blue and green and gold while delivering untold success to the Panthers.
If you were picking the Australian team right now, Cleary would be there. Once he gets the jersey, he may never relinquish it.
‘Pass the ball to Ponga’ is still Newcastle’s best weapon
There are few sights quite as pleasing in the NRL as Kalyn Ponga in full flight.
And while the cries of “overrated” will no doubt follow, when he is at his best, there are few players who can match him.
Following some quieter games during an inconsistent spell for the Knights, he returned to his best against the Tigers in a 44-4 mauling on Saturday. It’s little surprise that Ponga playing well meant the Knights won big.
The superstar fullback scored a double, played a hand in other tries and ended up with more than 240 metres. That was to go with line breaks, line-break assists and multiple dangerous runs that left the Tigers defence backpedalling.
The key criticism of the Knights attack under Nathan Brown last year was Ponga being their only weapon. That is no longer the case.
They are a well-rounded footy team now, but that doesn’t mean Ponga isn’t still their best asset. He is, and at his best, he is a game-winner.
The Knights, who will more than likely play finals footy, will be hoping they can get a couple of performances like Saturday’s out of Ponga in October.
How secure is Blake Ferguson’s spot?
There has been plenty to like about Parramatta this season, although a mid-season mini-slump is still hanging over the club.
Sunday’s tight win over the Sharks didn’t get them out of that, but they’ll take the two points given the conditions at Kogarah.
While making changes for the sake of making changes doesn’t happen often in premiership contenders, questions should be asked about Blake Ferguson.
The winger does so much right for the Eels and is part of a lethal back three that ensure the blue and gold regularly get good field position.
But in 13 games this season, Ferguson is yet to score a try or provide an assist, has only made two line breaks, and hasn’t done much more in terms of tackle busts. More concerningly, he has been very error-prone.
In fact, by the end of Sunday’s game, he has made as many errors as anyone else at the Eels, while his tackle efficiency has been quite poor as well – although that isn’t unusual for a winger. His usual high standards haven’t been met.
Parramatta haven’t been at their best, and with talented youngster Haze Dunster waiting for a crack at first grade, it could well be time for Brad Arthur to make a change on the wing. Don’t be surprised to see it happen should the blue and gold not burst out of their rut next weekend.