Another week is in the books, with most results going virtually to script. The top eight seems to be just about set, and the run to the finals has commenced. Here are the NRL talking points for Round 15.
The Rabbitohs finally make the statement we have all been waiting for
It might have been against a banged-up Manly side, but the Rabbitohs finally put all their cards on the table, racking up 56 points in a complete performance.
The closest South Sydney have looked to a team capable of challenging the top guns in the finals before Saturday’s clash was a hard-fought 18-12 loss to the Raiders in Round 11.
But on Saturday they came racing out of the gates and ended up leading 38-0 at halftime. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing or what they are producing; to be leading by that many points at halftime, you have to be perfect.
When the men from Redfern play a fast brand of footy they are brilliant to watch. Adam Reynolds controls the kicking game with time and space, and the dynamic duo of Cody Walker and Damien Cook are able to play what’s in front of them.
The trio was involved in everything on the back of a forward pack who did all the hard yards, while all of their back five – including impressive debutant Steven Marsters – played their role in the crushing victory.
It was the team performance coaches dream of, and while it was a statement-type win, it will give them confidence ahead of playing Parramatta and Melbourne in the next fortnight.
South Sydney have underperformed all season, but if they win one or even both of those games, they could well come into form at the right end of the season.
Clint Gutherson has become Parramatta’s crucial player
The Eels may be in something of a rut, but the same can’t be said for fullback Clint Gutherson.
The Parramatta number one has been simply superb in recent weeks. After breaking the NRL record for running metres in last week’s shock loss to the Dragons, he was everywhere again for the blue and gold in their victory over Melbourne.
Having a hand in the lead-up to tries, running for more than 200 metres, forcing a dropout and setting up line breaks and dangerous attacking plays, he was close to if not best on ground once again.
And while it’s arguable to say Parramatta don’t win the competition without Mitchell Moses rediscovering the finesse which gave him one of the best kicking games in the competition, Gutherson’s form is now at the point where he is critical to Parramatta’s chances.
And not just in attack but also defence. He has quickly turned himself into a very solid player at the back, making very few errors under the high ball and often making try-saving tackles.
More than that, he clearly communicates well and organises the defensive line. No team keeps a side to zero without a good communicating fullback.
Gutherson’s form may have snuck up on fans slightly, but there is a reason he is known as ‘King Gutho’ in Parramatta.
Ben Hunt must be kept at hooker
The lack of this point in previous weeks has been because I’ve been sitting on the fence about where Hunt should play.
And while I was highly critical of Hunt during last year’s State of Origin series for his dummy half play, he has improved out of sight.
The Dragons look a far superior team with him there and have some results to show for it now. After a couple of close losses to good sides they have got over the Eels in Paul McGregor’s farewell match and the Broncos in Dean Young’s first.
Their win over Brisbane may have been a little scratchy and far from an 80-minute performance, but the Dragons attack looks crisp. Adam Clune has also played a role in that, controlling the kicking game since he arrived in the side.
Cameron McInnes is one of the NRL’s best defenders but lacks a little in the creativity department, so playing at lock suits him down to the ground, while Hunt has been able to chip into the team with kicking, running and passing out of hooker.
When he was forced to play in the halves for a small block a couple of weeks ago, the wheels fell off for the Red V, and that tells you all you need to know.
The Dragons sit four points out of the eight, and while finals footy is unlikely this year, they continue to build towards 2021. They have some tough matches on the run home, including the Raiders and Storm, might just tell us where Hunt at No. 9 is going to work in the long term.
The Roosters old guard must be fit for success to follow
The Roosters might be down on troops, but they got back to somewhere near their best in emphatic fashion on Saturday against the Tigers, running out 38-16 winners.
And while there were no passengers in Trent Robinson’s side, it was the experienced old guard who stood up and led the way.
Coming into the finals without some of their best talent, they are going to need to continue firing too. Whether it was the Morris brothers who refuse to slow down or Jake Friend leading the tackle count at hooker, they are simply too important to the Roosters to contemplate winning high-pressure games without.
The Morris brothers scored four tries between them and were excellent whenever they touched the ball, while it was also Jared Waerea-Hargreaves in his return from injury who led an extremely youthful forward pack on a demolition job of the Tigers middle third.
However, with only the four older players on the park, the Roosters system continued to show what it’s capable of doing. Drew Hutchinson and the recalled Kyle Flanagan were the halves combination, Sitili Tupouniua, Nat Butcher and Isaac Liu, while no-one on the bench had more than 40 first-grade games.
To then go out and run up 38 points proves the calibre of coach Trent Robinson is and the standards the Roosters set.
It’s why even after weeks of sub-standard form by their own standards they will still be in the hunt during the finals.
The Panthers need a couple of losses before finals
Long has the saying “the loss they had to have” been uttered in rugby league circles, but nowhere is it more true than for the Panthers.
This is a team firing on all cylinders, and with ten straight victories under the belt, they rightly lead the competition and are attracting attention as a premiership favourite.
That’s because right now they look unbeatable. Apisai Koroisau will go down as buy of the season, but with so many Panthers juniors on the field, it’s a success story like few we have seen before in rugby league.
But this is a team without a lot of finals experience. There are only five weeks to go until the finals, and if they go all the way to the finals without a loss, their doors could get blown off in the first week with little chance of recovery.
Ideally, they lose a game they are supposed to win in the next couple of weeks just to re-enforce they aren’t invincible. To remind the younger players in the side they can be stopped.
The problem when you look at their draw is that they play the Tigers, Broncos, Eels, Cowboys and Bulldogs on the run home. In current form the only chance of a loss is the Parramatta game. They could well finish the season at 18 wins, a draw and a loss – a remarkable achievement but dangerous to mentality ahead of a hunt for the real prize.
How far can the Green Machine go?
When Josh Hodgson went down for the season, given the rest of their injury toll it looked to be curtains for the Raiders and their premiership chances.
No Corey Horsburgh, Iosia Soliola or Bailey Simonsson, just to name a few.
And while they took a little while to work out how to play without their English superstar, they are starting to get the hang of it now.
Canberra have now won five of their last six, including that good win over the Roosters to start the run. They have found their feet and are now racing towards the finals, their only loss in the last six weeks coming against the Panthers away from home.
Whether they can match the lofty heights of last year is still up for debate, as is their true form given the last two wins have been over Brisbane and the Titans. With games against the Roosters, Dragons and Sharks on the horizon though, they are going to know where they stand heading into the finals.
With Josh Papalii leading the forward pack, Siliva Havili and Tom Starling making a good fist of replacing Hodgson at hooker, a halves combination growing with each game and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad continuing to play consistently well at the back, there is no reason they can’t finish in the top four.
Do that, get a second chance and run into the finals with plenty of confidence and there is no reason the Raiders can’t mix it with the big guns.
Newcastle’s premiership chances have been extinguished
For those that made it through the full 80 minutes of the final game this weekend, I applaud you.
It was a punishment at best. A shocking game of footy in windy conditions, the Knights had the better of it and yet never looked like putting the travelling Cowboys away.
Their one try early might have given fans of the home side they’d put on a score, but it was anything but. It wasn’t as if they made countless errors or were overly eager with the ball. They completed at north of 80 per cent and won both the territory and possession battles convincingly.
And yet their attack was poor. Bad decision-making, no creativity. They looked lost at times, almost a trip back to the days of ‘pass it to Ponga and see what happens’.
With Blake Green joining a long list of casualties, likely for the season, the premiership chances look to be flaming out for the Knights.
He was a stopgap measure when he arrived from the Warriors. Now they will be relying on either Phoenix Crossland or Kurt Mann, potentially with Chris Randall playing hooker.
While Mann’s form was excellent in the halves, he isn’t going to win you a competition alongside Mitchell Pearce. Not that Green was likely to either, but the Knights form has tailed right off, and while the finals experience they get will be important moving forward, it may not be more than one week.