Another week of NRL has passed us by, and the finals are drawing closer. Here are my talking points from Round 17.
Something has to be done about crusher tackles
I won’t use the word epidemic to describe the plague of attacking players reversing into defensive lines in search of a penalty in recent weeks, but it’s not far away.
While crusher tackles are a legitimate danger in the game and must be penalised appropriately, some of the onus must be on attackers to not constantly put themselves in positions where such a tackle can be committed.
It’s not as if defending players are purposely committing these dangerous defensive plays every single time a penalty is blown, but more often than not, there is nowhere for them to go.
And that is the problem. It’s not the first time in recent years coaches have instructed their players to milk penalties. Remember the debacle surrounding the ball being passed into a defender who had cleared the ruck but was behind the play the ball?
It’s a black eye on the game, and this is no different, where the referee has to constantly stop play because pressure has been applied to the back of the neck and an attacking player stays down.
What makes it more infuriating is how often that same attacking player then gets back up and continues with the game.
The solution may be as simple as enforcing any player who stays down for a head or neck injury to go off for HIA test.
Regardless of whether the NRL go with that specifically or not, something must be done in a hurry to clean up this area of the game before it turns into a circus.
If defence wins premierships, the Roosters can make it three
The Roosters may not have been at their free-flowing best on Saturday in Canberra, despite the efforts of James Tedesco who continues to go from strength to strength, but their defence won the day in the second grand final rematch of the year.
All the talk might have been about the return of Sonny Bill Williams leading into the game, but all the talk going out of it should be about how to break down the defence of the back-to-back reigning premiers.
The Raiders threw the kitchen sink and then some at the men from Bondi, but they answered every challenge thrown their way, at times almost with ease.
When a defence can actively cause mistakes through the pressure they put on, and do it consistently, it speaks volumes of the way they are coached, and the level of professionalism they play with.
Trent Robinson is a master of his craft, and while the Roosters have, at times, looked like they were losing the battle this year, they are finding form at the right time to make another charge at the premiership.
If they do win the competition, Sonny Bill Williams won’t be the reason why. Their defence will be.
And just quietly on their opposition, if Josh Papalii is injured for any length of time, it’s curtains for the Raiders.
We can start believing in South Sydney
It might have been a loss for the Rabbitohs in their statement game against the Storm on Friday evening, but they did more than enough to make all the premiership contenders sit up and take notice.
After a fortnight of whacking around the Sea Eagles and Eels, neither of whom are exactly playing well recently, they took on Melbourne and were in the game up to their neck during the first half.
In fact, if you had have stopped watching at halftime, you would have said South Sydney were the better side against the premiership favourites.
They may not have come out of the sheds after the halftime oranges and chat from Wayne Bennett, but they did more than enough to prove that, even without Latrell Mitchell, they could string a few good games together in October and cause headaches for the premiership hopefuls.
They will have to do it the hard way from the bottom four, but players like Thomas Burgess, Cameron Murray, Damien Cook and Cody Walker are all just starting to find form, while Alex Johnston has more than a few doubters to prove wrong about his ability to be a strong long-term fullback.
The Knights should lock up Starford To’a
The Hunter has long been a rich breeding ground for NRL talent, and Starford To’a (okay, technically from Auckland) is just another coming through the Knights’ junior ranks.
The outside back has something special about him though, with his bigger frame and excellent acceleration and top speed setting him apart from many of the other young outside backs currently trying to force their way into first grade.
While there is no doubt the Knights have good talent in the outside backs in what would be considered their best 13, To’a has locked up a place of his own late in the season and should be aiming to keep it into next year.
When the 19-year-old’s contract expires at the end of the 2021 season, the Knights won’t be the only club aiming to lock up the long-term future of the young talent.
So the Knights should be jumping now, and trying to lock up the youngster long term.
He proved once and for all exactly how good he can be during the Knights big win over the Sharks on Friday evening. He might have crossed for a double, but he ran the ball strongly and held his own during what was an excellent defensive performance from the Knights.
Keen observers will understand this is just an extension of what he has produced all the way through the junior ranks, and with four tries in five games this season, he has announced himself to the rugby league world.
Kontoni Staggs shouldn’t be considered for Origin
This one is going to cop some criticism, but Kontoni Staggs is a one-way player who is not yet up to State of Origin level, particularly when he would be playing in sky blue ahead of some pretty good options in the backs.
Sure, he has all the attributes in attack to make punters sit up and take notice. He has strength, a great running game, some footwork, an outstanding fend and even goal kicking, but he simply doesn’t defend that well.
He misses a tackle for every eight he makes, which isn’t good enough in the centres, and he was at it again on Thursday in Brisbane’s improved performance against the Panthers, missing four and being responsible for a handful of Penrith points.
The problem lies that, while he can get away with it at club level because the team around him isn’t playing well, and his attack is one of Brisbane’s only highlights, he will get shown up badly at Origin level.
Attack is important, but in big games, as Staggs will no doubt find out, defence is what wins matches. He doesn’t have it, either in technique or reading of plays.
Add that to a short camp where time to work on combinations is limited, and it’d be a recipe for disaster.
It’s all downhill after Manly’s starting props
The Sea Eagles had seemed to answer all the problems to their front-row depth during the 2019 season. It was a constant headache during 2018, that when Addin Fonua-Blake and Martin Taupau went for a spell on the bench, they went from a team of world-beaters to… Well, whatever the opposite of that is.
And it happened big time against the Tigers. They looked like a completely different side based on whether they had those starting props on the field or not.
The numbers from the high-scoring encounter tell you all you need to know, with Fonua-Blake and Taupau both running for well north of 100 metres. The only other forward to crack a century was Curtis Sironen in the second row, although it took him all of 21 runs to make 142 metres.
Fonua-Blake and Taupau meanwhile both averaged north of ten metres per run, and also racked up the post-contact metres. That is something which can’t be said of the rest of the bench, who all struggled to make a dent in the Tigers’ forward pack.
Manly might have faced an injury crisis this year, but it’s a problem they will have to rectify before 2021 rolls around.
Valentine Holmes will be great again
The argument could be made that he once already was. Then he went to the NFL.
Since returning to the NRL and the struggling North Queensland Cowboys, and between his injuries, he has struggled to get back to the level he was at before he left.
However, Sunday night’s performance was a strong one from Holmes. He was superb from the outset in the Cowboys eventual golden point win over the Dragons, kicking the winning field goal when it was all said and done.
Outside of that moment though, he had almost 200 metres, a try, a trio of conversions, and constantly threatened the Dragons line with his ball running.
While he is also still adjusting to playing fullback regularly, it’s clear Holmes is the man the Cowboys must build their future around if they are to get back to the level the club should be performing at, given the talent up and down their roster.
Holmes can be a bonafide superstar again in this competition. It just needs time and support.
The Bulldogs have all but locked up the spoon
It’s something of a shame, because they don’t deserve it, but Saturday’s loss to the Titans ensures the Bulldogs are going to wind up at the bottom of the table in three weeks’ time.
It was a tough one to take for Canterbury, who again just didn’t have the class to get over the line.
It seems to be a running trend for the blue and white, who have made moves in the market to bring in players for 2021, but none which would overly excite fans about their ability to turn around a long-term drought when it comes to scoring points.
Blake Green would have been a strong option if not for his ACL injury, but the Bulldogs need big change if they are to stop sitting at the wrong end of the NRL table next season under Trent Barrett, who himself doesn’t have a proven coaching record, although now has spent a considerable chunk of time in a successful system at the Panthers under Ivan Cleary.
That may be the biggest boost for their chances heading into next year, but it’s not going to save the embarrassment of being smacked with the spoon at the end of this season, given their final three games see them play Manly, Souths and the Panthers.