Sunday night. You know the drill. Here are my talking points from a fascinating Round 18 in the NRL.
Jack Wighton’s ball running is critical for Canberra
When you think of the best ball-running halves, names like Cody Walker, Cameron Munster and Shaun Johnson are the ones who immediately come to mind.
One who often goes unacknowledged is Jack Wighton.
The Canberra half has a knack for making a critical break from inside his own half or taking on the line to create time and space for others.
Even when he doesn’t break through, his runs always seem to require extra attention, and it can then open up space on the following plays.
While the kicking game is generally noted as the most important attribute in a halves combination, Wighton has taken it on his own accord to make the Raiders a better side with his running.
He had two tries, five tackle busts, a line break and 122 metres on Saturday, causing the Dragons headaches from start to finish, but averaging more than 100 metres per game as a half, it’s not just a one-off.
His ball running is of utmost importance if the Raiders are to make a fist of the finals.
Reserve a sky blue jersey for Daniel Tupou
Towering Roosters winger Daniel Tupou last represented New South Wales in 2015.
When he was dropped in Game 1 of that year’s series, it was probably the right decision for a winger who was still learning how to get the best out of himself.
There is no doubt he had to continue doing that over the following years, with Tupou often frustratingly failing to utilise his height, pace and jumping ability.
Last year, Tupou turned a corner. He was the first to put his hand up to do the hard yards out of his own end, he became more secure both under the high ball and in general defence, and improved his attacking game out of sight.
That has only continued into 2020 as the beanstalk continues to prove himself as one of the best wide men in the competition.
With the worrying lack of form from incumbent Blake Ferguson, the wing spots seem to be a three-way race for the Blues between Tupou, Nick Cotric and Josh Addo-Carr.
While none would look out of place, Tupou’s work rate and the mammoth advantage he provides with attacking players no longer able to be tackled in the air mean he should be first picked.
Ryan Papanhuyzen just proved his worth to the Storm
Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s not a typo. I know he didn’t play.
But Ryan Papenhuyzen didn’t need to be on the field to prove how important he is to Melbourne.
While the Storm still put 36 points on the Cowboys, they didn’t look themselves in the first half. North Queensland dropped a lot of ball and defended abysmally, making it easy for the men in purple to get the scoreboard ticking.
You have to wonder if things might have been uglier at both ends of the park for the Cowboys if Papenhuyzen was there.
The young fullback has played a vital role for Craig Bellamy’s side this year, and while Nicho Hynes wasn’t poor by any stretch, Papenhuyzen has seven tries, ten assists, 65 tackle busts, 11 line breaks, an average of 191 metres per game in his 16 appearances and pace to burn.
He has made himself virtually irreplaceable in the Melbourne system, and his form puts him close to the best fullback in the competition this season.
Jamal Fogarty has made all the difference for Ashley Taylor
If there is one particularly pleasing point about the Titans’ good form, it has been Ashley Taylor finally hitting something near his potential.
Gold Coast’s win over Brisbane was the second time they have beaten their closest rivals this season, and the improvement to their style of footy has been a joy to watch.
At the centre of that has been nearly-rookie Jamal Fogarty, whose consistency has taken all the pressure off Taylor.
As it stands, Taylor has 11 try assists and 12 line break assists in his 17 games, to go with ten offloads, eight forced drop-outs and a much higher kicking efficiency than in previous seasons.
He has been in a much more relaxed role on-field because he’s no longer the only one running the team.
While he (and the rest of the Titans) still have a way to go, the additions they are making to their forward pack will give them an even stronger platform to work off next season.
And it’s that platform, combined with Justin Holbrook’s coaching and the nurturing of other young talent including gun centre Treymain Spry, fullback AJ Brimson and Beau Fermor which make the Titans look like they have finally turned the corner.
How much time does Brad Arthur have?
Earlier in the season, it looked as if nothing could stop the Parramatta Eels.
That’s gone flying out the back window though, hasn’t it?
While Friday’s 18-point loss wasn’t their worst performance, it was yet another in a run of very average games. It looks like, at most, the end of their season is four weeks away. And that’s if they survive in the top four.
It seems ridiculous to be talking about job security for a coach who has turned a club around in the preceding years like this, but the Eels have the roster to be challenging for a premiership now.
When it was all downhill running, Arthur looked like a world-beater. Now, he can’t right his sinking ship right, and is persevering with a stagnant attacking plan.
From Mitchell Moses seemingly refusing to play both sides of the field, a team dropping the ball on the regular and a forward pack struggling to match it with not only Penrith, but other teams for some weeks, it’s a major concern.
Arthur has also failed to make changes to his team. It’s a major concern, and while I won’t call for Arthur to be sacked, surely Parramatta fans are starting to turn up the pressure on their coach.
Campbell Graham deserves credit for South Sydney’s rise
When it comes to picking the most improved player of 2020, Campbell Graham’s name should be top of the list.
The South Sydney outside back has put together a stellar year. From not being able to hold a first-grade place down 12 months ago, he has played every fixture this year and has 11 tries. Not only that, but his versatility and club-first approach has meant he has spent a stack of time in the centres.
Graham’s ability to find the tryline has always been undoubted, and now his defence, ball-handling and passing have all improved out of sight.
Add that to a more consistent style of footy from Graham, and it’s clear why he is now an important, permanent fixture of Wayne Bennett’s 17 each week.
Another two tries against the Tigers on Thursday means he now has eight in his last five matches, while playing against some of the NRL’s better opposition.
The former Australian Schoolboys captain will only continue to improve as the weeks and months tick by, and with his height and pace, he should become a very dangerous, long-term outside back.
Manly’s injury woes have provided a glimpse of the future
Manly are struggling with an injury crisis and their finals charge might be over, but it has allowed fans a glimpse of generation-next on the northern beaches.
In fact, the biggest problem Des Hasler and his recruitment staff face is who to keep and who to let go.
They have a superb batch of players coming through. Josh Schuster and Albert Hopoate, who we have seen in the last fortnight, Sean Keppi and Haumole Olokau’atu, who have played throughout the season, and Ben Trbojevic, who is yet to debut, are all earmarked for big things.
That’s not even to mention the younger Fainu brother, Sione, who is yet to appear in a 21, but could be one of the best junior props in the game.
It’s little wonder Manly have been so dominant in the junior age groups recently, and throwing players of that quality into a team already featuring the other two Trbojevic brothers, as well as Daly Cherry-Evans, Addin-Fonua Blake and Martin Taupau will do wonders for their confidence and abilities.
If those players can stay in Manly and away from injury, a golden generation may not be all that far away for the Sea Eagles.
The Sharks need Shaun Johnson, rocks, diamonds and all
Before injury, Shaun Johnson was arguably in the form of his career.
The New Zealand international, who has long been touted one of the most talented players in the game, has struggled for consistency over the years, but the run he put together in turning the Sharks into an attacking powerhouse didn’t go unnoticed.
He wasn’t at his absolute best against the Warriors in Sunday night’s tight victory that confirmed the final make-up of the top eight, but he will need to be if Cronulla want to go anywhere in the finals.
The Sharks have made their game plan all about scoring this year. They sit fifth for points scored, but have the worst defensive record of all top eight (and two in the bottom eight) teams.
For that to work, Johnson, with his pace, footwork and creative abilities, is their most important player. He needs the forwards to give him some territory to work in, but even then, creating something from nothing runs in Johnson’s blood.
It won’t beat teams like the Roosters, Storm and Panthers unless they play out of their skin, but it will cause a scare or two in September.
Johnson simply must be at his best.