The minor premiership has been locked up, but with a shock result and some other intriguing games, here are my NRL talking points for Round 19.
Can the minor premiers go the distance?
If the Panthers are going to win the premiership, they are going to do it without a loss since Round 5. That is the fate of the club now, having got over the Cowboys in Townsville.
The bottom line is they aren’t going to lose to the Bulldogs next week, and without a loss in so long, falling in Week 1 of the finals could prove disastrous.
So the Panthers have to go 18 straight.
It would be a miraculous effort, but we already knew that. Their form this season, no matter how kind travel has been to them, has been something else.
The premiership is a three-horse race, with Penrith, Melbourne and the Roosters leaps and bounds ahead of the rest. The only area Penrith in which lack is finals and big-game experience. Apart from that, they are the best team by a distance, and if they can keep their momentum going, there is no reason they can’t win the competition for the first time since 2003.
Travelling to Townsville and putting in another professional performance on Friday to wrap up the minor season prize was just another string to the bow of Ivan Cleary’s side. His son’s form continues to go from strength to strength, and while it doesn’t seem to matter which variation of the 17 they go with, there is simply no let-up.
This is a clinical footy team, and the only thing likely to stop them is finals pressure.
The Dragons need more than a new coach
Well, that was miserable.
The Dragons may have mounted a slightly better resistance in the second half, but the first-half performance was one of the laziest witnessed by any team all season.
If you’ve ever seen a try softer than Daniel Saifiti’s, I’d like to hear about it.
Down 30 points to six at halftime, the Red V were showing little signs of life, and while the Knights deserve plenty of credit for making a statement on old boy’s day in the Hunter, it’s hard to read much into the performance for a team who are finals-bound but inconsistent.
Nonetheless, it was clear many of the Dragons players had clocked off last week against the Raiders, and the point was re-enforced on Sunday. They were abysmal, and while there were signs of life earlier in the season, the playing group simply don’t have the talent or attitude to succeed in the long term.
Corey Norman’s form has been horrendous, the forwards haven’t been putting in the hard yards and players like Paul Vaughan are shadows of their former selves.
There needs to be a clean-out under Anthony Griffin in 2021. A large-scale one.
Josh Jackson, the 200 club’s most underrated member
One factor going underacknowledged is Josh Jackson reaching game 200 for the Bulldogs.
Given the struggles the club have had in recent times, what was even better to see was Canterbury pulling out all the stops to beat rivals South Sydney and give Jackson a win.
It was an excellent performance from the blue and white. Their attack was flowing, the kicking game was better than it has been all year and the dogged determination in defence went nowhere.
It must make fans scratch their head and wonder where it’s been.
But Jackson has been a loyal servant of the Bulldogs. The club captain, who has had various runs at Origin level over the years, gives it his all every week. He isn’t the most flashy or classy of players, but he does a job, and Bulldogs fans wouldn’t hear a bad word about him.
Even if his form has dropped slightly this year, he is a player who deserves to be recognised for the fantastic service he has given the club since debuting. One-club players are rare in this day and age, but locked in until the end of 2023, he will be around for Trent Barrett’s rebuild.
For the experience, club spirit and determination he brings, he will be a vital part of it.
Could the Titans have played finals footy with a fit Brimson
It’s a shame AJ Brimson was injured for so long this year.
There is more than just a suspicion that, if he didn’t struggle with injury, the Titans could have played finals footy. They sit ninth with a week to go following Saturday’s win over Manly.
While the Titans will be looking to 2021 as the year they can make a mark on the competition, Brimson is going to be critical to that.
He proved it on Saturday. As the Titans ran up 40 points, Brimson was everywhere. Safe as houses at the back, excellent with his ball-running and able to walk away with a double of his own.
Justin Holbrook’s team simply look a much better proposition with Brimson on the field, and while there is still a way to go in challenging the top three sides, on form the argument could be made they are a more worthy finals team than many of those ahead of them.
The creativity and acceleration of Brimson make them dangerous, and while he has five tries and two assists in eight games this year, the Titans have scored 19.5 points per game since his return compared to just 12.9 per game in the 11 games they played without the fullback.
It goes to show how important he is and that, even if 2020 was a virtual write-off, 2021 won’t be.
The Broncos would be a worthy ‘winner’ of the spoon
Well, it’s finally happened. Canterbury found a win and the Broncos couldn’t respond. On for and against the Broncos are currently in line to win their first-ever wooden spoon.
And you’d have to say on the balance of things they, out of all the clubs at the wrong end of the table, deserve it more than any other.
I don’t use the word pathetic often, but that is what it is. Calling a spade a spade, the Broncos were expected (not by this writer) to do bigger things this year.
But to slump to the spoon is even lower than I had them. Their defence has been meek at best, their attack not much better, and where teams like the Bulldogs have put in the effort, it’s been non-existent by the big-hit-chasing Broncos.
It’s the lack of effort that should be most grinding to fans. While the Bulldogs fight, claw and scratch, the Broncos simply don’t and it’s that reason alone they would be the most worthy team to finish last.
They may still get over the Cowboys next weekend to avoid the spoon, but if all is fair in the world, they will end up last.
Elliott Whitehead is Canberra’s quiet achiever
It seems there is a trend of talking about consistent second rowers this weekend.
While the Raiders struggled to put the Warriors away on Sunday at home, Whitehead, supposedly the lesser of the two English second-rowers at the club, churned out another strong performance.
Since arriving in the nation’s capital from a far-off land in 2016, he has never let anyone down. Every single week you can set your watch to what he’ll deliver.
While the consistency of his more fancied partner John Bateman has at times left plenty to be desired, the same can’t be said for Whitehead. Hard runs, crunching tackles, a bit of ball playing and footwork – there isn’t much he doesn’t have.
The problem with many of the better edge forwards in the competition – look at names like Tyson Frizell, David Fifita, Bateman himself and even Parramatta duo Shaun Lane and Ryan Matterson – is for every amazing play you’ll get ten minutes where they don’t contribute and one lazy play.
You never see that out of Whitehead, Jackson or players like Mitchell Aubusson and Kenny Bromwich, and it’s why, even though they don’t get as much credit from fans, there will always be a place for them in the NRL and indeed at higher levels of the game.
Every premiership team needs players like them.
Isaac Liu epitomises what the Roosters are about
Isaac Liu, who never seems to have an issue with playing off the bench if needed, has turned himself into the Roosters rock at lock in recent weeks. He is reliable for coach Trent Robinson but, when the time comes, is also capable of using his 108-kilo frame to make a difference.
Reliability is something Robinson has built his team around. Reliability to perform without expectation and reliability to do a job, laying the platform for players like Luke Keary and James Tedesco to go to work.
Liu does it in spades.
His performance in Saturday’s win over the Sharks was one of the better he has put together in the last 12 months.
The Samoan and New Zealand international prop inserted himself into the game with authority, threatening the line a number of times as he picked up 117 metres from just nine carries to go with a try assist and 28 tackles at over 90 per cent efficiency.
He never attempts to overplay his hand, because he understands the system he is in. When the chance is there to play outside his usual restrictions, he takes it, but despite having the skill to do more, he refuses to do more.
In such a well-coached, well-drilled unit with stars all over the paddock, why would he need to? He does his job, as all of his teammates do, and it’s why, even not at their best, the Tricolours are still a big show for this year’s premiership.
Josh Addo-Carr is a winger – don’t mess with it
In the same way you wouldn’t ask an Olympic sprinter to begin training for marathons, moving Josh Addo-Carr to fullback would be madness.
When you’re the best at what you do you don’t mess with it, and as the Storm’s rout of the Tigers proves, Addo-Carr is close to if not the best winger in the competition.
He walked away not only with another two tries but also with 164 metres from ten runs. He threatened the line at every opportunity and has developed his game to the point he is sound defensively.
While that may have been the weakness historically, he has become the first-picked winger for New South Wales on the back of it.
It’s not to say he doesn’t have the skill set to play fullback. He has pace and is good under the high ball. But to change your entire game, learn the defensive reading and ball playing, takes time – time a club paying big money won’t have.
He can demand a serious salary on the wing because he is the best at it. Moving to fullback would be the wrong career option.