And just like that, the finals are upon us. Here are my talking points from Round 20 of the NRL season.
Ding dong, the three-peat’s dead
Not many were brave enough to tip the Rabbitohs, but I’m not sure anyone on the planet thought they were going to run the dreaded 50 and then some up against the Roosters.
No team has ever conceded a half-century and gone on to win the premiership.
The Roosters have been in the top three all year, and while they may well put the trend which has lasted 112 years to the test, conceding 60 points at this time of year is not something normal sides could come back from.
Of course, the Tricolours aren’t a ‘normal’ side, but their defence was miserable on Friday night. Not only that, but the issues which have been threatening to pop up all year – a lack of ball control being chief among them – were particularly evident.
The bottom line is they have now conceded more points in a single game than any other team this season.
While they will get a second chance in the finals, they still aren’t quite at full strength, and the potential injury to Jake Friend only throws more cold water on any charge they are able to mount.
If there is any team that could turn it around, it’s this Roosters side, but with no momentum and another loss looming next weekend against Penrith, coming back to win the competition without a week off will prove a herculean task.
Who is Queensland’s best fullback?
In the battle of AJ Brimson and Kalyn Ponga, there was one clear winner on Friday evening. The stats tell quite the story:
|AJ Brimson||Kalyn Ponga|
|Kick return metres||110||34|
Eagle-eyed observers will note try assists and line-break assists are missing from the table – neither got off the doughnut – Brimson dominated every other stat.
His team were the better side across the park, but to look at the impact Brimson had on that, you only need to look at the way his kick-return metres put the Titans in a superior position on the park for the majority of the game.
Not only that, he troubled the Knights in defence, had a hand in other tries, and generally outplayed his opposite number from start to finish.
I highlighted it last week, but Brimson has been huge since returning for the Titans, who have scored on average seven points more per game with their young fullback playing.
So, could he play fullback for Queensland? There is almost no doubt he will be in the 27-man Origin squad, and while he might be earmarked to play centre, he is the in-form option at the back.
Where Ponga can be slightly limited in his ball-playing outside of that superb right to left cut out ball, Brimson isn’t. That’s not to say he doesn’t have faults to his game, but there is no reason to suggest the Titans custodian couldn’t handle a Maroon jersey.
The Eels could go out in straight sets
Parramatta might be the worst side to ever make the top four.
While they started 2020 superbly, after we got through the first eight weeks it’s all gone pear-shaped. Sure, they made the top-four, but that is more due to a lack of other strong candidates than anything else.
Even while winning a majority of their games, the Eels have looked less than impressive, and that was the story again on Saturday as they barely scraped by the Tigers. In a game which went back and forth, it was only a late comeback which secured the victory.
The Tigers were inspired as they attempted to send Benji Marshall and Chris Lawrence out on the right note, the Eels needed to make a statement.
They didn’t. And they almost lost.
They will get a second chance in the finals, but when the only real positive from their final-round fixture was having fitness at the back-end and luckless winger Blake Ferguson scoring, you’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Their attack is stagnant, their defence not much better, and unless they improve ten-fold in the next seven days, the Storm could rack up a cricket score to have the Eels feeling like it’s the 2019 finals all over again.
Tom Gilbert is the workaholic North Queensland can build around
Forwards like Tom Gilbert don’t come along too often.
For a man who only turned 20 three months ago, he has come on in leaps and bounds, starting in each of the Cowboys’ last four games and playing big minutes.
Every team needs a player who is willing to roll up the sleeves and do the hard yards, and Gilbert is that and a bit. Twenty-six tackles and 169 metres in the season-ender against the Broncos showed once again what he can bring to the table, but anyone who has followed his development won’t be surprised.
Last season, he won Queensland Cup rookie of the year, lock of the year and Townsville Blackhawks player of the year, while also finishing in the top ten for running metres and tackles made.
That, at 19, shows maturity beyond his years and an ability to understand the role he was signed to do. He is reliable, and that is one of the best traits an NRL player can have.
When the Cowboys commence yet another rebuild next under their new coach, Jason Taumalolo and Tom Gilbert will provide the platform for which they can build around.
They should, realistically, go close to dominating games up the middle third of the park with those two leading the way, and if they sign the right halves and creative players, they will do more than enough to beat teams.
Cronulla’s broken defence continues to be their downfall
Of the top eight, there are a handful of front-runners for the premiership and group of teams who have made the finals but are making up the numbers.
There is little doubt the Sharks are one of the latter teams.
Cronulla have spent the entire season trying to outscore opponents, and while it’s created some fascinating games, it’s not a sustainable model for success – particularly when most of their points-scoring involved the now-injured Shaun Johnson in some way.
While the black, white and blue mounted something of a comeback against the Raiders’ B-side on Saturday, it was never going to be enough after their defence crumbled in a heap early on.
It’s a far cry from the Cronulla teams of old who ground their way to victories on a weekly basis, assigning their home ground the nickname the ‘Bermuda Triangle’.
Those days are gone, and so too are the Sharks’ chance of another premiership. They will be heavy, heavy outsiders to even get through next week’s game, a replay against those Raiders. Except, this time, it’ll be the A-team.
Penrith’s back row are all Origin bolters
It feels like just about every section of the Panthers’ team has been given a wrap in this column this season – it’s hard not to given the club has now won 15 straight games.
Their back-row is still criminally underrated.
Isaah Yeo has turned himself into one of the premier locks in the competition. He has picked up 140 metres per game and been a focal part of the Panthers’ starting middle third, alongside James Fisher-Harris and James Tamou.
Liam Martin has been splendid on the edge, threatening opposition defensive lines on a weekly basis, while Kurt Capewell has also now returned from injury.
With Origin squads to be 27 players this year, all three are a chance of making it, Yeo and Martin because they would be genuinely deserving of a Blues spot, and Capewell because Queensland are a little short on back rowers following the injury to David Fifita.
It would be hard to argue any of them look out of place in that arena based on 2020 form.
Adam Clune and Jayden Sullivan should be the Dragons’ halves combination in 2021
Was it perfect? No. Was it against a back-up Storm side? Yes.
But when your season has been as miserable as the Red V’s has been, you can bet the Dragons will take plenty out of the final round of the season into next year when Anthony Griffin takes over.
Sure, their defence was average, but Jayden Sullivan and Adam Clune showed they should be the first-choice halves combination for the club next year.
Sullivan has always been a highly rated junior, and Clune has improved week on week since making the long-awaited step up to first grade. Based on what we saw from Sullivan on Sunday, he will do something similar.
A new coach means it’s time for a fresh start, and that means ship out the dead wood and take a punt on the future.
With Matt Dufty, Zac Lomax and Jackson Ford all showing major improvement this year in a struggling team and Eddie Blacker making a promising debut against the Storm, this is a Dragons side which should be comfortable with 2021 being a rebuilding year as their talented crop find their feet in first grade.