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Six talking points from the NRL semi-finals

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10th October, 2020
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Another two teams had their season come to an end, with the Raiders and Rabbitohs booking their spots in next weekend’s preliminary finals. Here are my talking points from the NRL semi-finals.

Damien Cook is still South Sydney’s key
I’ve written plenty this year about how good the Rabbitohs look when they play a fast brand of footy, and that was the case again on Saturday as they ran over the top of the Eels.

It was a performance which certainly wasn’t without its flaws, and being up early before being chased down was a bad look for the Redfern-based side if they want to challenge the Panthers next weekend, but the bottom line is they are going to the preliminary finals on the back of that fast style of footy.

Sure, it starts in the forwards, and with players like Cameron Murray and Thomas Burgess at the top of their game, on the back of the outside backs starting sets well, it makes a huge difference.

But the creativity and point-scoring, eventually totalling 38 points on Parramatta comes as a result of the way their creative weapons are able to make the most of the dominance and platform laid down by the forwards.

Damien Cook can sometimes get branded as a flat-track bully – and I have certainly called him so previously – but he was superb in the Rabbitohs’ beatdown of Parramatta.

His performance dictates that of Cody Walker’s, it dictates how much time and space Adam Reynolds has and ultimately, how good their attack is. He does the little things that aren’t noticed, the big things that are noticed and toughens up the middle third defensively for Wayne Bennett’s side.

The late try to confirm the victory only goes to show the heads-up vision and explosive ability the hooker has.

He may have had an up and down season, but the Rabbitohs hooker holds the key to a potential grand final visit in his hands.

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Damien Cook of the Rabbitoh

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Can the Raiders do the unthinkable?
When Josh Hodgson went down with injury all those weeks ago, the Raiders were written off far and wide. Their chances of making a second grand final on the hop seemed to have gone up in smoke.

Fast forward to October, and with two wins against the Roosters, a late-season surge that saw them only just miss the top-four and some excellent footy later, they now sit just 80 minutes from another trip to Homebush on the biggest day of the rugby league year.

Granted, standing in their way will be a refreshed Melbourne Storm, but after last week’s win over the Sharks, to go with last night’s physical performance, the green machine will see no reason internally why they can’t take the fight to the men in purple next weekend in Brisbane.

Rugby league is a sport where team culture matters, and the Raiders have clearly got that in spades under Ricky Stuart. Injuries to the extent they have had this year would cruel a lot of teams, but instead, they have the culture to just keep winning.

Whether it’s the way Tom Starling has stood up at hooker, the hard yards their forwards have put in, George Williams’ performances, Jack Wighton’s form or the running game of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, even without Hodgson and at times, a host of other players, they have still been close to a complete footy team.

Now, running into form at the right time of year, the only disadvantage they seem to carry into next week is the lack of a week off.

Beating Melbourne in the finals is always the toughest assignment for any opposition NRL team, but the Raiders will fancy their chances of keeping a dream run going.

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George Williams goes for a run

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Clint Gutherson should be named fullback of the year
The competition is blessed to have a lot of good fullbacks, but none have had the season of Parramatta custodian Clint Gutherson.

From a Parramatta point of view, a straight-set bomb out in the finals is about as bad as it gets. They may have only lost five games all season, but they never seemed in the premiership hunt during the second half of the year, and having their doors blown off in the finals twice in as many weeks confirms it.

One factor in the blue and gold’s performance week in and week out which simply refused to change was Gutherson.

He finishes the year as the club’s best and certainly most consistent player by the length of the straight. Even when Parramatta have been far from their best during the second half of the season, the man they know as King Gutho simply refused to drop his performance level.

Whether it was breaking running metre records, coming up with huge defensive plays or scoring tries, he was everywhere and was again in the semi-final as he almost single-handily dragged his side back from 8-0 down to give them a fighting chance in the first half.

It wasn’t enough to get the blue and gold over the line, but he will continue to be his side’s key man heading into 2021 as the Eels look to pick up the pieces.

Clint Gutherson

(Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

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Kyle Flanagan can’t be the Roosters halfback in 2021
Plenty will be made about whether this is the end of a dynasty for the Roosters, but that is a question which needs to be answered heading into next season.

The emotion of a semi-final loss when attempting a three-peat is still far too prevalent to make a balanced judgement on the Roosters’ prospects for the 2021 campaign.

However, if they are going to get back to the top of the pile, Kyle Flanagan can’t be their starting half.

He was shown up completely in Friday night’s loss to the Raiders, and not for the first time. It’s clear the former Cronulla junior had fallen out of favour with Trent Robinson mid-year when he was dropped, and with those flaws continuing in his game, one has to wonder if the Roosters may have gone further had they not had to recall Flanagan due to injuries.

While his defence is a point all on its own, the attacking side of his game struggled enormously, with his kicking game going missing. That then lumped extra pressure on Luke Keary, who try as he might, just couldn’t will his team over the line.

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It’s nearly impossible at this time of the year to be playing with only one in-form half. Look at all the other top teams, and it’s combinations clicking.

The Roosters simply didn’t have that, and to go with the defensive fragility they have shown at times this year, but more so in the last couple of weeks, it’s hardly a surprise they fell to Canberra, even on their home turf.

Josh Papalii is the game’s best front rower
If there is a player who just continues to impress and improve, it’s Canberra front-rower Josh Papalii.

It’s certainly not the first time we have talked about him in this column this year. He has been inspiring for Canberra, and was so again on Friday, coming up with a try and a performance which matches any from a forward in any recent finals match.

In fact, it had shades of Andrew Fifita’s 2016 grand final performance about it. While he was robbed of the Clive Churchill medal on that occasion, one expects if the Raiders are to win the grand final, Papalii might be in the reckoning for such an award.

Not only is his attack – his strong ball carries, offload and subtle bit of footwork – making it impossible for other teams to contain him, but his defence has also been unbelievable.

Josh Papalii leads out the Raiders

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Before Friday’s contest, Papalii hadn’t missed a single tackle in seven games, which for a middle third player playing big minutes is a stunning statistic.

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He may have missed one on Friday, but he has barely put a foot wrong this year, and with another 189 metres at better than ten per run, he is picking the Canberra forward pack up and taking them with him.

Melbourne always pride themselves on playing a tough game in the middle third, so Papalii will have to be at his absolute best next weekend if the green machine are to match it with the men in purple, but the man who will be first-picked for Queensland continues to go from strength to strength.

Keaon Koloamatangi is the Rabbitohs’ next big thing
Speaking of front-rowers, and one of South Sydney’s youngsters continues to improve on a weekly basis.

22-year-old Keaon Kolomatangi, who only debuted earlier this year, has become an almost permanent fixture on the Rabbitohs’ interchange bench, and his performance against the Eels proves why.

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He provided an immediate spark for the cardinal and myrtle, to the point momentum actually began to flip with each of his powerful carries.

He may not get the wraps and credit other forwards like Cameron Murray get, but the 191-centimetre, 106-kilogram prop made a huge difference in his 20-minute stint, and with a bit of footwork and a handy offload, he tends to remind you of a player like Junior Paulo or Nelson Asofa-Solomona.

While the youngster may not be on that level yet, look for him to force his way into Wayne Bennett’s starting team next year as he begins to make his mark on this competition.

Saturday proved he is up to big games and putting in performances which flip the momentum, but consistency will be the aim going forward.