A team falling out of the premiership race, injuries, controversy, and a few classic games late in the week have headlined Round 9. Here are my NRL talking points for the week that was.
What role will Tom Trbojevic play for the Blues?
I’ve tried to steer clear of Origin chat in this column, but it’s not all that far away, and Tom Trbojevic’s performance on Sunday is going to make Brad Fittler sit up and take notice.
Not just sit up and take notice, but probably start scratching his head til it’s red raw.
The Blues are in the quite incredible position of having three fullbacks, all of whom would probably be starting for Queensland, but are eligible for the Blues.
It might have been against the Warriors, and Manly’s defence might still leave a lot of questions in the air, but Trbojevic put together one of the greatest individual performances of all time on Sunday.
He ended up with 235 metres from 18 runs, five line breaks, three line break assists, four try assists, eight tackle busts and scored a double of his own.
Those stats are eye-watering, and while the game was high-scoring, it’s little wonder Manly came out on top when Trbojevic once again put his hand up as a candidate to be named the game’s best player.
His individual performances are something else, but given the impact he has on the remainder of his teammates, the only factor holding back the youngster is his injury past, and the competition around him.
Fittler may try and find room for all three fullbacks in his side, which would leave Trbojevic in the centres where he has done a strong job before at Origin level, but he wouldn’t look out of place in the number one if the opportunity presented itself.
Actions speak louder than words when it comes to player safety
Consistency was the dirty word again over the weekend as NRL referees ended up looking more like deer trapped in headlights.
It’s not 100 per cent their fault. Assessing things in real time with a rule book that seems to be adjusting every week, making precedent almost non-existent, must be one of the world’s toughest jobs.
But when neither Marata Niukore or Dylan Brown did time on the sidelines during Parramatta’s win over the Roosters on Friday, and yet David Fifita and Josh Curran both copped ten minutes in their respective games, well, you have to question exactly what rules are being displayed to both referees and those in the bunker.
The biggest problem is that, while NRL HQ harp on about how important player safety and the protection of the head and neck is, we have incidents like Friday night which aren’t impacted on the field.
Drew Hutchinson could be looking at months on the sideline, and yet, his team bore no advantage, and the Eels will only be without Brown for a period of three weeks.
Of course, their own stuff-up by playing top players in reserve grade this weekend could leave them with a larger mountain of problems to climb during magic round, but the point still stands.
Consistency is all the fans want, and when the game spend so much on a bunker which seems to so consistently get it wrong, it makes the competition look, in some ways, amateurish.
Melbourne and Penrith are on a collision course again
It would take a very brave man to tip anything other than a grand final replay in 2021.
With South Sydney being blown off the park by the Storm on Thursday night, a 50-point flogging piled on against them, history is now against the men from Redfern to win the premiership.
Other top teams are in shambles. In the pre-season, there was thought to be six contenders, being Melbourne, Penrith, South Sydney, Parramatta, Canberra and of course the Roosters.
The Roosters have more injuries than is manageable, the Raiders are on another planet to the contenders, and Parramatta just don’t look a premiership team yet.
And while the Eels aren’t playing all that badly, both Melbourne and Penrith are on a different level. The Panthers themselves made it nine straight to start the season this weekend with a 48-0 flogging of Cronulla, and are showing no signs of slowing down.
The Storm and Panthers were undeniably the best sides last year, and that’s the way it’s shaping up again. One can only hope from a quality point of view that a now vastly more experienced Panthers won’t clash with Craig Bellamy’s side before the big dance in a knockout game.
The Raiders season goes on the line next week
Saturday afternoon, 3pm, magic round.
Raiders fans, lock it into your diaries right now. After five straight losses, it’s the 80 minutes which will decide if the misfiring green machine are any – and I mean any – chance of making the finals.
Sure, they are only playing the Bulldogs, who themselves are putting in some woeful performances, but for Canberra, it’s about finding a way to add to their competition point tally and just maybe, gain back a little bit of momentum.
In this new era of rugby league, the fast-moving, rule-changing era, momentum and confidence is everything, and for the Raiders, particularly in their second halves, it is nowhere to be seen.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend I have all the answers, because it would appear that neither does Ricky Stuart following their fifth loss on the trot, a horrendous fade-out against the Knights in Wagga on Saturday.
There is growing rumours of discontent off the field, and Stuart’s decisions, both selection and rotation wise are making little sense.
It’s hard to say he would have lost the dressing room with any certainty, but the Green Machine are playing their second halves like he has.
It’s must-win next week for Canberra or they can kiss 2021 goodbye.
Kyle Feldt is unbelievably underrated
When Kyle Feldt defied every law of human movement to score the opening try on Saturday against the Broncos, the only comparison I could draw it to was Inspector Gadget.
Genuinely, I couldn’t get the theme song out of my head for the rest of the evening.
While Feldt cops his fair share of criticism for being a perceived part of the Cowboys defensive problems out wide, a winger is only ever as good as the players at centre, second row and half defensively, and with a revolving door of players coming in and out of those positions, building combinations and stability defensively is an impossible task.
The try (and his finishing ability in a broader sense) is special and criminally underrated, Feldt is solid in most aspects of his game.
150 metres from 15 runs on Saturday seemed to be a standard night at the office, while giving him any space out wide due to his strength, speed and agility is a danger for any opposition defensive line.
Of course, he won’t get credit when compared to someone like the six-try hero Josh Addo-Carr, but Feldt is one of the better wingers in the game right now.
The Bulldogs have gone backwards
I wasn’t sure this was going to be possible in the pre-season, but under Trent Barrett, the Bulldogs somehow look worse than they were last year.
It was hard to justify the sacking of Dean Pay at the time given the roster he was working with, and despite Barrett bringing in a few players for this campaign, the Belmore-based club are struggling majorly.
Their performance on Sunday against the Dragons was abject, lacking ideas and creativity, and defensively not all that good.
They were burnt by Matt Dufty’s footwork as if it were prime Reg Gasnier running at them, while some of the tries conceded were beyond soft.
But it was the attack which was the worst sign. A new coach, especially one coming out of the Penrith system with all the ideas and plans of a very successful Ivan Cleary-coached team should be able to find a way to get points of his own.
Sure, the attacking cattle isn’t quite as good at Belmore, but they look to be attempting to execute a plan which isn’t designed for top grade rugby league, and with Matt Burton not arriving till next year, things aren’t going to improve anytime soon.
More worryingly though, the game plan isn’t there for Burton to succeed when he does arrive, no matter how good he is. He may go about things better than Kyle Flanagan and Lachlan Lewis, but it’s hard to see one player lifting this team so drastically to the level required.
The Bulldogs have gone backwards under Barrett, and urgent steps must be taken to avoid yet another wooden spoon.
It’s time for Jock Madden to debut
The Tigers are going from one fumble to the next at the moment.
Sure, they snuck in a win over the Dragons last week, and not all the blame can be pinged on their halves for Saturday’s capitulation at the hands of the Gold Coast, but they never came out of the sheds at the start of the game.
Woeful defence, poor efforts in the forwards and slow set starts lumped pressure on the side at the most critical times.
The bottom line is this – Luke Brooks is now one of their most experienced players and no matter what is happening around him, refuses to reach his potential.
It’s not good enough for a player of his stature, and a run in reserve grade may be what he needs to rejuvenate a stagnant career.
It makes even more sense for the Tigers to try something new given where they sit on the ladder, their form line, and the fact they have a ready made future of the club in Jock Madden.
Alongside Jake Simpkin and Daine Laurie who have both taken to first grade superbly, Madden is the man the Tigers should be looking to build their club around moving forward, and while that might see the back of Brooks, he has failed to bring success to the Tigers in his tenure.
The Tigers are blessed to have excellent youngsters, but it would be criminal to not see Jock Madden in the team during the coming weeks, as he looks to begin building what should be a long partnership with Simkin and Laurie, reversing the fortunes long-term at the struggling joint venture.
Whatever the case, it’s now clear Brooks isn’t the man to lead that charge.
The Sharks need to hit the restart button
There were some embarrassing defeats this weekend, and while the Sharks were never likely to be in the 2021 grand final picture, their performance against the Panthers was woeful.
The scoreboard reading 48-0 by the time it was all said and done, defensively, they looked a team who didn’t want to be there.
John Morris being sacked still makes absolutely no sense from a neutral perspective, with the Sharks in contention to at least play finals footy right up until the moment he was let go.
Since then, it’s been all downhill and Friday’s performance was the icing on a very sour cake.
But with Morris gone, the Sharks may need to put a broom through the entire joint. Move on overpaid, injury-prone and underperforming players, and turn to their recruitment and youth in an attempt to rebuild.
There may be some lean years ahead of the Sharks, but it’s clear their premiership window is slammed shut, so they may as well not waste time in commencing the process that is to come.
Roarers, what did you make of Round 9? Drop a comment and let us know.