Is it wrong to say this NRL season has been the most meh in recent memory?
The quality of play on the field has been just fine, the Warriors have been the feelgood story of the year and the Dolphins’ hot start ensured the talent dilution which comes with expansion has not been a problem.
But this season has been missing an engaging narrative – good or bad, rugby league thrives on drama on and off the field but it’s been an overwhelmingly vanilla season apart from the odd incident here and there.
To be frank, the players’ game-day media boycott has not been much of a factor when it comes to the lack of excitement around the NRL.
They said little of note when they’d walk to the sidelines flanked by a reporter asking softball questions about a hard sport and apart from the odd character who is still left in a competition filled with robots, the post-game live crosses seem to follow a script of “yeah, we done good but full credit to my teammates” and “we was more happy we kept them to zero points than scoring 70”.
The NRL is perhaps marching to the beat of the humdrum in that there’s a sense of inevitability that the Penrith machine will power away to a third straight premiership.
When the mighty Parramatta Eels of the early 1980s last achieved this feat they had to get through a murderers’ row of opponents from the nasty Newtown Jets, a slick Manly side and Canterbury’s Entertainers who then morphed into Warren Ryan’s mongrel Bulldogs.
These Panthers don’t have an opposition team among the other finals contenders who has more than a puncher’s chance of landing a knockout blow in the playoffs.
Which is not to say that Ivan Cleary’s side is a lay-down misère to win the trophy. It’s a foony game, this rugby league, as they say in the other part of the world where there’s a fully-fledged professional competition.
Brisbane, Souths, Parramatta and the Cowboys have beaten them this season and they could upset the natural order in the finals, along with Melbourne and possibly the Warriors, if they play out of their skins and the Panthers are below their best.
Penrith are even one of the three teams in 2023 who have lost to the Wests Tigers and that was when all their big guns were on deck.
But they are a paltry $2.40 bet to win the premiership as we head into the final five rounds of the season, Nathan Cleary is back to his best after a hamstring layoff and they’re showing no signs of slowing down despite several stars leaving for lucrative deals elsewhere in recent years.
They’ve lost a couple of lesser lights this week for 2024 with back-up halfback Jack Cogger returning to Newcastle and Jaeman Salmon becoming the latest Panther to reunite with Cameron Ciraldo at the Dogs.
Spencer Leniu, one of the most improved players in the NRL this year, linking with the Roosters and Stephen Crichton also heading to Canterbury are also body blows.
But with Dylan Edwards confirming on Wednesday that a contract extension was imminent, Daine Laurie rejoining the club to replace Cogger as the back-up playmaker and Jarome Luai likely to stay, the house that Ivan built is not on shaky foundations.
Another factor behind the July-August doldrums is that the post-Origin lull has been longer than ever due to the combination of the series being won by game two in June and there being an extra round in club footy this year.
Even before each side went through the motions of Origin III, the NRL was still an afterthought for a lot of fans. And when the Blues saved face by winning game three, the club competition was in that awkward phase of it’s still too early for the race for the finals to be a focus.
A shorter season may not add up financially for the NRL bean counters but it would at least shorten this purgatory period.
The constant empty promises surrounding the CBA deal being sorted and the supposed opening-round blockbuster in Las Vegas next year have been excruciating.
Most fans would like to kindly be woken up on these matters when there is actual news to announce on either front.
The majority of punters think the players earn a decent quid while when it comes to the middle-aged grey men in even greyer suits who control the purse strings, their trustworthiness in the eyes of the public ranks alongside used car salesmen.
Rugby league supporters care more about getting some clarity around Test fixtures. Whatever momentum the international built up last year at the World Cup has quickly evaporated where we’re now at the point that it’s August and matches that are supposed to be happening in two months are not locked in.
An announcement is supposedly imminent but so was an end to the CBA last October when Andrew Abdo and Peter V’landys opted not to go to the World Cup so they could bring an end to the standoff with the RLPA.
Part of the NRL malaise of recent weeks has been beyond head office’s control with the Ashes and Women’s World Cup taking plenty of eyeballs away.
Formulating the draw is an extremely difficult task but the schedulers would probably take a mulligan if it was on offer after putting St George Illawarra vs Wests Tigers up a couple of weeks ago as the Thursday night game for Channel Nine up against the Matildas’ World Cup opener and the Ashes.
With five rounds to go, the NRL finals are now close enough for the battle for the top two, top four, top eight and to avoid the wooden spoon are now to recapture attention.
Apart from the Tigers looking like they’ve sewn up that last one, the jockeying for the positions that matter will keep fans of the 14 remaining finals contenders interested at least until the old mathematical chance is extinguished.
Whether it’s the Panthers falling short or a Cinderella team like the Warriors making a deep playoff run, this season needs a few twists and turns heading into the final two months of the competition to break out of its funk.