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Five and a kick: Why the Blues should pick their team around Nicho Hynes - and why time is up for Arthur

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20th May, 2024
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Magic Round delivered big time.

Some smart-alec columnists – can’t think who – suggested that it might be an injury-riddled series of blowouts, but rugby league delivered, the pitch didn’t collapse and everyone, even those of us just sat at home on the sofa, seemed to have a great time.

Top of the list was Cronulla, who furthered their Premiership credentials with a superb win over the Roosters in the Saturday afternoon heavyweight clash, and with Provincial All Stars selection around the corner, it is with their halfback that we start.

If the Blues want Nicho, they have to give him the keys

Nicho Hynes is, obviously, very good at rugby league.

He’s been seen as a bit of an afterthought in terms of rep selection, however, given how shabbily he was treated by Brad Fittler last time around and the obvious strengths of Nathan Cleary as captain, halfback and general best player.

Hynes will surely get picked in the 7 jumper this time around, but it will necessitate a change in playstyle from the Blues, because the Sharks star is a very unusual type of halfback.

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The Sharks’ system revolves around Hynes as a controlling five eighth, departing from the traditional halfback model by encouraging a much more run-first style – Nicho runs more than any other 7 in the league – and, if the Blues want that, then it’ll be incumbent on Michael Maguire to devise a system that makes it work.

The ‘controlling five-eighth’ idea is one that has served the Sharks well, because it suits Nicho down to the ground, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.

Hynes is a converted fullback and his best strengths are the same as they were when he played at the back, so no coach would want to take that away from him.

Notably, it wasn’t until paired with Brayden Trindall, who has played more 7 than 6 coming through the grades, that it really clicked.

This isn’t just Cronulla – watch Melbourne play it with Jahrome Hughes and Cam Munster – but it isn’t mainstream either.

Madge should consider it when picking a side. Hynes is the form 7 and obvious replacement, but only if the other bits are in place around him.

That likely means Jarome Luai being empowered to play as he does at the moment for Penrith, as a halfback. Give him the 6 and Hynes the 7 to avoid the conversation, but make the expectations clear to both.

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It probably precludes Matt Burton, who is a 6 and a 6 only, unless there’s some big plan that will help journalists crowbar the word ‘superboot’ into their copy.

It might even, whisper it very quietly indeed, involve making the brains of the operation the hooker, especially if that is Api Koroisau, who is the most thoughtful player the Blues have and would appreciate the chance to put his smarts to work with players who are at least in the same postcode as his wavelength.

Either way, the Blues might think that picking the best players is the best plan, but that hasn’t always worked in the past. You start with how you want to play and work back from there.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 18: David Fifita of the Titans passes during the round 11 NRL match between Gold Coast Titans and Newcastle Knights at Suncorp Stadium, on May 18, 2024, in Brisbane, Australia.

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The Titans are very unlucky

Lots of teams in the NRL are bad.

Souths, for example, or Parramatta, who keep making the same mistakes time and again with repeated patterns of poor play that you could set your watch to.

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The Tigers are the opposite and find new and interesting ways to shoot themselves in the foot every week.

After the last six weeks, however, you might take the Titans out of that bracket, and put them somewhere else. This is less a poor team, more an unfortunate one.

The record will tell you they’ve won two of the last six, but their margin of defeat has been 1, 4, 2 and 4, with wins by 3 and 2.

Every game is close, and when that happens, you are, obviously, in the fight. Winning is a habit as much as losing is, however, and the Titans are shocking in that regard.

Now, they ‘re doing it without Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Kieran Foran, AJ Brimson and Jayden Campbell, four of their five best players, with only David Fifita from their best actually on the field.

The underlying stats suggest that they’re still losing metres too easily and failing to make the most of their attack.

Their completion rate is the highest in the comp, but if you don’t score enough and concede more metres than anyone else, it might be an idea to chance the arm a little more to capitalise.

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Then again, Des Hasler is trying to enact cultural change as much as he is to win footy matches at the moment.

This is a historically losing, weak club and the last six weeks have shown an enormous capability for scramble and dig that wasn’t there. Des might be turning that ship around.

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Benji Marshall needs to keep the head

On those Tigers: they are both unfortunate and the masters of their own downfall.

Benji Marshall is in the same boat as Des in that his principal goal is independent of results, and his desire to enact change over the long-term outweighs his need for short-term success.

That’s helpful at the moment, because there is no success: the defeat to the Dolphins makes it seven on the spin.

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Coaches have to win or be seen to be doing something to win in the future and, as far as that is concerned, Benji can take some hope.

Lachlan Galvin, Samuela Fainu and now brother Sione Fainu are all in the team and Latu, the third of the Fainus, would be too were he not injured.

Fonua Pole and Jahream Bula are still just 22, Charlie Staines is 23 and Stefano Utoikamanu is 24 and Isaaih Papali’i, somehow, is only 25.

If we cast forward to the first day of 2025, the 1-13 is essentially already set.

There’s a spot in the halves for Jarome Luai, one in the outside backs for Sunia Turuva and perhaps a debate over whether David Klemmer still starts at prop, but beyond that, it’s very clear what the plan is.

All that is left is to build a bench and work out which of the slightly older but increasingly less dependable guys get to hang around.

The trick for Marshall is to keep the head and keep the group together. They’re unlikely to win many together, but there’s a huge, proven cohesion value in losing together. That’s how the success of this season will be judged.

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BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 19: James Fisher-Harris of the Panthers is tackled during the round 11 NRL match between New Zealand Warriors and Penrith Panthers at Suncorp Stadium, on May 19, 2024, in Brisbane, Australia.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

The Wahs win might have been coming

There’s been a lot of criticism in recent weeks for the Warriors, and most of it justified.

When you have the talent they have and the track record of last year, expectation levels rise and teams are judged more harshly.

Most of the opprobrium has been for their attack, which has been very one-note and predictable in 2024 and from their first game, a defeat to Cronulla, it’s been clear how to defend the Wahs: watch Addin Fonua-Blake, watch the right shift and you’ll go alright.

That didn’t really change much against Penrith, though notably two of the four tries came on the left hand side of the posts for a change, but what was most impressive was how the rest of the Warriors’ game didn’t waver at all.

Andrew Webster’s men have a plan and, despite the lack of points to show for it, the plan itself was largely working.

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They dominate field position through a pretty conservative game plan – at least until the final 20m – and then rack up shots at the tryline.

Their defensive structure is elite and limits metres against, especially early in sets, which gradually moves the match in their favour.

It was likely that over a long enough sample they would start to bear fruit, and while it was unexpected that it would work so well in this specific game – Penrith dropped the ball a lot, which helped – it wasn’t beyond expectation that the plan would bear fruit.

This was most impressive because it came against the Panthers, who themselves are the best at this kind of footy. The Wahs beat them at their own game, which literally never happens.

Webster deserved kudos for sticking to his guns. If he can add a spot of attacking variety to his good ball plays, there’s plenty of scope for this side to go right back up the table.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Newcastle do it again (sort of)

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This column has opined plenty of times that the Knights are way too conservative with the ball, but it’s hard to dispute the results that Adam O’Brien is getting from his side.

It’s not much fun to watch and seems to rely a lot on someone doing something individually to make it work, but Newcastle are defeating teams who have a tendency to defeat themselves, and that is half the comp at the moment.

They have, however, now lost Bradman Best to go with Kalyn Ponga, reducing the potential magic men quota yet further and will have to find a way to create points in a way that goes beyond ‘chuck it to x’.

On Saturday, that was David Armstrong, the week before it was Best and in the past it has been Ponga.

It’s also the central tenet of Anthony Griffin’s Dragons, who you will remember as a terrible football team who would scrape by sometimes but mostly look dreadful until it eventually ran out of road.

O’Brien is a better coach than Hook, for sure, and his side have shown that they can attack.

There’s probably a spot of periodisation involved given their fixture list, which has been soft of late, some wet weather games and the guys missing.

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If the Knights are to stay in contention through Origin, they’ll have to add something to their attack, however.

They have Penrith and the Storm in their next block, plus clashes with likely finals rivals Canberra, Manly and, first up, Canterbury. We’ll learn a lot soon.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 19: Nick Meaney of the Storm makes a break during the round 11 NRL match between Melbourne Storm and Parramatta Eels at Suncorp Stadium, on May 19, 2024, in Brisbane, Australia.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Arthur on borrowed time

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and thinking you’ll see different results.

Parramatta competed with Melbourne for a bit, while their forwards were fresh, then conceded within 90 seconds of their first middle interchange.

The first of the two was a run back from outside to in, the sort of break they have conceded all year, and involved a missed tackle from Junior Paulo, who had just come onto the field, and a chase from Reagan Campbell-Gillard, who was hooked immediately afterwards.

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Then the outside backs collapsed, allowing a further try, and the game dissipated up into the air.

Parra are an old, old team through the centre and whatever configuration they choose to use evidently cannot do it for as long as they used to be able to.

This was a problem identified late in 2022, when they tried to sign Martin Taupau to bolster a middle that Brad Arthur didn’t trust, and looked marginally solved by the addition of Joe Ofahengaue last year.

Now, it’s back to square one.

The worry has to be that the ultimate problem is the coach’s style, which is well out of keeping with rugby league in 2024, and that he might ultimately pay the price for what is happening at the Eels.

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