Monday 18 December 2017 / 04:50 AM

GOLDEN POINTS: NRL ROUND 14

Wade Graham can’t play Origin

The NRL judiciary has come up with some ridiculously inconsistent rulings over the years, but there’s no conceivable way they can exonerate Wade Graham for his high tackle on Johnathan Thurston and allow him to play in Origin II.

Graham is just about my favourite player in the competition, and it’s a devastating blow to have his Origin debut taken away for what essentially was an accident. But under the current system, there’s no allowances for leniency ahead of finals or rep games.

The Cronulla backrower’s misfortune does, however, highlight the need to review the current set-up, with the obvious solution the introduction of a fine system for Grade 1 charges. The NBA does it, the AFL does it – the NRL has to swallow its pride and get with the times to prevent more players from joining the likes of Graham, Issac Luke et al.

In saying all of that, precedents have been set in farcically allowing Josh Reynolds to take his place in Origin II in 2014, and the exoneration of Justin Hodges in the lead-up to last year’s grand final.

Perhaps the Graham verdict is flip-a-coin territory, but if the judiciary has any practicality, he’ll have to wait until Game 3 to pull on the Blue jersey.

The definition of insanity

What’s the old adage about doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result? Wade Graham’s plight has diverted the attention from yet another dud NSW line-up. Laurie Daley has stuck solid with the likes of Josh Morris, Blake Ferguson and controversial bench utility Dylan Walker, while overlooking the claims of Bryce Cartwright, Jack Bird (who have both been included as ‘development players’), James Tedesco and Joey Leilua.

Picking Graham – in for the injured Boyd Cordner – was a step in the right direction, but far more changes were needed if the Blues were to have any chance of scoring enough points to upset Queensland in their own backyard. Graham’s likely suspension should open the door for Cartwright to debut – possibly off the bench with James Tamou again promoted to the starting side and Greg Bird shifting to the second-row.

But Daley will probably pull the wrong rein again, instead selecting the powerful-but-no-frills Tyson Frizell in Cordner’s place, providing the Blues with even less variety than they put up in Game 1. Meanwhile, ‘Loz’s’ blind loyalty is leading NSW down a path to inevitable defeat. The Maroons stay loyal because they keep winning; when they lose a game, heads go on the block. Daley’s obsession with continuity – regardless of how inadequate his squad is – will bring about the end of his tenure as state coach.

The gap widens

Melbourne, Cronulla, North Queensland and Brisbane once again illustrated the gulf between the top four teams and the rest last weekend. The Storm were ruthless in a 46-0 shutout of the Roosters, the Sharks and Cowboys produced an out-and-out classic on Monday that screamed September footy, and the out-of-sorts Broncos brushed aside a supposedly in-form Canberra side that was aiming to usurp them in the top four.

If the regular season finished now (assuming Parramatta’s salary-cap penalties remain in place), the Bulldogs, Raiders, Panthers and Warriors would make up the rest of the finals – and there’s little question they’d be merely making up the numbers. Mercifully, the much-maligned McIntyre System is gone, otherwise we’d have four qualifying final mismatches on our hands.

There’s time and potential for the 5th-8th-placed clubs to find the form necessary to rattle the heavyweights, but at this stage bank on the four front-runners squaring off in the preliminary finals.

How low can the Knights go?

They’ve notched a win and draw in 14 matches, conceded 491 points at 35 per game, and are beset by injuries and a highly questionable selection policy from coach Nathan Brown. Are Newcastle on track to become the worst wooden spooners of the NRL era?

The NRL’s salary cap-influenced parity has generally ensured the competition’s bottom feeders are semi-competitive, with most wooden spooners picking up at least five wins over the course of the season (the Knights finished last in 2015 with eight victories).

The only exceptions since 1998 are Western Suburbs in 1998 (4 wins and 802 points conceded @ 33.41 per game) and 1999 (3 wins and a premiership record 944 points conceded @ 39.33 per game), and South Sydney in 2003 (3 wins and 758 points conceded at 31.58 per game) and 2005 (3 wins and 772 points conceded @ 32.16 per game).

Given it’s difficult to see where the next win or some defensive capability is going to come from for the Knights – who have conceded 48-plus points on four occasions – it looks like the embattled club from the Hunter are headed for a historically bad season.

Put a line through ’em

From what we saw in Round 14, South Sydney, St George Illawarra and Manly don’t have the confidence, defensive steel or 80-minute application required to come anywhere near challenging for a top-eight berth. They’ve already given their rivals a handy head-start and it’s difficult to see any of the trio producing a late-season charge.

Assuming the Roosters and Knights are out of the running, the erratic Tigers will falter, and the top four is already settled, that leaves just the Titans trying to force their way into the playoffs ahead of the Warriors, Raiders, Panthers or Bulldogs.

Try of the week

Valentine Holmes’ 90-metre intercept try against the Cowboys was an individual masterpiece. The composure and reflexes to make the grab, the pace, the inside-out move on Lachlan Coote – it was the most exhilarating passage of season 2016 so far. To produce it at such a key moment, with the Sharks on their heels and 8-0 down, was a sign of a very special player. Pencil him in for the Kangaroos’ Four Nations squad.

Underachiever of the week

It’s tough to choose between a Rabbitohs side that made the Tigers look like world-beaters and a Sea Eagles outfit that coughed up a 20-point lead to the Panthers. Both sides were in desperate need of a win, but both produced performances that would have piqued the interest of cynical match-fixing conspiracy theorists. 

Overachiever of the week

Playing in hopelessly outclassed team, Sione Mata’utia was a tower of strength. The centre was the only Knights player to rack up over 100 metres in the 50-14 loss to the Warriors, made their only two line-breaks, scored a rampaging solo try, and kept in-form opposite Solomone Kata conspicuously quiet while racking up 21 tackles. The former Australian Test star, still only 19 years of age, is showing signs he can reach those representative heights again.

My new favourite player

Canberra’s best in Thursday’s loss to Brisbane was Charters Towers junior Zac Santo, who was making just his second NRL appearance – and his first since debuting off the bench for the Cowboys in 2014. The diminutive fullback, promoted for the suspended Jack Wighton, didn’t put a foot wrong and showed plenty of courage and composure in a faultless display. The 23-year-old upstaged the majority of his erratic teammates and deserves more chances in the top flight.

Shades of…

…Dally Messenger: ‘The Master’s’ trick of intentionally throwing the ball over the top of the defence and regathering was outlawed over 100 years ago. While Tony Williams’ ‘Hand of Dog’ effort was arguably accidental, awarded the resulting try to Will Hopoate contravened the spirit of rugby league as much as the pioneering Messenger’s sneaky tactic did.

…Kevin Locke: Parramatta rookie Bevan French’s runaway try – and determination to give Michael Gordon an easy conversion – brought back wince-inducing memories of Warriors flyer Kevin Locke’s insane match-winner against the Roosters in Christchurch in 2010.

Positional power rankings

FULLBACK

1 Ben Barba

2 Tuimoala Lolohea

3 James Tedesco

4 Matt Moylan

5 Darius Boyd

 

WING

1 Valentine Holmes

2 David Fusitu’a

3 Josh Mansour

4 Bevan French

5 Corey Oates

 

CENTRE

1 Jack Bird

2 Solomone Kata

3 Sione Mata’utia

4 Justin O’Neill

5 Joey Leilua

 

FIVE-EIGHTH

1 James Maloney

2 Michael Morgan

3 Anthony Milford

4 Josh Reynolds

5 Thomas Leuluai

 

HALFBACK

1 Johnathan Thurston

2 Chad Townsend

3 Ashley Taylor

4 Cooper Cronk

5 Shaun Johnson

 

PROP

1 Josh McGuire

2 Jesse Bromwich

3 Matt Scott

4 Ryan James

5 Sam Tagatese

 

HOOKER

1 Michael Ennis

2 Cameron Smith

3 Josh Hodgson

4 Jake Granville

5 Issac Luke

 

SECOND-ROW

1 Wade Graham

2 Matt Gillett

3 Bryce Cartwright

4 Josh Papalii

5 Tyson Frizell

 

LOCK

1 Jason Taumalolo

2 Corey Parker

3 Paul Gallen

4 Greg Bird

5 Sam Burgess

 

BENCH UTILITY

1 Luke Keary

2 Kurt Baptiste

3 Nathaniel Roache

4 Kodi Nikorima

5 Robbie Farah

[Sports Tube]

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About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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