Tuesday 20 March 2018 / 11:04 AM


This week’s Golden Points looks at Manly’s rise, Canberra’s fall, Queensland’s selection quandaries, and the Tigers’ capture of Connor Watson. There’s also tributes for milestone man Jason Nightingale and the retiring Matt Ballin, and the ‘NRL’s Breakout XIII of 2017’.

Real deal Eagles

After two seasons in the doldrums, Manly is a bona fide contender again. The Sea Eagles’ 35-18 demolition of Cronulla – their sixth win in seven games – has pitched the club into the top four, and they’re playing a brand of football that can take them a long way in the 2017 competition.

Complementing marquee siblings Tom and Jake Trbojevic are a bunch of players rebounding emphatically from disappointing campaigns. The stocks of Daly Cherry-Evans, Dylan Walker, Marty Taupau and Curtis Sironen all plummeted in 2016, but they’ve been outstanding this year to add to Manly’s resurgence narrative. Not to mention the job Trent Barrett has done turning the team around in his sophomore season as an NRL coach.

So is this a Manly side it’s OK to like? I’d say it’s the first time since Graham Lowe was in charge of the club in the early-1990s that neutrals wouldn’t mind seeing the perennially hated Sea Eagles do well.

Maroons must pick Cherry

Thankfully it appears Kevin Walters is coming around to the idea that Daly Cherry-Evans is the best qualified saviour for his Thurston-less Maroons ahead of the Origin decider. Michael Morgan is the only other viable No.6 option, but his value off the bench should dictate that he stays there.

Cam Munster is a tremendous player – if I was starting a new club, he’d be one of the first players I’d try to sign – but he’s started just six NRL games at five-eighth. Pitching him into the halves on debut would be cruel to the player and detrimental to the team.

The suggestion Moses Mbye could get a call-up is absurd.

DCE is arguably in career-best form, and has the experience of 11 Tests, six Origins and two grand finals behind him – he’s a big-game player. He failed when filling in for Cooper Cronk when Queensland lost the 2014 series, but he wasn’t a good fit style-wise with Thurston.

But playing alongside the master tactician Cronk, Cherry-Evans can perform his trademark roving role, hopefully creating much-needed chances for a Maroons side that has struggled on attack this series, and providing a top-shelf kicking option – both huge advantages he has over Munster.

As for Darius Boyd’s centre replacement, there can only be one move: shift Dane Gagai in and recall Corey Oates on the left wing.

Oates is having a great year and was superb in Game 1, Valentine Holmes has played most of his club footy on the right flank and would probably prefer the change, and the on-fire Gagai has played 95 of his 126 NRL games at centre. Touted options Munster and Morgan have started one and zero first grade games at centre respectively. Case closed.

Trouble in the capital

Many an expert’s pick to take out this year’s premiership, Canberra is rapidly firming as the disappointment of 2017. The attacking flair remains, but the requisite attitude and team spirit – which Ricky Stuart worked so tirelessly over the last two seasons to cultivate – is falling well short of the mark.

Joey Leilua’s apparent “f***ing greedy c**t” blow-up at teammate Blake Austin (a shocking case of the pot calling the kettle black, by the way) points to widening cracks in the tight-knit Green Machine, reviving memories of Brett Mullins shoving Mark McLinden back in 2000.

Realistically, the Raiders need to win six of their last nine games – which include two games against Melbourne, plus assignments against North Queensland, St George Illawarra, Cronulla, and fellow desperates Penrith and New Zealand – and given their inability to finish off close games, that looks like a longshot.

Nightingale force

Veteran St George Illawarra winger Jason Nightingale became the 67th player in premiership history (and just the fourth non-Australian after Nigel Vagana, Manu Vatuvei and Shaun Kenny-Dowall) to bring up 100 first grade tries courtesy of his hat-trick against Newcastle on Sunday. The 30-year-old’s strike-rate is nothing special – it’s taken him 236 NRL games to reach the milestone – but there’s no question he’s been one of the most reliable and durable flank-men at club and Test level over the past decade. A well-deserved honour.

Watson signing elementary for Tigers

Wests Tigers’ signing blitz has reportedly continued with the capture of boom Sydney Roosters utility Connor Watson – and despite the addition of Russell Packer, Ben Matulino, Josh Reynolds and Chris McQueen, Watson should prove to be the best acquisition of the lot.

It’s rumoured he’s been promised James Tedesco’s fullback spot – otherwise why would he join the Tigers to play the same back-up role he’s performing now for the Roosters? But don’t be surprised to see him pitched into the halves if Luke Brooks fails to aim up next year. Either way, he’s a brilliant talent that deserves to be starting every week.

Where does that leave mid-year pick-up Tuimoala Lolohea, though? He left the Warriors after failing to nail down a spot at fullback or in the halves, but those jerseys are now seemingly filled at the Tigers for 2018. Looks like it’s back to the three-quarter or the bench for poor Tui.

Possible Wests Tigers 2018 line-up: 1 Connor Watson, 2 David Nofoaluma, 3 Kevin Naiqama/Tuimoala Lolohea/Taane Milne/Esarn Marsters, 4 Moses Suli, 5 Mahe Fonua, 6 Josh Reynolds, 7 Luke Brooks, 8 Russell Packer, 9 Matt McIlwrick, 10 Ben Matulino, 11 Chris Lawrence, 12 Chris McQueen, 13 Elijah Taylor. Int: 14 Jacob Liddle, 15 Sauaso Sue, 16 Josh Aloiai, 17 Matt Eisenhuth.

Farewellin’ Ballin

It’s always a shame to see a player hang up the boots on the back of injuries, particularly one as hardworking and honest as Matt Ballin. The one-time Manly iron-man (he played 182 consecutive games from 2008-14) has had a wretched time at Wests Tigers, restricted to just three bench appearances since arriving at Concord in 2016.

But Ballin should be remembered as one of the better hookers of his era, with the 220-game veteran’s list of achievements including two grand final triumphs with the Sea Eagles, and being the only player besides Cameron Smith to wear the Queensland No.9 jumper since 2003.

Sixteenth Impressions

BRONCOS: An outstanding win in the capital after Darius Boyd joined Anthony Milford in the casualty ward, keeping them up with the NRL’s front-runners and at arm’s length of the mid-table logjam. Great performances from Benji Marshall, Ben Hunt and Matt Gillett.

RAIDERS: Another lost opportunity to add to their six games lost by six points or less. Not putting in the hard yards on either side of the ball for long enough periods, and now their season is hanging by a thread.

BULLDOGS: Last Friday’s assignment in Auckland shaped as must-win and they couldn’t get the job done. One try in the first 77 minutes against a jittery Warriors side is simply not good enough, with the Dogs’ spine again failing to offer anything in attack.

SHARKS: Caught napping by a team that came ready to play. The 35-18 loss to Manly won’t unduly concern Shane Flanagan, but it was the premiers’ first loss of the year by more than eight points and they’ll be eager to bounce back sharply.

TITANS: Needed to win and did, with under-fire duo Jarryd Hayne and Konrad Hurrell the two-try stars. Still look well short of contending for the finals, but a step in the right direction.

SEA EAGLES: A statement game from Trent Barrett’s surging outfit. If they maintain this form, the Sea Eagles will be more than a handful in September.

STORM: Another super-gutsy performance from the Storm without their Origin contingent, going down in a golden point heartbreaker to the Roosters. Hard not seeing them surge to antoher

KNIGHTS: What shaped as just the Knights’ third win of the season descended into another lamentable defeat, which handed them the record for consecutive away losses since 1954. A lot to like about this team, which could be a force with the addition of Ponga, SKD, Guerra, Moga, Ese’ese et al.

WARRIORS: It was ugly, but a clutch win nonetheless from a Warriors side that is quietly turning Mt Smart back into a graveyard for visiting teams. They did it without Foran, too, but they need to keep the momentum going and overcome a Perth hoodoo in this week’s showdown with Manly.

COWBOYS: The Cowboys, rocked by the JT news, could have been forgiven for going down to the in-form Panthers after falling behind late. But they rallied to pull off a miracle win, which could be the springboard the understrength team uses to go on and reach the finals.

PANTHERS: A huge missed opportunity in Townsville after leading with three minutes to go, Kyle Feldt’s try breaking their four-match winning streak. The Panthers need to go 3-0 in their next run of matches against the Rabbitohs, Warriors and Titans.

DRAGONS: Got out of jail with a second-half surge, but the Saints have slipped significantly on their early-season form, and the Paul Vaughan injury is a blow. Still well-placed with one of the gentlest runs home.

ROOSTERS: An incredible late fight-back, albeit against a massively depleted Storm side. The Roosters have looked like premiership material since Round 1 and little has changed during the arduous Origin period.

TIGERS: Sitting on the bottom of the ladder and face a big game against the Knights this weekend as they look to stave off the spoon. The home loss to the Titans was more of the same for a club that can’t wait for its new recruits to arrive.

NRL’s Breakout XIII of 2017

1 Dylan Edwards: The Panthers wouldn’t have moved Moylan to five-eighth if they didn’t have an outstanding fullback fill-in. The 21-year-old Edwards looks a fabulous prospect.

2 Josh Addo-Carr: A mouth-watering but erratic talent to emerge at Wests Tigers last year, Addo-Carr has slotted into the Storm system seamlessly and against the odds is one of the NRL’s most consistent wingers, while also scoring 11 tries in 15 games. Rep material.

3 Tautau Moga: After playing just 32 games in five seasons for the Roosters and Cowboys, injury-prone Moga has played every game for the Broncos and is genuine weapon on the left edge. A belated run in first grade looks to have netted the big centre a chunky contract with the Knights.

4 Joseph Manu: Latrell’s patchy form and SKD off-field troubles have seen the rangy Manu snare a permanent NRL role – and he is making the most of the opportunity. The Kiwi turns 21 this week and has to rate among the best centre prospects in the game.

5 Ken Maumalo: This column has been highly critical of big Ken – for his Vatuvei-like error rate, and un-Vatuvei-like tryscoring rate. But the 22-year-old has turned it around, reducing his blunders and scoring four tries in his last four games (after scoring four in his first 28 appearances), while also ranking in the top six of the NRL’s metre-eaters.

6 Clint Gutherson: Brilliant wherever Brad Arthur puts him, Gutherson has gone from Mr. Fix-it to Dally M contender despite being frequently shuffled around the backline. The Eels’ most important player, especially now it looks as though he will settle in at fullback for the rest of the year.

7 Kodi Nikorima: Got his chance when Ben Hunt went down injured and filled in wonderfully well. Unlikely to hang onto the Broncos’ No.7 jumper for the rest of the season, but did enough for Wayne Bennett to declare him the club’s 2018 solution.

8 Paul Vaughan: He was great at the Raiders, but has developed into an elite forward at the Dragons after being deemed surplus to requirements in the capital. Went very close to an Origin debut, but the 26-year-old’s time will come.

9 Kaysa Pritchard: Despite debuting in 2013, Pritchard had never started until this season. But he has worn the Eels’ No.9 in all 15 games so far this season and shapes as a real top-class rake. His season-ending injury is a bitter blow for club and player.

10 Daniel Saifiti: An impressive 2016 alongside twin bro Jacob, Daniel has developed into a permanent starter with the Knights this year and will be at the forefront of the club’s revival. Averaging 109 metres and 24 tackles a game in 2017.

11 Angus Crichton: On the verge of stardom in his sophomore NRL season. The 21-year-old’s recent performances have been out of this world, scoring seven tries in his last seven games and resembling the likes of Bob Lindner and Brad Clyde with his determined running, speed and athleticism.

12 Felise Kaufusi: Another tyro-cum-tryscoring freak, third-season forward Kaufusi has filled Kevin Proctor’s right-edge role in outstanding fashion to score seven tries in his last nine games and knock on the door of Queensland Origin selection.

13 Jack de Belin: A likely prospect after debuting in 2011, de Belin plateaued and seemed destined to be a run-of-the-mill first grader. That all changed this year, winning selection in the Blues’ extended squad after starring in the Dragons’ resurgence.

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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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