A night for the Rugby League romantics
Canterbury’s return to its spiritual home Belmore Oval – after a 17-year absence – was unquestionably one of the highlights of the 2015 season, with the jam-packed, 16,764-strong crowd creating a spine-tingling atmosphere on a special night for the club.
The Bulldogs’ rousing 20-4 victory was a fitting result, but the one-off event also gave the NRL a blueprint for turning around dismal Monday night attendance figures. Over the first 15 rounds, Monday night crowds averaged under 10,000 – compared to the NRL’s overall 15,000-plus average.
The Bulldogs-Storm fixture would have struggled to draw half the crowd that turned out last night if it had been held at the cavernous ANZ Stadium, and hosting games at nostalgic venues like Belmore and Redfern Oval may be an answer to rescuing the timeslot, along with taking games to country centres as has been mooted by Fox Sports chief Patrick Delany in recent weeks.
Bulldogs loom large over premiership picture
Canterbury defied the odds to make the 2014 Grand Final following a late-season slump and seventh-place finish. And although the Bulldogs are delicately poised in eighth spot at present, they are in a far stronger position to challenge for their first title since 2004 than they were last year.
The blue-and-whites’ ruthless victory over the Storm was the latest indication Des Hasler’s squad is well and truly past the injury- and suspension-fuelled hole they found themselves in during April and May. The injection of Curtis Rona and Brett Morris to a previously toothless backline, and the rise of David Klemmer and now super-impressive rookie Shaun Lane in what was already one of the NRL’s most dominant packs, has put the Bulldogs right in the premiership mix.
Hasler still needs to untangle the Hodkinson-Mbye-Reynolds halves muddle, but if that is the coach’s biggest worry then the Bulldogs are in a better position than most.
Meninga makes the tough calls
Kudos to Queensland coach Mal Meninga and his selectors – it takes plenty of bottle to drop a player they’ve been grooming for several years and who probably rates among the top five in the game. But Daly Cherry-Evans’ woeful Origin II performance forced their hand, and the Maroons opted for Michael Morgan’s superior form and versatility on the bench.
It would have been intriguing to see if the ‘$10 million man’ was retained if Cooper Cronk had been ruled out again, but the Melbourne linchpin’s return gives Queensland its best chance of reclaiming the Origin crown – despite the fact it will have been 32 days since his last game.
Dylan Napa was unlucky to miss out on the interchange spot opened up by Josh McGuire’s season-ending injury, but Josh Papalii has been in decent form and with eight Tests and three Origins to his credit, the Canberra enforcer was an astute pick. Dane Gagai was an obvious choice on the wing – he has had a tremendous season, while the state’s backline stocks are worryingly thin – but the Maroons’ reshuffle out wide may be their biggest obstacle next Wednesday night.
Loophole reeks of dirty pool
Robbie Farah was named for the decider by NSW despite being unlikely to play due to a hand fracture, and it seems the Blues are prepared to invoke a dodgy loophole to draft in Michael Ennis if Farah is ruled out.
Ennis is facing a one-match ban this week, but as he hasn’t been named by the Blues and will serve his suspension in Cronulla’s match this weekend, he can join the Origin squad at the completion of the NRL round if Farah withdraws. It is virtually identical to the Lote Tuqiri controversy during the 2002 series – which the Blues have not forgiven nor forgotten – when Queensland listed one wing spot as ‘TBA’ to allow Tuqiri to serve a suspension at club level before taking his place for the Maroons.
Ennis’ inclusion would be equally farcical; ironically, if the Sharks were one of the eight clubs with a bye in Round 17, the loophole would be closed. For the sake of Rugby League’s battered credibility, the Blues should pick Josh Reynolds, Mitch Rein or Ryan Hinchcliffe (many would argue they are better alternatives than the 31-year-old Ennis anyway), but the lure of Origin glory will be too great.
Burgeoning Broncos wary of fadeout
Brisbane’s revival under Wayne Bennett has been one of the season’s great storylines, taking an outright lead in the regular season race with 10 rounds to go after an emphatic 44-22 defeat of Newcastle. The minor premiership is the Broncos’ to lose: they boast an excellent for-and-against record and a one-game break on the second-placed Cowboys, with the Roosters, Dragons and Rabbitohs a further four points back.
But while the Broncos have negotiated the Origin period admirably so far, Bennett will be acutely aware his side’s greatest challenge will come when the representative program wraps up. Under Bennett, the Broncos led the competition at some point in each season between 2001 and 2006, as late as Round 15 in 2001; Round 10 in 2002; Round 17 in 2003; Round 7 in 2004; Round 24 in 2005; and Round 13 in 2006. They finished the regular season no higher than third in any of those campaigns. During the ’05 season, the Broncos headed the table for 15 weeks, but lost their last five matches to gift the minor premiership to Parramatta as the post-Origin drain gripped the squad.
Bennett will also know how crucial finishing at the top of the ladder could be for the Broncos. The club claimed four minor premierships under his charge and went on to win the Grand Final on each occasion.
Panthers veteran David Simmons’ remarkable four-try second-half haul against the Tigers took him past 100 NRL tries in his 194th first grade appearance, a tremendous achievement for a player that seemed destined for the scrapheap more than once during his career. With 54 tries in 112 games for Cronulla and 47 touchdowns in 82 games for Penrith to his name, the 30-year-old is on the verge of becoming just the fourth player in premiership history to notch 50 tries for two different clubs, after Harold Horder (Souths and Norths), Darren Smith (Canterbury and Brisbane) and Matt Sing (Sydney Roosters and North Queensland.
Underachiever of the week
If Wests Tigers were to do anything significant with their 2015 campaign, they had to beat injury-hit Penrith on Sunday. Instead, they produced a performance as insipid as anything we’ve seen from the rebuilding joint venture this season, crashing to a 35-12 loss. Coach Jason Taylor’s hair-brained decision to move young forward Kyle Lovett to the centres – instead of former Test three-quarter Chris Lawrence – when Tim Simona left the field scuppered any chance of a Tigers win, allowing Dean Whare and Simmons to run riot down their left edge. The Tigers now sit in a three-way tie for last place with Manly and Newcastle.
Overachiever of the week
The record of NRL clubs overcoming a bad-news week to produce a stirring win is quite remarkable, and Parramatta added another chapter to the annals of backs-to-the-wall victories by toppling heavyweights St George Illawarra 16-12, temporarily easing the misery of the Kieran Foran saga. If the Eels do manage to pull off a miracle and secure Foran for 2016, they will have a fair football side at their disposal – in spite of their administrators’ routinely bumbling efforts.
My new favourite player
Newcastle may be on a one-way track to just the second wooden spoon in the club’s history, but they have unveiled one of the code’s hottest dummy-half prospects in 19-year-old Wellington product Danny Levi. Making his second NRL appearance at Suncorp Stadium last Friday, Levi scored a superb try from acting half in a strong 34-minute contribution off the bench. The dynamic former Junior Kiwi, who captained the Knights’ NYC side to the 2014 minor premiership, is competing with the likes of Adam Clydesdale and Tyler Randall for the hooker spot, but with two years to run on his contract in the Hunter Valley, Levi represents the new breed that can lift the club out of its current trough.
…Meninga and Gidley: Konrad Hurrell channelled two of the modern era’s finest centres when he brilliantly set up Tuimoala Lolohea’s first-half try on Saturday. After steamrolling opposing centre Jarrod Croker in Meninga-like fahsion, the ‘Hurrellcane’ slipped a beautiful flick pass out for his winger, a la Matt Gidley.
…the 1970s and ’80s: A couple of players went dangerously close to earning some time on the sidelines when they attempted to revive the head-butt during Round 16. Michael Jennings gave David Mead a little nudge during Sunday’s Roosters-Titans clash, while Tigers halfback Luke Brooks showed even more intent when he lunged at Panthers prop Jeremy Latimore later that day.
They have a long way to go before sparking a return to the ‘Liverpool Kiss” 1970s and ’80s heyday, however, when the likes of Les Boyd thought nothing of lashing out with the forehead.
Form Origin teams
Each week, we name the State of Origin line-ups that would take the field if form was the only criteria.
NEW SOUTH WALES
Vale Kevin Jefcoate
The Warriors’ commanding win over the Raiders on Saturday was extra special for a group of Christchurch-based supporters. Earlier that day, they farewelled a dear friend and family member, and an extraordinary young man.
Kevin Jefcoate was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at age 4, but his remarkable positivity and courage, and his work to change the perceptions of people living with disability, were an inspiration to all who knew him. Kevin was killed in a car accident near Woodend last Monday, aged 25.
A diehard Warriors supporter and club member, anecdotes about Kevin’s passion for Rugby League and his team – among many, many stories underlining his bravery in the face of an unimaginably challenging condition – were laced throughout an incredibly uplifting memorial service held in Rangiora on Saturday morning. A Warriors jersey hung proudly on the wall at the service, testament to his love of the team he has rode many highs and lows with over the past decade.
His condition meant he never had the chance to play Rugby League, but if a club could bottle Kevin’s bravery, perseverance, enthusiasm and strength under adversity, they’d win 10 premierships. RIP Kevin J, a fanatical Warrior, and a true warrior in life.
Check out Kevin’s inspirational blog here.