Tuesday 22 August 2017 / 12:04 AM

Golden Points – NRL Round 18

Daley’s misguided faith will destroy Blues

NSW coach Laurie Daley’s continued backing of his underperforming squad is almost as mind-boggling as the scale of the Blues’ record 52-6 Origin III defeat. Usually a loss of this magnitude would spark a thorough investigation of every process, from selection and preparation to individual performance, followed by a comprehensive overhaul – but Daley believes the recently humiliated crop can still get the job done.

His loyalty would be admirable if it wasn’t so ridiculous.

When Queensland suffered the previous biggest loss in Origin history – 56-16 drubbing in the 2000 dead-rubber – the long-standing selection panel was dumped, six of the vanquished squad never donned the Maroon jumper again and 10 debutants were picked for the following year’s series opener. The bold revamp proved the catalyst for a famous series win.

Similarly, after being subjected to a pasting in the 2001 decider, NSW handed out eight debuts in ’02. Following a drawn result in that campaign, the Blues blooded six new players in 2003 and won three straight series.

It’s unlikely that the NSWRL will have the bottle to get rid of Bob Fulton or apply pressure to Daley to change his approach, but an identical cleanout is desperately needed.

The Blues were deserving champions last year, but it was a narrow win by a side carried by Jarryd Hayne and against a team missing Cooper Cronk. The Queensland halfback’s absence in game two – a game won by the Blues to seemingly justify Daley’s string of dodgy selections – was the key factor in the 2015 series even going to a decider. Quite simply, this NSW line-up is nowhere near good enough. The Maroons can subtly introduce new players to their legend-stacked squad as their succession plan rolls along smoothly, but the Blues don’t have that luxury, especially given their diabolical halves situation.

Rather than endorse their retention after a disgraceful 46-point loss, Daley should be line drawing a line through the names of Trent Hodkinson, Mitchell Pearce, Will Hopoate, Beau Scott, Michael Ennis and James Tamou regardless of NRL form, while Ryan Hoffman, Trent Merrin, Boyd Cordner, Robbie Farah, Michael Jennings, and Josh and Brett Morris should have to be playing out of their skins to get another shot in 2016. On the strength of last Wednesday’s effort, only Josh Dugan, Aaron Woods, David Klemmer and Paul Gallen deserve to play any sort of incumbency card.

While marquee talent isn’t exactly coming out of the woodwork south of the border, the likes of Adam Reynolds, Blake Austin, Dylan Walker, James Roberts, Josh Mansour, Bryce Cartwright, Matt Moylan, Wade Graham, Nathan Peats, Tyson Frizell, Tepai Moeroa, Shannon Boyd, Blake Ferguson, Shaun Fensom, Joel Thompson, Ryan James, Alex Johnston and James Tedesco can be part of a NSW revolution. Getting an Origin call-up when form warrants it is how young players progress from promising to elite – if only Daley would take the blinkers off and give these guys a chance.

Big-mouthed Pearce cops deserved JT spray

Let me preface this by saying I admire Mitchell Pearce’s work for the Roosters. He was superb in the club’s 2013 triumph, discovered career-best form at the back-end of last year, and has been strong again this season. But for undoubtedly the biggest State of Origin failure of all time to sledge Johnathan Thurston, currently the No.1 player in the game and among the top three or four players in Origin history, for being ‘too old’ has to be among the dumbest tactics ever employed on a Rugby League field.

Pearce now boasts the pathetic record of four wins and 11 losses in 15 Origin matches, including defeats in all five deciders he has contested. Opposing him in every single underwhelming appearance for the Blues? J. Thurston. Not once has ‘Junior’ outplayed ‘JT’ on the representative stage, which makes Pearce’s verbal barrage in game two all the more ludicrous.

Thurston absolutely gave it to Pearce in Queensland’s decider demolition – which saw Pearce add the biggest defeat in Origin history to his abhorrent rep résumé – and the Roosters linchpin deserved every syllable of the Maroons champion’s acid-tongued retort.

Roosters’ rampant right edge

Is there a more dangerous edge in the NRL than the Roosters’ right-side combination of Blake Ferguson, Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck? Incumbent Kiwi Test centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall has used his retrenchment to the wing to produce near career-best form, leading the Roosters with 11 tries – including eight in his last six outings – and is consistently coming up with big plays with the ball in hand.

Ferguson is beginning to find top form after a 10-week injury layoff, and it should be remembered that the controversial star has played just nine NRL games in the last two years – he will get even better and still has the potential to be the game’s dominant three-quarter. ‘SKD’ and ‘Fergo’ combined for a total of 388 running metres against Penrith, causing constant headaches for one of the better defensive sides in the competition.

Meanwhile, Tuivasa-Sheck threatens with virtually every touch of the ball and continues to thrill with his counterattacking runs from the back, but is at his most potent when bobbing up on the right-hand side of the field near the opposition line outside Mitchell Pearce. And when you consider Michael Jennings and Daniel Tupou are lighting it up with James Maloney on the left – not to mention a fearsome pack and the effervescent dummy-half work of Jake Friend – it’s no surprise the Chooks have moved into title favouritism.

Warriors make a statement

The Warriors are in the top four for the first time since 2011 after chalking up their sixth win in eight games, while their 9-7 record is equal to the traditionally slow-starting club’s best return after 18 rounds since 2003. The 28-14 victory over Melbourne – their first against a club currently stationed in the top eight – was perhaps the most telling of the season to date. Missing top-line stars Ryan Hoffman, Manu Vatuvei and Konrad Hurrell, the Warriors barely missed a beat in a high-quality contest against a desperate Storm outfit.

The club’s depth is starting to shine through and there have been strong performers throughout the team sheet in recent weeks, but Shaun Johnson’s form has been mind-blowing. Pulling the strings with the decisiveness the erratic Warriors have been crying out for from their No.7 for so long, the reigning Golden Boot winner’s trademark individual brilliance is constantly bubbling near the surface, scoring four stunning solo tries in the current streak of three wins.

Crunch time for 2014 Grand finalists

St George Illawarra and Melbourne moved from worrying slide to full-blown slump with convincing losses in Round 18. Now it’s heavyweights South Sydney and Canterbury that need to get their spluttering title bids into gear. Both sides have struggled to build momentum throughout injury-hampered campaigns respectively; the Rabbitohs have lost two of their last three and are in fifth spot, while the Bulldogs have lost two of their last four and are sitting in eighth with a negative for-and-against.

The 2014 Grand Final adversaries both have the roster, the coach and the experience to go all the way, but time is ticking down on their hopes of a top-four berth. The Bulldogs take on the in-form Eels in a vital Friday night clash this week and the Rabbitohs face the out-of-sorts Dragons on Saturday night.

Austin powers Raiders into contention

If Laurie Daley had any commonsense, the first newcomer he would be pencilling in for a NSW debut in 2016 is the player who is wearing his old club jumper, Canberra five-eighth Blake Austin. Unquestionably the buy of the season, the former Panther and Tiger scored a hat-trick inside the first 15 minutes in Round 18 to shut Newcastle out of the contest early and take his 2015 tally to 13 tries. He’s not a classical No.6 by today’s standards, but Austin is explosive, dynamic, fiercely determined, and just makes things happen. The eccentric 24-year-old has been a breath of fresh air in a competition where structure prevails, and he is exactly the type of player who can turn the Maroon tide in the Origin arena.

By Jorge, he’s back!

After scoring 37 tries in his first 54 NRL games and representing City Origin twice, Manly winger Jorge Taufua fell right off the map when a NSW call-up seemed inevitable. But after a lengthy period hampered by injury and off-field incidents, the 23-year-old Tongan international is climbing back up the ranks of the NRL’s flank-men.

Taufua made his first appearance of the season in Round 8, and has scored six tries in eight outings – including five in the last fortnight. Also eating up big metres, the powerhouse shapes as a key figure as the Sea Eagles’ late charge for the finals begins to take shape. If he maintains this form, Taufua should come into Blues calculations in 2016, with the wings an area of weakness in this year’s campaign.

Underachiever of the week

Going into the match with virtually a full-strength 17 for the first time in weeks, Canterbury had a gilt-edged chance to stake a claim for a top-four spot when it hosted an Origin-weary Brisbane on Saturday. But the Bulldogs never got it together, seemingly reluctant to do the dirty work required to set a decent platform and hamstrung by errors at crucial junctures. The Broncos were far more committed and held on for a gutsy 16-8 win.

Overachiever of the week

Cronulla may have been facing off against a vastly under-strength St George Illawarra outfit, but the comprehensive nature of the 28-8 victory – without captain Paul Gallen – suggested that a finals appearance is not out the question for the Sharks. After beginning the year with four straight losses, the Sharks have won eight of 12 matches – including four of their last five – while the 20-point margin was their best effort since thumping the Warriors 37-6 in Round 5 last year.

My new favourite player

The Warriors’ production line just keeps on rolling out quality forwards, with Raymond Faitala-Mariner the latest to make an impact for the Auckland-based club. Called up to replace injured NSW second-rower Ryan Hoffman, the strapping 21-year-old put in an outstanding 72-minute performance and was robbed of an early try by incompetent video-refereeing. Holding on to their galaxy of NYC stars is the Warriors’ biggest problem, with the likes of Elijah Taylor, Peta Hiku, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Sosaia Feki, Ligi Sao, Agnatius Paasi, Mark Ioane and Carlos Tuimavave currently playing first grade at other clubs after winning Under-20s premierships with the Warriors.

Debutant report

Nathaniel Peteru (Titans): A mid-season acquisition from the Warriors, the 23-year-old forward made a long-awaited NRL debut for the Titans – and it was one to remember despite the heavy defeat to Manly, scoring his side’s only try along with making 13 tackles and six runs in 22 minutes of game-time.

Drew Hutchison (Dragons): A late inclusion at halfback for injured linchpin Benji Marshall, Hutchison certainly didn’t look out of depth in a tough afternoon for the Saints. The Sharks aimed their runners at the 20-year-old all day, forcing him to make 28 tackles, but the NSW Under-20s skipper had a hand in his well-beaten side’s first try.

Shades of…

…The Moscow Circus: Nathan Friend’s unbelievable backwards somersault and upside-down, pass-through-the-legs trick has garnered worldwide attention, even taking out top spot in ESPN Sportscenter’s Top 10 Plays segment. The best part of it is that the nuggetty 34-year-old rake is such an unlikely candidate to climb high and take a bomb, let alone produce a circus-like aerial move afterwards. There’s few more likable or harder working players in the NRL than Friend, and his gymnastic heroics have turned into one of the season’s feelgood stories – and a meme-maker’s dream.

…the 1995 Grand Final: The Bulldogs haven’t benefitted from such a farcically forward pass since Jim Dymock’s offload that set up Steve Price’s try in the 1995 decider against Manly. Brett Morris’ flick pass for twin brother Josh travelled several metres forward, with the referee believing it had come off a Broncos defender. Replays showed it didn’t, but with the video referee unable to rule on forward passes, one of 2015’s least deserving tries was awarded

Skip to 4:20 to relive Price’s try that would have been far more controversial had the opponent not been Manly.

NRL positional power rankings

FULLBACK

1 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck

2 Brett Stewart

3 Greg Inglis

4 Darius Boyd

5 Josh Dugan

WING

1 Semi Radradra

2 Shaun Kenny-Dowall

3 Jorge Taufua

4 Curtis Rona

5 Manu Vatuvei

CENTRE

1 Will Chambers

2 Blake Ferguson

3 Justin Hodges

4 Michael Jennings

5 Steve Matai

FIVE-EIGHTH

1 Blake Austin

2 Michael Morgan

3 Kieran Foran

4 James Maloney

5 Anthony Milford

HALFBACK

1 Shaun Johnson

2 Johnathan Thurston

3 Ben Hunt

4 Benji Marshall

5 Daly Cherry-Evans

PROP

1 Jesse Bromwich

2 Ben Matulino

3 Andrew Fifita

4 Jared Waerea-Hargreaves

5 Aaron Woods

HOOKER

1 Jake Friend

2 Cameron Smith

3 Issac Luke

4 Jake Granville

5 Nathan Friend

SECOND-ROW

1 Bryce Cartwright

2 Josh Papalii

3 Bodene Thompson

4 Sam Thaiday

5 Mitch Aubusson

LOCK

1 Corey Parker

2 Simon Mannering

3 Isaac Liu

4 Jason Taumololo

5 Martin Taupau

BENCH UTILITY

1 Lewis Brown

2 Matt Parcell

3 Ben Barba

4 Rory Kostjasyn

5 Jackson Hastings

[YouTube – NZAUTV Rugby League]

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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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