Friday 21 July 2017 / 12:06 AM

GOLDEN POINTS: NRL ROUND 19

This week’s Golden Points takes a look at the extraordinary news to come out of the Blues’ decider preparations, the problem with the Kangaroos Merit team, the clubs gearing up for a late-season surge, the Warriors packing it in for another season, and Benji’s potential fairytale comeback.

Last nails in Daley’s coffin

Leaks this week confirming Andrew Fifita got reinstated to the NSW starting side after throwing his toys and ‘Dorguson’ were up to their old tricks in the lead-up to the decider should remove any sliver of hope Laurie Daley had of retaining the Blues’ coaching job.

For Daley to allow the Fifita scenario (initially telling him David Klemmer would start before backing down) to happen shows an alarming lack of backbone, while Blake Ferguson and Josh Dugan – who should never be picked again – pissing up days out from arguably the most important game in NSW’s Origin history suggests the team’s culture and respect for the people in charge is miles short of where it needs to be.

‘Loz’ is a great guy and a Blues icon, but he’s had five seasons in charge for one series win. They’re further behind Queensland now than they were at the start of his reign – despite having the biggest personnel advantage over the Maroons they’ve had since Andrew Johns hung it up. Time to tear it down and start again.

Late-surging teams timing their run

The bye rounds are out of the way and the focus immediately turns to the run into the finals, with just seven weeks of the regular season left. There’s been a few minor movers and sliders, but on the whole no club has gained or lost major ground on where they were before the taxing Origin period.

Three of last year’s finalists that have underwhelmed throughout 2017 made important statements in Round 19, however. Short-handed Penrith scored an impressive win in Auckland, Canberra finally closed out a tight one, and Gold Coast hammered the premiers.

The trio sit outside the eight, but can build on last week’s momentum and embark on a charge similar to what carried them to the finals in ’16. The Panthers, Raiders and Titans all boast a stack of game-breakers capable of stringing a series of blockbusting performances together, and Parramatta and St George Illawarra – seventh and eighth respectively – will be looking over their shoulders before too long.

Disorder of merit

Mal Meninga’s impressive crusade to instil prestige back into the Kangaroos setup continued with the unprecedented naming of a ‘2017 Origin Kangaroos Merit Team’, giving dues to the players that excelled during the interstate series.

A good concept, and a nice little newsbite. But you know what else rewards players for their performances in Origin? Picking a Kangaroos team and getting them to play against someone.

The merit team only served as a reminder that Australia has given the absolute shaft to international rugby league by canning mid-season Tests and giving them a “new priority” – a pathetically-disguised way of saying Test footy is getting shunted to the end of the year indefinitely while Origin remains untouched.

Warriors are done

The Warriors sit in equal-10th with the Raiders and Titans, two points adrift of the Panthers and four points shy of the eighth-placed Dragons. But the performance they put up last week – combined with Shaun Johnson’s 6-8 week layoff – ends any hope of the club returning to the playoffs this year.

It was a display so frustrating in its inevitably and familiarity, handed ample chances to put their foot on the throat of the Panthers but bumbling their way to only a modest lead and then capitulating in the final 15 minutes. Trawl through the Warriors’ losses of the past six years and you’ll find a pile of carbon copies.

Unless there’s a major shift in mentality, it’s hard seeing the Warriors posting more than one or two wins before the end of the season, which will fuel tough questions about whether the club has improved at all under incoming coach Stephen Kearney. They’re still just as liable to bottle a game through widespread incompetence, but the Warriors’ trademark ability to blow their opposition of the park on any given day has been missing this year.

Worryingly, the major gains (Tohu Harris, Leivaha Pulu) and losses (Kieran Foran, Ryan Hoffman, Ben Matulino, Manu Vatuvei) columns don’t bode particularly well for a return to the promised land in 2018.

Door opens for Benji

Shaun Johnson’s positive injury news means he’s still well in the frame to play in the World Cup, but David Kidwell and the Kiwis need a Plan B, which pitches Benji Marshall into the mix for a recall after a five-year absence.

Stephen Kearney declined to pick Marshall, one of the great Kiwis and a long-serving captain, for the 2015 tour of England when both Johnson and Kieran Foran were unavailable, ostensibly for ‘culture’ reasons (ie. the media circus Benji attracts).

Instead a halves contingent of Kodi Nikorima, Peta Hiku and Tui Lolohea went over and the Kiwis lost the series.

Kidwell learnt a valuable lesson in last year’s Four Nations after Thomas Leuluai broke down. Leaving fully fit international rookie Te Maire Martin in the stands, the Kiwis put Tohu Harris alongside Johnson in the halves and the Kangaroos destroyed them.

Martin and maybe Kodi Nikorima are potential back-up options for the World Cup, but the struggling Kiwis need the best available – and that means Benji Marshall.

Cowboys keep cracking the whip

Paul Green must be one of the great coaching minds of the modern era. Most wrote the Cowboys off after Johnathan Thurston was ruled out for the year, yet the team – which is already missing their other co-captain, Matt Scott, and has shouldered a heavy injury burden in 2017 – has gone unbeaten since to sit in a share of third spot.

Their ability to put the devastating injury to their talisman behind them and get straight back on task is Melbourne Storm-like. It would be a stretch to say they’re still a premiership threat, but this side isn’t going to roll over just because JT isn’t on deck.

Manly’s feel-good factor

Manly’s return to contender status shapes as potentially the story of the 2017 season, and one of the most satisfying aspects has been the way so many Sea Eagles players have revived their careers.

Daly Cherry-Evans, Dylan Walker and Marty Taupau have recovered from subpar campaigns to reassert themselves among the NRL’s elite. Recruits at major crossroads such as Curtis Sironen, Akuila Uate and more recently Shaun Lane have provided outstanding value.

Trent Barrett must be firming for Dally M Coach of the Year honours.

Nineteenth Impressions

BRONCOS: Ultimately outclassed an enthusiastic Knights side to close out a pretty impressive Origin period for the heavily-burdened Broncos. Sweating on getting Boyd back, but well-placed for a premiership assault.

RAIDERS: Could that be the turning point? After going 1-6 in games decided by six points or less, the Raiders nabbed a golden-point victory to rectify a finals bid that was looking very tenuous.

SHARKS: Hard to explain that one. Coming off their demolition of the Roosters, getting pumped by the Titans was a puzzler. The Sharks are showing occasional signs of the strain of defending the title – but they’ll switch on when the serious stuff gets close.

TITANS: Potentially a season-defining performance from the Titans, with their campaign now back in full swing. Ash Taylor was brilliant – he shapes as the key for steering this talented-stacked but enigmatic squad to the playoffs.

SEA EAGLES: Far from an 80-minute display against the battling Tigers, but got the job done comfortably in the end. Will be eager to build up some consistency before the finals.

KNIGHTS: Typical of their season, just not enough experience and class to close out games. Definitely some positives to take out.

WARRIORS: To lead by four, at home, when your season is on the line, only to concede three late, super-soft tries in the last 15 minutes is an indication you don’t belong anywhere near the finals.

COWBOYS: Dud game but tough, clinical performance from the Cowboys in Cairns. Never looked in danger of losing it.

PANTHERS: Without Moylan missing, the Panthers fielded a rookie fullback, a debutant five-eighth and a hooker that has played just four games for the club. Up stepped Nathan Cleary, and suddenly they are finals contenders again. Plenty of character.

DRAGONS: Unlucky to go down – particularly given the circumstances of Dugan’s injury – but now they are sitting very precariously in eighth spot. The next fortnight could make or break their campaign.

RABBITOHS: It’s all over for the Rabbitohs, who would have been eyeing off their games against the undermanned Roosters and Cowboys as very winnable after giving the Panthers a touch-up in Round 17. Start planning for 2018.

TIGERS: Another team that can’t get their 2018 recruits to the club soon enough. The focus should be scraping through to the end of the season with the least amount of mental scarring possible.

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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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