Sunday 18 March 2018 / 03:23 AM


In this week’s Golden Points: the Eels lay down their credentials, pretenders’ hopes extinguished, contenders get the wobbles, the contrasting fortunes of two namesakes, another Cam Smith tribute, and the players Stephen Kearney must axe.

Real Deal Eels?

After rocketing out of the blocks in the opening fortnight of the premiership, Parramatta has looked decidedly average despite inching their way into the top eight – never more so than in a one-point eclipse of Wests Tigers in Round 20 in one of the ugliest games of the year.

But after losing their standout player, Clint Gutherson, for the remainder of the season, the Eels displayed the character that underpinned their admirable – if tortured – 2016 campaign in taking down heavyweights Brisbane 28-14 on Friday night.

Desperation on both sides of the ball saw the blue-and-golds win the second half 16-0, reminding their rivals how dangerous they can be when it all comes together. Teetering on the edge of the eight for much of the season, the Eels now incredibly are in a share of fourth spot.

Pretenders put out of their misery

Four teams entered Round 21 knowing they had to win all of their remaining six games to stay alive in the finals race. Only one – Canberra – managed to do so. For Canterbury, the Warriors and Gold Coast, any fanciful hopes of jagging a top-eight spot are done.

The Titans can fall back on the injury excuse when they look back on 2017, but a 26-4 capitulation at home to a Tigers side that has been woeful is inexcusable. They at least can head into next year knowing they’re a fair chance of returning to the playoffs with a bit more luck.

The Bulldogs and Warriors, meanwhile, produced performances that summed up their seasons. The Bulldogs’ attack was as dormant as ever against Penrith, while the Warriors’ lack of intent and low football IQ saw them soundly beaten by Cronulla. Both clubs are in desperate need of a major overhaul.

Crunch time for Dragons and Eagles

The darlings of the 2017 premiership only a couple of weeks back thanks to an impressive revival, Manly is on the ropes after conceding 92 points in consecutive thrashings at the hands of St George Illawarra and Melbourne. The Sea Eagles’ defensive slump is bewildering – they conceded just 16 points a game in their previous nine outings.

Meanwhile, the Dragons backed up their dazzling 52-22 defeat of the Sea Eagles with an inexplicable loss to last-placed Newcastle. With Penrith on the march and Canberra gearing up for a late rally, Manly and the Saints are vulnerable. These four clubs are set for a mad scramble over the next month.

Broncos face biggest injury test

Brisbane has negotiated injury layoffs to Ben Hunt, Anthony Milford and Darius Boyd this season almost seamlessly. Cruelly, after getting their first-choice spine on the park together again for the first time since Round 6, hooker Andrew McCullough was rubbed out for the rest of 2017 by a knee injury in the loss to Parramatta.

It’s a bitter blow personally for the ultra-durable McCullough, a veteran of 214 games who had played at least 21 games in each of the previous eight seasons; few players at the club would be more deserving of a grand final victory lap.

But the No.9’s absence is also a massive setback for the Broncos. A tireless worker, McCullough was in the midst of a career-best year, stepping up his try-assist and line-break rates to become a vital attacking cog for his side.

Wayne Bennett faces a crucial call in settling on a dummy-half for the rest of the season. Ben Hunt is reportedly going to be pitched into the role, with Kodi Nikorima – the more obvious replacement – to return to the halves. The wildcard is Benji Marshall, who would either be the bench utility or a halves starter, allowing a Hunt-Nikorima dummy-half rotation in either case.

Whichever way Bennett’s selection process pans out, McCullough’s absence appears to be the biggest fly in the Broncos’ premiership ointment.

Smith sets new benchmarks

There’s not much more than can be said about Cameron Smith that hasn’t already been lavished upon the mercurial No.9 in recent days, but his achievement in becoming the third player to reach first grade 350 appearances – in the same year he became just the second Australian to play 50 Tests, and the first to reach 40 Origins – is one of the most pertinent indicators of his greatness.

Blooded for two games by Mark Murray in 2002, Smith is on track to play 20-plus games for the 15th straight season – an unprecedented run of durability. He should break Darren Lockyer’s all-time NRL appearances record in the first week of the finals.

Throw in becoming the first forward to break the 2,000-point barrier and a likely second Dally M Medal (11 years after his first!) and it’s been a hell of a year for the Melbourne skipper. With partner-in-crime Cooper Cronk set to leave the Victorian capital, there could not be a more fitting way to bring the curtain down on 2017 than Smith hoisting the NRL trophy.

Edwards the Great…

Anthony Griffin’s decision to shift his captain, Test and Origin fullback Matt Moylan, to five-eighth could have been seen as a make-or-break gamble, reminiscent of when Wayne Bennett moved Darren Lockyer – one of the greatest fullback the game had ever seen – to the Brisbane No.6 jumper in 2004.

But when you’ve got a replacement No.1 as classy as Dylan Edwards (as Bennett did with Karmichael Hunt), you’ve significantly hedged your bets.

The 21-year-old Edwards is rapidly becoming my favourite new youngster to watch – and he shapes as a key figure as the Panthers creep up on the top eight. His speed is obvious, but when combined with his anticipation, brilliant hands and ability to be at the right place at the right time, the kid is a future superstar.

Edwards is second in the competition behind Jason Taumalolo for average running metres and in the top few players for tackle breaks, providing RTS-circa-2015-like presence at the back for the Panthers, while also allowing their most influential player to shift into a role more suited to the team’s needs.

…Edwards the Douchebag

If Kenny Edwards wasn’t already one of the most despised players in the NRL after becoming the first player sin-binned for slapping and then taking his frustrations out on a locker in the Townsville dressing-rooms, he’s certainly challenging for the crown after a grubby shot on a prone Anthony Milford on Friday night.

Edwards’ histrionics have bits of Andrew Fifita, Michael Ennis and John Hopoate about them – and I agree with’s Tony Webeck’s column suggesting there should always be room for villains in our game – but at what point does it become not worth it for Parramatta?

Edwards may be talented, but he doesn’t provide anywhere near the value of the aforementioned trio of rugby league baddies; the back-rower is doing more harm than good to the Eels’ campaign.

But perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Edwards’ discipline lapses is that this is a guy who missed a quarter of the season courtesy of a domestic assault conviction, someone that should be trying to earn the game’s trust again.

He’s currently on the express route to becoming little more than a rugby league punchline.

Kearney must swing the axe

The finals are out the window – time to experiment.

Warriors coach Stephen Kearney – who disturbingly said after his side’s loss to Cronulla that this season was never about making the eight – has stuck solid with far too many underperforming players in the name of continuity.

The team’s 12th loss from 19 games, and fourth in a row, should see any misguided loyalty shelved for the remainder of 2017.

I rated Solomone Kata the Warriors’ standout player last year, but his form has fallen off a cliff this year. After scoring 15 tries in 21 games in 2016, the nuggetty centre has crossed only four times in 14 outings. There is no excuse for Kearney to leave rookie Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad – who has crossed six times in as many games but keeps getting demoted when Kata becomes available – out of the Warriors’ backline any longer.

Bunty Afoa and Bodene Thompson falling short of the required standard, but the selection that is getting the club’s long-suffering fans riled up the most is Ligi Sao. The ex-Manly forward offers nothing in the way of impact or work-rate off the bench, achieving little except taking a spot off a more-deserving tyro who can actually play a part in the club’s rebuild.

We eagerly await the Round 22 team lists…

Twenty-first Impressions

BRONCOS: Looked likely to go on with the job at halftime, but couldn’t match the Eels’ enthusiasm in the second stanza. Andrew McCullough’s injury rendered it a disastrous road trip for the Broncos.

RAIDERS: Nothing earth-shattering, but the 32-18 defeat of Souths was a step in the right direction and kept their season alive for another week. It was also the first time the team formerly regarded as the hottest attacking side in the NRL has scored more than 24 points since Round 6.

BULLDOGS: More of the same – a promising start buried under 75 minutes of the most incompetent attack imaginable. Hasler’s refusal to alter the game-plan should see him get his walking papers, but it probably won’t.

SHARKS: Not overly impressive, but stayed patient and cruised to the win in Auckland after dominating the final quarter. A handy away win without Maloney and Bird.

TITANS: A disaster. Could have stayed in the mix with a big win over a Tigers side low on confidence, but were instead pumped by 22 points in their own backyard. Bewildering.

SEA EAGLES: Blown off the park by a near-perfect Melbourne side, not aided by the emotion surrounding Cam Smith’s milestone. Staying in the game in the first half but conceded five unanswered tries in the second half. Desperately need to put the last fortnight behind them and start again.

STORM: Just outstanding. Their fellow contenders are going to have to lift several gears to challenge them in September.

KNIGHTS: Finally some reward for their effort! Few teams have tried harder in 2017 than the Knights, and while the Tigers’ subsequent win dented their hopes of offloading the spoon, the 21-14 win over the Dragons has provided them with the confidence to claim another scalp or two before the year is out – starting with the Warriors this weekend.

WARRIORS: The clunky attack and dumb mistakes are bad enough, but the lack of venom and backbone is the most frustrating aspect of watching the 2017 Warriors. A far cry from their spirited display against the Cowboys in Round 20, the loss to the Sharks typified the Warriors’ year.

COWBOYS: Lost few admirers coming up against one of the real heavyweights on the road. Probably underlined why they won’t be able to go all the way without Thurston, but the Cowboys still can’t be taken lightly come September.

EELS: Potentially a season-defining performance, rediscovering the spirit of 2016. Favourable results also saw the Eels jump into a share of fourth – and a top-four finish would make this side a very interesting proposition in the finals.

PANTHERS: The 16-8 win over the Bulldogs was one of their less eye-catching performances of the year, but it was nevertheless their eighth win in 10 games which sees the Panthers perched on the edge of the eight. With a gentle run home, it’s hard to see them being kept out of the finals.

DRAGONS: If the Saints miss the playoffs, this will be the game they look back on with the most angst. To score only two tries against the NRL’s last-placed team after putting 50 on Manly is the definition of inconsistent.

RABBITOHS: Souths need to win two more games to avoid this being their worst season since 2006. On the evidence of their 32-18 loss to the Raiders, it’s hard to see where those two wins are going to come from.

ROOSTERS: Plenty of quality about their comeback, recovering from a 10-point halftime deficit to outlast the Cowboys 22-16. Whether they’ve got another level when the finals arrive remains a big question mark, but a top-two finish is looking increasingly likely.

TIGERS: Just their second win in 11 games (the other was against Newcastle) and their biggest of the season, keeping their opponents to less than 12 points for the first time this year in a 26-4 rout of the Titans. Make no mistake: it’s been a bludger of a year in Tigertown, but finishing a bad season on a good note can have a huge impact by the time the next campaign rolls around.

[YouTube – NRL 2017]

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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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