Tuesday 20 February 2018 / 10:47 PM


The send-off farce: a tale of two codes

The Super Rugby final was ruined as a contest by the overzealous red card rules the 15-a-side code employs, with Lions flanker Kwagga Smith sent off for accidentally clipping airborne Crusaders fullback David Havili.

Meanwhile, the NRL referees’ reticence to discipline players during games was embarrassingly exposed a few hours earlier in the Broncos-Titans clash, Joe Ofahengaue allowed to remain on the field after one of the uglier dangerous throws of recent years.

Finding a happy medium between the rival sports’ in-game punishment of foul play should be top priority for the NRL before the 2018 season gets underway.

The failure to send off Iosia Soliola for his knockout blow on Billy Slater was bad enough, but Ofahengaue’s lifting tackle on Titans opponent Max King could have had catastrophic consequences – and the whistle-blowers’ commitment to passing the buck and simply putting players on report is eating away at rugby league’s credibility.

Assuming the NRL isn’t going to take my suggestion of being allowed to replace sent-off players on board, they have to allow for the use of the sin-bin for foul play such as high tackles and dangerous throws (as union does). At present, there’s no compensation for teams that fall victim to foul play and that has to change.

Manly’s rollercoaster ride

Half an hour into Sunday’s blockbuster, Manly had conceded 110 points in its previous three hours of football and scored just 32. By the end of the match, though, the Sea Eagles had put 32 unanswered points on the hotshot Sydney Roosters to carve out an emphatic victory.

This team is impossible to figure out, but if they can put it together at the right time the Sea Eagles could be an incredibly tough team to combat during the finals. Although currently seventh, a top-four spot is still very much a possibility with a super-soft run in (Tigers, Warriors, Bulldogs, Panthers).

Trent Barrett’s side clearly lacks consistency but they’ve claimed some big scalps in 2017 and can make some big waves in the playoffs with DCE and the Trbojevic brothers calling the shots.

Masterstroke turns title race on its head

Five weeks out from the finals, it was a massive gamble. But even wily old Wayne Bennett couldn’t have dreamed his selection reshuffle would turn out so spectacularly well straight off the bat.

Andrew McCullough’s season-ending injury shaped as a body-blow to the Broncos’ premiership hopes, but Ben Hunt’s three-try, two-assist performance at hooker and Kodi Nikorima’s star turn in the No.7 could be a season-defining switch-up for the side.

Of course, they were well-aided by an inept Titans outfit, but the Broncos’ 54-0 rout has to rank as the most sparkling attacking display of 2017 – and exactly the sort of adlib approach that can loosen the Storm’s ironclad grip on title favouritism.

Kearney’s subtle tune change

Under-fire Warriors coach Stephen Kearney has stayed extraordinarily loyal to his underperforming line-up through an increasingly dismal campaign, defending his troops and urging observers to “trust the process”.

But with the drums beating for a Brian McLennan-like exit in his first season at the helm, Kearney has started to call out his players. First it was Stacey Jones revealing after the Round 21 loss Cronulla Kearney said he is prepared to “walk players out the front gate” if they don’t get their act together. Then after a diabolical loss at Newcastle, Kearney accused some of his players of not trying.

Fair play to Kearney – the Warriors players deserve every bit of criticism headed their way after one of the most humiliating losses in the club’s history. But he can’t have it both ways. If Kearney – who has had zero success employing a style unsuited to the cattle at his disposal – hasn’t put a broom through the team sheet by Tuesday afternoon, he may as well start lining up his next assistant role.

Holy Moses!

Mitchell Moses arrived at Parramatta the most maligned player in the NRL. Much of the vitriol was warranted, but he has gradually settled into the Eels’ line-up at five-eighth and is playing a major role in their well-timed surge. His two brilliant try involvements against the Bulldogs were ultimately the difference in a dour clash, and if Moses’ confidence maintains its trajectory his first finals campaign will be one to remember.

Hughes: GOAT

Retro Round was brilliant, from the start of the week until the end of round of matches – and Fox Sports deserves the bulk of the credit for its throwback-tinged coverage. But the undisputed highlight for me was having Graeme Hughes behind the microphone for the Dragons-Rabbitohs encounter.

The former Canterbury back-rower became ensconced in commentary folklore as one of the most prominent TV callers of the late-1980s and early-1990s – including brilliant calls of the 1989-91 grand finals – but NZ-based league fans have an even greater appreciation of Hughes’ talents.

As Channel Nine reclaimed television rights in 1992 and ‘Rabbits’ Warren and co. became the voice of rugby league, Hughes’ twangy tones were still broadcast into Kiwi homes for several years, usually with Graham Lowe as his sidekick.

For NZ fans, Mark Coyne’s Origin match-winner in 1994 wasn’t accompanied by Warren’s iconic “that’s not a try, that’s a miracle” soundbite; it featured Hughes’ commentary masterpiece (which, sadly, isn’t floating around anywhere on YouTube) of the crazy movement.

The legendary ‘Rabbs’ is on his way out and Nine’s other lead callers are interminable – time to give ‘Heaps’ a recall to the free-to-air ranks.

Twenty-second impressions

BRONCOS: Absolutely blistering with the ball in hand and a defensive clean sheet – what more could you ask for? Milford, Nikorima, Hunt and Pangai Jr were all brilliant, and the Broncos confirmed they represent the biggest threat to the front-running Storm.

RAIDERS: Kept their season alive with their third win in four games – and probably their most impressive of 2017 to date. Still behind the eight-ball for a spot in the eight, but they’ll cream the Warriors this weekend before a critical showdown with the Panthers in Round 24.

BULLDOGS: If the Bulldogs were playing against the Bulldogs, there’s no way you’d watch it. They’re on course for the worst attacking season since the 1999 Western Suburbs Magpies, which sums up their plight, really.

SHARKS: Great start, poor thereafter. Desperately need James Maloney’s terrier spirit back before they lose their top-four billing.

TITANS: No amount of injuries can excuse that performance, the biggest loss in the club’s 11-season history. After holding their line for the opening quarter, they leaked almost a point a minute. Neil Henry is understandably feeling the heat.

SEA EALGES: A quite remarkable turnaround, swinging a 14-point deficit into a 36-18 win over one of the competition’s big guns. The Sea Eagles are the new momentum kings of the NRL.

STORM: Not many teams come away from Townsville with the two points, and the Storm now seem certain to take out another minor premiership. Tough, clinical, calm and premiership-worthy in their 26-8 defeat of the Cowboys.

KNIGHTS: A stirring performance as they went back-to-back for the first time in two years. Never looked like losing after rocketing out of the blocks against the Warriors, and it’s a tantalising proposition thinking about this current plucky outfit being bolstered by their string of quality recruits for 2018.

WARRIORS: Totally unacceptable. This was a new low for a team that has a knack of finding new ways to disappoint.

EELS: Grinded it out on Thursday against the Bulldogs. No tries in the second half is disappointing, but their bid for a top-four berth remains on course.

PANTHERS: That’s five straight – and nine from their last 11 – for the Panthers, who have climbed into the eight. Took longer than expected to douse the Tigers’ challenge, but a solid effort nonetheless in a potential banana skin game.

DRAGONS: Choke of the season. Led by 10 with five minutes to go against an out-of-contention team and somehow lost. When the Saints miss the playoffs, this will be the game they look back on with the most anguish.

RABBITOHS: Escape of the season. Showed spirit in the dying minutes at the SCG that has been sorely lacking all year. Refused to give in, and Adam Reynolds grabbed a great moment in a tough year with a brilliant clutch conversion.

ROOSTERS: Caught napping after getting out to a match-winning lead at Lottoland. Like the Sharks, the Roosters appear to be coasting towards the playoffs without seeming committed to building sufficient momentum. Could cost them a top-four spot.

TIGERS: Spirited enough but lacking the class to finish teams off. Not out of spoon danger yet with the Knights recording consecutive wins, and it may all come down to the Tigers’ last-round assignment against the Warriors.

[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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