Panic appears to be setting in at Cronulla, with the former competition leaders following up a record 15-match winning streak with a winless month of disjointed footy. The attack that electrified the NRL for most of 2016 is struggling, averaging just 14 points in the past four weeks, while they conceded 30 points for the only times this year in back-to-back losses to Canberra and, embarrassingly, St George Illawarra.
Souths had conceded 20 points in 14 of their previous 15 games, yet the Sharks went down 12-6 to the 13th-placed outfit. It’s unquestionably crunch time this weekend as they come up against an in-form Roosters side; the Sharks’ top-two position is already under threat from Canberra, and if there is not significant improvement against the Chooks they’ll get steamrolled in confidence-shattering fashion by Melbourne in the final round.
Michael Ennis tells Sharks to block out the noise https://t.co/Dz5baEe2Df
— SMH Sport (@SMHsport) August 23, 2016
It’s all about timing
While the Sharks appear to be capitulating at precisely the wrong time, heavyweights Melbourne, North Queensland and Brisbane are timing their runs to perfection. All three were outstanding on the weekend as they prepare for a charge at the premiership. Canberra remains the in-form team with eight straight victories, but as we saw with Cronulla, a lengthy winning streak can become a millstone.
Spoilers on fire
The Rabbitohs and Roosters – 13th and 14th on the ladder – are partying like its 2013-14, cutting a destructive path through the closing rounds and disrupting the finals hopes of several teams. The Roosters rocked both of last year’s grand finalists, before extinguishing the Dragons’ faint top-eight flame, while the Rabbitohs sent the Warriors into a tailspin before extending the Sharks’ woes. It’s remarkable to think the archrivals had just eight wins between them over the first 20 rounds.
— Sydney Roosters (@sydneyroosters) August 21, 2016
Inconsistency reigns – again
It appears being a respected Queensland Origin stalwart is the key to getting what you want at the judiciary, while a reputation as an aggressive Kiwi will ensure you’ll get the rough end of the stick – whether you’re the victim or the perpetrator.
Sam Kasiano copped a grade two charge and a two-match ban for lashing out with his boot at Corey Parker, who was illegally hanging onto his other leg, despite the precedent being set last year when Cameron Smith escaped suspension for flailing wildly in a tackle and copping Issac Luke in the face several times.
Judiciary boss Michael Buettner ludicrously said Parker’s facial lacerations factored into the charge – less than a week after letting Ryan James off his high tackle charge which left James Tedesco with a broken jaw!
Brad Fittler slammed Shaun Johnson for ‘not getting his jersey dirty’ a few weeks back – bizarrely, after the Warriors talisman had scored a golden-point try to sink Penrith – and the modern great was at it again on the Sunday Footy Show following Johnson’s disappointing display against North Queensland.
— Stuff.co.nz Sport (@NZStuffSport) August 4, 2016
This time ‘Freddy’ brought his former Roosters teammate and Justin Hodges along for the SJ-bashing ride. Johnson was poor in a heavy loss to the Cowboys, but he had nothing to play off the back of in an error-ridden Warriors side and was forced to get through a mountain of defensive work.
The Cowboys did a tremendous job nullifying Johnson’s impact, and deserve the bulk of the credit, rather than misguided criticism at the No.7 from a pair of ex-greats who were both rated the most overrated player in the game in Rugby League Week’s players’ poll during the early-2000s. How Hodges is crafting a career in the TV media is beyond me.
Acid test for Broncos
The Broncos showed signs of getting back towards their best last week, rediscovering their defensive mongrel and goal-line grit in a finals-intensity win over the Bulldogs. Sam Thaiday and Adam Blair led the way, dominating the far bigger blue-and-white engine-room.
But huge improvement is still needed in the attacking and playmaking departments, particularly from Ben Hunt. The Broncos were afforded myriad chances last Thursday by a butter-fingered Bulldogs outfit, but only scored three tries to two. Injuries have meant the Broncos’ three-quarter line has not had much time to settle, and that isn’t being helped by Hunt’s erratic play, while his fifth-tackle options just aren’t improving.
Melbourne has been an insurmountable bogey for a decade, and a heavy defeat on Friday night will rock Brisbane’s confidence, while also leaving them vulnerable to finishing in seventh or eighth spot. The Broncos have to put their title credentials on the line now, particularly with a tricky assignment against the Roosters coming up in Round 26.
Game of the season
Gold Coast’s Saturday showdown with Penrith shapes as the most important match of 2016. Not only will it be a wonderful encounter between two in-form teams that play contrasting styles, it also has major ramifications on the finals picture.
#NRL TEAMS are in for Round 25
— Le_gueUnlimited.c_m (@LeagueUnlimited) August 23, 2016
If the Titans win, they’re in. But if the Panthers get up, it leaves the door ajar for the Warriors and Tigers – who face each other in Auckland on Sunday afternoon. That would leave a thrilling final-round shootout, with the Titans needing to beat the Cowboys in Townsville to clinch eighth spot.
If they’re unable to do that, a Warriors win over the Eels or a Tigers win over the Raiders (depending on who wins this Sunday’s game) in Round 26 would be enough to snatch the last playoffs berth.
Vunivalu destined for the record books
Rookie phenom Suliasi Vunivalu is turning into a rugby league nerd’s wet dream via his tryscoring exploits. Ending a four-game drought with a four-try haul against Manly, the rangy 20-year-old now has an astonishing 21 tries in just 16 games.
Let’s break down the records the Fijian flyer has in his sights:
-He only needs one more try to break Israel Folau’s mark for most tries in a season for the Storm. Folau also racked up his record tally in his rookie season – but in 27 games. Vunivalu will play a maximum of 22 games.
-Vunivalu is an outside chance of matching the unparalleled rookie-season exploits of Souths’ Les Brennan (29 tries in 1954) and Balmain’s Bobby Lulham (28 tries in 1947).
-If he can score more than 27 tries, Vunivalu will be the first player to do so since Brennan and Newtown’s Ray Preston (34 tries) 62 years ago – and just the sixth player ever. Phil Blake (1983) and Nathan Blacklock (2001) are the only players to score 27 tries in a season since 1954.
— Roy Ward (@rpjward) August 23, 2016
His team may have thrown in the towel, but Euan Aitken produced one of the most inspiring chases of 2016 when he cut down a runaway Latrell Mitchell and took him over the sideline – despite the Dragons trailing the Roosters by 30 points. The Saints have been woeful for most of the year, but Aitken has managed to enhance his reputation in a fine campaign out in the centres.
Try of the week
Responding to a brilliant opener by the Tigers, Matt Moylan, Dallin Watene-Zeleniak engineered a stunning length-of-the-field effort that emphasised why the Panthers are so dangerous as September approaches.
Underachiever of the week
St George Illawarra remained an outside hope of squeaking into the finals heading into Round 24 – and they still would be in contention had they accounted for the 14th-placed Sydney Roosters. But they made the Roosters look like world-beaters in an insipid 42-6 loss, proving that the Saints’ rousing upset of Cronulla was just an almighty flash in the pan. Not only is their attack the second-worst in the comp statistically, but their defence is just as horrible, conceding 30-plus points seven times this season.
Overachiever of the week
The only bookies underdog to win in Round 24, the Rabbitohs showed outstanding grit to outlast the Sharks on Monday night. Coming off a high-scoring win over the Warriors, it would have been easy for Souths to wilt against an increasingly desperate Sharks side, but to hang onto their narrow lead and then seal the result in the dying stages proved there’s still a bit of character at the Redfern joint.
My new favourite player
Shaun Johnson may have struggled, but debutant Ata Hingano was superb in a big loss to the Cowboys. The 19-year-old livewire was easily the Warriors’ most dangerous player, laying on their only try for Ryan Hoffman, coming up with one of just three line-breaks for his side, and constantly threatening an ironclad North Queensland defensive line. With Tui Lolohea’s future uncertain and Kieran Foran rumoured to be on his way to Auckland, Hingano’s stellar introduction to NRL football adds an intriguing twist to the club’s No.6 puzzle for 2017 after Thomas Leuluai rejoins Wigan.
Social media gold
The Bunker has deservedly taken a buffeting from fans and pundits all year, but whoever was manning the NRL Media Twitter account on Monday night wasn’t going to miss a chance to troll Andrew Johns for trying to pre-empt another long video review wait.
@TripleM_NRL it took about 20 seconds
— NRL Media (@NRLMedia) August 22, 2016
Comparing real-life situations with The Simpsons moments is the best thing on Twitter, and the Canberra Raiders’ official account came up with a doozey when Jordan Rapana’s increasingly awful hairdo sparked memories of Yankees great Wade Boggs’ 1992 appearance on the iconic show.
— Canberra Raiders (@RaidersCanberra) August 22, 2016