Saturday 24 March 2018 / 07:00 PM


Buettner the beast

What else can you say about the MRP’s decision to slap a Grade 2 charge on Jack Wighton and let Michael Ennis off for shoulder-charges of equal severity? Michael Buettner needs to walk the plank after the worst – and potentially most costly – of a bevy of inconsistent, idiotic charges dished out in 2016.

It could cost the Raiders their shot at a premiership, and while Wighton’s actions were incredibly dumb, that doesn’t make Buettner’s muddled application of the convoluted rules fair. The only saving grace will be if Wighton gets off – and there’s not a person with even a basic grasp of rugby league that doesn’t think he has a valid case.

Delusion in Wayne’s World

Wayne Bennett came up with the most ludicrous whinge of the season in criticising the NRL’s finals scheduling. The Brisbane supercoach claimed the delay of announcing the week one schedule disrupted his team’s preparations – despite the fact the Broncos played on Thursday night, guaranteeing them at least eight days’ rest.

Furthermore, the Broncos’ finishing position wasn’t even confirmed until about 7.30pm on Saturday night. Bennett’s introversion and paranoia that Brisbane is somehow being disadvantaged – when in fact the club gets the rails run every season – harks back to the 1990s era Broncos, when the club and the NSWRL were constantly at loggerheads.

Top 8 Power Rankings

  1. Cowboys: Timing their run nicely, with three tough, composed wins coming into the finals. Have the luxury of their entire 2015 grand final squad to choose from, plus the game’s best player. A tough assignment this weekend in Melbourne, but well-placed to go back-to-back.
  2. Storm: Tremendous response to a convincing loss to the Broncos, dismantling the Sharks to take out the minor premiership. Smith and Cronk are the key, but the support cast is in top form. It will take the very best of a team – plus a fair amount of good fortune – to topple the Melbourne machine.
  3. Raiders: Come into the finals on a 10-match winning streak and the hottest attack seen for many years. Wighton’s possible absence, along with defensive lapses and a lack of finals experience are the Raiders’ hurdles.
  4. Broncos: Would just about be at the top of this list if it wasn’t for a terrible first-half performance against the Roosters, which dulled the hype of outstanding wins over the Bulldogs and Storm. Nevertheless, they’re on a five-match winning streak and their pack is firing. Certainly better placed than they were at the end of July.
  5. Panthers: Sizzling finish to the year with four scores of 36-plus and a gritty, high-stakes win over the Titans in the last five weeks. The temperament of a young side that plays a high-risk style will be tested, but they have the attacking arsenal and an improving defence capable of troubling any team.
  6. Titans: So full of character they’re impossible to write off, despite only two wins in the last six rounds. Well-balanced and boasting plenty of experience, the Titans could develop into a September juggernaut if they can spring a boilover against the Broncos first up.
  7. Sharks: The wheels have fallen off, backing up a 15-match winning streak with just one victory in the last six rounds. Definitely capable of turning it around with the amount of class, experience and strike they possess, but a loss to the Raiders in week one would make a straight sets exit difficult to avoid.
  8. Bulldogs: At this stage, merely making up the numbers. Their vaunted pack has gone soft, the halves can’t take control, they’re making piles of errors, and their in-form fullback will miss the first week of the finals due to religious reasons. A fourth straight loss looms on Sunday.

Titanic achievement

Justice was done as Canberra took care of Wests Tigers, with the Gold Coast Titans thoroughly deserving of the last place in the finals. They were gutsy again in going down to the Cowboys in Townsville, and are stacked with journeymen and real goers you just want to see have success. If they can overcome the Jarryd Hayne disruption and rediscover the grinding style that got them here, the Titans can do some real damage in the finals. Friday’s derby at Suncorp promises to be the standout match of week one.

Finals ticking time-bombs

Here’s the one player most likely to cost your team a finals match.

Marika Koroibete: The union-bound Fijian has enjoyed a fine season, but his sin-binning in last year’s preliminary final is a timely reminder that a brain explosion is always just around the corner.

Jordan Rapana: Probably the most valuable winger in the comp, Rapana plays hard but regularly comes dangerously close to stepping over the line of legality. A punch or high shot in a tense semi wouldn’t surprise.

Andrew Fifita: Carries an enormous chip on his shoulder on and off the field, and is in the John Hopoate and Les Boyd class when it comes to inevitable brain snaps.

Kyle Feldt: Cost himself an Origin jersey with a butter-fingered display against the Broncos earlier this season, and the grand final hero is certain to be targeted by every team the Cowboys come up against.

Ben Hunt: The Broncos halfback has shown few signs he has let his 2015 grand final shocker go, while his poor option-taking could cripple the heavyweights in September.

Bryce Cartwright: The makeshift five-eighth declared he won’t stifle his offloading obsession due to public pressure, but he needs to learn there’s a time and a place to throw a no-look reverse flick pass to a winger who is standing flat-footed centimetres from the sideline. That time and place is never and nowhere.

James Graham: Bit Billy Slater’s ear in a grand final and tried to kick his Test teammate Sam Burgess on the eve of the finals. Brilliant but short-fused.

Jarryd Hayne: The superstar’s frustrations at not being able to dominate from fullback like he is accustomed boiled over last week in Townsville. Hasn’t played in a finals match since the 2009 grand final and shapes as an easy target for the Melbourne’s, Brisbane’s and North Queensland’s of the competition.

If the Cappy fits

The Warriors players’ public backing of beleaguered coach Andrew McFadden is admirable, but it could be detrimental to his bid to be retained by the club. Based on their judgement and desire in Sunday’s pitiful 40-18 loss to Parramatta, this crop players are in no position to decide who is best man to lead them out of a gut-wrenching cycle of underachievement.

The lack of competence and urgency over the past month has been a kick to the groin for long-suffering fans. But the obvious hurt and distress apparent in post-match interviews with Ryan Hoffman and Shaun Johnson suggests there is plenty of heart in the joint, and more than enough character to turn it around.

So how to solve the NRL’s most difficult riddle? CEO Jim Doyle has announced the most extensive review in Warriors history as the club desperately attempts to fulfil its potential. Whether their immediate future involves the popular ‘Cappy’, however, remains up in the air.

Contentious retention

It’s easy to understand the frustration of Warriors fans when an injured Blake Ayshford is replaced in the centres by Jonathan Wright. Meanwhile, the exiled Konrad Hurrell is set to play the first finals match of his career in a Gold Coast side captained by another Warriors reject, Nathan Friend, with one-game Warrior Agnatius Paasi playing a key role in the Titans’ pack.

Then there’s Raymond Faitala-Mariner, who has become a permanent member of Canterbury’s 17 after being swapped for Bulldogs tyro Shaun Lane. Lane managed one first-grade game for the Warriors and is already on his way to Manly.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but this squad of ex-Warriors plying their trade elsewhere in the NRL is enough to bring a tear to the eye:

Peta Hiku, Sosaia Feki, Lewis Brown, Konrad Hurrell, Ngani Laumape, James Maloney, Chad Townsend, Agnatius Paasi, Nathan Friend, Suaia Matagi, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Siosiua Taukeiaho, Elijah Taylor. Int: Russell Packer, Leeson Ah Mau, Jayson Bukuya, Jeremy Latimore.

Manly meltdown

The Warriors’ choke and the decline of the Rabbitohs and the Roosters mercifully deflected some attention away from the northern beaches, but the Sea Eagles were unquestionably one of disappointments of 2016. Big-name recruits Dylan Walker, Nate Myles and Martin Taupau were terrible all season, $10 million man Daly Cherry-Evans would barely rank in the top 50 players in the NRL on this year’s form, and injuries robbed rookie coach Trent Barrett of some of his most experienced club stalwarts.

Jake and Tom Trbojevic were shining lights and shape as the future of the club, but another mass cleanout of mid-range players leaves Manly in a vulnerable position ahead of 2017. With few top-line players left on the market, depth and overall quality of their squad is likely to be sorely lacking. The club threw the baby out with the bathwater last year in sacking Geoff Toovey – along with a number of handy depth players – and are now paying the price. The fact Brayden Williame started in 18 games this season epitomised the Sea Eagles’ plight.

Golden Points Team of the Year

Ben Barba, Jordan Rapana, Joey Leilua, Solomone Kata, Valentine Holmes, James Maloney, Cooper Cronk, Ryan James, Josh Hodgson, Aaron Woods, Josh Jackson, Ethan Lowe, Jason Taumalolo. Int: James Tedesco, Jesse Bromwich, Trent Merrin, Elliot Whitehead. Coach: Neil Henry

Try of the week

Joey Leilua’s flick understandably gobbled up most of the attention, but partner-in-crime Jordan Rapana’s 70-metre effort in the second half was up there with the best solo tries of 2016.

Underachiever of the week

You guessed it, the Warriors. Their finals hopes were toast, but the home side still had plenty to play for credibility- and morale-wise. Instead, they threw away an early 12-0 lead to concede 36-plus for the fourth week in a row, allowing a depleted Parramatta side to rack up their highest tally of the year. Primary school-level handling errors, diabolical defensive reads and stagnant attack finished a terrible month on a fitting note.

Overachiever of the week

What got into the Bunnies over the past month? South Sydney chalked up their fourth straight win – on the back of a nine-match losing run – by disposing of Canterbury 28-10. A rejuvenated Greg Inglis was again a feature, while the forwards stood up to the much-hyped Bulldogs pack. The Rabbitohs’ late surge may have just saved Michael Maguire’s job.

My new favourite player

Suliasi Vunivalu’s recording-breaking rookie effort of 22 tries in just 18 games is rightfully getting a ton of plaudits, but Bevan French’s 19 tries in 13 games is arguably more impressive, given he’s done it in a struggling team and created most of the tries through his own brilliance rather than finishing off regulation chances. The Tingha product picked up back-to-back hat-tricks after switching to fullback in Round 25 – making it three trebles in his debut campaign – and landing third on the NRL’s try charts despite playing only half the season. Only twice did the 20-year-old not make his way onto the scoresheet, and Parramatta undoubtedly have a superstar on their hands.

[YouTube – VAC 2016]

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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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