Thurston saves Cowboys’ campaign
Pre-season fancies North Queensland’s season went on the line at home on Monday night – and at 16-4 down to Melbourne with less than 20 minutes to go, the club’s finals prospects were on life support. But the irrepressible Johnathan Thurston rescued the Cowboys yet again. The co-captain, who laid on the Cowboys’ only try of the first half, set up two further four-pointers and converted both from touch, before slotting a field goal with 40 seconds remaining to send the match into golden point. In the 85th minute, Thurston snapped another field goal to steal an 18-17 victory. It was vintage ‘JT’, while it was also the type of win the Cowboys can use as a launching pad for their season – and just in the nick of time with the Panthers, Rabbitohs, Warriors and Knights on their April schedule.
Knights head the field, Sharks in the cellar
After four rounds, we have just one unbeaten team and only one team yet to register a win – and they’re both unlikely candidates. Newcastle has defied the odds to lead the competition, with the likes of Dane Gagai, Kade Snowden and Akuila Uate starring in four straight high-quality wins, culminating in a 26-14 victory over heavyweights Penrith. At the other end of the spectrum is Cronulla, stone motherless last despite being tipped as finalists by many. Little is going right for the Sharks – crashing to a last-gasp defeat to the embattled Gold Coast via an intercept try – and a top-eight return is becoming a more distant possibility by the week.
Keith Galloway has started a new craze with his open-hander on Tim Grant in Round 3. South Sydney rake Issac Luke and Parramatta imp Chris Sandow got in on the act on Friday night, doing their best impression ofBold and the Beautifulco-stars during a flare-up at Pirtek Stadium. But it didn’t end there, with the livewires – Rabbitohs teammates from 2008-11 – engaging in a lengthy and heated exchange after fulltime. Winners are grinners, however, and Sandow took out man-of-the-match honours in a stirring 29-16 upset to make the easily-riled Luke look like the quintessential sore loser during the post-match confrontation.
Clutch Mbye creates dilemma for Hasler
The erratic, ill-disciplined display of Josh Reynolds in Round 1 – which saw him suspended for two weeks – was deeply concerning after his hot-headed tendencies threatened to derail the Bulldogs’ 2014 campaign. Reynolds has been sidelined with a broken arm since that match, and Hasler faces a quandary when he returns: is the incumbent NSW five-eighth the best player to wear the No.6 for the balance of the Bulldogs side? Moses Mbye – who snapped the golden point field goal in their win over the the Tigers – is arguably a more reliable week-to-week performer and a more natural five-eighth. Both players are versatile (Mbye was the starting Grand Final hooker in the absence of Michael Ennis last year) but carrying a bench utility hasn’t been part of Des Hasler’s forward-oriented game-plan in recent seasons.
The casualty wards have been occupied by key players at most clubs already in 2015, and Round 4 saw some potential season-altering additions for some teams. Blake Ferguson’s impressive NRL comeback hit a brick wall courtesy of a foot injury slated to keep him on the sidelines for four months, while luckless Warriors utility left the field with another knee complaint on Sunday as the Auckland-based club’s injuries continue to mount.
But Manly’s injury toll is the most concerning, threatening to derail a campaign that was already on the brink. Jamie Lyon (groin) and Feleti Mateo (ankle) are both likely to be out for a fortnight, joining Steve Matai, Jorge Taufua, Brenton Lawrence, Josh Starling, Clint Gutherson and Blake Leary in the rehab unit. The Sea Eagles are 1-3 and their playing stocks are wafer-thin – if they can reach the finals from here, it will rank alongside anything the club has produced in the last decade.
Dressed for failure
Canberra debuted its 2015 away strip on Sunday afternoon to mixed reviews. The garish yellow-heavy jumper bears an uncanny resemblance to a dishwashing liquid bottle – but there was nothing lemony fresh about the Raiders’ performance, pumped 34-6 by the Roosters. Ricky Stuart’s charges’ rousing start to the season is now a faint memory after an inexplicable collapse at home against the Dragons followed by the heavy defeat at Allianz.
Wow. The Canberra Raiders new away jersey is awful. What on earth were they thinking? pic.twitter.com/UNNKe3QxRR
— BigBashBoard (@BigBashBoard) March 29, 2015
Maloney highlights Carney folly
James Maloney was outstanding in the Roosters’ thrashing of the Raiders and, on form, should be NSW’s five-eighth when the teams are read out for Origin I. He’s a big-match player – highlighted by his brilliant display in the 2013 Grand Final – a superb playmaker and arguably the most dynamic ball-running half in the NRL. Which makes rumours of the Roosters’ supposed interest in exiled injury-prone troublemaker Todd Carney all the more baffling. Maloney has a great partnership with Mitchell Pearce and provides far more value on and off the field than Carney ever could at this point in his career. Maloney is off-contract at the end of 2015, and if he is allowed to go to a Manly or a Canterbury, it will come back to bite Roosters – especially if Carney is his replacement at Bondi Junction.
Kelly’s stunning audition for NRL return
Manly is reportedly lining up Albert Kelly as one half of the club’s plan to replace departing superstars Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans – and the will-’o-the-wisp playmaker is showing what he can bring to Brookvale in an electrifying start to his stint with Hull KR. Kelly, a wayward talent who resurrected his career with the Titans before injuries and off-field issues again intervened, has scored six tries in seven outings for Rovers – including two length-of-the-field specials to lead his side to a 24-22 win over St Helens last weekend.
The Warriors are treading water until one of their batch of injured backline stars returns. Journeyman Jonathan Wright was an absolute liability under the high ball, hitting the ball up and in defence in the loss to Brisbane. The former Eel, Bulldog and Shark made a succession of dreadful defensive reads on top of three errors, contributing heavily to the Warriors’ 16-0 halftime deficit. Wright, who is beginning to attract social media vitriol of Dane Nielsen proportions from the club’s supporters, must be the first player out when Sam Tomkins, Ngani Laumape, Konrad Hurrell, Glen Fisiiahi, David Fusitua or Ken Maumalo is fit again.
Underachiever of the week
The defensive grit and purpose in attack Canberra showed in the opening two rounds went out the window approximately 20 minutes into the Round 3 clash with St George Illawarra. The Raiders have been out-scored 56 points to eight by their opponents since that juncture.
Overachiever of the week
Pipped at the post by Wests Tigers and Newcastle in the opening three weeks of a campaign awash with off-field controversy, Gold Coast chalked up its first win of 2015 with another gutsy performance against Cronulla at Remondis Stadium.
Delouise Hoeter (Tigers): The Kiwi-born flyer gave a good account of himself debuting in the place of suspended winger Pat Richards, racking up 132 metres from a team-high 17 runs.
Lamar Liolevave (Tigers): An Australian Schoolboys and Junior Kiwis rep, the second-rower made 13 tackles and four hit-ups in a 29-minute debut in the heartbreaking loss to the Bulldogs.
Kane Elgey (Titans): Sound performance in the No.7 from the 2014 NYC Player of the Year, setting up a try for James Roberts with a deft grubber and impressing with his ball-playing class.
My new favourite player
Touted as a future Broncos captain early in his career, 10-Test Kiwi Alex Glenn has gone off the boil slightly in recent seasons but has hit the ground running under Wayne Bennett in 2015. The second-rower’s work-rate on both sides of the ball – averaging 22.5 tackles, 15 runs and 125 metres – has been outstanding, while his dangerous edge-running game has returned. His tremendous start to the season culminated in a man-of-the-match performance in the Broncos’ stoic win over the Warriors, making 23 tackles and 162 metres from 21 carries. Already a veteran of 147 first grade games at 26 years old, Glenn faces stiff backrow competition to earn an international recall, but his form (aided by the fact New Zealand’s coach is Broncos assistant Stephen Kearney) has put him squarely in the Test frame.
…Round 1, 1995: Brisbane prevailed 25-22 over the Auckland Warriors in the fledgling club’s debut match at Mt Smart Stadium in 1995, racing out to an early double-figure lead and winning the match with a late flurry after being run down. It was almost a carbon copy on Sunday in the Warriors’ 20th anniversary clash, with the Broncos leading 16-blot at halftime before being pegged back. After a gritty defensive display in the second half, the Broncos weathered the storm and struck with a late penalty and a try on fulltime to clinch a vital 24-16 result.
…Origin I, 2005: There’s been plenty of memorable intercept tries throughout Rugby League history, but it’s rare to bag a late match-winner from an opposition pass. Titans centre James Roberts’ thief-in-the-night effort off Conulla five-eighth stand-in Wade Graham’s pass revived memories of Matt Bowen’s golden point intercept in the opening match of the 2005 Origin series, with then-Shark Brett Kimmorley the hapless passer on that occasion.
…Johnny Raper: Boom Roosters prop Dylan Napa proved he is more than just a hit-man with a sensational cover tackle on long-striding Raiders three-quarter Edrick Lee. The flame-haired enforcer’s save was in the finest tradition of Raper, Coote and Mortimer.
Form Origin teams
Each week leading up to State of Origin selection for the series opener, we’ll update the teams that would be named if NRL form was the only criteria.
NEW SOUTH WALES
3. Blake Ferguson
8. Dylan Napa