Bulldogs, Rabbits count the cost of wild ride
Premiership heavyweights South Sydney and Canterbury both emerged from the ferocious Good Friday showdown with potentially season-changing injuries. Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds, who was in line for a NSW Origin debut, is facing anywhere up to five months on the sidelines thanks to a knee injury suffered in the late flashpoint moment that saw Souths win the match, James Graham and David Klemmer berate the referee, and unruly crowd behaviour break out in the stands.
Among the options available to coach Michael Maguire are moving Greg Inglis to five-eighth and Alex Johnston to fullback, or slotting Issac Luke in at halfback and bringing the talented Cameron McInnes into the hooker role. But given Souths’ lack of depth out wide, Inglis’ reputation as the most damaging player in the game from fullback, and Luke’s lack of genuine No.7 experience and his importance to the side at dummy-half, neither option is ideal. Grand Final-winning captain John Sutton is a long-serving five-eighth, but is better suited to the backrow at this stage of his career and is currently sidelined with a broken jaw.
Brett Morris’ hamstring injury robs the Bulldogs of arguably their best performer so far this season. The off-season recruit has revamped the blue-and-whites from fullback; Sam Perrett is a more than capable replacement with Corey Thompson set to come onto the wing, but Morris’ slated month-long absence is a momentum-shifter. Compounding that loss are the possible long-term injury suffered by strike centre Tim Lafai and the looming suspension of Test front-rowers Graham and Klemmer.
Premiership’s parity hoses down inequality talk
Last week was dominated by discussion of salary cap equality, centring around whether some clubs had an unfair advantage due to the amount of money their wealth allowed them to spend on their football department and others’ ability to attract more lucrative third-party deals for their players.
After just five rounds of the 2015 season, there are no unbeaten teams and no clubs yet to register a win. The NRL is yet again proving itself as an extraordinarily even competition, with the gap between the best and worst teams remarkably small. Unless the eventual aim is for all 16 clubs to finish the regular season tied for first with 12 wins and 12 losses, the salary cap is currently doing its job to ensure a level playing field.
Chastened Cherry-Evans treads a dangerous path
While the fallout is not entirely his fault, Daly Cherry-Evans’ drawn-out contract negotiations – and his eventual decision to leave Manly at the end of the season – has played a significant role in the Sea Eagles’ decay. The halfback’s patchy form hasn’t helped, either.
But the influential Gold Coast-bound No.7 has set himself up as a target by launching an extraordinary broadside against the Sea Eagles’ fans who criticised their insipid display in a 29-16 loss to unfancied Canberra on social media, declaring the “so-called supporters” should be “ashamed”.
Cherry-Evans and Manly are probably unaccustomed to such vitriol during a sustained era of excellence, but attacks on social media from frustrated fans are an unfortunate fact of life in professional sport. Get over it, DCE, because there’s plenty more coming your way – particularly after this sulky outburst.
Meanwhile, the out-of-sorts Cherry-Evans might want to worry about his performances on the field rather than hostile posts from anonymous Sea Eagles tragics – he must be coming under intense pressure for his Test and Origin bench utility spots with Robbie Farah, Ben Hunt and James Segeyaro gunning for the plum interchange roles.
Richards’ heroics light up drab Easter Monday showdown
About as freakish an effort as you will see – but forget any notion of it being a fluke.Pat Richards’ spectacular array of kicking skills have rendered him one of the NRL’s most valuable wing-men. His mind-blowing assist for James Tedesco to score lit up a day where grey skies and the similarly coloured jumpers of the Tigers’ questionable new away strip matched the dour quality of football for the opening 70 minutes.
To top it off, Richards scored a match-sealing try minutes later and laid on a remarkably similar effort to his initial headline-grabber, kicking for Luke Brooks to dot down. The veteran carried off man of the match honours thanks to his spectacular 10-minute burst.
Bird is the word
Few players have made the resounding impact in their maiden NRL start that Cronulla recruit Jack Bird did in Sunday’s shock victory over Sydney Roosters. Better known as a second-rower or centre during his days as a NYC gun for St George Illawarra, the 20-year-old – who made his debut off the bench a week earlier – produced a blistering man-of-the-match effort in the Sharks’ troublesome five-eighth spot.
The Berkeley Eagles junior scored a brilliant 30-metre try in the first half, set up a crucial four-pointer for Valentine Holmes with an inch-perfect grubber and came up with a solo match-sealer in the latter stages of the Sharks’ 20-12 triumph. Bird’s blend of pace, strength, playmaking class and all-round football nous has future representative star written all over it. If he scales the game’s heights, his Round 5 display will be held in the same reverence as Andrew Johns’ famous first start in the 1994 season opener.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan has a season-defining decision to make for his club. Bird now commands a spot in the 17, but the squad is stacked with backrow and outside-back talent. In 80 minutes, he provided more spark in the No.6 than we’ve seen from Ben Barba in half a season at five-eighth – so where does that leave the former Dally M medallist, who returns from suspension next week? Teenager Holmes was magnificent at fullback – Barba’s other specialist spot – against the Roosters. Interesting times ahead in the selection room at Cronulla.
Bursts of brilliance
There’s still no substitute in Rugby League for speed, and some of the NRL’s most elusive and fleet of foot lit it up over Easter weekend. Anthony Milford, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Valentine Holmes, Chris Sandow, Billy Slater and Shaun Johnson all had the crowd on their feet with their ability to evade defenders and rocket through the smallest of openings.
Sydney Roosters livewire Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s fulltime transition into club legend Anthony Minichiello’s custodian role has continued on its steep trajectory. Aside from his electrifying try to peg the Tricolours back into the contest in their disappointing loss to Cronulla, RTS notched a mind-blowing 316 metres from 28 carries – the seventh-highest individual metres gained tally in the 14 season statistics have been kept. Tuivasa-Sheck’s sizzling start to 2015 has him in the box-seat to clinch the New Zealand Test No.1 jumper for next month’s clash with Australia, ahead of Four Nations hero Peta Hiku and former Kiwis fullback Josh Hoffman.
Journeyman Manu to play a role for Roosters
The late withdrawal of Jared Waerea-Hargreaves gave veteran forward Willie Manu an opportunity off the bench for the Roosters on Sunday – and the 35-year-old (!) made the most of his first NRL outing in a decade. A low-key pick-up for the heavyweight club, the long-serving Tongan international forward’s professional career has entered its 16th season, featuring more than 300 games in previous stints with Wests Tigers, Souths, St George Illawarra, Castleford, Hull and St Helens. Based on his dynamic 26-minute display on Sunday – including 16 tackles and seven tackle-busting runs – Manu will get the chance to add a rousing post-script to his well-travelled career.
Underachiever of the week
Unbeaten and alone at the top of the table, Newcastle flunked a gilt-edged opportunity to consolidate its position with an insipid 13-0 loss to a St George Illawarra side that was more composed, diligent and patient.
Overachiever of the week
Cronulla was the most pronounced outsider of Round 5 but produced the most stirring performance of the weekend – the club’s first win of the season – to outstrip the Sydney Roosters 20-12. Enterprising with the ball and ultra-committed without it, the Sharks clawed their way to a 14-0 lead and withstood a late fight-back when it appeared the Roosters’ brilliance would consign Shire lads to heartbreak.
Tom Trbojevic (Sea Eagles): A brilliant debut on the wing from the versatile 20-year-old. Scored with his first touch and bagged another try in the second half, but the most impressive aspects of Trbojevic’s initial outing were his involvement – a team-high 175 metres from a game-high 22 carries – and his composure. A potential superstar in several positions.
My new favourite player
South Sydney rookie Chris Grevsmuhl is a magnificent prospect, and if the Queensland selectors aren’t thinking about handing the 22-year-old a debut then they’re not fair dinkum about regaining the Origin crown. Coming off the bench in Friday’s slug-fest against the big Canterbury pack, the North Queensland product made 128 metres and 20 tackles in another barnstorming display. Grevsmuhl’s rugged, industrious play is custom-made for the interstate arena.
…rugby union: Mitchell Dodds’ first try in the Broncos’ 26-16 defeat of the Titans was bizarre to say the least. The ball came free as Sam Thaiday was tackled just short of the try-line, and Dodds picked it up – as you would in a rugby union ruck – and dived over. It was ugly, and a no-try ruling would have appeased more neutral supporters than the green light did, but they all count.
…Eric Simms, Terry Lamb, Neil Baker, Jason Taylor, Darren Lockyer et al: Bulldogs halfback Trent Hodkinson may be the greatest field goal exponent the game has ever seen. Although his Good Friday field goal was ultimately not enough to lift his side to victory, it was yet another example of Hodkinson’s clutch ability. He has kicked 14 field goals in his career to date, including six match-winners – three of those his second one-pointer of the game.
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
1. Matt Moylan
2. Alex Johnston
3. Josh Morris
4. Michael Jennings
5. Akuila Uate
6. James Maloney
7. Adam Reynolds
8. Aaron Woods
9. Robbie Farah
10. Aiden Tolman
11. Glenn Stewart
12. Ryan Hoffman
13. Trent Merrin
14. Kade Snowden
15. Tyson Frizzell
16. Josh Jackson
1. Greg Inglis
2. Curtis Rona
3. Dane Gagai
4. Justin Hodges
5. Lachlan Maranta
6. Johnathan Thurston
7. Chris Sandow
8. Dylan Napa
9. James Segeyaro
10. Matt Scott
11. Sam Thaiday
12. Chris Grehvsmuhl
13. Corey Parker
14. Jacob Lillyman
15. Aidan Guerra
16. Dave Tyrell
17. Matt Gillett