NRL’s Anzac weekend triumph
The NRL was accused of attempting to commercialise Anzac Day by staging a five-game marathon on Saturday, but the matches in Auckland, Newcastle, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane all honoured the occasion in tasteful fashion and the day was an unequivocal success. The fact all five matches were entertaining, close contests was a bonus, but most importantly, the spirit of Anzac Day was paid its due respect. The cringe-worthy unveiling of the abominable Guy Sebastian, Lee Kernaghan and Jessica Mauboy collaboration at the start of the Tigers-Bulldogs clash on Friday night was a poor way to kick off the weekend, but Saturday was all class.
Dragons’ victory saves non-referral firestorm
Referees are encouraged to trust their own judgement, but it is bewildering that they continually choose to do so only in instances that clearly need ratification from the video referee, while referring every other try decision that contains one percent of doubt. Dylan Farrell and the Dragons were denied a fair try thanks to whistle-blower Gerard Sutton trying to be a hero in an impossible situation. Fortunately, it did not affect the result as the Saints got up 14-12, a victory that probably also saved Sutton’s bacon.
Players’ integrity takes a dive
Rugby League is at risk of becoming a laughing stock if something is not done about the diving epidemic permeating the NRL. Boom St George Illawarra centre Euan Aitken became the unfortunate poster boy for the frowned-upon act of staying down to receive a penalty following a spate of similar incidents during Round 8, but it’s elder statesmen Justin Hodges and Michael Ennis that should be hung out to dry after blatantly foxing in embarrassing circumstances. Only when a player is forced from the field should the video referee be allowed to intervene; for all other incidents, let the judiciary sort it out later if the on-field officials have missed an illegal tackle. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than heading down the soccer prima donna route.
Representative selection talking points
AUSTRALIA: Billy Slater, Alex Johnston, Greg Inglis, Will Chambers, Josh Dugan, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk, Matt Scott, Cameron Smith (c), Aaron Woods, Greg Bird, Sam Thaiday, Corey Parker. Int: Luke Lewis, Trent Merrin, Nate Myles, James Tamou. 18th man: Daly Cherry-Evans, 19th man: Michael Jennings, 20th man: Josh Papalii. Coach: Tim Sheens
- Justin Hodges deserves to go out on his own terms and, furthermore, is playing great footy. Debutant Will Chambers’ selection at centre ahead of Hodges, and incumbents Michael Jennings and Dylan Walker, is baffling.
- Josh Dugan is worthy of a Test guernsey, but picking him on the wing – where he has never started an NRL or rep game – could come back to haunt Tim Sheens, especially as he is marking up on Manu Vatuvei. Picking elite centres and fullbacks on the flanks has been common for decades (O’Connor, Ettingshausen, Inglis, Boyd et al) but Dugan doesn’t seem to fit the wingers’ mould.
- Bouquets for handing Trent Merrin a debut; brickbats for leaving out Boyd Cordner and Josh Jackson, and re-calling Luke Lewis and James Tamou. The squad as a whole appears to be a muddle of part succession-planning and part loyalty to those who have done the job before.
NEW ZEALAND (likely line-up): Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Manu Vatuvei, Peta Hiku, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Kieran Foran, Shaun Johnson, Jesse Bromwich, Isaac Luke, Ben Matulino, Kevin Proctor, Simon Mannering, Greg Eastwood. Int: Sam Moa, Martin Tapau, Lewis Brown, Tohu Harris. 18th man: Thomas Leuluai. Coach: Stephen Kearney
- Stephen Kearney’s loyalty to his Four Nations heroes was understandable, with Adam Blair and Jason Nightingale the only players left out from the 17 that featured in last year’s final. Nightingale, a surprise omission, was given a reprieve when Dallin Watene-Zelezniak was rubbed out by suspension.
- Injuries to key stars Dean Whare and Jason Taumololo are bitter blows for the Kiwis, although they have been well covered by Peta Hiku and Sam Moa respectively, with Greg Eastwood or Martin Taupau set to wear the No.13.
- Kieran Foran’s successful return from injury against Melbourne saved Kearney from making the ludicrous call of not selecting Benji Marshall as his replacement; leaving Marshall out and picking Thomas Leuluai at five-eighth would have been a joke.
- Any notion that Marshall should have been selected ahead of out-of-sorts Golden Boot winner Shaun Johnson, however, is equally ridiculous. Ditto those agenda-wielding pundits that have bemoaned the selection of Vatuvei, the Kiwis’ greatest Test try-scorer and a two-try star in the 2014 final.
COUNTRY: David Mead, Akulia Uate, Jarrod Croker, Jack Wighton, James McManus, Jack Bird, James Maloney, Dale Finucane, Ryan Hinchcliffe, Kade Snowden, Joel Thompson, Tyson Frizell, Josh Jackson. Int: Mitch Rein, Paul Vaughan, Tariq Sims, Ryan James. 18th man: Shannon Boyd. Coach: Trent Barrett
- Shaun Fensom’s continued snubbing by Country is one of the great rep selection mysteries of all time, up there with Benny Wearing, Len Smith and Nathan Blacklock. Should have been the first forward picked.
- Great to see the form of Tyson Frizell, Shannon Boyd and Akuila Uate rewarded.
CITY: Matt Moylan, James Tedesco, James Roberts, Waqa Blake, Daniel Tupou, Josh Reynolds, Blake Austin, Andrew Fifita, Nathan Peats, David Klemmer, Curtis Sironen, Wade Graham, Tyrone Peachey. Int: Joseph Paulo, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Kane Evans, Jason Clark. 18th man: Bryce Cartwright. Coach: Brad Fittler
- With the NSW No.7 jumper seemingly a tight two-horse race between Trent Hodkinson and Mitchell Pearce, why was Luke Keary and then Blake Austin – both five-eighths in club-land – handed the City job? Hodkinson, in particular, needs to prove himself outside of the Bulldogs bubble and should have been given the chance in Wagga Wagga.
- Bryce Cartwright, now 18th man after an injury withdrawal, should have won selection over all four of the current bench starters.
- James Roberts, Curtis Sironen, Tyrone Peachey, David Klemmer, Matt Moyland and James Tedesco have a huge opportunity to push for a Blues debut.
The resurgent Gold Coast Titans have won four of their five matches since blooding rookie halfback Kane Elgey, culminating in the 2014 NYC Player of the Year’s stunning performance in Saturday’s upset of the Warriors. Poised, confident and inventive, Elgey shapes as a genuine top-shelf halves prospect – but his display in Auckland has increased his market value exponentially and will probably ensure his future lies elsewhere. There is a dearth of quality halves available and several clubs are looking, while the Titans’ have already blown the budget on Daly Cherry-Evans, although the club is desperate to retain Elgey and pair him with the Manly superstar. Ironically, the Sea Eagles lead the chase for Elgey, who could team up with another former Titan, Albert Kelly, on the northern beaches.
Naiqama the new ‘sheik of freakish’
Wests Tigers winger Kevin Naiqama – an off-season bargain buy from Penrith – has guaranteed his place on NRL highlight reels for perpetuity with an inspired, seemingly impossible try assist to deliver the first four-pointer of his side’s emphatic 38-14 victory over Canterbury on a platter for James Tedesco.
Naiqama’s dead-ball line-defying acrobatics immediately drew comparisons with Greg Inglis’ unforgettable effort to set up a try for Mark Gasnier in the 2008 Centenary Test…but anyone that puts the two in the same ballpark is looking at the world through GI-tinted glasses – Naiqama’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flick pass at full pace is the best we’ve ever seen.
The 25-year-old has been unable to nail down a permanent first grade spot in previous stints with Newcastle and Penrith, making just 23 NRL appearances before 2015, but he has found his niche on the Tigers’ flank. Meanwhile, hisFresh Prince of Bel Airhairstyle and penchant for the spectacular – underlined by another freakish put-down from a grubber against the Bulldogs – has rendered Naiqama an instant cult hero.
The premiership’s new breed astounded throughout the weekend with their mind-blowing talents. Naiqama’s heroics were followed by Warriors fullback Tuimoala Lolohea’s magnificent cover tackle on a runaway David Mead, Broncos utility Kodi Nikorima’s break and Marshall-esque flick for Anthony Milford to score, and Sharks fullback Valentine Holmes’ astonishing aerial put-down.
Underachiever of the week
The tight 32-28 scoreline in favour of the visiting Gold Coast Titans did not even come close to reflecting the incompetent, listless and embarrassing second half performance that cost the New Zealand Warriors victory at Mt Smart Stadium in the first match of the NRL’s Anzac Day marathon. Ahead 18-12 at the end of a seesawing first half, the Warriors’ ensuing 30 minutes was as bad as anything seen from the erratic outfit on their home track in the last decade.
A lack of commitment, urgency and organisation in defence, and a complete absence of imagination or execution in attack allowed the Titans to race to a 32-18 lead with four unanswered tries. A late rally almost stole a miracle comeback for the Warriors, but it would have been a most undeserving two points if they had pulled it off. Back to the drawing board for Andrew McFadden, who will come under increasing pressure to put the broom through his misfiring line-up.
Overachiever of the week
Canberra capped a superb month with its third win in four matches, following up a club record comeback against Wests Tigers with another come-from-behind victory over South Sydney in Cairns. Whether its Ricky Stuart, the recruits or the club’s new breed that is responsible for the culture shift, there’s no question the Raiders have developed a harder edge in 2015, and their 30-22 defeat of the premiers suggests finals football is a distinct possibility.
My new favourite player
Kurt Baptiste had played just 10 NRL games for Brisbane and Canberra in four seasons prior to 2015, but the hooker will be difficult to displace if his performances since breaking into the Raiders’ interchange contingent a fortnight ago are a guide. The 24-year-old adds real spark off the bench and is an excellent foil for the starting No.9, in-form Englishman Josh McCrone.
Raymond Faitala-Mariner (Warriors): Came on after Ryan Hoffman left the field with concussion and gave a solid account of himself, making 13 tackles and three strong runs. A former NYC star destined for the heights.
Nelson Asofa-Solomona (Storm): A 19-year-old giant from Wellington (NZ), Asofa-Solomona stands at 200cm and 115kg. Given just eight minutes off the bench, but looked to make a big impact with six tackles and four carries. A terrifying prospect.
Aaron Gray (Rabbitohs): A big chance of cementing an outside-back position for the premiers, strapping 21-year-old Gray made seven runs and a remarkable 16 tackles after getting a late call-up to the wing.
…Dally Messenger, Keith Barnes, Kevin Longbottom: Wests Tigers’ phenomenal veteran Pat Richards kicked a 54-metre penalty goal in Friday night’s win over the Bulldogs – one of the longest ever landed at NRL level. Unlike rugby union, long-range attempts are rare in Rugby League, but Richards may bring them back into vogue with his colossal feats. The goal harked back to the long-range specialists of bygone eras: pioneering superstar Dally Messenger, Balmain legend Keith ‘Golden Boots’ Barnes and Souths’ Indigenous winger of the 1960s Kevin ‘Lummy’ Longbottom.
…Francis Meli: Manu Vatuvei rushed off his wing to pole-axe Titans centre James Roberts on Saturday in one of the most punishing defensive plays of the year. It was reminiscent of Vatuvei’s equally enigmatic wing predecessor Francis Meli, who sporadically ironed out unsuspecting centres – most notably Broncos star Brent Tate – using the same methods.
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
8. Dylan Napa