Friday 23 March 2018 / 07:58 PM


In this week’s Golden Points, WILL EVANS takes aim at the Bunker, unfair criticism of the Bulldogs, and double-standards from the Kangaroos, Raiders and Aaron Woods. But the Kiwis picking on form and recent displays from Billy Slater, Dylan Walker, Clint Gutherson and Wade Graham get kudos, while there’s a Round 9 appraisal of all 16 clubs, the Under Pressure XIII and the form Origin teams.

Bunker blues return

Following a litany of howlers during its debut season, the NRL Bunker started 2017 in promising style. Incorrect decisions that plagued last year were noticeably absent. The officials were even absolved of blame after the Jason Nightingale-Daly Cherry-Evans incident, which at first glance looked to be a major Bunker blunder.

But any goodwill afforded to the Bunker has quickly evaporated, with the officials’ shocker in the South Sydney-Brisbane game in Round 8 compounded by the ludicrous no-try ruling against Penrith on Thursday night – the Broncos again the beneficiaries – and embarrassingly falling for Paul Gallen’s histrionics to deny James Tedesco a fair four-pointer on Saturday.

Not ideal on the cusp of the high-stakes representative period, where every slip-up is magnified tenfold.

Bulldogs unfairly baked

Canterbury has worn the brunt of outrage over the pauper’s funeral the City-Country fixture is being given, but the criticism is largely misplaced. Firstly, the NRL should never have scheduled a match for four days after the soon-to-be scrapped rep match – particularly involving a Sydney club with a stack of contenders for both line-ups.

Secondly, clubs have been withdrawing their players en masse from City-Country for years, the Bulldogs were just upfront about it. Funnily enough, they did not contribute a single player to the fixture in 2016. Furthermore, the Bulldogs deserve a wrap for allowing boom back-rower Adam Elliott to turn out for Country.

The blame should be laid squarely at the feet of the NRL and the ARL Commission for marginalising the City-Country game even more than it already was by playing it on the same weekend as a trans-Tasman Test match that dominates the week, while leaving some clubs with little option but to pull their players out.

Can’t see the Woods for the trees

Good luck to Aaron Woods for taking the cash on offer from Canterbury – if he was actually willing to be honest about the reasons for leaving Wests Tigers. His contradictory interview on his departure on Sunday was laughable, yet he has seemingly been given a rails run in the media thanks to being part of the Fox Sports family, when other players would be – and have been – mercilessly raked over the coals by the pundits.

For a more in-depth and scathing appraisal of the way the Tigers captain has handled himself this year, check out Andrew Ferguson’s outstanding article, which is deservedly getting plenty of attention for being the first piece that has called Woods on his BS.

The problem with Fifita’s call-up

Andrew Fifita seemed an obvious choice to come into the Kangaroos line-up after Josh Papalii, Aaron Woods and Shannon Boyd were all ruled out, but plucking him out of the Mate Ma’a Tonga squad doesn’t sit right with me.

If Mal Meninga was picking a fair dinkum team from the outset, Fifita would have been the first front-rower picked – with only the off-field issues that saw him rubbed out of the Four Nations seemingly preventing his recall last week. Yet now that Big Mal is facing a bit of an injury crisis, all of a sudden Fifita fits his much-vaunted R.I.S.E character requirements?

The fact he was already slated to play for Tonga makes the about-face even more galling; just another self-serving decision by the Australian camp at the expense of international rugby league. Why not let Fifita’s green-and-gold purgatory go on for one more match and pick Jordan McLean, Paul Vaughan, Matt Prior, Ryan James, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, James Tamou, Dylan Napa or Junior Paulo? It would have been the right thing to do.

McGuire on fire

Samoa had picked a powerful side to take on England, but they won’t get more value out of any player than Josh McGuire, who answered his Kangaroos Test snub in the best way possible on Thursday, racking up a game-high 170 metres and finishing second in the tackle count with 44 opposite Australian lock Trent Merrin. The Broncos miss Corey Parker, but McGuire is about as good a replacement in the No.13 jumper the club could hope for, competing on every play and producing a phenomenal output. He shapes as a key part of Queensland’s Origin campaign.

Papa don’t play

In another decision driven by self-interest that managed to slip under the radar, Canberra’s call to allow Josh Papalii to play against Canterbury last weekend was a shady one. Papalii had already been dumped by the Kangaroos, and a ban from his club was a foregone conclusion. But because the short notice may have had an adverse effect on Ricky’s Raiders, the decision was ‘delayed’ until Monday. Transparent AF.

NAS will be back in black

It’s a mini rugby league tragedy Nelson Asofa-Solomona had to withdraw from his New Zealand Test debut. The young Storm giant is in outstanding form and is the big, aggressive, offloading game-breaker the Kiwis needed. NAS could be to rugby league what Nas is to hip hop, and there’s little question he’ll get plenty of opportunities in the black-and-white jumper.

But the Kiwis have picked a strong squad, one capable of giving Australia a big fright on Friday. Although Jason Nightingale and Manu Ma’u were stiff to miss out, the side has otherwise been picked on form after some infuriating selections during the Four Nations (persisting with the horribly out-of-form Shaun Kenny-Dowall, picking Tohu Harris at five-eighth, sticking with the past-it Greg Eastwood).

It’s also the first time more than two of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Kieran Foran, Shaun Johnson and Issac Luke have been available since the corresponding game two years ago – which the Kiwis won emphatically.

Walker, centre danger

Tom Trbojevic (239 metres, 2 line-breaks, 2 try assists), Jake Trbojevic (184 metres, 27 tackles), Aku Uate (132 metres, 2 line-breaks, 4 tries) and Martin Taupau (229 metres, 19 tackles) were all outstanding for Manly on Friday, but Dylan Walker’s display was out of this world. He ran for 149 metres and made two line-breaks, but it was four mind-blowing try assists for Uate that showcased Walker’s rare talent. Walker went backwards in 2016 but he’s currently in career-best form – and making a compelling case for Origin selection. On form, deserved the Australian right-centre spot ahead of Josh Dugan.

Clint is mint

It’s been said many times, but it’s so accurate: Clint Gutherson is just a natural footballer. His energy and enthusiasm is Josh Reynolds-like, and his support play earned him two tries as part of an 18-point haul on Friday night. But he’s also consistent and relatively mistake free – tremendous qualities given Gutherson has had to bounce between five-eighth and fullback. With Mitchell Moses and Bevan French on deck in 2018, Gutherson will surely have to find a place at wing or centre, but there’s little question he’ll provide excellent value there, too. And if the whispers that he could be on the move to the Tigers are true, the embattled joint venture will end up with the far better end of the Moses/Gutherson exchange.

Hayne lays down rep claims

It seems inevitable James Tedesco will be wearing the sky-blue No.1, but Jarryd Hayne is firming as a centre or wing pick for NSW. Despite the late positional shift for the Titans, Jarryd Hayne produced his second strong performance in a row since returning from injury. Two tries and 103 metres from 13 carries in his first NRL start at centre since Round 8, 2009 suggested the controversial superstar can be the marquee man the Titans need him to be. He’s had a stack of big games at rep level as a three-quarter and is one of the few players the Maroons genuinely fear.

Luke spooks opposition once again

Following an ordinary start to the season that had many (including us) calling for Danny Levi to supplant him as New Zealand’s hooker for the Anzac Test, Issac Luke has steadily regained form over the last five weeks and had arguably his best game in Warriors colours up against Kangaroos rep Jake Friend. Luke ran dangerously and often from dummy-half, kicked well, took on some of the playmaking load and reeled off 44 tackles – including some stinging effort. A great sign for the Kiwis.

Clean Origin Slate for Billy

It’s like he never left. Billy Slater’s seamless comeback from virtually two years on the sidelines with a shoulder injury has been one of the great stories of 2017. Kevin Walters and the Maroons aren’t stupid – they know their best chance of beating NSW is with Billy at fullback and Darius Boyd, one of the great rep wingers, reverting to the flank.

Ninth Impressions

BRONCOS: Sizzling first-half performance that showed just how devastating the Broncos can be, but a worrying drop off again as Wayne Bennett continues to look for an elusive 80-minute performance.

RAIDERS: Had the injury-hit Bulldogs on the rack at 10-6 at halftime, but weren’t interested in laying the required platform to go on with the job, instead throwing the ball around and just expected it to happen for them. Austin and Leilua were dreadful.

BULLDOGS: Super-gutsy with Graham and Reynolds departing in the first half. They’re the team that just won’t go away, and regardless of their shortcomings they seem certain to stay in the finals race to the bitter end.

SHARKS: Far from their best work, but kept their cool to get the job done in the end. A solid bounce-back from the upset loss to the Titans, while Wade Graham was magnificent.

TITANS: Had a bit of trouble getting on top of the Knights and trailed at halftime, but once they hit the front they were unstoppable. Nearing full-strength again and playing like it.

SEA EAGLES: Wow. If the Sea Eagles produce that sort of enterprise and cohesion on a weekly basis, they could be the 2017 premiership’s dark horse. Such a dangerous team when their big guns fire in unison, and they now have real momentum after the stirring win over the Raiders a week earlier.

STORM: Scintillating for the first 53 minutes to run six tries past one of the NRL’s better defensive units. Clocked off a bit to only win by 12, which will upset Craig Bellamy, but the match was always in hand.

KNIGHTS: The Knights are far better than a 1-8 team on the effort-o-meter, but without a couple of their better players in Mitch Barnett and Jamie Buhrer, their woeful depth has really been exposed. Jaelen Feeny is not an NRL-level No.7.

COWBOYS: More problems than just JT’s absence, and I’m not sure the return of their captain along with Lachlan Coote will get the Cowboys’ campaign back on the rails. Outmuscled up front by the Eels, while their outside backs seem out of sorts without the engine-room platform being laid for them.

EELS: Three on the trot now, and the blue-and-golds seem well and truly back in business. Norman has rediscovered his best as quickly as he lost it, and they’ve hardly skipped a beat with Gutherson filling in at fullback.

PANTHERS: Plumbed new depths with their first-half display in Brisbane, but rallied admirably to briefly raise hopes of a miracle comeback win. Still, at 2-7, the Panthers need to go on a mid-season run to be any chance of playing in the finals.

DRAGONS: Clearly missing Widdop’s influence, while their defence was taught a lesson by the clinical Storm. They’ll take heart from the second-half revival, though.

RABBITOHS: It wouldn’t surprise to see the Bunnies take out the spoon. Their pack is toothless aside from Sam Burgess, their outside backs stink, and Reynolds is so out of sorts he can’t seriously be a NSW Origin contender anymore.

ROOSTERS: Realistically should have got the win after the Warriors repeatedly invited them into the contest. Certainly weren’t disgraced, but they kooked it at the end and will look back on Round 9 as a lost opportunity.

WARRIORS: Huge positives and a couple of little negatives. Amazing defence to keep the Roosters at bay during the second half, while they held their nerve to take the match-winning chance at the death. However, they should have set up a decisive lead early in the second half and came up with some infuriating play at times. Their 4-5 start equals their best since 2011, and is just one win short of their best since 2003.

TIGERS: Showed plenty of resolve after losing Woods and Tedesco but couldn’t take their second-half opportunities. It just doesn’t feel like the Tigers are going to get in together consistently enough to contend for the playoffs.

Debutant report

Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (Warriors): It was a tough, tense and nerve-wracking game to debut in, but CKN was flawless in his first NRL outing. A kid with stacks of ability and character who has come back from some devastating injuries to break into the first-grade ranks, Nicoll-Klokstad has an opportunity to nail down a permanent spot and add some stability to a flighty Warriors outside-back contingent.

My new favourite player

Probably the best player left out of the Australian team form-wise, Wade Graham was again sensational for Cronulla. The ball-playing back-rower produced two brilliant assists – a looping cut-out ball to send Feki over, and an offload in traffic to Holmes after catch a bomb in front of the Tigers’ posts – and put up customary solid running metres (115) and tackles (27) tallies. The notion that he could be left out of NSW’s squad for the series opener is ludicrous.

Under-pressure XIII

1 Matt Moylan
2 Ken Maumalo
3 Justin O’Neill
4 Joey Leilua
5 Braidon Burns
6 Mitchell Moses
7 Jaelen Feeney
8 Tom Burgess
9 Michael Lichaa
10 Josh Starling
11 Bodene Thompson
12 Ryan Simpkins
13 Trent Merrin

Form Origin teams

1 Tom Trbojevic
2 Akuila Uate
3 Dylan Walker
4 Michael Jennings
5 Josh Addo-Carr
6 Luke Keary
7 Mitchell Pearce
8 Junior Paulo
9 Jayden Brailey
10 Paul Vaughan
11 Boyd Cordner
12 Wade Graham
13 Jack de Belin

14 Adam Elliott
15 John Asiata
16 Andrew Fifita
17 Matt Prior

1 Billy Slater
2 Valentine Holmes
3 Will Chambers
4 Dane Gagai
5 Darius Boyd
6 Anthony Milford
7 Corey Norman
8 Korbin Sims
9 Cameron Smith
10 Dylan Napa
11 Matt Gillett
12 Felise Kaufusi
13 Josh McGuire

14 Sam Thaiday
15 Coen Hess
16 Ethan Lowe
17 Ashley Taylor

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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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