Can Tigers see out rocky injury run?
Wests Tigers were crippled by an appalling injury toll – one of the worst suffered by any side in recent memory – during 2013, forced to use 34 players including an incredible 11 NRL debutants. Among those to miss large chunks of the season were key players Robbie Farah, Chris Lawrence, Aaron Woods, James Tedesco, Curtis Sironen, Tim Moltzen, Keith Galloway, Braith Anasta and Blake Ayshford. Accordingly, the Tigers won just seven games as their decade-long linchpin Benji Marshall exited the club and first-year coach Michael Potter only just hung onto his job.
The joint venture has been lumbered with a casualty ward well over the average again so far this season: Moltzen was ruled out for the year with a knee injury; returning utility Dene Halatau broke his leg in the pre-season; Sironen is yet to play in 2014; Lawrence and burgeoning three-quarter Tim Simona missed the start of the NRL campaign; an on-fire Tedesco has been put on ice for two months; and Farah is now out for at least a month after dislocating his elbow.
But the 2014 version of the Tigers have proved they are far more resilient, bouncing back from a heavy Round 1 defeat to craft a 4-2 record after six rounds and grab a share of second spot on the ladder. In their first match minus Tedesco – with debutant Kurtis Rowe filling in – and the suspended Braith Anasta, the Tigers subdued North Queensland 16-4 in another gritty, physical team display.
Battling on without captain Farah, who is in superlative form, will be the team’s toughest test to date. But stand-in hooker Joel Luani is no slouch. Impressive in his three appearances last season, the nuggetty Luani now has a World Cup campaign with USA behind him and provides plenty of impact out of dummy-half. The Tigers’ upcoming draw – Eels, Titans, Roosters, Sharks, Broncos – could be worse, and if they emerge with a couple of wins and their confidence intact from that period, a finals assault could well be on the cards once they have their best side back on deck.
Cowboys ride low in the saddle
Possessing a ‘great side on paper’ can be more of a curse than a blessing in the NRL, inevitably attracting sky-high expectations and not factoring in the myriad qualities required to translate roster talent into success. So it has proved for North Queensland in recent years. Besides a fifth-place finish and controversial semi-final exit to Manly in 2012, the Cowboys have been considered among the competition’s greatest underachievers – despite a remarkable six-game winning streak to scrape into the finals last season.
Headlined by arguably the finest playmaker – and one of the very best players – of the last decade in Johnathan Thurston, the Cowboys’ squad contains the Australian Test prop duo, a backrow mix of explosive power and hardworking grit, a representative quality centre pairing, a succession of dynamic and consistent try-scoring wingers, and, until this season, the ubiquitous talents of instinctive fullback genius Matt Bowen.
But for whatever reason, the Cowboys have failed to climb up to the heavyweight platform that pundits have so regularly predicted for the two-decade old Townsville-based club. Their 2014 campaign is in grave danger of being another forgettable one, with the prospect of missing the finals for the first time since 2010 looming large if they can’t quickly turn around a 2-4 start to the season.
Bowen’s departure to Super League has been strangely overlooked as a major factor for the Cowboys’ slow beginning to 2014. For so long the heart and soul of the club, ‘Mango’ was the player the Cowboys looked to for the match-winning play in contests such as their narrow losses to the Broncos, Warriors and Titans earlier this year. It is no coincidence North Queensland’s three-year hiatus from the finals occurred when Bowen averaged just 14 games per year as he battled a terrible injury run. Specialist half Michael Morgan has done an admirable job in the No.1 and has several outstanding qualities, but the Cowboys have missed having an extra elite game-breaker to complement Thurston.
Similarly, the dummy-half rotation of Ray Thompson and Rory Kostjasyn – neither of whom have been considered specialist No.9s until recently – continues to grow and improve, but it does not provide as much to the side as the combination of retired hooker general Aaron Payne and livewire interchange rake James Segeyaro.
Thurston has been as tenacious as ever this season, but since a match-winning hand in the Round 1 defeat of Canberra, his trademark brilliance has barely been sighted. There have been signs backrow wrecking balls Jason Taumololo and Tariq Sims are ready to belatedly produce their best on a weekly basis, but that has again proved to be a false dawn.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what is not clicking with the Cowboys – who have been blessed with one of the kindest injury runs of any side in the competition – but rookie coach Paul Green needs to discover the missing ingredients smartly. With Thurston, Tate, Matt Scott and James Tamou guaranteed Origin starters, and a couple of players in the frame as bolters, the club should be gearing up for an arduous representative period. The on-paper Cowboys certainly contain enough raw ability to go a long way in the 2014 premiership, but they are running the risk of leaving their charge too late once again.
NRL’s ticking time bomb
The desperately unlucky St George Illawarra Dragons were never going to get any joy from their request to the NRL to be awarded competition points after the fulltime siren bungle in Melbourne. Taking the points from the Storm would be unjust as they did nothing wrong, as Saints boss Peter Doust acknowledged, while give both clubs two points – Doust’s suggested solution – would not have been fair to the other 14 teams in the competition.
But for the NRL to do nothing to prevent the same injustice occurring again is unacceptable. Alarm bells should have been ringing after confusion reigned in the dying stages of Cronulla’s dramatic and controversial qualifying final defeat of North Queensland last year (although the League had more pertinent refereeing issues to deal with in the wake of that clash), while the game’s brains trust should have leapt into action after similar mix-ups saw tries scored when halftime should have been blown in the Warriors-Tigers and Sea Eagles-Tigers encounters in recent weeks.
Now the inaction has actually cost a team victory – and as Doust rightly pointed out, it could have even greater consequences, such as missing the finals. And the referees should not be forced to bear the brunt of the incorrect decision. Although it’s dubious there was ‘less than a split second’ in it as ref’s boss Tony Archer claimed, it was an incredibly tight call and a tough one to make on the run in the 80th minute (or 81st, as it turned out) of the match.
It begs the question, why doesn’t the NRL give the on-field officials the power to send such instances to the video referee? If they are not certain whether the siren had sounded before the play-the-ball occurred, play-on could be called before referring it upstairs, which would quickly and accurately resolve the matter.
If the NRL sits on its hands, it could justifiably have an ugly fight on its hands if an instance like the one on Monday night costs a team a finals match. This is not the same as the Sharks’ seventh-tackle try, as the Cowboys had most of the match to fight back and it can’t be certifiably guaranteed these sorts of in-game refereeing errors definitely cost a team the game. But Monday’s can. If fulltime was (correctly) called, the Dragons definitely win the game, end of story.
Will has published two books on Rugby League:
- A History of State of Origin
- A Short History of Rugby League in Australia
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