Top Four Streets Ahead
For more than a decade, one of the NRL’s trademarks and greatest appeals has been its competitiveness between the top and bottom sides. A spate of lopsided scorelines has brought the premiership’s traditional quality under the microscope. This has been exacerbated by the gulf between the premiership credentials of the current top four sides – South Sydney, Sydney Roosters, Melbourne and Manly – and the rest. Aside from decimating the bulk of its opposition, the powerful quartet has produced a string of magnificent, brutal blockbusters when facing off against each other in recent weeks. The Melbourne v Souths, Souths v Manly, Roosters v Manly and Melbourne v Manly encounters have been the standout matches of 2013, and rank among the finest regular season games of recent seasons. The Roosters’ clash with Melbourne on Saturday promises similar intensity and drama.
Seemingly only an Origin- or injury-sparked slump will prevent (in no particular order) the Rabbitohs, Roosters, Storm and Sea Eagles from occupying the vital top four spots at the end of Round 26. That type of predictability goes against the ethos of the salary cap-constrained NRL era, but the purists won’t be complaining if we are served up class contests between these sides in the qualifying finals, and again in the preliminary finals and Grand Final. That’s not to say a late-season charge by one or more of the chasing pack is out of the question – Newcastle, Canterbury, Brisbane, Canberra, North Queensland and Cronulla are right in the premiership mix. But at the moment, the top four are on a higher plane.
How the heavyweights negotiate the taxing Origin period will have a major bearing on the jostling for ladder positions – and a crucial home qualifying final. The Roosters are set to be significantly impacted, with Michael Jennings and Mitchell Pearce selection certainties, and James Maloney and Martin Kennedy strong chances. Melbourne will obviously contribute ‘Big Three’ to Queensland’s cause, while Ryan Hoffman and Ryan Hinchcliffe are on the fringes of NSW selection. Manly will be the least affected – Anthony Watmough is guaranteed a spot, while Glenn Stewart is a possible Blues selection and Daly Cherry-Evans is an outside chance for a Queensland bench role. Brett Stewart is likely to slot straight into the NSW No.1 if he returns from injury during the series. Unfamiliar with the annual Origin drain, Souths could struggle. Greg Inglis and Ben Te’o (investigation outcome pending) are odds-on to be named for Queensland, while much-improved backrower Chris McQueen is right in the Maroons mix. Nathan Merritt is on the cusp of a NSW debut, and gun halves John Sutton and Adam Reynolds could be called upon at some stage during the series. Depth is the key, however – an area the Rabbitohs have a distinct advantage over their rivals.
Tigers’ and Warriors’ Downward Spiral
Now for the other end of the premiership table. In 2011, Wests Tigers and New Zealand produced one of the most gripping and dramatic semi-finals of recent seasons after finishing the premiership rounds fourth and sixth respectively. A mere 20 months later, the rivals are tied for last after winning just two of 10 matches and each conceding more than 50 points last weekend. The clubs’ problems are as plentiful as they are difficult to remedy – and there are several parallels between the NRL’s stragglers.
The Coach: Matthew Elliott was a curious appointment as incoming coach by the big-talking Warriors hierarchy, underwhelming supporters who were expecting a mentor of Bellamy-esque proportions. Boasting a 46 per cent win rate as an NRL coach and no finals wins in a decade with Canberra and Penrith (the club that punted him midway through 2011), Elliott’s ability to return the Warriors to contender status was always dubious. He has led the Warriors to just two wins in 10 rounds – sacked predecessor Brian McLennan had five victories up by this stage last year – and has shown no signs of recovering the club’s defensive steel that walked out the door with Ivan Cleary. Elliott blew up at reporters in Auckland this week for questioning why more line-up changes weren’t made in the wake of the Penrith debacle – it’s a pretty valid question.
Mick Potter has arrived in an infinitely more difficult situation than Elliott, with the Tigers battling salary cap-induced roster problems, injuries and off-field ructions. The first-year NRL coach has been forced to blood far too many inexperienced rookies. But his decision to bench Benji Marshall last week reeked of panic and poor judgement, and it is becoming apparent he is yet to get his charges to buy into his game-plans and philosophies after a decade under Tim Sheens.
Selections: Elliott has a talent-laden squad and plenty of depth at his disposal, but is squandering it through a selection strategy that has Warriors supporters tearing their hair out. Outstanding young three-quarters Konrad Hurrell and Ngani Laumape are languishing in NSW Cup after a mixed performance against Melbourne; backrower Ben Henry, utility back Carlos Tuimavave and injury-riddled Jerome Ropati have all struggled in the centres since, while the bullocking Laumape is surely a better proposition on the wing than the erratic Bill Tupou. The only two players recruited to the club by Elliott, ex-Titan Dominque Peyroux and former Panthers half Harry Siejka, are yet to earn an NRL call-up since joining the Warriors. Rookie forward prospect Sebastine Ikahihifo has not been sighted in first grade since Round 6 after being a rare shining light in the early rounds.
The Marshall benching controversy aside, Potter has dropped the ball by preventing a halves combination to develop. Instability in the halves was arguably the single biggest factor in the Tigers’ failure to reach the finals last year – Tim Sheens used eight different pairings. Potter has already used six in just 10 matches, demoting talented young No.7 Jacob Miller, who has since joined Hull, after just four appearances. It is no coincidence that the Tigers’ only finals appearances have come when Marshall has had Scott Prince (2005) and Robert Lui (2010-11) as a permanent halves companion. The make-up of the remainder of Potter’s line-up has been largely dictated by a horror injury toll.
Roster and recruitment: The discrepancy between the departures (Lance Hohaia, Aaron Heremia, Isaac John, Joel Moon, Jeremy Latimore, Lewis Brown, Krisnan Inu, Micheal Luck, James Maloney) and arrivals (Nathan Friend, Todd Lowrie, Dane Nielsen, Thomas Leuluai, Dominique Peyroux, Harry Siejka) from a quality and depth perspective since the 2011 Grand Final is a telling factor in the Warriors’ tumble down the ladder. The re-signing of Manu Vatuvei and Feleti Mateo, and the 2014 acquisition of hard-running Cronulla backrower Jason Bukuya are an indication the club is heading in the right direction, while the likely arrival of Wigan superstar Sam Tomkins is potentially the biggest signing in the Warriors’ history. But being carved up by former Warriors Brown and John last Saturday only highlighted the club’s failings in the retention and talent recognition department.
No NRL club in recent memory has butchered a quality roster quite like the Tigers have since back-to-back top-four finishes in 2010-11. Sacrificing Andrew Fifita and Bryce Gibbs to bring in Melbourne star Adam Blair backfired horribly, while club stalwarts Chris Heighington and Beau Ryan were inexplicably allowed to join Fifita and Gibbs at Cronulla, infuriating the Tigers’ supporter base. Marquee forward Gareth Ellis’ return to England was unavoidable and Robert Lui’s departure was unfortunate for the club. But stopgap signings Joel Reddy, Matt Bell, Braith Anasta, Bodene Thompson, and to a lesser extent Eddy Pettybourne, were never going to fill the void.
Backroom bungling: The constant bickering between the Western Suburbs and Balmain factions of the Wests Tigers has led to vastly experienced CEO Stephen Humphreys tendering his resignation from the joint venture. Finding a new boss will prove troublesome for the Tigers, and Humphreys’ departure is set to hold the club back for some time.
Financially, the Warriors are in a tremendous position, but a succession of decisions made by the club’s hierarchy – led by CEO Wayne Scurrah – have proved to be the wrong ones. Appointing Elliott may turn out to be the worst of all.
Attitude: The adage that defence comes down to attitude is one of rugby league’s oldest and most subscribed to. The Warriors could perhaps count themselves unlucky to be run down late four times in six matches, but conceding a club record scoreline against Penrith – a side with a roster of questionable strength and significant injury problems – is a glaring indictment on the attitude of the vast majority of the squad. The spectacle of several Warriors smiling and joking with their buddies from the Panthers on the field after the game has been well-documented, and dealt with accordingly by management. But star halfback Shaun Johnson’s indignant reaction post-match to being benched during the second half was inexcusable. Johnson is the linchpin and the future of the Warriors – replacing him was a curious decision by Elliott. However, Johnson was awful against Penrith, missing touch from a penalty and failing to ignite the Warriors’ attack; the gun No.7 should take the message on board that his performance was unacceptable, rather than getting in a huff and refusing to recognise his own shortcomings.
It’s difficult to sink the boot in to a squad that has been so badly decimated by injuries in regards to attitude, but the Tigers’ remaining senior players need to take greater responsibility so their current on-field plight. Marshall and Blair – the former New Zealand Test captain and vice-captain duo – have been rightly blasted for their meagre contributions in 2013. Skipper Robbie Farah’s commitment cannot be questioned, but even his head was down during the heavy loss to Souths when he should have been rallying his troops. A win against the on-fire Rabbitohs was always going to be a tall order, but apparently throwing in the towel is a kick in the guts to the club’s supporters.
Beware the badly beaten
All signs point to another pair of sound thrashings for the Tigers and Warriors this weekend in the wake of their pitiful losses in Round 10. But don’t be so sure – humiliated teams have a remarkable knack for bouncing back in the NRL. Of the 21 teams to have conceded 50 points in a match since the beginning of 2009, 10 won their next game, one achieved a draw, and seven sides lost by six points or less a week later. In the past five seasons, just two teams have been beaten by more than 10 points in their next outing after having a half-century put on them. Look for at least one of the Tigers or Warriors to spring an upset this weekend.
Wingers Struggle for Recognition
Picking centres and fullbacks on the wing in representative teams is not a new phenomenon, but you have to feel for the genuine specialist wingers that continually miss out on Origin and Test sides. Nathan Merritt is set to snare a long-awaited NSW debut for the series opener if Brett Morris is ruled out injured. But if the St George Illawarra flyer recovers, Merritt is likely to be left on the outer yet again – the other wing berth is almost certain to go to Canberra centre Blake Ferguson, who has come from the clouds with a recent form surge. Newcastle fullback Darius Boyd and North Queensland centre Brent Tate are certainties on the Maroons’ flanks. Of the 34 Origin wingers picked since 2002, 19 of them have predominantly played in other positions at club level. The game has arguably not seen a truly great specialist winger since the 1980s heyday of Eric Grothe and Kerry Boustead, with the possible exception of Wendell Sailor – a fact exacerbated by the difficulty club wingers have in gaining Origin and Test selection.
Ironman Douglas on Track for Record
Gold Coast prop Luke Douglas escaped suspension with an early guilty plea, keeping alive his extraordinary streak of 180 consecutive NRL appearances since making his first grade debut as a 19-year-old for Cronulla in the opening match of the 2006 season. If Douglas plays all 14 remaining regular season matches he will equal pointscoring wizard Jason Taylor’s all-time mark of 194 without missing a game. The tackle- and run-shy Taylor’s record is remarkable in its own right, but for Douglas to challenge it – and potentially become the first player to appear in 200 consecutive games early next season – as a rugged front-rower is nothing short of astonishing. Douglas played last weekend with a heavy heart, lining up against the Broncos despite losing his mother Trish to cancer just four days earlier. Tireless Manly hooker Matt Ballin is also climbing up the list, playing every game for the Sea Eagles since the start of 2008 – barring injury, he will take ownership of fourth place in Round 19.
MOST CONSECUTIVE FIRST GRADE APPEARANCES
194 – Jason Taylor 1992-2000 (Western Suburbs, North Sydney, Northern Eagles)
180 – Luke Douglas 2006-13* (Cronulla, Gold Coast)
174 – Hazem El Masri 1999-2005 (Canterbury)
147 – Richard Swain 1997-2003 (Hunter, Melbourne, Brisbane)
147 – Brett Kimmorley 1997-2003 (Hunter, Melbourne, Northern Eagles, Cronulla)
143 – Roy Fisher 1954-62 (Parramatta)
141 – Matt Ballin 2008-13* (Manly)
139 – Michael Robertson 2006-11 (Manly)
Weekly Top 10 – ORIGIN BOLTERS
- Ben Ikin (Qld) – game one, 1995
- Rex Wright (NSW) – game one, 1984
- Jacob Lillyman (Qld) – game two, 2006
- Phil Duke (NSW) – game three, 1982
- Adam Mogg (Qld) – game two, 2006
- Jamie Buhrer (NSW) – game one, 2012
- John Doyle (Qld) – game one, 2001
- Terry Cook (Qld) – game one, 1995
- Willie Carne (Qld) – game three, 1990
- Brad Izzard (NSW) – game one, 1982