Players ambushed by dissent crackdown
It seems the NRL has issued its referees an unannounced edit to clamp down on player backchat, with two matches in Round 15 drastically altered by the sin-binning of key players. Chris Sandow was marched at a critical juncture of Parramatta’s clash with Melbourne for asking Ben Cummins, “How much are they paying you?” after the Eels conceded a penalty on their own line. The Storm turned a tenuous eight-point advantage into an unassailable 40-16 lead with the halfback off the paddock. Gold Coast co-captain Nate Myles was also sat down for 10 minutes during the Titans’ one-point loss to St George Illawarra for abusive language.
While these incidents are certainly worthy of the sin-bin, the frustration for the punished Sandow and Myles – and NRL players collectively – would stem from the fact it has come without warning, considering players were allowed to get away with sniping at officials all season. There have been few sin-bins dished out for dissent in recent times, and a blanket warning to the clubs would have at least ensured everyone was on the same page.
And while we’re on the subject of arbitrary application of the rules, the quick-tap changes and the rules preventing captains from approaching referees except at particular stoppages have fallen embarrassingly by the wayside after their refreshing introduction at the start of the season.
Origin refs damned if they do, damned if they don’t
Pundits and punters alike have been lining up to slam the referees’ performance in Origin II, blaming the whistle-blowers for the cheap shots and niggle that saturated the game from go to whoa. Many have argued they should have given more penalties, or used the sin-bin early on. But the officials awarded 14 penalties – the most in an Origin since 2008 – and I would bet Shayne Hayne’s spray-tan allowance that they would have been pilloried if they had blown the pea out of the whistle, or if they had sat anyone down for 10 minutes for a minor incident.
How about the players taking some responsibility for the game descending into a niggle-fest? Hayne and Ben Cummins may have battled to maintain control, but consider what was at stake: one of the most hotly-anticipated matches of the modern era, with passion and fury bubbling close to the surface on both sides of the fence before kick-off. Last year, the referees were widely criticised simply for following the NRL’s ‘no-punching’ edict and sin-binning four players in Origin II. Now, apparently, they’re not doing enough to discipline players. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Storm, Warriors, Dragons on the move
Melbourne, New Zealand and St George Illawarra all made important statements during the NRL’s truncated weekend of matches. Written off by the majority of critics after an inconsistent start to 2014 and Cooper Cronk’s injury, the Storm’s 46-20 drubbing of Parramatta could prove the turning point of their season. Backing up from Origin, Billy Slater was simply brilliant, scoring two tries and producing three wonderful try assists, while Cameron Smith was typically dominant around the rucks. Slater also took on plenty of the playmaking responsibilities, and if the Storm eke out a few wins before their number seven general returns, they will be right in the mix for finals football.
Meanwhile, the Warriors’ gritty, scrappy 19-10 defeat of an undermanned but gutsy Brisbane side was a good barometer for how they have grown under new coach Andrew McFadden. The Warriors started poorly and made several disappointing errors, but their goal-line defence and patience with the ball combined with customary flashes of attacking genius ultimately got them home on a wet Auckland night. The Dragons also proved they may not be a spent force, snaring a tense away win over the Gold Coast. Their star players stood up in a major way, and if they can click consistently, the Saints could make a late charge in one of the closest and most unpredictable premiership races on record.
Gal blasts his own club
Languishing in the premiership cellar and facing the reality that the worst days of the ASADA saga are possibly yet to come, the hapless Cronulla Sharks hit a new low on Saturday night when they became the first side in premiership history to be held scoreless in three successive games. But the unwanted record paled in comparison to the withering attack skipper Paul Gallen aimed at the club on Sunday, with the appointment of a reluctant coach in Peter Sharp at the forefront of Gallen’s beef.
“I don’t want to sit here and bag Sharpy because Sharpy has been thrown in the deep end… because he came out day one and said he doesn’t want the job,” Gallen said in a radio interview. “I don’t think players have been putting 100 per cent in because they’re under the impression Sharpy isn’t putting 100 per cent in.”
Gallen also said he would back the hiring of a new coach – such as highly-rated assistant Brett Kimmorley or Penrith NYC coach Trent Barrett – for the remainder of the season if it would help motivate the Sharks to avoid collecting the dreaded wooden spoon for the first time since 1969.
Selection contenders for Origin dead-rubber
NSW stars Anthony Watmough and Michael Jennings are definitely out of Origin III, while Queensland will be aiming for a morale-boosting victory minus Matt Scott and Brent Tate. Rival forwards Trent Merrin and Matt Gillett may also be in some doubt after leaving the field during their respective club games over the weekend. Considering the dead-rubber status of the clash, it will be intriguing to see whether or not the selectors – particularly in Queensland’s case – look towards the future and blood some new players.
Josh McGuire is the name on everyone’s lips to replace Scott in the Maroons’ squad, but Brenton Lawrence or even Dylan Napa could be considered – all three have spent time in Emerging Origin camps. David Shillington and Ben Hannant have been in fair form, but are unlikely to be recalled for a match with so little on the line. Bench backrowers Chris McQueen, Ben Te’o and David Taylor are barely hanging onto their spots, but the lack of genuine replacement options may save the trio. Cowboys forwards Gavin Cooper, who hasn’t played since Round 10, and Scott Bolton are arguably the next best available. Newcastle’s Korbin Sims and Brisbane’s Corey Oates are the only other forwards anywhere near the fringes for Queensland.
The Maroons’ wing stocks are just as barren. Will Chambers is the best three-quarter outside of the current side, while Willie Tonga and Anthony Milford were also included in the extended game two squad – but none are experienced wingers. Dane Gagai has played a bit of top-line footy on the flank, but the best option is in-form Bronco Dale Copley. Chambers’ time will come with Justin Hodges nearing retirement, and Copley shapes as a genuine long-term winger for Queensland.
The lack of quality forwards may also give Milford or Ben Hunt an opportunity to debut off the bench as a utility. Both are clearly in Mal Meninga’s future plans, and this is an ideal situation to expose them.
Tony Williams is the logical option to replace Watmough after being the unlucky omission for Greg Bird’s game two return, but the Blues could also have 2015 and beyond on their mind. Josh Jackson, Wade Graham and Tyrone Peachey are in tremendous form and appear to be certain future NSW stars.
Another three-quarter line reshuffle looms for the Blues. Will Hopoate, if he recovers from the arm injury he sustained in Sydney, is a chance to be moved from the wing to Jennings’ centre spot. Josh Mansour should get the nod if a wing berth opens up, but Tim Lafai will roar into contention if Laurie Daley opts for a straight centre replacement – particularly with Dylan Walker sidelined.
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