Three weeks of the NRL season are down, and remarkably, only two teams remain unbeaten and just two clubs are yet to register a win. The closeness of the premiership at this early stage is a powerful reminder of one of the NRL’s perennial advantages over its competitors – the relatively small gap between the best and worst teams.
The 2014 season is shaping up much like 2005, regarded as the closest – and one of the best – premierships on record. That year, Parramatta topped the ladder with 16 wins and eight losses – the most defeats ever suffered by a minor premier. Meanwhile, Newcastle set an all-time wooden spooner record by winning eight of their games (after starting the year with 13 straight losses), the most by a last-placed team.
This year promises to be equally topsy-turvy and unpredictable. Of the two unbeaten teams so far, St George Illawarra was tipped to finish near the bottom after producing dreadful pre-season form, while Melbourne has a points difference of just plus-10 after three tight wins. Although it is difficult to see where eight victories are going to come from for the winless Sharks and Knights at this stage, a kinder run with injuries should see the 2013 finalists redress the balance before too long.
There have been a string of king-sized upsets, while Round 3 featured three last-minute match-winning tries. Highly fancied Souths and North Queensland boast just one win from three rounds; Wests Tigers, Brisbane and Gold Coast have exceeded expectations by winning two games in the opening three weeks.
It should be noted that in 2005, the Grand Final was won by an unheralded young Wests Tigers side playing an exuberant brand of attacking football with a forward pack that was scoffed at by the pundits. The parallels between the ’05 juggernaut and the giant-killing 2014 version of the Tigers are obvious.
Burgesses putting Rabbits under the pump
Sam Burgess continues to skirt the line between enforcer and liability. His and younger brother George’s preoccupation with niggle and confrontation in Souths’ spiteful Friday night clash with Wests Tigers contributed significantly to the upset 25-16 result. George is also facing a week on the sidelines for a high tackle on Tigers fullback James Tedesco.
Sam, already on the nose with many supporters over his impending departure to English Rugby Union, is undoubtedly one of the most dynamic game-breakers in the NRL – on both sides of the ball. But as he did during the loss to Manly, the marquee British forward overreacts particularly if any of his brothers are subjected to any curry on the field, whether illegal or not. Burgess is becoming an easy mark and putting pressure on his teammates.
The higher-profile Burgess’ squirrel-grip suspension and borderline eye-gouge on James Maloney late in 2013 highlighted his increasingly short fuse and questionable temperament. Souths coach Michael Maguire – a strict disciplinarian – is sure to be in Sam’s ear, because he is setting a poor example and young George is in danger of following him down the same path.
If he can’t keep his emotions in check, Sam Burgess risks the same fate as countryman Adrian Morley, whose suspension-riddled tenure with the Roosters ended prematurely via a seven-week ban for kneeing in 2006. The double-edged sword for the Rabbitohs is they can’t break their 43-year premiership drought without Burgess at his aggressive, blockbusting best.
Broncos better by half despite heartbreaking loss
The biggest question mark hanging over Brisbane’s outstanding start to 2014 – the competence of new halves pairing Ben Hunt and Josh Hoffman – was answered emphatically on Friday night, with the under-pressure pair producing consummate performances. Hunt was the best player on the field, scoring two tries and laying on two more, while Hoffman served up superb passes for two late Broncos tries. It wasn’t enough for the home side, however, who suffered a gut-wrenching defeat after conceding two Roosters tries in the final five minutes. But the loss may have provided the building blocks to the Broncos’ bid to return to the finals, more so than their wins in the opening two rounds. Friday’s clash with the equally resurgent St George Illawarra Dragons will supply a further gauge on how the Broncos are travelling.
On the rise
- In a powder keg match, 19-year-old halfback Luke Brooks’ undeniable class shone through. Brooks is justifying the ‘next Andrew Johns’ wraps, with his pass for Bodene Thompson to score and his deft kick for James Tedesco’s try straight out of ‘Joey’s’ playbook.
- Barnstorming Parramatta winger Semi Radradra isn’t just an excitement machine – he is becoming one of the NRL’s highest-quality wingers. Two tries (taking his tally to six in three games), a phenomenal kick-and-chase and flick-pass try assist to put the Eels in front, and 144 metres and 12 tackle busts from 12 runs was an awe-inspiring day out for the NRL’s newest cult hero. Radradra was beating himself up post-match over his high tackle which led to Manly’s last-gasp win, but that only suggests further that he has his head screwed on. Someone check his Origin eligibility.
On the slide
- Enigmatic Warriors backrower Feleti Mateo has upped his involvement so far this season, and has even put his trademark low-percentage offloads on the backburner. But his sloppy errors still have the club’s supporters tearing their hair out. The sublimely skilled Mateo threw two no-look passes which went to ground against the Cowboys, while his abominable play-the-ball knock-on inside the final minute could have lost the game for a Warriors side doing their best to implode.
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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