Melbourne added another stunning chapter to the annals of miraculous after-the-siren victories, conjuring a desperate, helter-skelter four-pointer to sink a gallant St George Illawarra 28-24. Robust rookie winger Young Tonumaipea achieved an early career highlight in just his sixth NRL game by finishing off the extraordinary match-winner.
The try was tinged with controversy – the siren sounded just before the ball was played but the Storm were allowed to play on. Nevertheless, it was a trademark fight-back from the Melbourne machine, on the brink at 24-10 down before coming home with a wet sail and retaining their composure to steal victory. The result may be just the tonic to resurrect the stuttering heavyweight’s campaign.
Meanwhile, the way the crestfallen Dragons react to the gut-wrenching defeat could make or break their season. After leading the competition three weeks in, the Saints have dropped three straight games and badly need a result to go their way. Monday’s loss extended the joint venture’s losing run in Melbourne to 13 games, dating back to 1999. But fortunately, the Dragons approach this weekend with a hoodoo on their side for a change – they have won nine straight against the Warriors, while they have prevailed in all 10 matches between the two clubs at Wollongong.
Broncos’ Barba-ric loss
Brisbane coughed up a late advantage for the third time in the space of four matches in Round 6, crashing to a 12-8 defeat on the Gold Coast after leading from the half-hour mark until the 73rd minute. But the major talking point in the wake of the loss was the second straight diabolical performance by superstar fullback Ben Barba. The high-profile recruit was all at sea under the high ball, while he had the ball stripped from him in the in-goal by Titans’ five-eighth Aidan Sezer, who dotted down for the match-winning try.
Barba appears to have lost all confidence, becoming an easy target with his unsure and timid play at the back. Coach Anthony Griffin will be loath to change his line-up, but swapping Barba with the rock-solid Josh Hoffman – who is offering little in the way of playmaking in the No.6 jumper – may save Brisbane’s quest to reach the finals. Meanwhile, halfback Ben Hunt continues to produce at least one piece of brilliance per game, but is letting the side down with a patchy kicking game and questionable option-taking. The Broncos’ spine problems are threatening to derail their campaign.
NSW selection crises
Robbie Farah’s race against the clock to be fit for the Origin series opener may thwart NSW’s campaign to avoid nine straight defeats before it has even begun. Arguably the Blues’ best player over the last two series, Farah is also the incumbent captain – and with regular skipper Paul Gallen no guarantee to be fit, there will potentially be a leadership gulf as well as a massive hole at dummy-half.
Parramatta’s Nathan Peats is in the best form of the other hooker contenders, but he boasts just 15 games as a starting NRL No.9. Seven-game Origin rep Michael Ennis is the best credentialed, but he is well past his peak and his current form is questionable. Kurt Gidley has been touted as another option, but he has only worn the No.9 at club level 13 times. Josh Reynolds, a five-game NRL hooker, and Dragons’ tyro Mitch Rein could come into the frame if the Blues are desperate.
On the captaincy front, the absence of Farah and Gallen would almost certainly see Greg Bird elevated to the role, with Jarryd Hayne, Mitchell Pearce or Ennis, if selected, less desirable options.
The Blues’ halves situation is only marginally less dire. Incumbent No.6 James Maloney and 2012 five-eighth Todd Carney are badly out of touch. Canterbury pivot Josh Reynolds is in fine form and appears certain of selection somewhere in the 17. Pearce has been rubber-stamped by Laurie Daley already to retain the halfback spot, repeating the controversial early endorsement he gave the Roosters No.7 last year. But the pressure on Pearce has been eased by main contender Adam Reynolds’ quiet start to the season – there are very few other viable options, other than perhaps Newcastle linchpin Jarrod Mullen, who returned from a serious hamstring injury last week.
The next tier of NSW halves contenders includes Terry Campese, Albert Kelly, Aidan Sezer, Luke Brooks, Tyrone Roberts, Jamie Soward, Peter Wallace and Trent Hodkinson. Whichever combination Daley and co. come up with – and, frustratingly, goalkicking also needs to be considered – the Blues start squarely behind the eight-ball up against the revered duo of Cronk and Thurston, with Cherry-Evans lurking on the bench.
Hiku hot property
The Warriors appear set to sneak under the guard of Manly and Canterbury to snare the signature of off-contract rising backline star Peta Hiku. A Warriors’ Under-20s staple before joining the Sea Eagles, Hiku is in line to a receive a seven-figure deal over three years from his former club. The supremely versatile back – who has earned glowing plaudits for his performances deputising for injured fullback Brett Stewart – is being targeted as a centre, which surely puts bumbling Warriors’ three-quarter Dane Nielsen on notice.
Hiku is a front-line contender to fill the New Zealand fullback spot for the Test in Sydney in May. Incumbent Kevin Locke is on the injured list, while World Cup understudy Josh Hoffman is playing five-eighth for Brisbane. Dean Whare is another No.1 option for the Kiwis, but was brilliant during the World Cup at centre, where he plays for Penrith, while Canterbury’s makeshift custodian Sam Perrett is the only other New Zealander regularly playing fullback in the NRL. With plenty of wing talent to choose from, the Kiwis may opt for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck – who has been interchanging with Anthony Minichiello during games this year – in the fullback role.
On the rise
Stand-in fullback David Mead was magnificent in the Gold Coast’s defeat of Brisbane, coupling his match-turning 99-metre try with a series of try-saving tackles and forceful ball-running. John Cartwright would be mad to shift the Papua New Guinea international from the No.1 when William Zillman returns from injury.
The Warriors looked so much more composed and dangerous with Thomas Leuluai back at five-eighth. Save for a dismal field goal attempt in the dying minutes, the Kiwi Test veteran was superb, playing a key role in both of the Warriors’ first half tries and defending with customary stoutness. He is the perfect foil for Shaun Johnson.
On the slide
Poor Bill Tupou fluffed a try for his second straight appearance. But unlike the embarrassing bungle against Souths, this one cost the Raiders dearly. Trailing the injury-decimated Knights 24-12 with 12 minutes to go, Canberra could have climbed back into the match – but the erratic Tupou spilled a regulation pass with the line wide open to scupper the home side’s comeback hopes.
Warriors’ caretaker coach Andrew McFadden showed he is willing to make the tough calls by demoting underperforming pair Feleti Mateo and Chad Townsend, but he needs to go a step further and jettison centre Dane Nielsen, or at the very least move him into the forwards. A capable defender and a somewhat strong runner, Nielsen lacks attacking instincts and has consistently shown a reluctance to pass, feeding his winger Manu Vatuvei about once a month. In a team that relies heavily on adlib offence and their brilliant attacking stars, the Warriors can’t afford for the play to break down every time it reaches left centre. Nielsen should be destined for a career in the back row – or the backlines of the NSW Cup.
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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