Recruitment hogs the spotlight with Marshall and Stewart on the move
Benji Marshall is pleading for another NRL opportunity after pulling the pin on his failed code switch with Super Rugby franchise the Auckland Blues. Struggling for form and game time at flyhalf and fullback for the underperforming Blues, Marshall’s abrupt departure is apparently amicable and mutual. But which NRL club would be willing to take the fallen genius on?
His former club Wests Tigers and Brisbane – two teams arguably in most need of a quality five-eighth – have expressed no interest in the former New Zealand Test captain, with only Melbourne, Cronulla and the Warriors not explicitly shutting the door on Marshall when pressed for comment. The Storm would be a great fit for club and player, but salary cap constraints may prevent that move from materialising.
After buying a home in Auckland, the Warriors seem a logical destination. But Marshall is reportedly keen on a return to Sydney, which brings the Sharks – and their huge contingent of ex-Tigers – into the picture. While Cronulla seemingly has a settled halves pairing in Todd Carney and Jeff Robson, Marshall could add attacking punch to a side notorious for struggling to score points.
Meanwhile, South Sydney’s 2015 recruitment drive continues to gather steam, with Glenn Stewart’s acquisition following hot on the heels of Penrith prop Tim Grant’s decision to join the club next year. Stewart was desperate to stay with the tight-knit Manly squad, but salary cap pressures prevented the Sea Eagles from tabling a decent offer and, as expected, the brilliant ball-playing lock has been eagerly snapped up by a rival club.
But Stewart’s decision to link with Souths has seemingly put the kybosh on brother Brett leaving Brookvale with him – a factor that had Canterbury and Canberra among the front-runners to lure the Sea Eagles superstar – as Greg Inglis is entrenched as the Rabbitohs’ fullback.
Obstruction of justice
A series of Round 7 thrillers were overshadowed by highly debatable video referee decisions inside the final 10 minutes. In the lead-up to winger Corey Thompson’s crucial try during Canterbury’s remarkable late comeback on Friday, a strong case could be made for Souths’ skipper John Sutton being impeded, but the video referee ruled otherwise and the Bulldogs got up 15-14.
Later that night, Kieran Foran plunged over to level at 20-all for Manly – and despite a fairly obvious obstruction on North Queensland hooker Ray Thompson, the green light again came up. The Cowboys edged ahead with a field goal, but a late Jamie Buhrer try saw the Sea Eagles home 26-21.
The next came on Sunday in Canberra when Melbourne winger Sisa Waqa was denied a four-pointer – which would likely have given the Storm an unassailable lead – despite the limited video angles showing in all likelihood Waqa had got over the line for a fair try. The Raiders rallied to score a match-winning try of their own with two minutes on the clock.
The quadrella of howlers came in Wests Tigers’ nail-biting victory over Parramatta, with the Eels livid over a ‘no try’ obstruction call against them, claiming Tigers’ halfback Luke Brooks took a dive.
The obstruction rules (yet again) are quite rightly under the heaviest scrutiny, but this weekend’s video ref abominations highlight the inherent flaws in the current system that requires the on-field official give their ‘try’ or ‘no try’ opinion before sending it upstairs – with all four of the above decisions going with the on-field call. Too often the men in the box are too frightened to overturn the original call, regardless of how overwhelming the video evidence may be.
Thurston needs to rise above the controversies
The captains and coaches of the unlucky Rabbitohs, Cowboys and Storm all acknowledged that despite the decisions that went against them, the onus was on them to recover from those setbacks and protect their late leads – which all three sides were unable to do. But while Souths and Melbourne are likely to use the pain of these defeats to spur them on, the overt bitterness of Johnathan Thurston suggests North Queensland may continue on a downward spiral.
On the field post-match and during the press conference, the Cowboys’ skipper made reference to the notion of “when you’re in this jersey and it goes to the video ref, it’s a lottery”. Besides teetering on the cusp of questioning the referees’ integrity, ‘JT’s’ routine reaction isn’t doing his team any good.
Thurston has a point – the Cowboys have copped some rough and vital decisions in recent years – but stewing on these will only hurt the club. After wildly controversial finals exits over the last two seasons, North Queensland has started extremely poorly: 2-4 and 4-9 in 2013, and 2-5 this season. If Thurston and co. allow this latest injustice to rattle them in the same manner, the Cowboys can put their cue in the rack for 2014. The Maroons’ and Kangaroos’ champion needs to shrug off the controversies and lead his club out of the mire – he’s the only player who can.
On the rise
Italy international Paul Vaughan has been one of Canberra’s standouts in 2014, culminating in his stunning individual match-winner against Melbourne. The burly, robust forward has great footwork and handy ball skills – domestic rep honours may not to be too far away.
Although his side was on the end of a 26-point hiding, Newcastle winger Jake Mamo made an eye-catching debut in the place of injured flyer Akuila Uate. The wiry youngster displayed plenty of speed, power and courage in a full-throttle performance on the flank and shapes as a future star. The Knights have a settled, all-star backline at present, but Mamo is too good to be languishing in NSW Cup for much longer.
An irregular member of the Sharks’ toothless backline since making his NRL debut in 2010, powerful centre Ricky Leutele is on the cusp of a breakthrough 2014 campaign. The 24 year old produced a career-best performance against the Roosters, getting rid of Sonny Bill Williams on the way to scoring one of the best individual tries of the season in the first half, before brilliantly setting up Sosaia Feki’s equally barnstorming effort in the second stanza.
On the slide
Warriors left centre and serial bumbler Dane Nielsen’s overall performance against the Dragons drove the club’s fans to unprecedented levels of frustration – particularly after game-breaking right centre Konrad Hurrell was inexplicably dropped for failing to meet ‘defensive KPIs’. Besides a handy flick pass (which went forward) for Manu Vatuvei to race away for a try, Nielsen threw a woeful forward pass (which was called), coughed up possession with no opposition player within cooee (one of three handling errors) and stood on the sideline while attempting to put in a last-tackle kick. The social media groundswell against Nielsen is among the most intense seen in NRL history, and if caretaker coach Andrew McFadden retains the former Origin centre for much longer there could be a riot at Penrose.
South Sydney three-quarter Bryson Goodwin enjoyed a career-best year in 2013, starring in the centres for the high-flying Rabbitohs and occupying the same role in the New Zealand Test team after a four-year rep absence. But Goodwin has already been shunted to the wing for Souths after an indifferent start to the season, while his dreadful – and vital – drop of a high ball against former club Canterbury could see his first grade spot under threat. It will be a miracle if the Kiwis retain him for next week’s Test in Sydney.
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