7 Questions from 2 Rounds of the NRL
by Ed Burton
It is getting worse each season. After a single round, title favourites are declared, origin teams are being picked and player signings are being written off as failures. All from each team playing ONE game. It is truly ridiculous. Everybody knows, that if you are going to start making assessments and asking questions, you need to wait until TWO rounds have passed. So now that they have, here are some questions to be asked.
1. Are the Panthers the real deal this year?
Regular readers may note that this time last year, I was asking if the Panthers were ready to make the leap to the upper echelons of the league. I am not convinced that they truly got there last year, but a solid output against the Bulldogs (in spite of a late lapse) as well as the dominance that they showed on the weekend against the poor Titans* tells me that they may be ready to not just be a team near the top of the table, but a team that is genuinely feared. I have concerns that they don’t have that one game changing player, but the progress of Matt Moylan is encouraging, if not yet overwhelming. The speed of their progression from the leagues cellar to where they are now is admirable, but it will all mean nothing if they can’t take that next step and truly challenge for the title. I think this is the year that they do it.
2. Is Wayne Bennett fit to be an NRL coach any more?
This is as much a question of how much Bennett looks like he is knocking on deaths door as it is a question of his methods being left behind by the game. Bennett may be the most successful coach in the sport, but his record since winning the competition with the Dragons in 2010 is not pretty reading. His winning percentage is only 47% and he was basically given free reign and a blank cheque book when he took over at Newcastle. The emergence of younger coaches like Michael Maguire and Trent Robinson and their up to date methods seem to be making the dinosaurs of the game obsolete**. But I am hesitant to write off someone with that level of success so soon. Do I think he can win a title for the Broncos in the next few years? No. Do I think he can rebuild the once great club back to a respectable level? Yes. The important thing for the Broncos will be their succession plan, and Bennett retiring at the right time.
3. What is going on at Manly?
There needs to be an investigation! You would be forgiven for assuming that Manly were going to get lapped by the Storm this weekend, given the way they performed against the Eels in round one, and the fact that they essentially lost their starting halves combination in the space of a week (though not until next year). That they came out and played well enough to beat the perennially good Melbourne outfit, tells me that the claims of DCE and Foran (that they are professionals and will still be able to do their job) are true. Which really gives me great pleasure. If only to have yet another example of former players being wildly out of touch with the modern game – given how many of them have been in the media during the week stating that it wasn’t possible.
But I digress. The weekend’s result may show that there is still life in Toovey as a tactician and possibly a game day motivator, but surely his reputation for man management is completely and utterly shot! What star player would want to move to the Eagles after watching Toovey single handedly oversee the departures of not only the above mentioned halves, but also Tony Williams, Glenn Stewart, Anthony Watmough, Brent Kite and Dean Whare. Good coaches have players wanting to move to play for them, not against them.
4. Why do the Cowboys do this every year?
The siege mentality seems to work really well for the Cowboys. Expectation, not so much. They stumble their way through the beginning of the season, and after looking like they are at best an outside shot of making a dent on the finals, they make a run towards the end of the season. Everyone starts saying “look out for the Cowboys” then they get knocked out in the finals (admittedly through the occasional ridiculously bad refereeing decision) once they have established that they actually are a quality team. The next season starts, everyone remembers how well they finished the season before, then they start the new season with expectations of making a top 4 finish (to give them the opportunity to have a fumble in the finals and still recover) only they come out and follow the same pattern. Here are their winning percentages from the first half (up to Round 13) of the last 3 seasons
And here they are for the second half of those same three seasons***
Note that the best start that they have had here, in 2012, came after a season where they actually finished poorly and there was not much expectation on them. If the people of Townsville are happy to be a bit of a menace come finals time, but never win the big one, then the Cowboys can stay this course, but if they want to do something more, then maybe they need to look at trying something to change this.
5. Who is Voldemort?
For those unfamiliar, there was a change in the rules (again) this offseason, and one of those changes was that the coaches can no longer be critical of the referees. At all. The old system allowed for fair criticism of a refereeing performance, as long as it didn’t question his/her integrity. So of course after the very first week, Des Hasler broke the rule, was subsequently fined, and then decided that his ‘workaround’ would be to call them Voldemort – he who must not be named. I can see both the benefits and the disadvantages of the rule change. It stops absolute psychopaths from ridiculous rants about investigations, and moves talk of a game to the actual game rather than the way it was officiated. But it also takes away the ability of a level headed and reasonable discussion of poor refereeing decisions that will surely not help to improve the decision making. But the most baffling thing about the reaction of some to this new rule, is that it was voted in by the coaches themselves! There was a vote in the off season between keeping the previous rules or moving to this new model, and they chose this way. So either shut up about the rules or shut up about the refs! Preferably both!
6. What is the way too early, and completely unfair verdict on Jason Taylor?
So, clearly the Tigers have played a couple of the teams that I expect will fight out the Wooden Spoon contest this season, but they can only beat who they play. I only put this qualifier in to temper the excitement at the following – this is the first time since 2008 that the Tigers have won their opening two matches of the year.
Look, they needed a last minute Field Goal to beat the worst team in the competition, and couldn’t finish off the most terrible Dragons team of my lifetime last night. Also, you could argue that Pat Richards is the statistically most valuable player in the league right now, given the percentage of his team’s points that he has scored, but I think there is a bit more to it than this as the Tigers team looks far more assured than they did last year.
For those that don’t remember, Taylor’s time in charge of Souths was trademarked by a strong defence. There is probably nothing more important when you have a young team than teaching them to work together in a defensive scheme. At times last season the Tigers’ defence resembled a chook pen, such was the lack of understanding of where the players needed to be. It will take time, but this is what Taylor will be fixing, and he appears to have had at least a minor influence already. The reason that the Tigers look more assured this season is because their attacking work isn’t being blunted by a precession of players running over the top of them. I said at this time last season that having a team this young meant that we were going to see rocks or diamonds from week to week, and that will still be the case this year. But it looks as though Taylor may have shined those rocks up to be at least smooth pebbles. Just beware that the consequence of this is likely to mean that the diamonds aren’t going to shine quite as bright as before, but I think that might be the best course for them at the moment.
7. Who fills out the Top 4?
If we assume that the Panthers will be there as mentioned above, then the other two givens seem to be the Roosters and Souths. The Roosters look somehow stronger than they did last year now that SBW has gone and the Bunnies have quite literally been unstoppable, winning the Nines tournament, making a mockery of the World Club Challenge, hammering Brisbane in round one and then beating one of their toughest opponents by 8 in spite of being well below their best^. I thought a lack of motivation would be their biggest hindrance this season, but they are making a very strong case for being the first team to go back to back since the NRL was formed. But the question I asked is what team is going to take that important fourth place? The Cowboys, Broncos and Eagles all have their problems as mentioned above. The Knights and Eels have improved, but not nearly enough to fit in here. The Bulldogs and Storm both seem to be like teams that may have already reached their peaks, and are on a very slight downhill slide. In short, nobody is really jumping out after just 2 rounds (shocking, I know) which can only really be a good thing for the competition. Gun to my head, I would have to say that the experience of Melbourne might get them there, but I wouldn’t rule out anyone!
It should be a good year!
*There are certain signs of a great team. One of them is being able to dominate inferior teams and really go for the kill…
**I’m looking at you Ricky Still-Playing-An-Up-And-In-Defence-In-2015 Stuart
***That is actually a little freaky to be honest
^Another sign of a great team is being able to win when not at their best…