Wednesday 27 August 2008

If Arsenal are serious about a title challenge...

Losing 1-0 to likely bottom feeding club Fulham hardly sends out a strong message that they are challengers for the Premier League title - even if your best player Cesc Fabregas wasn't in the lineup. While credit must go to Fulham for reversing their fortunes from Week One in a big way (they lost 2-1 to newly promoted Hull City) to claim a big scalp in the form of Arsenal at Craven Cottage, the inability of the Gunners to score more than one goal in their opening two fixtures is a major shock. Having caught all of Arsenal's 1-0 opening day defeat of West Brom - I was still impressed by their ability to move the ball and create scoring opportunities, despite the fact they couldn't pull the trigger and put the 3 or 4 goals past the Baggies that they should have. I figured it was just an off-day for the strike force Arsenal still had at its disposal that day. Surely next week against Fulham it'd be a 3 or 4 goal rout... Then I open the box score and see Fulham 1 Arsenal 0 and I nearly fell off my chair. For a team with title aspirations this is simply not good enough. Influential midfielder Fabregas should return this weekend but in the race for the Premiership the Gunners have now dropped their single droppable game to a less fancied opponent - and there are still 36 weeks to go! And when you consider Chelsea pushed aside Portsmouth and a plucky Wigan to take the maximum points from the opening fortnight - Arsenal are already in a situation that relies on other results to go their way, which with an opening slate of West Brom (H) and Fulham (A) seemed beyond unlikely. ~~~~~ In other Week Two Results: Blackburn 1-1 Hull City, Liverpool 2-1 Middlesbrough, Newcastle 1-0 Bolton, Stoke City 3-2 Aston Villa, Tottenham 1-2 Sunderland, West Brom 1-2 Everton, Wigan 0-1 Chelsea, Manchester City 3-0 West Ham, Portsmouth 0-1 Manchester United. So Stoke City break through for their first win over fancied Villa, Liverpool escaped at home against Middlesbrough, Manchester City blew West Ham away and Tottenham start the season with two losses after falling 2-1 to Sunderland at White Hart Lane. Ladder: Chelsea and Liverpool head the league with 6 points while Blackburn, Hull City, Manchester United and Newcastle sit behind them on 4 points. Tottenham, Wigan, West Brom and Portsmouth are yet to open their account for season 2008/2009. Top Goalscorers: Gabriel Agbonlahor still leads thanks to his Week One hat-trick but has been joined at the top by Man City midfielder Elano, while Middlesbrough striker Mido is making the most of his game time with 2 goals in just 40 minutes of action this season.

Thursday 21 August 2008

Can Homebush thrive as an NRL venue?

"In the long run, playing at Homebush equals no crowds, equals no atmosphere, equals no TV money - which is sport's greatest source of income.” John Singleton, April 30 2005. With ANZ Stadium hosting its first Double Header since 2004 this Saturday night, the NRL should be mounting the first of many operations to draw football fans back to Homebush. With attendance at the ground dropping by over one thousand people in the space of a year the NRL should be looking at staging regular Double Headers to regain the legions of fans that have deserted the stadium for club games in the years since it opened in 1999. While hosting the two biggest games of the Rugby League calendar each year (the Grand Final and at least one State of Origin), ANZ/Stadium Australia has also been the regular season home of the Canterbury club since 1999 (although the Bulldogs did play the majority of their home games at the neighbouring Sydney Showground during the 2001 and 2002 seasons and part time from 2003 to 2005) and the South Sydney Rabbitohs since 2006 (who moved from the Sydney Football Stadium on a lucrative three year contract and have since extended their deal). Both core supporter groups turn out faithfully each week to see the Bulldogs and Rabbitohs run around but the advantage of having a stadium big enough to cater for the casual fan has never truly been realised at the turnstiles. Considering the frequency of the casual fan attending is the difference maker financially for a club that plays in a big stadium and thus needs a big crowd to make a profit – it is a realisation that cannot afford keep failing at the gate. In fact the longest serving tenants – The Bulldogs – have seen their home crowd at Homebush (Stadium/Showground only) average drop from 21,117 in 2003 to 15,592 in 2008 (not including their Round 22 clash with North Queensland at Suncorp) highlighting the struggle the team faces in attracting the casual fan to their home venue, especially with the team struggling this season on the field. Despite the five clubs who use Stadium Australia in 2008 (including part time tenants the Wests Tigers, St.George-Illawarra Dragons and Parramatta Eels) averaging 15,472 per game at the venue – and only 225 people per game short of the NRL’s home ground average across the competition (15,697) – the stadium remains a cavernous wasteland for regular season contests. Without the casual fan finding a compelling reason to shell out in excess of $20.00 a ticket to sit in the outer at the end of the ground and partake in the at times non-existent atmosphere each week, the crowd figures for Stadium Australia will continue to fall. And as far as compelling reasons go – sitting 14th and 15th on the NRL table respectively, the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs haven’t delivered one on the field in 2008. As a big event stadium, the ground stacks up favourably with world standards and when a truly epic sporting contest is held in the arena, it rises to the occasion. But the site of the 2000 Sydney Olympics has never been able to adapt and become a place that fans enjoy coming to for anything but a major event in the sporting or entertainment calendar. In short it rocks on the big stage but has a distinct Michael Bolton sound for the bulk of its performances. Painful, awful, flat… you get the idea. If the ground is to ever realise the potential of having so many seats for fans to sit in, it is important that we look at why Stadium Australia has had such a torrid run this season in attracting significant crowds. In 2008 there have been only four ‘marquee’ games. Only one of which has managed to break the 30,000 mark for attendance and that was the Bulldogs v Roosters Round 4 Friday Night clash which saw Willie Mason face off against the club he walked out on at the end of 2007. The promise of (the then loyal) Sonny Bill Williams letting Big Willie know how he felt about the defection; saw a season high 36,526 turn out at the ground. The Bulldogs faithful went home disappointed as the Roosters ran out convincing 40-12 winners in a game that didn’t deliver a great deal of spectacle for the paying customer – but at least they were there in the first place. The season opener between the Rabbitohs and Roosters managed to draw a credible 29,386 and being Round 1 ground and club officials must have thought that bigger and better crowds lay ahead. But the hyped ANZAC Day clash of the Dragons and Roosters could only pull 21,596 fans on a public holiday Friday afternoon and co-tenants South Sydney and the Bulldogs played on Good Friday in front of only 21,839. The only non-marquee game to have broken the 25,000 mark in 2008 so far was the Eels v Bulldogs season opener on a Saturday evening in the normally unfavourable 5:30pm slot (25,065). So the story the figures tell is that in 28 games played at Stadium Australia just one game has broken 30,000 (Bulldogs v Roosters 36,526 in Round 4) and tallied inside the 20,000 to 29,999 bracket on seven occasions (only two of which were above 25,000). When you compare the 2008 figures to the 2007 ones the scary downturn in crowds over just the last 12 months becomes evident. Splitting the regular season Stadium Australia attendances into the following crowd brackets you can compare the 2007 and 2008 figures: A. 30,000+, B. 20,000-29,999, C. 10,000-19,999 and D. 1-9,999. Stadium Australia 2007 Season: Attendance Range: A: 2 Games, B: 6 Games, C: 16 Games, D: 2 Games. Total Crowd: 413,048. 25 Game Average: 16,522. Stadium Australia 2008 Season: Attendance Range: A: 1 Game, B: 7 Games, C: 12 Games, D: 9 Games. Total Crowd: 448,679. 29 Game Average: 15,472. Granted there are have already been four more fixtures at Stadium Australia in 2008 than there was throughout 2007, but the last 2008 bracket of 9 Games where the crowd has failed to crack the 10,000 mark is a major concern. In fact in Round 15 when the ground hosted the Dragons v Panthers, Bulldogs v Raiders and Rabbitohs v Titans on the same weekend – no game had a crowd figure higher than the 9,845 the Bulldogs-Raiders clash recorded. In what looks like a sign of desperation (if it remains a one-off gimmick too boost flagging crowd figures in the run home to the Finals) the NRL finally scheduled a Double Header for this coming Round 24. Stadium Australia will host two games on Saturday August 23 starting at 5:30pm with the Tigers v Sea Eagles and followed by the Bulldogs v Eels at 7:30pm. Given all four sides are Sydney-based the Double Header should pull at least 40,000 people. The crowd could even push the 50,000 mark now that the Eels have started to get their act together and have stayed in the playoff hunt by winning their past two games – and we all know how much Parra fans love to turn out when their team is winning. Outside of the Double Header there is only one stand alone game that the Stadium Australia schedule throws up before the Finals that could break the 25,000 mark and that is the Dragons v Eels in Round 25. Without the scheduling of a Double Header in Round 24, the NRL’s Stadium Australia tenants would be facing a regular season in which just one game drew over 30,000 at the game’s official home. With Suncorp Stadium taking the mantle as the game’s best ground (and now clearly its ‘spiritual home’ with the World Cup Final being played in Brisbane later this year) the game of Rugby League must use the Double Header as a marketing hurricane to make Stadium Australia a place fans want to go and watch football at. Because at the moment – outside of State of Origin (where the ticket prices were a major factor in keeping the NSWRL from selling out their two games this year) and the Grand Final – Stadium Australia just doesn’t appeal to fans as a footballing venue. But the reality is that the Double Header ‘gimmick’ might be the catalyst for saving Rugby League at Stadium Australia during the regular season in the coming years. But clubs aren’t going to just sign up for multiple Double Headers because the NRL likes the idea – it has to have a financial incentive that takes advantage of the potentially higher crowds. Under the Double Header model, the financial advantages of a crowd in excess of 40,000 has to be particularly appealing for the two main tenants of Stadium Australia. The Rabbitohs and Bulldogs have averaged home crowds of 15,684 and 15,592 respectively at the ground in 2008 and both sides have had poor seasons on the field. Souths have just one game remaining at Stadium Australia with the Raiders in Round 24 visiting the day after the Double Header, while the Bulldogs also have two left against the Eels (Round 24) and Broncos (Round 25). The cost of the average ticket to stand alone games in 2008 (Category One & Two) hovers around $25 and when we’re talking purely gate takings in 2008 here are some speculative figures on what both all Stadium Australia tenants have earned so far in 2008: Gate Takings from Stand Alone Games in 2008 Regular Tenants (Home Crowd Average): SOUTH SYDNEY (15,684) – 10 Games at $25.00 per ticket = $3,920,925.00 BULLDOGS (15,592) – 9 Games at $25.00 per ticket = $3,508,250.00 Part Time Tenants (Home Crowd Average): PARRAMATTA (20,689) – 2 Games at $25.00 per ticket = $1,034,450.00 WESTS TIGERS (16,489) – 3 Games at $25.00 per ticket = $1,236,000.00 DRAGONS (12,126) – 5 Games at $25.00 per ticket = $1,515,725.00 Now there are financial benefits to simply playing at the venue under the contractual agreements each club has with the Stadium Australia management. The above figures are predictions based on the face value of gate takings and the reality is not all clubs get the total value of the gate takings directly fed back into their bank accounts. But for the purpose of highlighting the broader value of the Double Header in ensuring that Stadium Australia can be a viable place for both the bank balance and attracting crowds – we’ll operate on the assumption that gate takings has a big impact on any club’s desire to play at the ground. For example, if South Sydney and the Bulldogs played in 4 Double Headers during the 2009 season as the one of the two home teams and each fixture attracted an average crowd of 40,000, then the financial benefits of those four fixtures coupled with playing the rest of their home games as stand alone fixtures (calculated on 2008 home crowd average), the revenue from all their home games would be: (It must be noted that as a Double Header gate takings would be split 50/50 by the two hosting clubs hence the ticket being represented as $12.50 rather than $25.00) Projected 2009 Gate Takings: SOUTH SYDNEY – 8 Games at $25.00 per ticket = $3,136,800.00 – 4 Games at $12.50 per ticket = $2,000,000.00 – 12 Game Total = $5,136,800.00 BULLDOGS – 8 Games at $25.00 per ticket = 3,118,400.00 – 4 Games at $12.50 per ticket = $2,000,000.00 – 12 Game Total = $5,118,400.00 Simplified the value of a regular season with 4 Double Headers is worth about $431,690.00 to the Rabbitohs and $440,733.00 to the Bulldogs. And that is based solely on 2008 crowd figures which are somewhat lower due to the respective sides struggles this season. For interest’s sake if the other part time tenants of Stadium Australia played all their club games at the ground and also took part (as one of the two home teams) in the 4 Double Header format among their 12 home games it would be worth $787,460 to the St.George-Illawarra Dragons annually (they have averaged just 12,126 at Stadium Australia in three games in 2008), $351,000 to the Wests Tigers and playing Devil’s Advocate for us, the Parramatta Eels would in fact lose money ($68,900) because they have averaged just over the 20,000 mark in their two Stadium Australia games in 2008 and the projected 40,000 crowd for a Double Header actually reduces their profit per game. Ask any punter, fan or casual acquaintance with the game whether they would be more likely to pay $25.00 to go see one match in a stadium that will be just under a fifth full or by paying a similar amount (Category One tickets to the Round 24 Double Header are $35.00 an Adult but Category Two are still $25.00) to sit in a stadium that would be at least half full and brimming with the atmosphere that a crowd like that generates as a result – you don’t have to be Einstein to figure out which option would win that poll convincingly. An NSC snap poll asking whether frequent Double Headers would attract more fans saw 56% say ‘Yes it would regardless of who was playing’, 32% say ‘It would have no bearing on their attendance’ and 12% say they preferred Stand Alone Games. The Double Header needs to return to the Rugby League schedule with a vengeance in 2009 and with it we might see fans actually embrace Stadium Australia as a footballing venue. At the moment the upcoming Double Header is the NRL’s single token effort to try and fill the out of favour ground. Unless the decision makers in the game are serious about dispelling the fans current view of the stadium as a place with absolutely no value or appeal to the code outside of the fact it hosts the two biggest events on the annual calendar, then the Double Header has to be used regularly and strategically in 2009. The fans have shown in 2008 that they won’t pony up their hard earned to see stand alone club football at the ground and there’s no guarantee we’ll see a sold out Grand Final if Melbourne and Brisbane go at it again for the second time in three years on October 5. Granted there’s no guarantee current contractual agreements clubs have with Stadium Australia will easily allow this exciting venture to go forward – but if the code is truly in trouble (depends on your glass half full/half empty prerogative) then surely this would be a major positive step in getting the game back on track in Sydney and boost the participating club’s coffers which have suffered at the gate in 2008 at Stadium Australia.

Monday 18 August 2008

English Premier League kicks off for Season 2008/2009

The English Premier League kicked off over the weekend and this night owl managed to catch the Arsenal-West Brom and Chelsea-Portsmouth games in full and used Fox Sports’ magical ‘Viewers Choice’ program to watch significant chunks of the Middlesbrough-Tottenham, West Ham-Wigan, Bolton-Stoke City, Everton-Blackburn and Hull City-Fulham. In short it was a Football smorgasbord. You’ll notice there wasn’t a predictions article on the site before the weekend and that quite simply is because when it comes to the English Premier League you know the champion will come from one of the Big Four – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. Although truth be told Liverpool haven’t had a serious run at the title in quite a while despite promising plenty at the start of each season. What you do learn after the first week of the season is that pre-season predictions can go out the window in relation to the other 16 clubs who are either trying to crack the Top 4 or avoid the Bottom 3. How the Big Four fared: FA Cup holders Portsmouth were blown away by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and never looked like utilising their new strike force of Peter Crouch and Jermaine Defoe effectively. Pompey have Top 4 aspirations, so it was a quite a reality check that last season’s runners up gave them Sunday afternoon in the 4-0 drubbing. For Chelsea Joe Cole and Deco were the standouts supporting Anelka up front. Deco’s long range goal was the icing on the cake as the Blues stormed to the top of the table. Manchester United were held to a 1-1 draw at home by visiting Newcastle United in a stuttering start to their title defence. Injuries to Ryan Giggs (hamstring), Michael Carrick (ankle) and the pre-game withdrawal of strike Carlos Tevez didn’t help the Red Devils who find themselves chasing Chelsea from the very start of the 2008/2009 season. The Toon Army can take a lot out of the result as they have a number of key additions to return to their line-up over the next few weeks. Plus they were torn apart by Man United last year in their two meetings so a draw is a gigantic boost to the side’s confidence. Arsenal dominated much of their clash with newly promoted West Bromwich Albion but couldn’t put the visitors away and eventually hung on for a 1-0 victory. Emmanuel Adebayor butchered a number of quality scoring chances following new signing Nasri’s 4th minute goal. Gunners left wing back Gael Clichy was brilliant but striker Robin van Persie started from the bench and made little impression when he did come on the field. Admittedly he was more dangerous than the man who started Nicklas Bendtner, but that wasn’t going to be too difficult as the Danish striker was a non-factor in his 68 minutes on the pitch. The sooner midfield general Cesc Fabregas returns the better for Arsenal who really should’ve dusted the Baggies by at least 2 or 3 goals. The last of the Big Four – Liverpool relied upon star striker Fernando Torres to get them the 3 points against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. Torres scored in the 82nd minute as the Reds managed to start the season winning the kind of away game they simply have to take out if they have any aspirations of challenging for the title. That’s the Big Four – other teams to impress and unimpress in Week One were: Tottenham were beaten 2-1 away to Middlesbrough in a game that spoke volumes for the false hopes that a pre-season cane induce, as the Spurs were awful in their first performance of the campaign. While the White Heart Lane faithful wonder if they were duped into thinking their side was a Top 4 challenger, the Boro fans would be ecstatic with their side’s effort in an all important home fixture. Middlesbrough forwards Tuncay Sanli and Afonso Alves were a constant menace for the Tottenham defence. The other two newly promoted clubs Hull City and Stoke City had vastly different debuts in the top flight as the Tigers defeated a new look Fulham side 2-1 and Stoke were crushed 3-1 by Bolton Wanderers. Hull were impressive coming back from a goal down after just 8 minutes to take the lead on substitute Caleb Folan’s 81st minute goal and seal a key home victory. The less said about Stoke’s performance the better as the new boys looked outclassed by a Bolton team that avoided relegation by a single point last season. West Ham United had a 2-0 lead after 9 minutes on Dean Ashton’s double strike but from then on it was all Wigan Athletic who could only manage to get back one goal to Amir Zaki on 47 minutes. The 2-1 loss away would have Wigan boss Steve Bruce feeling a little unlucky as his side made all the running after a poor start. Everton and Blackburn Rovers turned on a beauty at Goodison Park with the visitors snatching a vital away win with a goal to defender Andre Oijder after a Ryan Nelsen header hit the post and fell to the Rovers defender for the 90th minute winner. Both sides finished in the top half of the table in 2007/2008 and the honours went to new Blackburn manager Paul Ince in his Premiership debut. Meanwhile while Manchester United and Chelsea took the headlines on Sunday, Aston Villa staked their claim as the best of the rest with a 4-2 disposal of a disappointing Manchester City at Villa Park. Just days after signing a contract extension striker Gabriel Agbonlahor pulled off a natural hat-trick with goals in the 68th, 73rd and 75th minute to break a 1-1 tie and start Villa’s campaign in the right way. Of all the challengers for a Top 4 spot this season not amongst the Big Four – Aston Villa made the biggest statement in Week One. Results Week One: ARS 1-0 WBA BOL 3-1 SC EVE 2-3 BLA HUL 2-1 FUL MID 2-1 TOT WHU 2-1 WIG SUN 0-1 LIV CHE 4-0 POR AV 4-2 MC MU 1-1 NEW Ladder Week One: CHE, BOL, AV, BLA, HUL, MID, WHU, ARS, LIV (All 3 Points) MU, NEW (1 Point) EVE, FUL, TOT, WIG, SUN, WBA, MC, SC, POR (0 Points) Leading Scorers Week One: Gabriel Agbonlahor (AV) 3 Goals Dean Ashton (WHU) 2 Goals

Friday 8 August 2008

Breakdown of the NRL Rookie Class of 2008

Does the 2008 Rookie class lack a stand out performer or indeed a player we’re certain will be a superstar in the game.

It is really tough to pick the winner of the Rookie of the Year award this season because there simply hasn't been a irresistible candidate appear i nthe NRL to date.

When you have to factor in the eligibility angle (Big League seems to go with the no more than 3 NRL games before this season rule - so we'll stick with that) - it appears that perhaps the best prospects from the 2008 season are yet to play enough footy this year to put their names up in lights for the Rookie of the Year Award.

So here’s a look at qualifying contenders broken into two sections based on games played in 2008.

The Long Term Rookies (10+ games in 2008) include:
Matthew Keating, Eels (19)
Tim Winitana, Bulldogs (18)
Taulima Tautai, Eels (17)
Sika Manu, Storm (16)
Scott Dureau, Knights (14)
Sonny Fai, Warriors (14)
Heka Nanai, Bulldogs (14)
David Williams, Sea Eagles (12)
Reece Robinson, Broncos (12)
Aidan Kirk, Warriors (11)
Beau Falloon, Rabbitohs (11)
Glen Buttriss, Raiders (10)
Frank-Paul Nu'uausala, Roosters (10)
Beau Ryan, Tigers (10)

Then there are the guys in the 3-9 Games played range:
Jordan Atkins, Titans (9)
Michael Bani, Sea Eagles (8)
Tony Williams, Eels (6)
Shannon Walker, Titans (3)
Akuila Uate, Knights (3)
Peni Tagive, Tigers (6)
Ryan Shortland, Warriors (5)
Jamie Simpson, Rabbitohs (7)
Junior Sa'u, Knights (7)
Chris Sandow, Rabbitohs (8)
Jordan Rapana, Titans (4)
Junior Paulo, Eels (9)
Joseph Paulo, Panthers (7)
Russell Packer, Warriors (5)
Tim Moltzen, Tigers (8)
Grant Millington, Sharks (5)
Ben Matulino, Warriors (7)
Kaine Manihera, Broncos (7)
Ben Lowe, Rabbitohs (8)
Daine Laurie, Tigers (6)
John Kite, Bulldogs (4)
Masada Iosefa, Panthers (7)
Marc Herbert, Raiders (2 but now Carney's gone will be more)
Wade Graham, Panthers (7)
Aaron Groom, Bulldogs (5)
Bryson Goodwin, Sharks (7)
Shannon Gallant, Tigers (1 - depends on how long Hodgson is out)
Brad Davis, Titans (6)
Brent Crisp, Bulldogs (7)
Luke Capewell, Rabbitohs (6)
Lachlan Coote, Panthers (5)
Anthony Cherrington, Roosters (9)
Ben Barba, Bulldogs (rest of year at fullback big possibility)
Justin Carney, Raiders (5)

From that comprehensive list and mixing the value of total and short term impact on their sides, my Top 5 options with at least 4 first grade games so far in 2008 are below:

Chris Sandow, Rabbitohs
With the Rabbitohs mid-season revival he burst onto the scene in a big way with his kicking game standing out. But with the Rabbits no longer in the playoff race and his form tapering off in recent weeks, that combination probably rules Sandow out of the running for the award which will be weighted significantly towards a Finals bound player when the votes are tallied up.

Sonny Fai, Warriors
Since moving Fai to the centres, Warriors Coach Ivan Cleary has finally gotten the best of a huge talent who wasn't up to the physicality of the backrow at this stage. Out wider he's getting time with the ball to use his size and skills to his best advantage and is arguably part of the hottest centre combination in the game at the moment with Brent Tate. A big chance if he keeps up the involvement and the Warriors can stay in the playoff hunt for a few more weeks yet.

Wade Graham, Panthers
For a 17 year old he's made a strong contribution to the Panthers since debuting in Round 15 against the Dragons. Physically he can handle the top grade (although it is a bonus for his body that he hasn't had to play the entire year) and his skill set has been a welcome addition to the Panthers attacking structure. Was Penrith's first choice long kicker when he came into the top grade but has scaled that back in what could be an attempt by Coach Matt Elliott to get Graham to run the ball more. And it is working with Graham's runs in the past two weeks nearly as many as his total in the first five games. If Graham can push the Panthers into the playoffs, that and his all around package will garner most of the votes at the Dally Ms at the end of the regular season.

Anthony Cherrington, Roosters
At the moment the Roosters are getting quality minutes out of the towering second rower. Has slipped under the radar with the big names in the Roosters starting back row but Cherrington shapes as a big wildcard in the run towards September. Isn't playing more than two 15min spells a game but he looks a threat every time he runs the ball."

David Williams, Sea Eagles
A crowd favourite as much for his 100% effort as his werewolf getup. Williams took the chance to play in first grade when Michael Bani got hurt with both hands and has been a player very much in the mold of his wing partner Michael Robertson in the sense that Manly Coach Des Hasler knows what he's going to get each week - effort and the ability to finish. If he takes out the award he won't be the 'sexy' pick as in years past but he'll have earned it."

But the race is wide open and I think if the Panthers make the Finals then Wade Graham will get the Rookie of the Year award.

With the run home to the Finals still ahead of us, there is time for a rookie to stand up and make a difference and break into that Top 5 - the main contenders are Akuila Uate, Marc Herbert, Daine Laurie, Tony Williams and Ben Barba (even though the Bulldogs are out of the playoff picture he could be best used at FB).

But at this stage it appears the bulk of the players with multiple games in the NRL this year lacks the class of recent seasons.

Especially when you stack it up against the quality of the 2004 Rookie of the Year class which had Karmichael Hunt (winner), Sonny Bill Williams, Brett Stewart, Mathew Head, Justin Poore, Reni Maitua and Anthony Tupou as genuine contenders for the award.

But even in that year the likes of Todd Carney, Cooper Cronk, Feleti Mateo, Jeff Lima, Jerome Ropati, Glenn Stewart and Manu Vatuvei either had their first taste of NRL football or the first decent stint in the top grade and all of them have turned into above average NRL players.

So we’ll judge the 2008 class in a few years hopefully with a little more optimism on having unearthed a genuine superstar or two.

Friday Morning Five-Eighth - Six Things I Think. August 8, 2008

Friday Morning Five-Eighth - Six Things I Think. 
August 8, 2008

1. Justin Hodges received a two match ban for giving a resounding ‘up yours’ to referee Tony Archer last weekend after unsuccessfully challenging the charge at the Judiciary on Wednesday night. The Australian and Queensland centre has given his club side next to no value in the second half of 2008 due to suspension and this new ban could put a serious dent in the Brisbane Broncos push towards a Top 4 spot – which was achievable if the club ran the table (that is won all their remaining games) for the rest of the season. Hodges has also struggled with his fitness in the two games he has played since returning from a six game ban for a spear tackle and he can’t afford to come back in Round 23 unfit. Because a resurgent Darren Lockyer needs a firing (and disciplined) Hodges outside him to make the Broncos a force in September.

2. The Newcastle Knights did a number on the Parramatta Eels last Monday night and thoroughly deserved the victory that catapulted themselves into the Top 8. But perhaps the most distressing aspect to come out of the game from a Newcastle perspective is the fact the Knights will miss captain and hooker Danny Buderus terribly when he moves to Leeds at the end of the season. As much as Kurt Gidley has evolved into a star at the NRL level, Buderus is such a dominant force in the Newcastle side that replacing him in the side’s structure next season will be extremely tough. I don’t envy the job incoming signing Isaac De Gois has ahead of him in replacing Buderus because the long serving hooker is playing so well that if the Knights make the playoffs it will be purely because of the driving force of Buderus.

3. Canberra probably doesn't have the cattle to make an impression on this year’s playoffs but they are playing well enough to qualify in 2008. The Brisbane Broncos had an 18-6 lead in the second half last Sunday afternoon and the Raiders just couldn't capitalise on their attacking chances which appears to be a major weakness when the game is there to be won. Canberra have displayed in recent weeks that they can put teams away if they get out to an early lead but if the youngsters from the ACT can’t mount a significant come from behind victory in August they can forget about doing anything if they qualify for the Finals.

4. With the departure of Jason Ryles and Mark Gasnier from the Dragons for the 2009 season, one can only wonder where St.George-Illawarra’s long standing star power will come from. Granted this might be something incoming coach Wayne Bennett will welcome as he instils his system and culture into a club that has been known over the past decade for its star studded roster. Matt Cooper, Ben Creagh and Jamie Soward will be their high profile players in 2009 but only Soward has the potential to be classified in the star category at the respective stages of their careers. The club will however give an opportunity to another Mundine in either 2009 or 2010 as they have a precocious talent in Matthew Mundine currently impressing in the Toyota Cup.

5. Sadly the game has now seen two potential champions leave the game in the past fortnight with the news yesterday that Canberra has sacked Todd Carney. With Sonny Bill Williams walking out on the code in late July the last thing the NRL needed was another star player to leave the game but full credit to Canberra for standing firm in their belief that unless Carney accepted a five-point plan to rehabilitate his off-field ways – they would punt him. Carney who was facing a long term alcohol ban being worked into his contract hardly did himself a favour by A. arguing it should be dropped from the agreement and B. publicly drinking that very weekend when he claimed he didn't have a problem with alcohol. The NRL has also indicated they will de-register Carney for the 2009 season as well as the remainder of 2008, but who knows if the message will get through to the 23 year old because so far he’s failed to show any indications he’s even read the memo.

6. Brookvale Oval should be packed tonight as the top two sides in the NRL (and last year’s Grand Finalists) go head to head with close to full strength line ups and almost a full season of form behind them. Melbourne and Manly-Warringah should provide a much closer contest than they did in Round 5 but it is hard to see the Sea Eagles making up ground on the side that has dominated them in the past two outings – especially without Anthony Watmough. Keep your money on Melbourne until Manly break through with a win… although yes I realise that means you’ll do your cash if tonight’s the night.

Monday 4 August 2008

Contenders or Pretenders?

With just five rounds of the 2008 NRL Regular Season to play out until the Finals begin on September 12, Warrick Nicolson sorts the contenders from the pretenders in the premiership race.

We'll start at the bottom and work towards the cream at the top.

With the North Queensland Cowboys, Bulldogs and South Sydney Rabbitohs no longer in the playoff picture they'll be placed in the 'Also-Ran' category when history judges the 2008 season but there are a few teams still alive in the race for September who in all honesty - shouldn't be.

They'll settle into the 'If Only' Category as injury, suspension or just plain bad luck (with a strong dose of lack of ability and consistency thrown in) derailed their season or never allowed it to get going in the first place.

IF ONLY's 2008: Parramatta Eels, Warriors, Newcastle Knights, Gold Coast Titans.

Then there are the Pretenders - teams who could/will make the Finals but don't have the cattle or class to win their way through to Grand Final glory in 2008.

PRETENDERS 2008: Canberra Raiders, Wests Tigers, St.George-Illawarra Dragons, Penrith Panthers and Sydney Roosters.

And finally there are the Contenders. This year there are four teams that have displayed during the course of 2008 that they have the right attributes to win in September and ultimately on October 5 - but even this category has two divisions.

CONTENDERS 2008: Melbourne Storm, Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, Brisbane Broncos.

Over the next week we'll dig a little deeper and examine why your team ranks where it does.