Sunday 27 July 2014

#NRL 2014: 10 things I think entering the final rounds

Manly are the benchmark - followed by a host of pretenders after Round 20.
2014 National Rugby League Premiership
By W D Nicolson - July 27, 2014

The Sea Eagles will play in this year's decider... 

No that isn't one of the 10 things I'm 'revealing' in a long overdue feature piece here on but it bears repeating the fairly obvious because they simply play a better brand of footy than EVERYONE else in the competition.

The Chooks are quite rightly the defending Premiers but Manly have been the best team this season... though when you look at how inconsistency has plagued nearly every team from 2nd to 13th - is that a really defining statement about Manly or the rest of the competition?

|-| Lets look at 10 Things that I think about the competition with 6 rounds left...
Warning... below is nearly 2,000 words... interesting reading hopefully but nevertheless you've been warned, there's a few words below... so get a coffee or a tea and settle in.
10. Canberra could make a run... 
  • Straight up this point is more about the way the competition is, than whether or not Canberra can actually make the Finals...
  • So the comp this season (and the last few to be honest) is fantastic evidence that one good month gets you back into playoff contention and half a dozen good weeks gets you into the Top 4. So while Canberra are languishing in 15th at 5-12 - their next 7 games are eminently winnable IF they beat South Sydney in Canberra on Monday night to close out Round 20.
  • R21: Home to Warriors
    R22: Away to Eels (Darwin)
    R23: Home to Dragons
    R24: Away to Sharks
    R25: Home to Tigers
    R26: Home to Eels
  • Win those 7 games and Canberra finish 12-12 on 28 points... that differential may still deny them a playoff spot but in the history of runs home - try and find a more generous run?
    The point being - even after 20 rounds - the 5-12 Raiders can still make the Finals... and really, is that a good thing?
  • Mind you, they won't win seven in a row and thus this is a moot point but seriously, when Ricky Stuart and the playing group looked at their 2014 Draw - if they didn't see the amazing opportunity they could have given themselves by playing .500 footy during the opening 20 rounds then their team goals at the start of the year need burning.
9. This is the stage of the season that really tests out the Rookies.
  • Look I rate Luke Brooks highly and the way the Tigers played last weekend to shellack Canterbury was a thing of beauty to watch but the season grinds down nearly every rookie or fringe first grader thrust into the spotlight as the regular season winds down. Yes, they can be re-energised by the Finals and September but the loss to the Dragons today (coupled with a shoulder injury) was a clear example that Brooks was worn out.
  • The value of a week off for rookie players is something that the AFL coaching fraternity has embraced in recent seasons and realistically their NRL counterparts could do worse than copy it next season.
8. Ben Hunt has earned the right to 'explore his options.'
  • First up - yes, it isn't ideal to hear that the Brisbane halfback will explore his options at the end of the season (for 2016) when he's only had one breakthrough campaign - BUT he's also been in the Brisbane system for years and the club brought in Peter Wallace and then Scott Prince because they didn't believe he was the answer at #7... and now well, it appears he is.
  • So hopefully the supporter base realises this - because though he is still only 24 - he has maybe only two big paydays in front of him and good luck to him for searching for one now.
  • Remember - the club he is at has serious coin invested in a number of players and Anthony Milford isn't joining the Broncos for only $200,000 a season.
7. Love the fact we have the 1-4, 5-8 playoff format ahead of us.
  • I despised the McIntyre because it rewarded bad regular season teams if they managed to pull off a win in Week 1... whereas the value of a Top 4 berth in the current setup is so much more valuable now.
  • Penrith, Canterbury and the Roosters all lost very winnable games this weekend and that saw them stay within the grasp of the chasing pack for not just their Top 8 spots but their Top 4 positions.
  • Plus finishing 5th and 6th is now a huge thing with the home final factor...
  • Basically... bring on September!
6. Cronulla and Newcastle hit the defensive wall this year...
  • It happens... teams that build their season on the desire to defend like their lives depend on it eventually burn out.
  • It was the biggest takeaway for mine from Ricky Stuart's tenure at the Roosters - they just burnt out after defence (and Brad Fittler) had helped them to three straight Grand Finals from 2002 to 2004. When Stuart went to Cronulla he instilled the same thing and the Sharks got to the Preliminary Final in 2008 before falling away - again due to the toll on the roster defensively.
  • And Newcastle found a way to make it to the final four last year as well once they addressed their defensive desire and Cronulla were knocked out in the second week by a team with more points in them in Manly. 
  • Fast forward to 2014 and both sides have fallen away badly in defence and have only 11 wins between them from 36 games.
  • But it happens - and it'll continue to happen as some coaches think (or know) that the only way to win games with their roster is with pure commitment to defence... but there's a downside - even if you win the comp.
5. Sam Burgess v Jarryd Hayne v Johnathan Thurston for Player of the Year.
  • Based on what I've seen so far... and the @NRLTweet Player of the Year Votes after 19 Rounds back that up.
  • There are still a number of players who could make a run and win this thing by the end of the season but to date - these are the three best players of 2014.
4. Comeback player of the year?
  • Let me throw five names at you (in no particular order) and you can decide if any are worthy of basically being a player who fell away in 2012/3 but as comeback to be a factor in 2014 for his team's march to September.
  • Now please note - just because they are on this list doesn't mean they haven't played good footy at all in recent seasons but they have lifted their games to a level (or back to a level) that has helped their teams significantly in 2014.
  • Chris Sandow, Parramatta
  • Jamie Soward, Penrith
  • Peter Wallace, Penrith
  • Simon Mannering, Warriors
  • Daniel Vidot, Brisbane
  • Thoughts? Got a player we missed?
3. Will the fans turn up for the run home?
  • There are a lot of BIG regular season games on the schedule for the final six rounds and I truly hope the fans can avoid the 'Thursday/Friday 8pm start' trap and get out to the grounds for some quality games of footy. Each of the games below SHOULD attract a crowd... but will they?
  • Round 21 - Manly v Brisbane Friday at Brookie, Bulldogs v Panthers Friday at ANZ and Roosters v Dragons Saturday at Allianz.
  • Round 22 - Souths v Manly Friday at SCG, Brisbane v Bulldogs Friday at Suncorp.
  • Round 23 - Souths v Brisbane Thursday at ANZ, Parramatta v Bulldogs Friday at ANZ, Tigers v Roosters Saturday at ANZ.
  • Round 24 - Bulldogs v Tigers Thursday at ANZ, Parramatta v Manly Friday at Parramatta, Brisbane v Newcastle Saturday at Suncorp, Warriors v Roosters Sunday at Mt Smart.
  • Round 25 - Bulldogs v Souths Thursday at ANZ, Brisbane v Dragons Friday at Suncorp, Roosters v Storm Saturday at Allianz, Manly v Penrith Sunday at Brookvale.
  • Round 26 - Roosters v Souths Thursday at Allianz, Storm v Brisbane Friday at AAMI, Cowboys v Manly Saturday at Townsville, Knights v Dragons Sunday at Newcastle, Panthers v Warriors Sunday at Penrith.
  • If you can't find at least 2 or 3 games on that schedule that purely as a footy fan (not a team specific supporter) you want to go to - then you are insane!
2. I can't watch or read most footy media anymore...
  • Whether it is spun as entertainment or analysis or is not even thinly veiled sensationalism - I barely watch or read much press about the game anymore. Even watching some elements of game coverage is to me akin to pulling teeth but these days I find it is truly the only way I can keep 'in touch' with the game - because I just don't find the coverage of the sport away from the matches themselves compelling anymore.
  • I might just be way too cynical (and yes of course there are people who can't stand what I write or my points of view - I get that) but growing up I used to be someone who wouldn't miss a skerrick of news/analysis that was on offer... but now, wrong as the point of view may be, I really don't feel like I'm missing much by choosing not to watch/read it.
  • Honestly, I hope I'm very much in the minority, but that's where I'm at.
1. Finally... savour the great players of our game.
  • For all the average footy that's been played this year - let's be thankful for the great footy that's been produced by the great footballers we currently have playing the game.
  • In no particular order - here are the half dozen or so players I LOVE watching play footy:
  • Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran (they count as one)  they are the best combination in the business because they above all else - play footy on both sides of the ball and relish it.
  • Anthony Milford... Canberra fans are going to be inconsolable this off-season when the kid is truly signed and sealed and sitting in Brisbane. What talent.
  • Jarryd Hayne... he won the Origin series for NSW and can get Parra to September.
  • Greg Inglis... didn't see enough ball in the Origin series and that's a massive reason NSW won (and Hayne was healthy) but GI is still the best big game player in the competition for mine and he is capable of taking Souths to a Grand Final even if Adam Reynolds and John Sutton haven't.
  • Robbie Farah... most skillful hooker I've seen play the game. Not the best, but he's in the conversation. Wish he played for my team... truly thankful he does at state level.
  • Johnathan Thurston... needs Michael Morgan to play out of his skin to get that second premiership he probably deserves but despite all his genius, he's running out of seasons to do it in.
  • Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams... both will be lost to the game at the end of the season - and in SBW's case - his broken thumb is a huge blow... because it means we may only have 2 or 3 more games of SBW to watch play League. As for Sam - he leaves as currently the best non-hooking forward in the game not named SBW... and like SBW - will be badly missed... the only upside is Sam might come back, I don't think SBW will.
  • PS. Yes, there are some notable absences, and that's mainly because the above list is those players I love watching play, this is not simply my best players in the game list... though a lot of them fit that category. I'm a massive fan of the Big 3 at the Storm but if I added them all - I'd have to make that list another Top 10... and this feature needs to come in under 2,000 words stat!
So there you go - if you want to comment on any of the thoughts above simply do so below or shoot us a tweet via @NRLTweet
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