To begin I want to offer in advance an apology for any grammatical errors in this weeks column, I was 4000 words into a completely different piece, about the kicking game, that I realised on Thursday I could not do justice to just now, so I had to get this out quickly. Still I hope there is some entertainment contained within, and that you continue to win money following my tips.
What a spectacular start to the new NRL season, no we are not just talking about Ozsportsdude following on with his stellar form from last years finals by going 7 from 8 v the spread in Round 1, impressive as that was, compared to the Roosters v Rabbitohs game on Friday night it was a mere blip on the NRL radar. When you also add in the Cowboys giving their fans plenty of reason for hope with the professional performance at Suncorp it was a stellar first night of the season. This meant that the Saturday games had a lot to live up to and they did not disappoint with the Storm and Dragons in particular announcing their intentions for the season with tough, grinding performances versus teams that have given them troubles in the last few years. The only real letdown of the weekend was Blowout Sunday. Penrith was the most disappointing performance of the weekend. The Sharks are a team that is not expected to contend this year, and they were playing against a Canberra team with realistic aspirations for a Top 4 finish, letting in 40+ points is terrible but it had more to do with a lack of quality than it did a lack of desire. However, the Panthers were a Top 4 team last year (though as a column I am currently working on will show 2009 was a false dawn for Penrith) and they were playing AT HOME, vs. a Newcastle team, that is on the rise but even they would admit, still early on their transition/re-building phase.
So the Round 1 awards are.
Game of the Week - Roosters v Rabbitohs
The NRL could not have asked for a better advertisement to kick off the 2011 NRL Premiership Season. Length of the field Try’s, quality big hits, a huge comeback by South’s, then amazingly the Roosters managing to beat the toughest opponent in the game, ‘momentum’, and swing the game back in their favour during a riveting last 7 minutes. The only ‘slight’ disappointment was the crowd, announced at 26 000+, probably about 5-7 thousand short of optimal, though the TV Ratings were superb.
Performance of the Week - Dragons v Titans
A boring pick I know and there are arguments for other teams, such as the Knights or Storm to get this award, but St George had to travel over to the UK, win the WCC, return to a series of “Bennett to Broncos” stories in the newspapers and then face a professional opponent, at one of the few grounds with a genuine home-field advantage in the competition. The Dragons stood tall in the face of all these potential distractions and announced to the competition that they will be contenders come September.
Individual Performance of the Week - Braith Anasta
Yes, Yes I am well aware that you could accuse me of being a complete homer with this pick, but stick with me whilst I explain myself. After returning to the 6 jersey in Carneys absence, Anasta displayed true leadership throughout the 80 minutes. Displaying his knack for being in the right place at the right time Anasta opened the scoring in the 6th minute. His kicking game was immaculate for the remainder of the game. Most importantly though, when momentum was all with South’s at the end of the game, Anasta’s leadership and skill shone through as he was instrumental in the key plays at the end of the game, particularly the short kick-off that led to the Try that re-took the lead. The Roosters played well as a team, and Pearce had his moments but Anasta showed the Rugby League world why he is the Captain of this team.
Goat of the Week - Referee Phil Haines
There is an argument that could be made for the entire Penrith or Cronulla sides for this award, but when a referee takes out a defender in the in-goal and is solely responsible for a Try being scored then this has been my easiest choice of the week.
ROUND 2 (Home Team first, my pick in Bold)
Eels (-2.5) v Panthers
As discussed in the Season Preview (last weeks column) we enter every season with storeys emanating from Parramatta Stadium telling us that this year was the year that the Eels finally understood the commitment required to succeed in the NRL, that they have never worked harder in the pre-season and that the Eels performances would finally equal their talent. It is easy to be dismissive of these reports, however, as discussed in last weeks column the difference this year is Stephen Kearney. It was clear from last weeks performance that Kearney has fully embraced the Bellamy coaching model, itself based on Wayne Bennett’s philosophy and it appears that more importantly the Parramatta players have also bought in. One of the most stunning stats to come out of Rd 1 was that the Eels did not attempt a single off-load vs. The Warriors. This showed a commitment to Ball Control and winning the Field Position game, no doubt Kearney will slowly remove the shackles as the players earn his trust over the season. As long as the large doses of crazy that have been the hallmark of the Boardroom at Parramatta can be contained away from the Football department then the Eels talent level make them a team you would prefer to avoid come knockout football in September. This should be a fun season for the Parra faithful.
Penrith on the other hand were just awful. As I touched on earlier I am currently working on a column that should explain why there is little reason for optimism in Penrith this year, I am gathering the stats for what will be an in depth column on the random nature of the attacking kicking game that I hope will input some science into the old ‘live by the kick, die by the kick axiom’ that is as old as Rugby League itself. But I digress, my main point is that Penrith need to be able to scare teams with ball in hand, this team has Michael Jennings, so when you hear Luke Walsh constantly refer to working on his kicking game in training it must drive Panthers fan nuts, what he should be working on is set plays designed to put the electrifying Jennings into space.
The only logical reason I can see for a line as close as 2.5 is that we had a lot of close games on Friday night last season and the TAB believes that teams don’t want to be embarrassed on the marquee Channel 9 games so will be more committed. I would argue that the reason we have more close games on Fridays is because Nine choose marquee games for that time and clearly they did not see the Panthers as I saw them, that as a team in decline.
Canberra (-2.5) v Broncos
Even during the middle part of the aughts when the Broncos were a perennial Top 4 contender they had a terrible record down at Canberra Stadium, so the 2.5 line seems very short considering that the Raiders are coming off a resounding victory, against the Sharks admittedly, and the Broncos are coming back from an uninspiring performance against the other 2010 bottom feeder, Nth Qld.
Basically these are the top, and maybe only 3 reasons why the Broncos might win this game
1. Darren Lockyer
2. Darren Lockyer
3. Darren Lockyer
Still Darren is that good that maybe, just maybe, he will be enough.
The one weakness in the Canberra team is a lack of big game experience. By big game experience I am not just talking about Finals games, but even just the marquee Friday Night Games. Being in a small media market, Canberra historically gets screwed when it comes to Free to Air telecasts. They get the odd Sunday Afternoon game, but Friday Night Football is a different animal to the Saturday and Sunday game. Both newspapers spend far more time focusing on the teams preparing to play Friday Night in the week leading up to the games as they know their readers want to be educated on what they will see when they flick on the football after work on Friday. So there are usually more one-on-one interviews and double page spreads on players/teams in the Friday Night Games than there are for the Saturday games. This means there are usually bigger media commitments for the players on these teams in the lead up. Canberra has been shielded from this for much of the last decade and has instead toiled away in Foxtel anonymity. That all changes this week, personally I think they will be fine, I find it more likely that they will be energised by the attention as opposed to it making them nervous and that is why I have them picked to win, however, if there is just a tiny bit of hesitation or fear in their play, then Darren Lockyer will be on hand to exploit it.
Storm (-3.5) v Titans
This is a battle of two of the most professional and best run Football Departments in the NRL so prepare for a high quality contest between two well drilled teams. By Football Department I am not talking about the Board Room or the Salary Cap end of the organisation, no, I am discussing the coaching, physio, Sports Science and youth development arms of the organisation. When compared to the Cronulla’s of the world it is like these clubs are playing in a different competition. In fact even when compared to their peers on the Premiership Table, these two clubs are have superior organisational strength at the Football Department level. Michael Searle has done a stunning job on the Gold Coast and when the lure of first rate medical staff and player development are coupled with the lifestyle afforded relatively famous, fit, young rich males on the Gold Coast when it comes to nightlife and women then the Gold Coast have a number of built in advantages that should ensure they remain a force in the NRL for many years to come. Craig Bellamy has done an equally good job creating a culture of excellence in Melbourne, I always enjoy watching these two teams go head to head.
I have Melbourne favoured in this game based mainly on Home Ground advantage, this coupled with the ‘Eff You’ mentality that I believe will be the driving force behind the team this season after the humiliations of 2010 should be enough to give Melbourne the advantage in this contest. One thing is for sure, it will be a cracking game and definitely one worth getting out to see if you don’t have Foxtel at home.
Wests Tigers (-3.5) v Warriors
The first game of the season between two teams that lost the previous week. Starting 0-2 is never a good thing and with both these teams rightly seeing themselves as contenders entering the season we should see a lot of desperation on display throughout the game. Leichardt is my favourite Suburban ground and it also gives the Tigers a real home ground advantage. The Tigers also have more quality in the Halves and with Tim Sheens as Head Coach they will enter the game well prepared and fully aware of the importance of getting back to .500
The Warriors on the other hand face some real challenges early in the season. Injuries have hurt them and the lack of quality in the Halves (an issue every year they have been in the competition without Stacey Jones is the Seven) is a definite Achilles Heal, but their dominating front row and real quality in the Outside Backs help to cover for these deficiencies and will give them confidence as they run onto the field
One thing that is certain is that this will be an entertaining game, containing as it does two teams that enjoy throwing the ball around and two forward packs unafraid to take risks with offloads, thus generating plenty of second phase play. If Benji Marshall can continue to develop the game management part of his game and show more patience, rather than trying for a miracle in every attacking set then the Tigers should win this game relatively comfortably. I still have my doubts as to whether Marshall has reached the level of maturity however, meaning I am leaning towards the Tigers but without much conviction.
Nth Queensland (-2.5) v Newcastle
Whew, what a tough round this is, so many close games, we are now 5 games in and the lines are all 2.5 or 3.5 the completion mantra of parity (mediocrity in my view, but that’s another column) is on full display this week.
This is another contest where is the game was being played at the other teams home ground then I would by tipping the opposite way. With Jarred Mullen’s outstanding performance last week taking away some of my usual confidence when tipping games that include Thurston that Nth Qld will have a huge advantage in the Halves, I have to look elsewhere for my keys to the game. A word on Mullen last week, he truly was outstanding, yeah Penrith were just terrible admittedly, but you can only play the opposition in front of you and Mullen took advantage of every weakness in the Panthers defensive line with deft ball movement and powerful, straight running. Of course one good game from a Number 7 with a NSW Birth Certificate will no doubt start the inevitable rush of columns extolling his virtues for the Sky Blues Number 7 Jersey* but I will avoid that here. Instead I will just point out that Mullen had an outstanding game in First Grade, which is a positive development for all Rugby League fans that have spent the last 2 years wondering what had happened to the promising kid we saw when he first broke into the Knights team.
*I mean Luke Walsh got his mandatory ‘NSW Half Back Bolter’ column last week in the News Ltd press, a column whose main thesis seemed to be, Andrew Johns is from Newcastle, Walshy is from Newcastle, ergo make him NSW Half Back, seriously it was that bad.
Nth Qld have way too much talent to finish where they did last year, that much is evident when you look at their roster, and something I should have considered before tipping them to finish well outside the Finals in last weeks season preview. It is nearly impossible to underestimate the effect that Dallas Johnson will have on this team. For the last few years Thurston has been basically the lone leader on this team, now on field, Thurston is an elite talent and a great on-field general and organiser. However, his off-field issues seem to preclude him from taking that Cameron Smith, Ben Hornsby type leadership, where through his very example he takes the culture of the club to a higher level. I believe Dallas will be the person (note, person not player) who provides this element to the club. Its hard to knock off early from a Weights Session when the only multiple premiership player on the roster is still in there, same goes for not working hard on field to get back the full 10 and not give away cheap penalties.
As mentioned before, Mullen was outstanding when it came to exploiting the holes and opportunities within the Penrith defensive line on Sunday, this week Dallas Johnson will be scrambling around covering those same gaps, and by his example will be ensuring that his teammates are doing the same. So with less opportunities to exploit at the attacking end of the field I tip the State of Origin and Test Superstar Half-Back, playing at home to be the bloke who takes advantage of them when they are there, and for this reason I am tipping the Cowboys.
South’s v Bulldogs (-1.5)
The Bulldogs once again looked like the Bulldogs on Monday night, with Frank Prichard and a couple of youngsters that seem to just roll off the Belmore Big Boppers Assembly line continuously pushing themselves over the advantage line, this was an old school Canterbury-Bankstown victory built on strong straight ahead ball running and up & in punishing defence. I am no fan of the Bulldogs, but as a sports fan I enjoy it how clubs carry identities through the generations and as a Rugby League fan it is somehow comforting to know that out west there is a team that wears Blue and White, defends up and in and believes a big forward pack is a key to victory.
South Sydney are the exact opposite, part of it is probably attributable to their enforced exile from the competition, some to the crazy ownership struggles of the last few years and the coaching merry go-round at Redfern has not helped, however the fact remains that the Rabbits are a team without an identity and it hurts them. What will hurt them more this week is the loss of Sam Burgess to a shoulder injury. If Burgess is in fact confirmed to be missing, then it is imperative that a search party is sent out to recover Dave Taylors confidence, it went missing sometime in the first half on Friday night and without its recovery South’s have no hope of winning a game that will no doubt be a forward battle.
John Lang needs to get something out of Chris Sandow for this game as well, for one of the few times this season the Rabbits will not be completely outclassed in the Halves as the Doggies are not exactly flush in that area themselves but it is still imperative that Sandow spends a lot of time in the video room this week and is as well prepared as he has ever been when he enters the field this weekend, because an 0-2 start coupled with a Burgess injury and an overweight Ingliss sounds to me a lot like how an article written in September 2011 will begin explaining what went wrong with the Rabbitohs season.
One last thing the Rabbits may want to consider, Ingliss was arguably the best Full-Back when he was at Melbourne, but Slater was a pure full-back whereas Ingliss could play in the Centre’s or even Five-Eighth they left Slater as the custodian. Well if Sandow and Sutton continue to show they are too incompetent to get the ball to Ingliss in dangerous areas when he is stuck out in the Centres, maybe it is time to consider moving him to Full Back and letting him control the game from back there much like the Eels did with Hayne in 2009. This may even be enough to motivate him to get in shape!!!
Roosters (-5.5) v Sea Eagles
Brian Smith has the full trust of his players and despite all the talk of how he has become more relaxed and calm as a coach, his legendary work ethic and attention to detail continue to give this still young and developing team an edge over most opponents. The game plan last week revolved around setting a solid foundation early and not allowing the new season’s nerves lead to early mistakes. So he sent out a starting Front Row that included Ryles, Kennedy and Piggy Riddell (in the run-on side for Friend who was named the Starting Hooker) and instructed them to play a safe brand of Football, running straight and hard, not looking to offload, get to Tackle 5 and then let the exceptional boots of either Pearce or Anasta establish Field Position. Once the Roosters had established a foothold in the game he then unleashed Mosse, Friend & Warea-Hargreaves for impact and this more dynamic line-up immediately got the Roosters on the front foot and helped them build a substantial lead.
Now the above game-plan seems so solid that you would imagine it will happen every week, but with Smith as Head Coach that will not be the case, each week the team will be prepared to take advantage of the other team’s weaknesses. For example, last weeks game plan was perfect for playing a Rd 1 game against South Sydney as with all the hype that follows that team into every season since Russel Crowe took over, it was important that the Roosters were not matching nerves with nerves, dropped ball with dropped ball. Smith understood that there was a possible advantage here and sent out a conservative and experienced line-up in the early going, leaving his impact for when the Rabbits had burned off their nervous energy and were settling into the game proper. Against the Sea-Eagles it will be a different situation, Manly still has a number of premiership players on their Roster, especially in the Forwards, so the Roosters can not rely on inexperience and nerves from opposition forwards to give them the edge. With Manly, the inexperience is to be found in the Halves and Smith can be expected to design a game plan to exploit any hesitation or nerves from the 6 & 7.
For Manly any hope of winning really revolves around setting a dominant platform with their big pack, getting Watmough to attack around the edges and getting Brett Stewart to feed off any off-loads as he is more likely to find space when receiving the ball in this situation than he will from his young half-back. If Carney plays for The Roosters then Manly need to make Anasta defend like a true second rower and see if they can wear him down and exploit any fatigue in the last 10 minutes, yeah Anasta is a solid defender, but he has spent most of his career in the Halves where he was a plus defender for a Five-Eighth, however now he is in the Back-Row they need to find out if he is still a plus defender when he has made 30+ tackles at the back end of games.
As I said in the NRL season preview, I don’t rate Manly this year and am looking forward to my beloved Roosters proving me correct this weekend, I think the Roosters have this game wrapped up by midway through the second half, and unlike last week I don’t think they will go inviting their opponents back into this match.
Cronulla v St George (-7.5)
Cronulla are truly an awful team, for all the good he did at Bondi, it is now becoming quite clear that Ricky Stuart is a poor first grade coach. Not only does he do a poor job of winning games and developing players he has a habit of leaving clubs in a complete shambles as he walks out the door. We often hear how great players do not make good coaches as they cannot understand why lesser players are unable to do things they used to find so simple and Ricky appears to be the very definition of this sort of coach particularly when it comes to Halves. So Shane Flanagan has a tough job re-building his roster and the confidence level of his young side. Unfortunately for him the Dragons already appear to be in mid-season form and look set to unleash a total beat-down of the Sharks on Monday night, thankfully for Cronulla this will happen in the relative anonymity of Monday Night Football