2014 NRL First Trimester Report – Down is up and up is down – Part 1

Is this the new normal?

I initially wanted to thump this report out with brevity hitherto not seen but it grew and soon turned into a two part marathon. Part 1 will cover the bottom half of the NRL competition and the travails they faced over the first trimester of the season. Part 2 will deal with the top 8.

9. Dragons (8 competition points and -9 points differential)

Pre-season prediction

13th

The Journey so far

The Dragons were out of the gate like they stole something with three wins on the trot. This was a shock to everyone who predicted mid to lower table mediocrity (including myself) but they’ve been much better than that. So far they’ve beaten the Tigers, Sharks and Warriors (twice) but lost to the Broncos, Storm, Rabbitohs and Roosters. In short they’ve beaten who they should have beaten and lost to those who were probably stronger than them. Many said Steve Price was on a short leash this year so getting a good start to the season was imperative. A key difference from the 2013 season is the ability to score points. Unfortunately, the Dragons are letting through even more points than they are scoring hence why they find themselves outside the 8 looking in.

First Trimester Grade

C+

MVP

Gareth Widdop – He has been the buy of the season so far. Some expected him to flounder without the esteemed company of Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith, however, his move away from the Storm has had the opposite effect now that he has been given the keys to the car.

Prognosis

If they can shore up their defence while keeping their Gareth Widdop/Josh Dugan inspired attack humming they will be a fringe candidate for the eight for the rest of the season. They have some candidates for Origin in Dugan, Merrin, Morris and Creagh so they may have some tricky waters to navigate during the Origin series as well. They won’t sneak up on teams for the rest of the season. At some stage it would be useful for Price to settle on a halves partner for Gareth Widdop as well.

10. Storm (8/-24)

Pre-season prediction

3rd

The Journey so far

Where do we start? People always knew that the big three would eventually falter, that they wouldn’t be able to cover the cracks forming in the Storm forever, however, it was difficult to actually nail down when this would occur. No-one thought this would be the season. Craig Bellamy is a top tier coach and the Storm have simply reloaded year after year. The season started uneventfully with the Storm eking out three narrow victories over quality opposition in the Sea Eagles, Panthers and Knights and were level with the Bulldogs 12-12 at the 45th minute mark in round 4. From that time on the Bulldogs put 28 unanswered points on them and they proceeded to lose 4 out of their next 5 matches. Some have heralded it as the beginning of the end. It would seem premature on such a small sample size but the rep season will certainly be more critical for the Storm than in past seasons.

First Trimester Grade

C-

MVP

Cooper Cronk – This is always a toss up between Cam Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk but their 5 star halfback gets the nod this time. Melbourne might be stumbling but it has little to do with Cooper Cronk. He’s still cranking out  the good stuff week after week.

Prognosis

Is this the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning for the Storm? They will have to navigate the Origin period without the Big 3 with Will Chambers and Ryan Hoffman the only other fringe candidates possibly waiting for the tap on the shoulder. This coincides with a particularly tricky part of the draw as well with games against the Sea Eagles, Rabbitohs, Cowboys and Roosters coming up, all teams with something to prove at this stage of the season. In the past they have always had Gareth Widdop holding the fort while they were away. No such luck this time. The upshot is that they will be lucky to secure a spot in the top 4 and unless they can enter the final series with some momentum that will be the death knell for their premiership hopes but with the quality of the big 3 still within their ranks and Craig Bellamy holding the reins it would be brave to write them off.

11. Eels (8/-42)

Vai Toutai - Photo by Naparazzi

Vai Toutai – Photo by NaparazziCC-BY-SA-2.0

Pre-season prediction

14th

The Journey so far

Wow. Along with the Tigers they have been the surprise packets of the season. The purchase of Corey Norman and Nathan Peats is looking astute. Manu Ma’u has come from nowhere. Will Hopoate has made an immediate impact and Chris Sandow is enjoying a long awaited return to form. Jarryd Hayne is sighing with relief and who is Semi Radradra? I keep expecting to see a new Marvel movie along the lines of Semi Radradra, Man of Steel. They’ve had 2 worrying results that reminded us of the Eels of recent seasons, a flogging from the Roosters and the Cowboys handed them their bottoms in a brown paper bag as well. To balance the ledger they’ve had tough wins over the Warriors, Panthers, Broncos and Roosters (in the return fixture) and played Manly and Wests close as well. Brad Arthur has them playing ahead of schedule at the moment.

First Trimester Grade

B-

MVP

Semi Radradra – Semi (like his name) is an unstoppable force who has burst onto the scene this season with a bang. He is leading the try scoring charts with 10 tries from 8 games and he is second in line breaks with 9. He busts tackles with regular aplomb and doesn’t look like he is slowing down.

Prognosis

The Eels currently have 8 first grade players sidelined with injury including Jarryd Hayne and Tim Mannah although I note that both have been named to play this week. Rep duty will take Jarryd Hayne and possibly Will Hopoate but shouldn’t deprive them of anyone else. More than anything early season form evaporates without a good deal of substance sitting underneath the early season enthusiasm. As the grind takes effect we will see what the Eels are made of. Time will tell.

12. Cowboys (6/+34)

Pre-season prediction

5th

The Journey so far

Dazed and confused. The Cowboys are a mystery wrapped up in an enigma. Ironically their history is very similar to the Warriors partially offset by the fact that they have had the best halfback in the competition for the last ten seasons. In the end they have even less to show for it than the Warriors. At least the Warriors have made the Grand Final twice. The Cowboys were again touted as top 4 material in the pre-season and though starting with a rookie coach seemed to have the tools to make a noise come the end of the season, however, their start was anything but auspicious. Solid wins over the Knights and the Eels have been offset by 5 losses and a narrow win over the Raiders. Pressure is building in the North.

First Trimester Grade

D+

MVP

Johnathon Thurston – Who else? He is the heart and soul of this side. He has a test quality forward pack in front of him and strike weapons outside him and young talent to burn but time and time again it seems he is the one carrying the whole team.

Prognosis

If history is anything to go by it would seem they are again destined for that 5th to 10th range they have landed in so often in the past. The major flaw in this side is that potential is sometimes mistaken for consistency. In Robert Lui, Michael Morgan and Ray Thompson there is at times the support and ball playing ability for the Cowboys to flourish around JT, however, more often than not one or all of them come up short at crucial moments. In the end these players will make or break the Cowboys season. If they find consistency we are talking top 4. Otherwise the status quo will continue.

13. Warriors (6/-47)

Pre-season prediction

6th

The Journey so far

The Warriors could not have had a worse start to the year. Check that. I guess they could be 0-8. Let’s cycle through the story so far. They actually started the season 2-2 which didn’t look so bad but then they dropped a massive stink bomb at Remondis Stadium (seriously, how many names has this stadium had – I can reel off Endeavour Oval, Caltex Field, Shark Park and Remondis Stadium without even resorting to Google). That pretty much got their Coach sacked. Then their owners started fighting in the media. They responded by losing another 2 games after that and only righted the sinking ship temporarily at AAMI park against the equally struggling Storm. Add to that the continuing debacle that Eden Park represents and the recent sex tape struggles of their centre (who turned up a million kilograms above his playing weight at the start of pre-season) and we are pretty much up to date. What more could go wrong?

First Trimester Grade

D-

MVP

Shaun Johnson – This was hard to pick but on his day he is unstoppable. He suffers from what most good young halves suffer from and that is consistency. Knowing when to play off the cuff and knowing when to steady the ship. Let’s face it, the Warriors are a one country team and with that comes great pressure. Whether he gets to the next echelon of top tier talent will go a long way towards deciding the future of this Warriors team.

Prognosis

Ironically it is not too late for this team to make the finals, however, they would have to show the kind of consistency which led to their last Grand Final appearance. They certainly have the talent required to get the job done, a tough forward pack, Shaun Johnson, Sam Tomkins, Feleti Mateo and they will be virtually untouched during the rep rounds. I am not that supportive of in-season coaching changes, however, maybe this was the jolt that this team needed. Time will tell.

14. Raiders (6/-54)

Pre-season prediction

15th

The Journey so far

The Raiders have been competitive in every match except their last round drubbing by the Sea Eagles. They have marquee wins against the Storm and the Rabbitohs. They are led by an honest but unspectacular pack and the playmaking abilities of Terry Campese and Anthony Milford. Not terribly weighed down by injuries they have been middle of the road and yet to really hit form for any consistent period of time. In fact they have been consistently inconsistent. Probably the only real excitement in the first trimester was the unearthing of talented battering ram Paul Vaughan.

First Trimester Grade

D

MVP

Anthony Milford – He is a rare talent, an attacking weapon who is dangerous from any part of the field. He is signed for the Broncos for next season but there is some conjecture that Ricky Stuart will convince him to stay in our Nation’s capital.

Prognosis

The trouble that the Raiders are going to have this season is primarily that the season is so open. The Tigers, Dragons and Eels are overachieving. The Storm, Roosters, Rabbitohs, Cowboys and Sharks are underachieving. Other teams that are on the cusp have retooled and should be stronger. That leaves the Raiders at the bottom looking up against some desperate teams and everyone is a shot of making the finals (at least mathematically). Parity is a special thing but not for the Raiders. I’m thinking unless Ricky Stuart can shake things up quickly the Raiders are due for a further dose of mediocrity.

15. Knights (4/-48)

Pre-season prediction

10th

The Journey so far

Alex McKinnon has been the story of the year for the Knights and they have struggled to play football in the shadow and weight of such a tragedy. Underneath all of that, however, which has heavily contributed to their poor start to the season is injuries to key positions. Probably the key injury was to Jarrod Mullen, however, they have also suffered long term injuries to McKinnon, Clint Newton and Timana Tahu and other players have lost time to suspension and shorter term injuries like Willie Mason, Joey Leilua, Akuila Uate and Jeremy Smith. It is fair to say that Wayne Bennett hasn’t had the same team once this season.

First Trimester Grade

D+

MVP

Beau Scott – I’m going to have to rely on the Dally M Medal tally count because there haven’t been many standout performers in the first trimester from the mighty men of the Hunter Valley. Willie Mason has been strong at times and Joey Leilua has also had his moments but let’s give the perennial tough guy his due. He is one hell of a player.

Prognosis

It is not looking good for the Knights. The hill isn’t insurmountable and they have the coach to do it, however, they will be flat out making the 8 let along making some real noise in the final series. It has been an emotional year already and I wonder whether Wayne Bennett can get them to climb the mountain once again.

16. Sharks (4/-67)

Pre-season prediction

12th

The Journey so far

The Sharks haven’t started this badly for quite a few seasons and distractions have never been far away. They’ve been probably (unsurprisingly) one of the worst hit teams in terms of injury. Gallen was a massive loss, the workhorse of their forward pack and a platform setter with not many equals, however, losing Luke Lewis was just as problematic as Lewis is one of the best ballplayers behind Todd Carney (who has also missed time). Add to that the contract and suspension woes of Andrew Fifita, the spectre of ASADA, the season long suspension of their coach Shane Flanagan and the Michael Lichaa contract debacle and we are pretty much up to date. Wow. I’m surprised their not coming 17th.

First Trimester Grade

E+

MVP

Todd Carney – He has been brave despite the adversity of the season so far. It is hard to keep a great player down but Cronulla sure are trying.

Prognosis

I don’t think this is the year that the Sharks will break their premiership drought though they should greatly improve in the second and third trimester. I expect them to lose Gallen and Fifita at least for the representative season, however, at least they are almost full strength again and their injury list is shortening by the day. Time to start planning for next year.

What was sweeter than Jelly Bread?

  • The effort of the NZ Kiwis. With a bit of execution in the second half they could have knocked Australia over.
  • The NRL for scheduling a stand alone representative weekend. Australia v New Zealand, Fiji v Samoa and City v Country was a great start. Next year (hopefully) they add to the list of fixtures and gain further momentum for the international game.
  • The Brisbane Roar. Some franchises just know how to win. They left it till the final minutes but were victorious again. WSW were brave in defeat. Good advertisement for the game.
Thomas Broich - Photo by Brisbane Roar

Thomas Broich – Photo by Brisbane Roar – CC-BY-SA-3.0

What wasn’t?

  • GSW sacking Coach Jackson. Those who have followed the Warriors for any length of time will realise that their history has generally been one of futility. Under Mark Jackson they have steadily improved. In his first season they stumbled to a 23-43 record while rebuilding the team around Stephen Curry. The next year they grabbed national attention with a 47-35 record and a trip to the second round of the playoffs. Their performance in 2012/13 and some astute recruiting heightened expectations for the 2013/14 season. For a franchise with such a poor history a 51-31 record and first round exit in the playoffs against the talented LA Clippers (without your defensive anchor, Andrew Bogut) in the stacked Western Conference seems like a step in the right direction, however, this wasn’t enough for the front office of the Warriors. Surely there was a less drastic move available to the Management team? Marcus Thompson II had a great take on the whole issue prior to Jackson’s sacking and as usual Zach Lowe had the definitive breakdown on the issue post-sacking. I think sometimes these things come down to a clash of personalities.

Other random thoughts 

  • Changes to the salary cap – I’m happy for the majority of changes and agree that something is required to recruit or retain marquee players in exceptional circumstances, however, I think giving this power to the CEO may end up producing manifestly unfair results depending on the parameters around its exercise. Primarily, a single club will be able to pay over market price to a marquee free agent (effectively a salary cap exemption) to stop the same player from leaving the NRL. I can see this power being open to abuse. It also seems to tilt the field which is what the salary cap guards against.
  • Paul Kent (a lightning rod for controversy – which is incidentally what he is paid to do) was labelled a racist for saying he had no interest in watching the Fiji v Samoa match. It does seem to be a storm in a teacup. Not wanting to watch an international football match and wanting to watch the NRL instead isn’t racism. It may be taking a short term view of things rather than looking at the big picture but it isn’t racism.
  • Long term injuries have often been a part of the game of Rugby League. The treatment of long term injuries and how they are handled by Rugby League clubs and the NRL are an important ongoing issue. While I applaud the treatment of Alex McKinnon’s injury by the NRL and the Newcastle Knights, it did make me wonder whether this was the tip of the iceberg regarding potential liability. Immediately following the announcement there surfaced the story of Simon Dwyer. Unfortunately, like most of life’s issues the solution to the conundrum of injuries (especially career threatening injuries) suffered during football games is not a simple one. Bring into the equation that player’s knowingly consent to playing a game which may have long term repercussions to their health. Balance this up with foul play which may or may not contribute to the long term health problems of the players (especially head injuries) and the handling of this by clubs and the NRL. I don’t think this will be the last time we hear about liability for injury in the NRL. 

Tips for Round 9 

Home teams first

Roosters v Tigers – Roosters (The first trimester was a nightmare for tippers everywhere and everyone struggled except the home teams. I’m going for the home teams without a persuasive case to vote otherwise. The tribe has spoken.)

Cowboys v Broncos – Cowboys (The local derby is always hotly contested (can you call a 1000km gap the local derby?) and the last three matches between the teams have been won by the Broncos by margins of 2, 2 and 4. That being said see above rule.)

Warriors v Raiders – Warriors (The Warriors seem to be playing a bit better since sacking their coach. Balance this against the fact they are playing at Eden Park a venue for which they are an ice cold 0-5. That being said see above rule.)

Titans v Rabbitohs – Rabbitohs (I’m breaking ranks on this one. Rabbitohs are desperate now and play the Titans well having defeated them in the last 4 games.)

Storm v Sea Eagles – Storm (This will be a close one especially without Kieran Foran and a hobbled and possibly missing DCE. Going back to the golden rule on this one.)

Knights v Panthers – Knights (Knights v Panthers is a coin toss at the best of times so I’m sticking with home rule.)

Dragons v Bulldogs – Bulldogs (Ladder leaders vs upstarts of 2014 but Bulldogs have good form against St George having won the last four times they have played. Breaking ranks again.)

Eels v Sharks – Eels (Eels trending downwards. Sharks trending upwards. Can’t be dissuaded from breaking the home rule.) 

Last week – No matches 

Season so far – 30/64 

Other Links

Some other interesting links:

This has gone viral already but if you haven’t seen it here is the link for Emma Stone’s lip sync on the Jimmy Fallon Show – Absolute Gold

Pacific Nations Test Deserves Respect

Stay Tuned

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode on Thursday, 15 May 2014 titled ‘2014 NRL First Trimester Report – Down is up and up is down – Part 2’.

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One thought on “2014 NRL First Trimester Report – Down is up and up is down – Part 1

  1. Pingback: 2014 NRL First Trimester Report – Down is up and up is down – Part 2 | The Game of Sport

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