I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many matches as I have seen this year in which coaches have selected players out of position to fill holes caused by injuries and suspensions. In particular the number of back-row forwards who have been playing in the centres and at five-eighth has been astonishing. No doubt many of our back-rowers and forwards have the skills and the athleticism to fill a variety of roles in a team, but just as many are being caught out struggling to adapt to an unfamiliar role. Is it just the impact of the unfair second-tier salary cap that is forcing coaches into these decisions, or is there a growing reluctance among our clubs to risk an inexperienced player in the NRL, even when he would playing in his specialist position? Is it a lack of depth in experienced talent? What message are we sending out to players in the NSW and Queensland Cups when they see positions they play, being continually filled by players who are not all that adept in playing that position? How do we keep those players who are being overlooked motivated? I’m sure there are many factors at play here. I guess many clubs have undoubtedly been left with no other viable choices. However, I do find the game becomes less of a spectacle when we have so many players in the backs who do not have the skill levels we should expect from a genuine NRL backline player.
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Phil Gould and Andrew Webster discuss the drama at the Wests Tigers and speculate on which teams will make the NRL top eight.
Those who witnessed Parramatta’s amazing end-of-season run to a grand final appearance in season 2009 will never forget the form of their brilliant fullback Jarryd Hayne. Rarely have we seen a period of such sustained excellence and dominance from one man change a team’s fortunes and lift them into title contention. I’m not saying such a deep run is possible for the Eels in 2014. However, if you saw the manner in which Hayne blew away the Gold Coast Titans last Saturday night, it rekindled the memories from all those years ago. He was simply outstanding. Over the final six rounds of the competition, the Eels play Sharks (away), Raiders (home), Bulldogs (home), Sea Eagles (home), Knights (away) and Raiders (away). Now, as last weekend’s results showed us, there are no easy games in this competition. But on the face of it, that’s not such a bad draw for the Eels – and if Hayne hits another golden patch of form, the Eels are quite capable of winning them all. It’s a team game I know, but there are some players who can just make things happen all by themselves. Hayne is such a player. The Eels are in with a serious chance.
The Cowboys are finals-bound
When the North Queensland Cowboys lost to the Newcastle Knights late last month following Origin II, it was their seventh successive away defeat, and many were suggesting their season would end after round 26. Since then, though they have won three of their last four – including their last two away from home – and now sit in seventh spot, with their finals destiny in their own hands. With four of their final six matches at home, and three of those against teams outside the eight, the Cowboys are heading for a fourth successive finals campaign. After their eighth successive away loss to the Dragons three weeks ago, the Cowboys slumped to 13th – but such is the nature of this years competition that two successive wins has been enough to lift this team six spots on the table, particularly with so many of its rivals struggling for consistent form. A couple of superb touches from Johnathan Thurston last Saturday night showed yet again what an impact he can have on a game, and why the Cowboys are finals-bound in 2014. When Thurston decides it’s time to win, he makes it obvious with his effort levels on the field of play.
The National Youth Competition is hotting up
Much has been said regarding the tightness of the NRL competition, but the Under-20s NYC is just as competitive. Again we see some real quality teams in this year’s youth competition. I thought Sunday’s clash between the Dragons and Tigers was high-class indeed. As it currently stands, only four premiership points separate the top seven teams, with the top four as of last round all beaten over the weekend. Newcastle still lead the competition on 30 points but there are now four teams (Eels, Roosters, Dragons and Tigers) on 28, with Brisbane now sixth on 27 after losing their last three, and the Storm are now seventh on 26 after winning their last six. The battle for the final spot in the eight is just as competitive. Manly, who are undefeated in their last seven matches, have now climbed into the eight on 23, but have three teams (Warriors, Penrith and Souths) just one point behind them on 22. With six rounds to go, any of that top seven can make the top four and 11 teams are still in the race for the eight. This weekend, the third-placed Roosters play the fourth-placed Dragons, fifth-placed Wests Tigers play seventh-placed Melbourne, whilst the sixth-placed Broncos travel to Sydney to play the eighth-placed Sea Eagles. It should be another gripping round.
Injuries will again play their part
Premierships are so hard to win. You have to do a lot of things right over a long period of time. You also need a fair splash of luck on the injury front at the back end of the season. The teams that can field as close as possible to their top side in the run to the finals and throughout September will have the advantage in the bigger matches. Already we have a number of top-eight contenders battling away with patched-up sides, looking to qualify for the play-offs. The Cowboys and the Bulldogs are two clubs that have been hit hardest by injuries over the middle third of the season, but they are about to welcome back a number of influential players in the coming weeks in time for the run to the play-offs. During round 20, a number of clubs have been dealt cruel injury blows. Sonny Bill Williams for the Roosters and John Sutton and Sam Burgess for the Rabbitohs will be cause for concern for those clubs. The good news is that both teams are well placed for a finals berth and it appears all players will be back before that time. The biggest blow of all was the loss of halfback Peter Wallace for the Panthers with a season-ending knee injury. Peter had only just returned to action after a month out with a different knee problem. His leadership and experience will be sorely missed.
The Warriors will come with a rush
One team I know will come with a rush at the important end of the season is the New Zealand Warriors. Their effort against leaders Manly on Sunday despite the late withdrawal of key players Shaun Johnson and Feleti Mateo was praiseworthy and suggests to me they are in good shape for an August assault. Their draw is a good one, too. They play Raiders (away), Sharks (home), Knights (away), Roosters (home), Titans (home) and finish with Panthers (away). Their form at home is very good and they are always hard to beat at Mt Smart Stadium. For mine, their fate will come down to their ability to win away from home. If they don’t win enough games to make the top four, they would have to win four finals matches away from home to win the premiership. Many experts say this is beyond them. In this competition, though, I’m not so sure they can’t. The Warriors do more travel throughout the course of a season than all the other NRL teams combined. They do a great job considering. Anyway, it all starts for them this Sunday afternoon in Canberra. If they can run up a big number on the poor old Raiders, it will make a strong statement about their intentions. I think the Warriors have the potential to worry all teams in this year’s finals series.
Phil Gould is the general manager of the Penrith Panthers.