1. Struggling Cowboys
After a fast finish to their 2013 season and an unlucky exit from the finals, the Cowboys were handed a very favourable draw for the start of the 2014 competition. They were set to play their first five matches in their home state, including three of their first five at their home ground; and their first four opponents were all teams that missed last year’s finals series.
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However, despite not having to leave Queensland, the Cowboys have enjoyed only one win in their first month of football. That sole victory was a very scrappy five tries to four win over Canberra in Townsville, a ground where the Raiders have not won since 2006.
The Cowboys have scored just seven tries in the three games since that opening victory. This is now the 12th time in 20 seasons the Cowboys have failed to win more than one of their first four games.
Unless they improve sharply it will be 14 times in 20 seasons that the Cowboys don't qualify for the semi-finals.
2. Let's just wait and see
Many in the game continue to philosophise about the effect of this year’s rule changes and what impact these new interpretations will have on team selections each week, not to mention future recruitment and retention strategies. I’ve seen some games where the speed of play is definitely quicker for short periods of time during the match. However, I'm yet to be convinced the game has changed so dramatically that clubs will need to make radical changes to the type of players they need to recruit to be successful.
Experts have been signalling the death of the big man in rugby league for over four decades now. I still think the big guys have a very important place in our game. That’s just my opinion. But the one thing of which I am certain is that no logical conclusions can be reached after only four rounds of football played in the hot weather of March.
As we roll into the cooler months and players become match hardened, we will get a much clearer perspective on how certain players have adapted to the rule changes.
I don’t think we are seeing a revolution within our game. More likely, we are witnessing a minor adjustment in its continuing evolution.
3. Bottom's up
Ever since the NRL expanded the competition to 16 teams in 2007, at least one team from the previous year’s bottom four has progressed to the next year’s semi-final series. The Sydney Roosters have twice in the past four years gone from the bottom four to grand finalists.
Last year’s bottom four – Wests Tigers, St George Illawarra, Parramatta and Canberra – have all won at least two of their first four matches in 2014. All have shown glimpses of form at various stages to indicate they could improve sufficiently from last year to press for a finals spot this season.
But which of these teams will be the biggest improver? Wests Tigers have some outstanding young backs, but consistency is always the major test for players with limited experience.
Parramatta also have a highly talented back line, but given they haven't won away from home since June 2012, I think we'll need to see some away wins before we can really talk up their chances.
On the other hand, Canberra haven't missed the finals for two consecutive seasons since 1985-86. That’s an extraordinary record. The Raiders have already won two of three away games this year, which is a great sign for them. They also have a budding superstar on their roster called Anthony Milford. They are a genuine chance.
Finally, the Dragons, despite their home loss to the Broncos, seem to be a vastly improved outfit from the one that won just four of their last 18 games in 2013. Their big test is coming, though. They play three of last year’s top-four sides during April. We will learn plenty about the 2014 Dragons during this next month of football.
I'm pretty sure the trend of at least one bottom four team advancing to the semi-finals in their next season is set to continue. Who do you think it will be?
4. High-flyers grounded
One area of the game in which referees need to be far more vigilant is the illegal blocking or running kick chasers off the ball by defensive players when opposing teams put up those cross-field attacking bombs for their high-flying wingers.
On numerous occasions this season, I’ve seen attacking players denied fair passage to compete for the ball simply because opposing defenders are deliberately changing direction to block their running. The sight of our many athletic outside backs in the game jumping high into the air to retrieve the attacking bomb can be a great spectacle.
We have some wonderfully skilled players in this regard. It is therefore understandable that clubs will try to minimise the effectiveness of these athletes and do all they can to thwart them.
I think it imperative our on-field officials ensure that the methods used by clubs to counter the high-flyers are within the rules of the game. From what I've seen this season, these battles for possession have hardly been fair.
5. Well, shut my mouth
There was only ever going to be one outcome this week following the bizarre statement from Sharks forward Andrew Fifita that he wished he’d gone to rugby union rather than sign a monstrous new deal with the Canterbury Bulldogs.
I was stunned when I read the headlines quoting Fifita. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. However, almost immediately I started counting the seconds until we got a reaction from the Bulldogs' hierarchy. I didn’t expect the Canterbury club I’ve always known to stand for such disrespect. Sure enough, first thing Monday morning, the Bulldogs delivered the message we were all anticipating.
Some players just need to learn when to speak and when to bite their tongue. Well done to the Bulldogs. They never accept second place for anyone. I’m pretty sure Fifita would like to have the last seven days over again. Hopefully, it’s a case of lesson learnt.
The game and the club are far more important than the individual.
6. Souths need to dig deep
The Rabbitohs have been outstanding over the past few seasons and brought a lot of joy to their fans. Right now, though, they are going through something of a struggle as they try to find themselves for the 2014 season. They started the year brilliantly with a great win over the Roosters, but since that time they have put in three pretty mediocre performances.
Supporters must be left scratching their heads as to why things have suddenly turned so sour. Every team goes through this at one time or another. Most clubs in this competition struggle to find high-level consistency from week to week, let alone produce the kind of football the Rabbitohs have delivered for the past two seasons. The window of opportunity for success in this competition is very small. The way the salary cap punishes success these days means that when you finally put together a group of players with the talent to challenge for a title, you have to nail it because chances are your time at the top will be limited.
South Sydney still has a player roster and a coach more than capable of winning this year’s title. They just need to regroup and re-establish their commitment to some basics of the game to get themselves back on track. Don’t write them off.