We’re three rounds out from the finals, so can the Rabbitohs get themselves back in title contention and who should be the coach of the year? And talking of coaches, who the hell should the Knights get in?
Meanwhile, are the Storm getting away with too many dirty tricks and will a transfer window fix the player contract dramas?
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WHO SHOULD GET THE KNIGHTS JOB?
Brunsdon: Shane Flanagan. Controversial, and some would not agree with it, but if the NRL is prepared to give him another crack he could be the perfect man to lead Newcastle to a title. He’s worked with Jayden Brailey and Edrick Lee, and has proven to be successful as a coach at that level.
Dean: Anthony Griffin. I still reckon he copped the rough end of the stick at Penrith — how many coaches get sacked when their team’s fifth on the ladder? He brings plenty of experience that could compliment the stars on the club’s roster.
St John: Anthony Griffin. Tough experienced coach who can whip the Knights into shape. Griffin has a point to prove after being sacked by the Panthers and this is a good time to be getting him with his next opportunity in the NRL potentially his last if he can’t make it work. That is motivation enough for the former Broncos and Panthers mentor.
Clarke: Shaun Wane. Forget that he hasn’t coached in the NRL, the former Wigan coach is the most qualified candidate on the market and has recently expressed his interest in working in Australia.
The one thing Newcastle lack is a winning mentality and a bit of mongrel.
Wane has that in spades along with five major trophies and an incredible track record for developing young talent. None of the other coaches come close in terms of experience. Newcastle wouldn’t be the nearly men, they would win and win well with Wane at the helm.
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ARE MELBOURNE GETTING AWAY WITH TOO MANY DIRTY TACTICS?
Brunsdon: Short answer? Yes. Long answer? Every team in the NRL is trying to do the same thing. Josh McGuire has been penalised three times this season for rubbing the eyes of opponents but you can almost guarantee he’s not the only one doing that, either. The fact is if the on-field referees see an issue they will deal with it under NRL law. Either the NRL and Commission toughen up the rules around niggling tactics, or it will continue to happen. Coaches and players will always bend the line.
Dean: Yes, but everyone does it. I don’t believe they try to maim opposition players though.
St John: I think they are, but the problem lies in the NRL’s policing of these illegal tactics. If we want to get them out of the game for good the directives need to be clear and the punishments need to be harsh. Those changes should probably be made after the grand final so that teams have a whole off-season to get used to the new rules. Then if someone gets caught for doing one of these illegal wrestling moves ban them for 10 weeks and fine them. No one is going to do it if they risk missing half a season and getting a large fine. The focus is on the Storm because rightly or wrongly the perception is that they introduced wrestling coaches to the NRL. If you want to put an end to wrestling tactics then outlaw wrestling manoeuvres from the game.
Clarke: Unpopular view here, but sport is about bending — or even breaking — the rules in a contest to win. Whether that’s anything from doping to ball-tampering, or diving in football, it’s about how you get away with it. The Storm are doing just that, having mastered the art of wrestling. They’re not alone in wrestling — everybody else does it, yet complain the Storm do it. They complain because the Storm are better. The only way you can eradicate the wrestle is introduce rules, such as only two men in the tackle. But then how do you police that? It would descend into farce.
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CAN THE RABBITOHS STILL WIN THE PREMIERSHIP?
Brunsdon: Yes. Wayne Bennett’s “terminal” comment last week was designed to put a rocket up his players, publicly. South Sydney has the cattle on its roster to punch with the heavyweights. If it all comes together at the right time they can do it.
Dean: Doesn’t look like it at the moment. They lacked serious spark against Canterbury, while their injury toll isn’t helping their cause either. Cody Walker and Adam Reynolds desperately need to find the form that saw the team firing at the start of the season. But that could prove hard when they’ve got busted forwards like Sam Burgess trying to play through injury.
St John: In their current state no. It is an inescapable fact that the premiers each season are usually the team that has the most number of fit players still standing at the end of the year. The Rabbitohs have lost Greg Inglis to retirement and had long-term injuries to Braidon Burns and Alex Johnston this year. Adam Reynolds and Sam Burgess are playing hurt and George Burgess is suspended. If they can get everyone back on the park and healthy they have the roster to do some damage in the finals, particularly if they can get themselves back into the all important top four. If they can’t their season is over along with the other 11 teams that miss the top four.
Clarke: I feel like they are spluttering towards September and will crash out at the first hurdle. The club has tried to paper over their worrying form with Wayne Bennett declaring he wants to coach Queensland and Shane Richardson taking a pop at the Storm. Those are sound bites to distract from their post-Origin slide. Players are playing busted and it would be surprising if they can arrest this slide and lift the shield this season.
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WHO SHOULD BE NAMED COACH OF THE YEAR?
Brunsdon: Des Hasler. Many people looked at that Manly roster in March and were prepared to write the Sea Eagles off (me included). The man is a genius.
Dean: Des Hasler. The bloke’s worked wonders at Manly with a roster that wasn’t expected to even contend for the top eight.
St John: It is neck and neck between Des Hasler and Brad Arthur. Whoever finishes higher on the ladder out of the Eels and Sea Eagles, that coach probably deserves the chocolates. The Eels are coming off a wooden spoon last season, while Manly finished second last. Manly currently sit fourth, with the Eels in sixth. I believe Manly have more star players on their books, so if Arthur can get the same amount of wins as Hasler with essentially the same roster as last season then he probably deserves the gong. Ricky Stuart gets an honourable mention, but given from where their teams have come from Hasler and Arthur should battle it out for the coach of the year gong.
Clarke: Special mentions to Brad Arthur and Ricky Stuart, but Des Hasler’s Manly have really impressed.
He has turned a rag-tag set of misfits into a team of contenders. Reuben Garrick, Brad Parker and Jack Gosiewski have all thrived at Brookvale and now Manly sit fourth on the ladder. After the season they had in 2018, can it really be anybody but Des?
WOULD BRINGING BACK THE PUNCH HELP ALLEVIATE ‘NIGGLE’?
Brunsdon:It might. But it’s an absurd suggestion and it will never, ever happen. The game will not go backwards in relation to punching. With a focus on brain health and head injuries now everyone is better off without punching in rugby league.
Dean: A case could be argued that it could even further encourage players to niggle. But it won’t happen. End of story.
St John: Probably, but it is never going to happen and nor should it. Imagine the NRL putting out a directive to go back on their own decision and reintroduce punching into the game. It won’t happen. The onus is on the players. It is a physical game and there are plenty of legal ways to get the better of your opponent with big hits in defence. The niggling comes into the game when players get tired and frustrated, so it is always going to be there to some degree, but punishing players for illegal acts will hopefully deter players from doing them.
Clarke: If you want to see people punch, go and watch boxing.
WOULD A TRANSFER WINDOW BE BENEFICIAL TO THE NRL?
Brunsdon:If only fans could see the wheelings and dealings going on constantly behind closed doors. Conversations, negotiating with contracted players, player managers speaking to people … it will never be stopped. What a window hopes to do is eliminate the chances of a player signing with a rival 12 months in advance. If Wayne Bennett and the coaches are for it then it will probably happen sooner rather than later.
St John: Yes I believe it would. I don’t know how you police any wheeling and dealing that goes on outside the transfer windows, but at least no signing announcements will be made outside the designated periods and that is a positive for fans. The game’s fans deserve to know who is in their team and for how long for the majority of the year outside these windows. Limiting the time for conjecture over where players will sign each season is a positive for the game’s lifeblood, which is the fans.
Dean: The June 30 deadline feels a bit like one at the moment, but a transfer window will bring a bit of structure to things. Regardless, news of impending player movements will still leak.
Clarke: The transfer window — midway through the season and running through all of January in football — is one of the best spectacles in the calendar year. Desperate clubs fight for players and pay overs, other clubs don’t strengthen and it comes back to bite them. How would it help the NRL? It could, in theory, make the signings more entertaining if you gave a window up until Round 3 which reopens for two weeks after Origin III. The downside is that if your club is whacked by injuries in a key area while the window is closed, you can spend months toiling until you can strengthen. In rugby league that can be fatal.