Lovebirds: It was with a fair bit of shock – and a good deal of yelling – that I was met with quite a scene on Friday night at the Sydney Football Stadium with NRL boss David Smith and bollocks beater and all-round hypocrite Phil Rothfield enjoying each other’s company throughout all of the finals match between the Bunnies and Sea Eagles. They spent the entire game together, locked in conversation about god-knows what, the ruddy-faced beat-up merchant and the bookish merchant banker chit-chatting and snacking on sushi while fans looked on in astonishment. David Smith has no reason to cosy up to a scribe who garners little respect and is ascribed zero value. Phil Rothfield, only weeks ago, labelled Smith a disgrace and is now sucking down free Crown Lagers on the NRL’s ticket. What exactly does Rothfield have in the News Limited vault that has the NRL willing to kowtow to such a low-rent hack? Smith is doing a reasonable job with the game but there have to be questions asked if he is willing to knock about with Rothfield … blackmail or no blackmail.
The Menace: Of course Michael Ennis’ headrub of Cameron Smith was disrespectful. It is hard to believe this is even an argument. Ennis has shown no respect to anybody. He was clearly trying to rattle Smith and the Storm and it well and truly worked. It may not be right, it may not be wrong but it is exactly who Michael Ennis is and what he stands for.
Brutal Assessments from Finals Week 1:
Manly: The Sea Eagles were an absolute rabble and were flattered by the final score of 40-24. They were down 40-0, they were decimated through the middle. Now two hookers down, playing a winger on the bench, divided … it is hard to see them bouncing back. They have not played well for five weeks.
South Sydney: Souths have the right mix of power and potency to win it all. They just need to overcome the weight of history and the ill-fortune of landing on the wrong side of the draw thanks to the Roosters’ surprise loss. Adam Reynolds has been the scapegoat the last two seasons but his kicking game and organisation is going to be key to any premiership push. Inglis and Sutton are out-of-touch but Sam Burgess is playing like the best player in the comp.
Sydney Roosters: Hubris is a funny thing and it got the best of the Chooks on Saturday evening. The game against Penrith was there to be won but they just couldn’t land the killer blow. The big names were off – Maloney, Sonny Bill, Minichiello. Pearce was very good. There were some bad signs though they can still very much win the premiership. Getting Jake Friend back will be critical.
Penrith: The biggest winners of the opening weekend of the finals are no doubt Penrith, who are now 80 minutes from a Grand Final berth. The five-year plan of Ivan Cleary is ahead of schedule and on the good side of the draw they are the most likely to advance. The Panthers have two things working for them: they are the best-drilled and most disciplined team in the NRL and they are full of confidence. To get to a prelim with their injury list – and their glaring weaknesses – is a credit to Ivan Cleary.
North Queensland: There was a lot to like about the Cowboys’ win. And there was a lot in it to suggest they will again fall short of their premiership aspirations. The good involved the sharp edge running, the ability of all players to create in attack, the form of Johnathan Thurston. The bad involved high levels of stupidity led by Tariq Sims (no surprises!), a second-half switch-off and the worrying form of James Tamou.
Brisbane: The Anthony Griffin Era is over. The Broncos did nothing this year to suggest they deserved a finals win and so it came to pass.
Melbourne: They will no doubt come to regret the arrogance that led them to believe they could make a top grader out of Ben Roberts.
Canterbury: If the Bulldogs were a racehorse, there would be cries of ‘ring-in’ after their dramatic form turnaround against the Storm. In a first half blitzkrieg not seen from the Bulldogs in months, Canterbury blew the Storm off the paddock. They played with speed and they played direct and it worked. Now on the kind side of the draw, the Bulldogs are remarkably back in the title hunt.
The Book of NRL Lists: Do you love Rugby League? How about lists? How about the man who writes this rambling prose each and every week, just for you? Well, the answer is yes to any of those three questions, you should check out The Book of NRL Lists, written by myself and the fabulous Will Evans. If there is a topic, we have a list on it. Who doesn’t want to know who the NRL’s greatest drug cheat is or who is University’s greatest player? If you answered yes to all three questions I can only assume you are stalking me so I just ask this: please don’t cut my hair off in my sleep and buy the book! It is perfect for Father’s Day … even if it is a little late. Check it out here.
Thank You Ben Roberts: It is about time Ben Roberts finally won the Bulldogs a finals game. His performance for the Storm in Sunday’s finals loss was typical Roberts – hot-headed, dumb, messy. Tick, tick, tick, boom. Even the great Craig Bellamy can’t take the moron out of Roberts.
Fun Fact #1: Only two coaches remaining in the premiership have yet to coach a Grand Final – Michael Maguire and Paul Green.
Fun Fact #2: Matt Elliott has the worst finals record of any coach in premiership history with a 0-7 record.
Fun Fact #3: Billy Slater leads all active players in finals appearances with 26 ahead of Jamie Lyon, Anthony Minichiello, Cameron Smith and Corey Parker on 25.
Rumour Mill: Anthony Watmough will be playing for Parramatta next season, while Brett Stewart will be wearing blue and white in 2015. Don’t be surprised to see Steve Matai end up at either the Warriors or Sharks. Blake Austin is the latest who could renege on a deal to join Ricky Stuart and the Canberra Raiders. Terry Campese is expected to make a shift to Cronulla next year. Darius Boyd and Newcastle are on a collision course with the Knights rightly set to refuse to pay Boyd out and release him. Expect English billionaire Marwan Koukash to take the reins of Newcastle by the end of the month in a huge coup for the Knights. Ben Hannant will be joining the Gold Coast Titans in 2015, no risk. The NRL is set to introduce an external draft in 2016.
Betting Market of the Week: When Anthony Watmough is suspended this week, Manly fans will:
$101: Accept the decision with good grace and class
$2.70: Whinge and moan about an NRL conspiracy
$1.40: Whinge and moan about an NRL conspiracy and not show up to their home elimination final on Saturday night.
What I Like About … Jamie Soward: I have nearly always been the sole rider on the Jamie Soward bandwagon so it was fantastic to see one of the game’s most compelling characters orchestrate a victory against the club that shunned him so many years back. There are few more curious players in the NRL than Soward and there are certainly few who rely so much on quality coaching and personal confidence. Soward is a champion, a legitimate match-winner and it was brilliant to see him play the hero once more.
Funniest Eels Moment of the Week: Parramatta have signed Anthony Watmough to a sizable three-year deal … from 2016. Watmough turned 31 this year and will be beyond 35 when his deal concludes in 2018. He also has a heap of miles on his legs with 286 top grade games. If he does see out the next deal and maintains full health, he will become the game’s most capped player.
1. South Sydney 16-9 (2)
2. Sydney Roosters 16-9 (1)
3. Penrith 16-9 (4)
4. North Queensland 15-10 (5)
5. Canterbury 14-11 (8)
6. Manly 16-9 (3)
The Coaching Crosshairs: With Mick Potter set to be dumped and Todd Payten to be overlooked at the Wests Tigers, the possibility has been raised that Tim Sheens could return to the club as a head coach. While it would seem highly unlikely after legal action between the club and former coach just finished, it is a salivating possibility.
Ricky Stuart Stat of the Week: Ricky Stuart has coached fewer finals victories since 2005 than David Furner.
Game of the Year Nomination, Finals Week 1: Sydney Roosters-Penrith, 18-19. What a downright classic, an old-fashioned last minute finals upset that will last long in the memory. Jamie Soward’s heroics proved once again it was Steve Price who made a mess of the Dragons and not Soward. He dominated general play. He kicked conversions from the sideline. He nailed the field goal late. It was a final for the ages.
Correspondence Corner: Davey G, how the referee let Corey Parker kick for goal is astonishing. Jason King’s Origin selection was a joke at the time and remains so.
Troy, I must say, I did have a chuckle when I heard Stephen Kearney was in the coaching mix.
Mike Butterfield, I totally agree. It is so frustrating foul play gets no penalty but professional fouls do.
Gazza, the new zero tackle rule is another example of the NRL ham-fisting a good idea without thinking of all the possibilities.
Beard Watch: One of Rugby League’s great beards has returned in recent weeks with Frank Pritchard again turning out in his farewell stint for the Bulldogs. Pritchard’s beard may well just be Canterbury’s good luck charm.
Watch It: With Canterbury and Manly set to do battle in the second week of the finals, we go back to 1995, when the two teams met in the premiership decider and the mighty Bulldogs staged one of the great Grand Final upsets. Watch it here.