All Hail the New Rules: The NRL, for the most part, has done an exceptional job over the summer with the sensational Auckland Nines, the announcement of a record profit and a clear direction relating to off-field misdemeanours. Their best move though was introducing some rules relating to speeding the game up and player safety. They have, for the most part, been excellent. The best is the re-introduction of the quick tap. Johnathan Thurston’s magnificent solo try showed how exciting a quick tap can be. Not allowing captains to continually question referees has also been a godsend. Well done to the NRL for taking the power away from coaches and putting the interests of the game first.
Tigers in Trouble: The Wests Tigers were my tip for the wooden spoon pre-season and their performance against an ordinary St George Illawarra side merely confirmed their destiny. The Tigers will struggled to reach four wins this year on their Round 1 showing. They again showed their proclivity for injury and highlighted their lack of depth by playing mugs like Anasta, Blair, Paterson and Lulia. It is going to be a tough year in Tigertown.
Best Bleed Ever: Bryce Gibbs was flowing like the Ganges on Monday night. I wasn’t sure whether I was watching League or Abdullah the Butcher.
Down, Down, Down: All the talk over the weekend has been about the disappointing crowds and the poor television ratings. Crowds did not reach expectation for the Thursday and Friday night clashes while the television ratings were down. There is no doubt the numbers for the opening week are highly disappointing. Scheduling is no doubt central to it and this weekend has shown the foolishness of looking at a centralised stadiums policy. Suburban grounds are one of the great competitive advantages the NRL has and we must not let those go by the wayside.
Silly Sharks: Cronulla are playing a very dangerous game by allowing Shane Flanagan to coach by defacto. Flanagan can argue all he likes that he was just watching his kid play but he was in a box six hours after that finished to run his eye over the top grade team. The NFL was stringent when it barred Sean Payton and the NRL must do the same to Flanagan. And the Sharks, regardless of whether they believe Flanagan is guilty or not, cannot afford to be complicit in allowing Flanagan to skirt his punishment. Cronulla should be grateful the NRL has been measured in its punishment and not poke and prod until the whole ante is upped.
Five Players to Watch: Expect big years from the following youngsters who are set for breakout seasons:
James Tedesco: Injury free, Tedesco starred at the Auckland Nines and is in for a big year with his speed back up to what it can be.
Adam Reynolds: For some reason Reynolds has become a maligned figure. He struggled in one game last year. He is the best halfback in NSW and showed that on Thursday night.
Josh Starling: The young prop couldn’t get a run at the Bunnies but will thrive with regular footy at Manly. He is tough and competitive.
Dane Gagai: If he can stay out of trouble off the field and his playmakers don’t continue to break down inside him, Gagai will take his game to the next level.
Matt Moylan: The Penrith fullback has beautiful touch and as the established fullback will thrive in what shapes as a good team.
Mini Mess: Anthony Minichiello is the face of the NRL in 2014, the captain of the Roosters, a decorated and popular figure in Rugby League. His position as the Roosters’ fullback needs to come under severe scrutiny after turning in an absolute shocker in the season opener. Minichiello made just 40 metres to go with two handling errors in an ineffective performance that ensured the Roosters could not muster any momentum. With Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in the team, a big decision may need to be made and soon. Mini does not want to go out like Ben Hornby.
Cronk Out, Roberts In: Has there ever been a bigger disparity in talent and ability than Cooper Cronk withdrawing and Ben Roberts replacing him?
Thursday Night Footy: A sensational concept but it needs to start significantly earlier than 8.10pm. More nights of footy are great but the timing needs to be looked at.
Direct Trains: Well done to the NRL for ensuring direct trains from Central and Penrith to ANZ Stadium. The ground is a nightmare to get to and those wanting a beer are more likely to stay at the pub than change at Lidcombe. Direct trains are a smart move.
Buzz Loves Rugby Union: That is the only explanation for his ridiculous decision to name Sonny Bill Williams the best player in the NRL. The so-called journalist has clearly never seen Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith or Greg Inglis play Rugby League.
The Punters Guide to the 2014 NRL Season. If you don’t get yourself a copy of my fine tome The Punters Guide to the 2014 NRL Season you’ve not only let yourself, your family, your friends and your community down, you’ve let Rugby League down. Nobody wants to let the great game down now. Get your copy at any good newsagency or online at the iTunes store.
Modern Rugby League: Like the great Modern Seinfeld Twitter feed, this week we look at Rugby League’s best from the past and how they would survive in today’s game.
Roy Masters and his entire Western Suburbs team are chastised by the NRL for their pre-game face slapping with NRL football boss Todd Greenberg saying it breaches concussion protocol. Graeme Langlands shocks the Rugby League world by wearing plain black boots. John Elias tries to sign for en eighth Sydney club but the League’s integrity committee puts the kibosh on it. Parramatta pull out the ‘flying wedge’ move but incredibly head in the wrong direction with a line dropout resulting.
Fun Fact #1: Craig Bellamy has now won 10 consecutive season openers.
Fun Fact #2: Jamie Soward refers to himself not only in the third person but as Jimmy Chow.
Fun Fact #3: The Broncos used just three subs for a total of just 70 minutes in their win over Canterbury.
Rumour Mill: Canterbury are supposedly in front in the chase to sign prop Andrew Fifita and winger Peta Hiku. Both would be excellent signings, particularly Fifita, who was named as the top player in the game by this author last year. The pursuit of Fifita suggests workhorse James Graham is likely headed elsewhere. South Sydney is his likely destination. Promising hooker Michael Lichaa will be a Bulldog next year for sure and certain. Those hoping to see John Sila in first grade this year should think again. He is very much on the outs with the coaching staff. Brisbane are negotiating with Parramatta about signing Eels reserve grader Chris Sandow. The concern will be Sandow’s $500,000 contract and how significantly over market price that deal is. Don’t be surprised to see Mark O’Meley return to the NRL with Manly this year. The Eagles are short on props and O’Meley has just signed with NSW Cup team Wyong.
What I Love About … Paul Green: The new Cowboys coach is off to a magnificent start in Townsville but it should come as no surprise after his sparkling apprenticeship that saw him win two Queensland Cups and assist in the Roosters’ premiership. Green has not been handed anything. He has worked hard to earn it like all the great coaches. He has delivered the Cowboys its first piece of silverware and will take North Queensland a long way.
Funniest Eels Moment of the Week: The naming of the most obscure – and perhaps worst – backrow imaginable. Ben Smith was pulled off the scrapheap. Kenny Edwards has risen post-Ricky Stuart. Chairman Ma’u learnt his style in prison. Amazing.
Betting Market of the Week: With Newcastle’s spate of key position injuries, they will recall:
$3.00 – Craig Gower
$4.00 – Danny Buderus
$5.00 – Robbie McCormack
$5.50 – Gary Wurth (plus his mo and headgear)
- South Sydney 1-0
- Melbourne 1-0
- Penrith 1-0
- Manly 0-1
- North Queensland 1-0
- Sydney Roosters 0-1
- Gold Coast 1-0
- Brisbane 1-0
- St George Illawarra 1-0
- Parramatta 1-0
- Canberra 0-1
- Canterbury 0-1
- Newcastle 0-1
- New Zealand 0-1
- Cronulla 0-1
- Wests Tigers 0-1
Ricky Stuart Stat of the Week: Ricky Stuart’s teams are now 15-51 since 2009.
The Coaching Crosshairs: Brisbane coach Anthony Griffin kept the dogs at bay with a surprise win at ANZ Stadium against Canterbury. Despite being on very shaky ground, I think Griffin is an adequate coach without being outstanding. There are certainly other coaches – I’m looking firmly at Canberra, Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra – who need to punt their mentor before the Broncos. The win on Friday night might ensure that happens.
Game of the Year Nomination, Round 1: Manly-Melbourne, 22-23. Do the Sea Eagles and Storm ever play a bad game? They put on another classic on Saturday night at Brookvale. Manly dominated the first half and went up 22-4 before the Storm launched a stirring comeback. In a damaging opening 15 minutes of the second stanza. Cameron Smith then kicked the winning drop goal five minutes into Golden Point. An absolute ripper.
Beard Watch: This column has zero like – and minimal respect – for Sonny Bill Williams but credit where credit is due: his pencil moustache is marvellous. Not since David Trewhella have we seen such a formidable mo.
Watch It: It has been 45 years since the famous 1969 decider between Balmain and South Sydney and it is a Grand Final well worth watching. These were two great teams and the Tigers were inspirational in their win. Five-eighth Dave Bolton was marvellous while the physicality of what is considered the greatest Grand Final upset ever is well worth reliving. Watch it here.