Preparing for the First Sunday in October, Preparing for a Bulldogs Win: The NRL Midseason Review (Part Two)

Filed in Other by on December 10, 2010

The hammer is coming down, dear reader, the deadline draws near. After a four day consumption binge following Origin I where old favourites and new associates flew in from across the country to partake in the festivities of a rugby league carnival, time has been against your author. So we will get straight into it….part two of the NRL midseason review.

Canberra Raiders
Prediction: 8th
Pre-season Prediction: 6th
Best: Harrison, Campese, Tongue, Shillington
Disappointing: Purtell, Tilse, Graham, Flanagan, Picker

Inconsistency and a failure to play direct football in the middle-third have been the major problems for the Raiders this season and new coach David Furner must accept the blame for both. He has chopped and changed his team all season with little rhyme or reason to same while the sharp and direct ball playing up the centre of the field that worked so effectively last year has been hardly seen in 2009. Furner’s decision to drop David Milne when Milne was one of the best kick returners in the NRL was odd but just as peculiar was his decision to recall him a month after handing exciting prospect Josh Dugan his first grade debut. All the while hideously out-of-form outside backs Adrian Purtell, Phil Graham and Justin Carney remained in the top grade. More concerning, however, has been the side-to-side football the Raiders have played for much of 2009. The Raiders made a run in 2008 through hard running up the middle combined with an exchange of short passes and plenty of men in motion. They need to play that style more frequently. Hopefully Furner has learnt from his mistakes as the Raiders certainly have the ability to make the eight. Bronson Harrison has been one of the premier backrowers in the NRL this year and has been a constant threat on the fringes. Terry Campese, for most of the year, has been a dominant figure. And David Shillington has provided more effective go-forward than Tilse, Logan or Thompson. The Raiders just need to become a little more fearsome at home and a little more direct with the ball and they can be there in September.

North Queensland Cowboys
Prediction: 7th
Pre-season Prediction: 12th
Best: Thurston, Payne, O’Donnell, Bowen
Disappointing: Webb, Kaufusi, Manuokafoa, Harris

The Cowboys started the season like a drunken politician, stumbling around and full of excuses. They lost four of their first five matches and another 2008 seemed to be on the agenda. All the hoopla of Neil Henry’s arrival seemed to shatter before everyone’s eyes. Thurston was stuck to playing one side of the field and seemed frustrated. Big name recruits were providing nothing but heartache and aggravation. The forward pack looked like it had an underbelly as soft as the Fat Controller’s. The backline seemed incapable of scoring points. And then the Cowboys had a kill against the Sharks, the shackles were released off Thurston and the Cowboys have been firing ever since, winning six of their last seven. In all six of those wins the Cowboys scored at least four tries and only allowed more than two tries against the Dragons. At home they are scoring big and on the road they are starting to show some gumption. The Cowboys have the capability to beat nearly any team in the competition but they also have the ability to lose to anyone. It is that wide variation in performance that will cost them in September. The Origin period will also hurt the Cowboys as they are still a one man band. If Thurston goes down, don’t expect the Cowboys to win until he gets back. They are certainly a team who can’t be bet for anything but they are talented enough to return to the finals.

Manly Sea Eagles
Prediction: 6th
Pre-season Prediction: 4th
Best: Lyon, G. Stewart, Kite, D.Williams
Disappointing: Bailey, Orford, T. Williams, Perry

The premiership hangover has seemingly been fairly brutal. There has been a good deal of vomiting, a woodpecker-inspired headache that just won’t quit and an inability to get a firm hold of reality. It was worse than the comedown from a 72 hour binge in Vegas. Arrogance has got the best of Manly this season and only some of it is related to the playing group. The board is split and the owners are engaged in a spiteful public duel that has provided no fatalities but plenty of casualties. The coach has constantly taken a position that the league is out to stop the Eagles, a position that has allowed his players to abscond from their responsibilities. And players such as Perry, Watmough and Orford entered the season believing they were destined to be the top team, buying into the hype and disregarding the work that got them to the dance in 2008. If it wasn’t for Jamie Lyon, the Eagles could be staring down the barrel of a bottom four finish. Lyon has stepped up, however, and had his finest season on Australian soil, creating tries for himself and others. The halves remain a major concern as Orford’s drop in form has been alarming and Chris Bailey simply isn’t a number six. The Eagles should have enough talent to advance to the finals, at a minimum, with the possibility of winning one or two if Brett Stewart returns fit and healthy. Don’t expect them to go back-to-back, however. The distractions are too great and the attitude too poor for them to go the distance.

Newcastle Knights
Prediction: 5th
Pre-season Prediction: 10th
Best: Gidley, Mullen, Taia, De Gois, McManus, Houston
Disappointing: Cross, Wicks, Paterson, Ndaira

The Knights have been the surprise packets of the year, a club membership in your Santa bag when you were expecting socks and underwear that doesn’t fit. They have played some brilliant attacking football this year and now have one of the top four backlines in the competition with such depth in their outside backs that the likes of Wes Naiqama and Cooper Vuna cannot break into the top team. Kurt Gidley has again been without peer in terms of effort and talent but it is the progression of Jarrod Mullen that has the Knights in a prime position to play finals football for the first time since 2006. Special mentions need also to be made about Zeb Taia and Chris Houston. Two Brian Smith recruits, Taia and Houston have had career years. Taia has developed into an elite running backrower who is as lethal on the fringes as any backrower in the competition while Houston has matured into a leader who seems destined to fill the Steve Simpson role for many years. Brian Smith was drilled like Sasha Grey when he swept a broom through the club in 2007 but his hard-assed attitude has proven to be correct. Brian Smith is now revered with the same adulation in the Hunter as Gordon Ramsey now is among rugby league fans. While Brian Smith has been a saviour at Newcastle, he does have an upper limit. He can build clubs from the bottom but he is not a pressure coach who can get his teams up in September. A season of intensity has usually taken its toll by September and his ordinary finals record of 12-13 with three lost Grand Finals tells a pretty straight tale of a team worn down by long seasons of intense coaching and the pressure of the occasion. Newcastle are definitely a team on the up but they are probably a level below the Broncos and a couple of slots below the top three contenders.

Brisbane Broncos
Prediction: 4th
Pre-season Prediction: 5th
Best: Folau, Parker, Wallace, Hunt, Thaiday, Kenny
Disappointing: Clinton, Gorrell, Taylor, Sims, Teo, Setu

The Broncos are a team at the crossroads at the moment and the real mettle of Ivan Henjak will be tested over the next six weeks. The Broncos jumped from the blocks, winning six of their first seven matches including three straight road wins. It seemed like the transition from the Bennett era was going as smoothly as it possibly could. And then Brisbane got touched up by Newcastle on the night of Darren Lockyer’s 300th match and then followed bad losses to Manly and Melbourne over the last month, the latter one of Brisbane’s most shameful displays in twenty-one seasons. The problem with the Broncos has not been with their stars: the likes of Lockyer, Wallace, Hunt and Folau have all been outstanding while old hardheads such as Corey Parker and Sam Thaiday have been performing at their usual high standards. Rather, it has been the Broncos recruits over the last two seasons and some highly touted youngsters that have let the club down. Recruitment has become a real issue at Brisbane with the likes of Joel Clinton, Ashton Sims, Aaron Gorrell, Ben Teo and Lagi Setu turning into real busts. These are players Brisbane never would have purchased when Bennett had a firm grip on the controls. Clinton and Sims were rubbish at their previous clubs and have done little to dispel such labels at the Broncos. Teo and Setu are heading down the same path with both lucky to be in first grade. Even Aaron Gorrell, who looked like an astute purchase, has lost his first grade spot to the completely hopeless P.J Marsh. And that is to say nothing of Dave Taylor who will go down as one of the biggest busts in NRL history. Having said all that, Brisbane remains a classy organisation with the most threatening backline in the game and they should still be there come preliminary final weekend. Origin may just take a little too much out of them and they may lack a little up front to go the distance though. At present they look to be just a touch behind the big three.

Melbourne Storm
Prediction: 3rd
Pre-season Prediction: 2nd
Best: Lima, Slater, Johnson, Cronk, Inglis, Smith
Disappointing: White, Quinn, Chambers, Turner

The Melbourne Storm are warming to the task of a fourth straight grand final nicely. The season started slowly but that was to be expected after the heavy workloads of so many representative players in 2008 and their subsequent shortened preseason. Premierships aren’t won in April and Craig Bellamy knew exactly what he was doing. He was not going to fall into the trap of coaching with Ricky Stuart like intensity for the entire season. Melbourne were also short a five-eighth after Arana Taumata was sacked for off-field indiscretions. Both those issues have been alleviated by time and the addition of Brett Finch. The Melbourne backline is now firing, stars like Inglis and Slater are starting to hit their strides, the forward pack is making good in-roads and their defence remains second-to-none. The Storm are also advantaged by not being hit as hard by Origin this season as they have in previous years. With the best coaching staff in the NRL and a team bursting with talent and finals experience, Melbourne are going to be right in the finish. A fourth straight Grand Final would not surprise.

St. George-Illawarra Dragons
Prediction: 2nd
Pre-season Prediction: 7th
Soward, Creagh, Scott, Weyman, Poore, Morris
Disappointing: Cooper, Priddis, Hunt, Stanley, Nightingale

Wayne Bennett now owns the hearts of those from Kogarah to Wollongong after he purged the club of any remnants of the Nathan Brown era and provided Dragons fans with genuine faith that the club could claim its first title in over thirty seasons. By the end of the first month, Bennett was hailed as a saviour and a living deity, a winner and a champion. He has done little to dispel such lavish adorations with the Dragons sitting on top of the table and showing no signs of collapse or frailty. It is the small things about Bennett that makes him a wonderful coach and the Dragons faithful have definitely noticed. There are very few egos at the Dragons these days, the likes of Gasnier and Ryles long gone and with them the me-first mentality that existed throughout the Brown years. The once brittle Dragons defence now ranks second in the NRL with the defensive attitude simply outstanding. Fair-to-middling players like Michael Weyman and Neville Costigan have been transformed from lazy and ill disciplined to hard working and effective. Confidence players like Jamie Soward have appreciated the stability, education and assurance Bennett has bought to the club. Even minute moves like anointing Beau Scott as Jamie Soward’s protector and playing two backs on the interchange have worked to the Dragons favour. The Dragons are flying high and with two byes remaining they are in a prime position to finish top two. And with six-time premiership winner Wayne Bennett at the helm, they are for once legitimate title contenders.

Canterbury Bulldogs
Prediction: 1st
Pre-season Prediction: 1st
Best: Hannant, Ennis, Stagg, Patten, Kimmorley, Ryan, Morris
Disappointing: Utai, El Masri, Armit, Kite, Barba

Dawn always follows on from the darkest hour and that is how it has been at Belmore this season. 2008 was a total debacle. It was a season that began with political turmoil and saw a lame duck coach have to deal with a predominantly selfish, lazy and/or talentless playing group that culminated in an emergency room full of injuries and the walkout of rugby league’s greatest ever traitor. 2009 was to be a new beginning, however, with a new coach and a new front office. A high end recruitment drive took place and what the club got was not only a group of quality players who knew how to win football matches but an entirely new culture, a return to the family oriented ways of the Peter Moore days. The results have been amazing. The Bulldogs have only lost three matches all season and two of those losses came about as a result of questionable video refereeing with the cracker against the Dragons one of the most absurd rulings in the history of sport. Take into account the two points the Bulldogs lost for fielding an extra man (albeit incidental) and the Dogs should be well clear on top. They have touched up Melbourne and Manly and have only been convincingly beaten once. They have a quality forward pack that can go forward, offload, create and work hard along with a backline that is well balanced and can score tries. Brett Kimmorley has become the organiser the Bulldogs needed, freeing up Ben Roberts to play his own game. Ben Hannant is now an elite prop. David Stagg, Andrew Ryan and Gary Warburton are the hardest working backrow in the NRL. And Morris, Goodwin and Idris are genuine try scorers. The Bulldogs are going to the big dance. Lock that in. Only injury or more bad luck can stop them.

In terms of futures bets, a number of sound wagers exist. The Bulldogs at 8.0 are an outstanding bet for the minor premiership. The Dragons are deserved favourites with both byes remaining but the Bulldogs are currently 2nd and should be at least four points clear in first. Anything above 4.50 is a solid wager. 1.70 for the Dogs to finish top four is also a top class bet. As noted above, the Bulldogs are one of the top three teams in the competition and will maintain their standard for the remainder of 2009. Canberra at 2.75 to make the top eight is a bet. Canberra is a momentum team and if they can get a run on they can definitely pass a few teams with Penrith and the Gold Coast the most vulnerable. Three bets to miss the eight are Penrith, North Queensland and Gold Coast at 2.45, 3.60 and 3.90. The Panthers are going to do it tough without Jennings and Lewis for the next few weeks and I’m not convinced a team with so many youngsters can be as strong in August as they have been in May. The Cowboys should make the eight but any injury to Thurston and they are done. Taking 3.60 about a frail halfback going down is not a bad bet. And the Gold Coast has a history of The Fade and it would not surprise if they slid out of the eight at the business end of the year.

A little over a month ago The General and I shook hands and agreed to have a beer on the first Monday morning in October. It looks like that beer will be one of many celebratory drinks at Canterbury Leagues Club as the blue and white streamers fly and “We Are The Mighty Bulldogs” is belted out for the 73rd time.

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