What the Hell Happened to 2010? The Midseason Review

Filed in Other by on December 11, 2010

We are fifteen rounds in to the 2010 season and the best team in the competition is destined for the wooden spoon and the competition favourites and only team to stake legitimate title claims are perennial chokers St. George-Illawarra. Players are now defecting to AFL while those who have buggered off to play rugby union cannot wait to get back into a real sport. Good teams are bad and bad teams are good and weirdness reigns supreme. Welcome to the 2010 NRL season, where not a lot makes sense.

16th: Melbourne Storm
Preseason Prediction: 2nd
Best: Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater, Cameron Smith, Matt Duffie, Aiden Tolman,
Disappointing: Ryan Hoffman, Todd Lowrie, Luke MacDougall, Jeff Lima

There isn’t much that needs to be said about the Storm. They are the best team in the premiership yet they won’t be around in September. On their day they can turn it on like the Harlem Globetrotters yet their representative stars put their rep duties first and foremost at the top of their agenda and the rest of the team is prone to bouts of flatness and disinterest. This team will need to rebuild next year and they will do it with youngsters like Matt Duffie, Justin O’Neill, Gareth Widdop and Rory Kostajyn, all four of whom should be watched with a view to 2011. Other than the future and keeping the home fans happy, Melbourne have nothing to play for so we will leave it at that and put 2010 down as their annus horribillis.

15th: Cronulla Sharks
Preseason Prediction: 15th
Best: Kade Snowden, Luke Douglas, Paul Gallen, Nathan Gardner
Disappointing: Tim Smith, Anthony Tupou, Adam Cuthbertson, John Morris

The Sharks are probably playing above expectations with many Sharks fans likely to have taken four wins at the beginning of the season if offered. Once again the Sharks have stayed competitive through their unheralded yet outstanding front row combination of Kade Snowden and Luke Douglas and their spiritual leader Paul Gallen. That has been about it for Cronulla. New fullback Nathan Gardner has given the Sharks some much needed spark in attack and looks a likely type though the rest of the offence is a sputtering mess with no proclivity to score tries, little direction thanks to the failure that Tim Smith has been and a game plan that doesn’t cater for attacking play. Recruits like Morris, Collis and Cuthbertson have been ordinary to say the least while big names like Anthony Tupou and Trent Barrett are not playing up to their contract value. The Sharks have owned Parramatta and they touched up the Roosters but they are yet to get close to any of the legitimate premiership contenders. The Sharks have scored less than 14 points in eight of their thirteen matches and they will not be anywhere near the finals. They should, however, be applauded for the courage they constantly display and they don’t deserve to come last.

14th: North Queensland Cowboys
Preseason Prediction: 14th
Best: Scott Bolton, Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott, Willie Tonga
Disappointing: Carl Webb, Antonio Kaufusi, Luke O’Donnell, Michael Bani

The Cowboys have embarrassed themselves and their jersey this year with their insipid performances. Such laziness and ineptitude is nothing new for the Cowboys though. On paper they have a team that should make the eight but due to discipline issues, internal team friction, an inability of the coach to connect with the players, a forward pack that refuses to work and a backline bereft of basic skills, the Cowboys are mired at the bottom of the premiership ladder. If it wasn’t for Johnathan Thurston with help from the likes of Scott Bolton, Matt Scott, Willie Tonga, Aaron Payne and, surprisingly, Willie Mason, then the Cowboys would be a moral for the spoon. The team gives up way too easily while there are too many passengers on the North Queensland bus. Carl Webb, Antonio Kaufusi, Luke O’Donnell, Michael Bani, Ty Williams, John Williams and Manase Manukafoa all need to be cut with the team seriously needing to redo their recruitment and retention management. The Cowboys only win on the road was against the Roosters and on eight occasions they have had completion rates of less than 70%. The Cowboys are a powderpuff team, the rugby league equivalent of the Marshmallow Man. 2010 will be as miserable as 2009 and 2008 for them. Yet again they have managed to humiliate most of the pundits by underachieving once more.

13th: Newcastle Knights
Preseason Prediction: 16th
Best: Akuila Uate, Kurt Gidley, Cory Paterson
Disappointing: Jarrod Mullen, Scott Dureau, Zeb Taia, Ben Cross, Adam MacDougall

2010 was always going to be tough for the Knights after Chris Houston and Danny Wicks were cut amid drug trafficking accusations with no replacements found. The Knights jumped the gate with a win against the Bulldogs but have had only four since including a win in Brisbane and a lucky victory against Parramatta last Monday. Newcastle really are just lacking the class to go with most teams in the NRL. Their biggest concern is in the halves. Scott Dureau and Ben Rogers are marginal first graders at best while Jarrod Mullen has not had an outstanding game all year with even his good games few and far between. Some argue that he is trying too hard but I think the problem is he runs across field too often, he doesn’t take on the line enough and his kicking game has been abhorrent. The smart move from rookie coach Rick Stone would be to move Kurt Gidley into the halves and give Shannon McDonnell an extended run in the top grade at fullback. Their home form has been ordinary and the promise of the likes of Zeb Taia has come to nothing. It is pleasing to see Cory Paterson return to form while Akuila Uate has been one of the form wingers of the league but it isn’t enough for Newcastle to make a serious finals run. They are a bottom four team and that is all there is too it.

12th: New Zealand Warriors
Preseason Prediction: 12th
Best: Sam Rapira, Lance Hohaia, Micheal Luck
Disappointing: Brett Seymour, Steve Price, Kevin Locke, Joel Moon

The Warriors have been a touch unlucky to be beset by such a horrible injury toll that has seen Steve Price not play a game, Brett Seymour play only 290 minutes and Brent Tate, Sam Rapira, Simon Mannering and Manu Vatuvei all miss significant playing time. Combined with the poor form of excitement machine Kevin Locke and the lack of punch offered by the remaining forwards, the Warriors have not been able to go on a significant winning streak. On a positive front the Warriors have won three games in Australia and they have been much better at playing disciplined football. If the team gets fit it may actually go somewhere but Steve Price likely won’t ever play again and Brent Tate is a fair way off a return. And who knows how long big Manu can stay healthy. The Warriors seem to be banking on 2011 and while they have a chance of sneaking into the finals it is likely they will be spending September in Bali, Las Vegas and Hawaii. Expect them to claim a few scalps before they hit Holiday Road though.

11th: Sydney Roosters
Preseason Prediction: 13th
Best: Mitchell Pearce, Nate Myles, Mitch Aubusson, Braith Anasta
Disappointing: Jason Ryles, Todd Carney, Anthony Minichiello, Sam Perrett

The collapse is coming. The Roosters have shown signs of cracking for a while now and be sure and certain that a six-game losing streak is just around the corner. The Roosters have shown signs of brilliance this year: They touched up the Bunnies on opening day, they were brilliant in smashing Canberra 36-6 and they showed plenty of class in winning on the Gold Coast. They have also been horrendous at times. They were smashed 60-14 by Canterbury and 42-18 by Cronulla and they lost at home to both North Queensland and Newcastle. They have won only two on the trot once this season and have lost two in a row only once as well. Brian Smith has a schizophrenic team on his hands. The Roosters certainly have the backline to tangle with better teams with Mitchell Pearce one of the leading halfbacks in the competition this year while Anasta, Carney and Kenny-Dowell are all capable and have shown glimpses of wonderful attacking play but they are prone to handling errors and the Carney-to-fullback experiment appears to have failed. The backline is also somewhat over-reliant on Pearce, struggling when he was out hurt. The real problem with the Roosters is their pack. Nate Myles is having a career year but he has had very little assistance. Jason Ryles hasn’t done much upon his return and the array of kids that are rotated through the pack have hindered the Roosters hopes of establishing themselves as contenders. Hooker is particularly concerning with none of James Aubusson, Jake Friend or Nick Kouparitsis being able to hold down the rake role. This Roosters team has overachieved so far and the sticky tape that is holding their season together will soon come loose and send this team into freefall.

10th: Canberra Raiders
Preseason Prediction: 10th
Best: Josh Dugan, Joel Thompson, David Shillington, Shaun Fensom
Disappointing: Josh McCrone, Terry Campese, Bronson Harrison, Joe Picker

Trying to figure out the Raiders is like trying to figure out a Rubik’s Cube with a gun pointed right at your ear. They are world beaters at their best. They dismantled a Dragons team four weeks back with some scintillating attack. They won on the road in Auckland and Parramatta. They blitzed the Titans at home. And then they go down to the Cowboys. They get blasted by the Roosters. They butcher winning leads at home to the Tigers and the Bunnies. They have legitimate superstars in their team like Josh Dugan and Terry Campese, complimented by workers like Alan Tongue, David Shillington and Shaun Fensom. Yet the Raiders can’t get it all together. There are a few problems down at Canberra. First and foremost is their lack of an experienced playmaker. They need an old head at hooker and/or halfback and they need it now. Oh, what they would do for Jason Smith this season. The Raiders simply cannot win with Josh McCrone or Marc Herbert at halfback. Terry Campese is a fine player but his form is down and he is better off as a second receiver. The Raiders also need a coach who has some idea. The Raiders keep David Furner at their own peril. He stays and the club loses Josh Dugan, their most exciting prospect since Brett Mullins. Furner cannot coach attacking football and he has made few positive moves in his time in charge. The Raiders, if they can keep this squad together and add a Buderus or a Finch and then get a decent coach can be legitimate title contenders from 2012-2015. 2010 is probably a little early though.

9th: Parramatta Eels
Preseason Prediction: 5th
Best: Nathan Hindmarsh, Tim Mannah, Jarryd Hayne
Disappointing: Justin Poore, Nathan Cayless, Daniel Mortimer, Matt Keating

The most astonishing thing this season has not been the Melbourne Storm’s punishment for salary cap breaches or the defection of Israel Folau. It was the fact the Parramatta Eels were the premiership favourites heading into the season. Parramatta, for the vast majority of last season, were rubbish. And they haven’t been much better this year. They were overachievers in 2009. They were an underperforming team who got hot and overachieved by making the Grand Final. They did so on the back of a career year by Jarryd Hayne and the convalescence of form from players like Mateo, Grothe and Moimoi. None of those three have done a lot this year. Combined with the bust of the season in Justin Poore, the second year syndrome of Daniel Mortimer and the severe decline in ability of Nathan Cayless and the Eels look in real strife. Parramatta have lost twice to the lowly Sharks as well as Canberra and Newcastle. Take out a month of wins and the Eels have been awful. They are not title contenders. They are myths who look a very real possibility of missing the eight. They have the talent to go on a run like last year but lightning rarely strikes twice and this mob looks as gutless as they do clueless. Leave me out of the Eels, the most overrated team in the NRL.

8th: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
Preseason Prediction: 1st
Best: David Stagg, Ben Hannant, Josh Morris, Ben Barba, Jamal Idris
Disappointing: Brett Kimmorley, Luke Patten, Andrew Ryan, Blake Green

The Bulldogs have undoubtedly been the big disappointments of 2010. It looked like their season after a tremendous debut year by coach Kevin Moore and the class of quality players he bought in with him. The story hasn’t gone to script at Belmore, however, with Canterbury seemingly unable to win a game this year. At their best they have looked rampant. They annihilated the Roosters and they toyed with the high flying Tigers. For the most part, however, Canterbury have been unable to get the job done and that has primarily been a result of an insipid attack bought about by some shocking halves play and a failure to communicate defensively on the fringes. Brett Kimmorley is a shadow of the player he was in 2009 while aging legends Luke Patten and Andrew Ryan have both slipped markedly. Last Friday Ryan missed a tackle on Anthony Laffranchi that he never would have missed in previous years. He did not lay a finger on him. It turned to be the decisive play in the match. The Bulldogs are, however, better than their record indicates and they should make a late season run. With Ben Barba now set to start, the Bulldogs will get better. I fancy they will sneak into the eight but that may be more optimism than anything else.

7th: Brisbane Broncos
Preseason Prediction: 9th
Best: Sam Thaiday, Matt Gillett, Corey Parker
Disappointing: Nick Kenny, Ashton Sims, Peter Wallace, Denan Kemp

I remain unconvinced by Brisbane. They won five on the trot but prior to that they were pitiful and against Penrith they had absolutely nothing. No spark, no enthusiasm, no commitment. It was the same with their early season form where their only two wins prior to round eight came against the Cowboys and Cronulla. The reason Brisbane have struggled so much is their forward pack. Sam Thaiday is a beast who is probably the best backrower in Australia and Corey Parker is a workhorse with outstanding credentials but Brisbane are getting smashed up front. Shane Tronc has done a bit to stop that but aside from him Brisbane have a very poor prop rotation. There are also questions over the Broncos backline. Justin Hodges still hasn’t been seen, Denan Kemp has bought his shameful form with him from the Warriors, Antonio Winterstein hasn’t kicked on and Josh Hoffman is still raw and inconsistent. Throw in the indifferent form of Darren Lockyer and Peter Wallace and Brisbane really don’t look like a very good team. They will lose more than they win on the run in but as a matter of default they should sneak into September. What they do have in their favour is the ability of Sam Thaiday and Darren Lockyer to lift when required and these players are used to winning when it counts so that will count for something when the cracks are whipping.

6th: Penrith
Preseason Prediction: 11th
Best: Luke Walsh, Luke Lewis, Lachlan Coote, Petero Civoniceva, Kevin Kingston
Disappointing: Travis Burns, Daine Laurie, Frank Pritchard, Wade Graham

Few saw 2010 as the rise of the Penrith Panthers. They amazingly sit second on the ladder after fifteen rounds with a 9-4 record. The rise of the Panthers can be credited with the coming of age of one man: Lachlan Coote. The courageous Panthers custodian has been one of the outstanding players in the competition this year yet his form has been overshadowed by that of other outstanding fullbacks including Josh Dugan, the man he will be battling for representative honours with over the next decade. Coote has incredible instincts and has already crossed the stripe 15 times, setting up 4 others. He is extremely safe under the high ball and he plays a critical roll in the Panthers attack whether it be chiming in off his ball playing forwards or reeling in a Luke Walsh attacking kick. Matt Elliott also deserves plenty of credit for the Panther’s success. His work on the Panthers kick-chase in particular has been top class. Penrith chase in mobs. When a bomb goes up there are always three-to-five chasers which creates carnage for fullbacks and wingers trying to defuse the kicks. It has led to plenty of tries and is the primary reason Luke Walsh leads the NRL in try assists. Michael Jennings, Petero Civoniceva and Luke Lewis have added a touch of class to the team while Kevin Kingston has been one of the top buys of 2010, constantly having Penrith playing off the front foot. My concern with the Panthers is depth and the one-dimensional nature of their try-scoring. Penrith have little depth up front and in the halves and more worryingly they have a reliance on scoring tries from kicks. Good teams shut down one-dimensional attacks in September and unless Penrith can add some more strings to the bow then they will find themselves out of the race in the early weeks of the finals.

5th: Wests Tigers
Preseason Prediction: 6th
Best: Gareth Ellis, Chris Heighington, Liam Fulton, Benji Marshall, Robbie Farah
Disappointing: Jason Cayless, Robert Lui, Blake Lazarus, Todd Payten

If Sam Thaiday is the best backrower in the NRL then Gareth Ellis is only a half-step behind. He has been the Tigers best player and by quite a margin. He turns up every week and he hits hard and he runs strong and he is The Everywhere Man for a team that has needed a player of his ilk for a long time. He is well complimented by fellow backrowers Chris Heighington and Liam Fulton, arguably the best backrow in the NRL. Benji, like much of the Tigers backline, has been hot and cold. At his best he has been unstoppable but he has turned in some shockers and again consistency is the concern when it comes to Benji. Robbie Farah has had a very good year also but he has been frustrated by the inability of the outside backs to get the job done. Lote Tuqiri came in with a bang but has been a liability in recent weeks while Chris Lawrence and Blake Ayshford both had better seasons in 2009. Only Beau Ryan has been at his best in the Tigers backline though the signing of Wade McKinnon will make the Tigers attack more fluent. The lack of a legitimate halfback now Tim Moltzen is hurt is worrying for the Tigers. Robert Lui and Blake Lazarus have both offered very little and having Benji as the choke point for the attack is prone to disaster. The Tigers are a smart team but they have a few significant deficiencies that will be exploited by better teams with intelligent coaches. A preliminary final is probably their ceiling though we all know what can happen if they get hot at the right time.

4th: Gold Coast Titans
Preseason Prediction: 3rd
Best: Anthony Laffranchi, Luke Bailey, Ashley Harrison, Scott Prince, Nathan Friend
Disappointing: Preston Campbell, Joseph Tomane, Mark Minichiello

The Gold Coast oscillates between contender and pretender on what seems like a weekly basis. They really should be a consistent contender. On paper they have a team of the highest quality. They have two representative players in the halves in Scott Prince and Greg Bird, a wonderful backrow triumvirate of Anthony Laffranchi, Ashley Harrison and Mark Minichiello, a top notch prop in Luke Bailey and promising outside backs David Mead and Kevin Gordon. Combined with a smart coach and a definitive home ground advantage, along with the fact the Titans have improved every year of their existence, 2010 shapes as a breakthrough year for the club. It hasn’t been that way though. The Titans are 9-5 and fourth on the premiership ladder but they have not asserted themselves as legitimate title contenders with more than enough opportunity to do so. Every time they look like champions- beating Melbourne, knocking off Manly twice and holding on against the Bulldogs without many of their big names- they turn in a shocker like losing to the Cowboys, scoring only 6 points against Brisbane and getting pumped at home by the Roosters. The biggest worry with the Titans is their defence. They have allowed 16-plus points in every game bar two including 22-plus points in seven of their last eight matches. They miss tackles on the fringes and their centres are very poor tacklers. Defence may not win titles but you can’t win allowing 22-plus points per game. The Titans should be there or thereabouts and they can make it to the Grand Final but with their defence and their lack of respect for the ball I am predicting they will just miss out.

3rd: South Sydney Rabbitohs
Preseason Prediction: 7th
Best: Issac Luke, Sam Burgess, Beau Champion, Nathan Merritt, Ben Lowe, John Sutton
Disappointing: Chris Sandow, Roy Asotasi, Michael Crocker, Colin Best

John Lang should be held in the same light at South Sydney as John Sattler, George Piggins and other legends of the cardinal and myrtle for the job he has done at the Bunnies this year. Regardless of whether Lang leads Souths to the promised land of premiership glory or not, he has turned the club around after two decades of misery. In his first season he has turned a bunch of talented players into a talented team. He has undone all the horrible work of Jason Taylor by turning an insipid and predictable attack into one of the most threatening in the NRL while the defence has thrived even with injuries to the pack. Issac Luke has been the most damaging hooker in the game this year and that comes as little surprise given he thrived even when he had the slows put on him by Taylor. Given free rein by Lang, Luke has been brilliant in 2010 and has claims to the title of best player in the NRL this season. His numbers have been outstanding: 132.5 metres/game, 8 tries, 6 try assists, 10 line breaks, 6 line break assists, 24.9 tackles/game, 20 offloads and 67 tackle breaks. He has got the Bunnies rolling and that has been built on by bullocking backrowers Dave Taylor and Sam Burgess. That has set up the exciting right hand attack of John Sutton, Beau Champion and Nathan Merritt, who have been prolific in their try scoring this season. It is hard to believe but Souths are title contenders. They are smack bang in the pack chasing down the Dragons and they probably have more class than many of their opponents as well as having a calm, experience and premiership winning coach running the show. Their sense of identity will hold them in good stead come September.

2nd: Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
Preseason Prediction: 8th
Best: Jamie Lyon, Trent Hodkinson, Kieran Foran, Shane Rodney, Anthony Watmough
Disappointing: Ben Farrar, Chris Bailey, Josh Perry, Joe Gaulvao, Steve Matai

This Manly team is shaping as the biggest threat to the Dragons this year though they only marginally have their nose in front of Souths, the Gold Coast and the Wests Tigers in the chasing pack. It is the young halves Trent Hodkinson and Kieran Foran that have been the architects behind the resurgence of Manly. The Sea Eagles were expected to struggle this season with Matt Orford fleeing overseas but he was shown up for the impostor he has always been when Hodkinson and Foran have stepped up big time. The two only have 16 try assists between them but they have directed the team extraordinarily well, allowing Jamie Lyon to play his preferred right centre position while providing the outside backs with plenty of early ball. Other players to shine out of the spotlight this year have been Matt Ballin and Shane Rodney. Coach Des Hasler is now playing both correctly with Matt Ballin an 80 minute player and Rodney playing big minutes as a workhorse rather than the 35 minutes he was copping last year. Both are workhorses who give Manly the stability the team needs. Anthony Watmough is really a key to Manly’s success. He has been brilliant at times this year and he has been hopeless. He is a fearsome ball runner but a wishy-washy defender and the Eagles tend to fly on his form. Manly can go the distance and be there on Grand Final day but they have to do more to separate themselves from the pack.

1st: St. George-Illawarra Dragons
Preseason Prediction: 4th
Best: Darius Boyd, Jamie Soward, Brett Morris, Ben Creagh, Dean Young
Disappointing: Jeremy Smith, Michael Greenfield

The only team that will stop the Dragons winning the premiership this season is the Dragons. They are, by a significant gap, the best team in the premiership now Melbourne have been tossed. They have the greatest coach in rugby league history. Star centre Mark Gasnier returns to the club. They have class, depth and the right balance of attacking brilliance and workaholism. Across the park they have no weaknesses. This team will go down as one of the great defensive outfits with the Dragons holding teams to single digits in eight of their fifteen games and only three times conceding more than 20 points. They work as a unit in defence and they show tremendous pride in defending their line. They have not been brilliant in attack this year but they have the talent in Jamie Soward, Darius Boyd and Brett Morris to turn it on when required with the Dragons left hand attack a perennial threat. The Dragons pack is tireless. Old heads like Michael Weyman and Dean Young are forever just going about their business while Trent Merrin looks a representative prop of the future in the Luke Bailey mould. The only worries to the Dragons are the disruption Mark Gasnier’s return will bring, injuries and the club’s penchant for choking in September. The weight of history is heavy at the Dragons and it has crushed the spirit and fortitude of good Dragons teams in the past. Wayne Bennett is in year two now though and I really cannot see any team getting their act together and beating the Dragons. Never at this point in the season has the race for the premiership looked so one-sided. Fate rests in the Dragons hands. If they can avoid choking on it then that long awaited premiership should be a’comin.

So there it is. The Dragons will be there on Grand Final day. I fancy they will be playing Manly or Souths though I’m hoping like hell the Bulldogs get their act together and soon.

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