So here we are again on the cusp of the NRL finals, and the table this year makes for interesting reading.
Basically the top eight is well adrift from the rest of the pack at the end of the regular season, and there are only two points difference between 1st and 8th. The race for the minor premiership went right down to the wire, and the line up for the finals games was changing right up to 6pm on Sunday (the final regular season game), when the Broncos and Panthers ended up on the same points, and same points differential, with Penrith finishing a place above Brisbane by virtue of fewer points conceded. So its going to be a great finals series with some of the protagonists in great form, and some (like St George Illawarra) in freefall.
I thought this issue I’d have a look at the teams that missed the eight, and are already looking to 2019. Lets start at the very bottom. Parramatta were most people’s dark horse to make a huge dent in the finals this year, but for whatever reason, things just haven’t gelled. They’ve had injuries, rumours of dressing room unrest, bad luck and the rest, but their major issue has just been an appalling lack of fight really. I know we’re all still reeling from our own embarrassment at Warrington, imagine if that had happened more weeks than it didn’t over a season. Stone, motherless, last. That’s what the record books will remember about 2019’s Eels. At least they have a new shiny stadium on the way.
Then we come to Manly in 15th. What a terrible year for them, Players coming to blows, the coach resigning and then somehow saying he’ll stay till mid-season 2019. Manly are a basket case, and they’ll be eternally thankful that Parra were even worse than they’ve been. I’ll come to this later, but I reckon a few of their players might be on the radar of other clubs, and there’s one in particular that I think Hull should go all out for.
The Titans again flattered to deceive. They beat some top eight teams, fought out some very close losses, and actually looked a much better outfit this year under new coach Garth Brennan. As I mentioned a few blogs ago, there’s not been a successful sports team on the Gold Coast even though, and that doesn’t look like starting anytime soon.
Now to the Cowboys, and what a horrible way for a legendary player to leave the game. Jonathan Thurston deserved so much more than a 13th placed finish in his NRL swansong, and the last two games of the season saw massive wins for the team and showed a tantalising glimpse of what might’ve been. Sometimes a player gets a fairy-tale finish, some don’t. JT didn’t and that’s a real shame.
In 12th we have the Bulldogs, who had to basically redesign their playing roster half way through the season when salary cap constraints hit them. Mbye to the Tigers and Woods to the Sharks were big losses, but it actually seemed to pull them together. They’ve got some more rebuilding to do with the Morris twins moving to pastures new and a few others released. They have, however found a gem in new halfback in Lachlan (Nephew of Wally) Lewis, his kicking game has to be seen to be believed, and he looks handy with the ball in hand too. I can’t see them making the eight next year, but I think they’ll at least have their fight back.
Not many teams could call 11th a great season, but after the last three years of wooden spoons, Newcastle have shown some fight and enterprise. Arguably if they had a little better luck with injuries they could have troubled the top eight. Both of their marquee new signings in Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga spent time on the side-lines, but when they fired, they fired nicely. With more big names heading up the F1 to the Knights next year, there’s every chance that they’ll improve again. 2016 – 1 win, 2017 – 5 wins and 2018 – 9 wins, its slow and steady progress, and Nathan Brown is doing a great job.
In 10th we have the Canberra Raiders. Josh Hodgson is the key to them, and Ricky Stuart must be cursing the World Cup when he got the knee issue that caused him to miss the first half of the season. They didn’t gel until he came back, and then it was too late. They’ll be better next year, but Blake Austin’s signing for Warrington will see them lose that edge of unpredictability.
My team the Wests Tigers could and should have made the eight. They beat every team that finished in the top four, some of them twice, yet lost to the Eels, Raiders, Titans and Bulldogs who all finished below them. It really pains me to say this, but Mahe, whilst strong in attack, looks way out of his depth in defence. If Josh Reynolds stays healthy next year and Moses Mbye has a full season at fullback, they should get at least one place higher up and make the eight.
So, if Adam Pearson is true to his word and we’re in the market for new players, the question is, is he looking at releasing quota payers for a raid on the NRL? There aren’t many players out of contract, but there are a couple who might be allowed to move on by their parent clubs. Chris McQueen at the Tigers is one of those, he’s not troubled the first team much but is still a great player. The rumour is they’re underwhelmed with Fonua’s defence and application too, so maybe, just maybe he’d come back – he did leave due to homesickness though, so I’d say it is unlikely. Greg Eastwood at the Bulldogs is available, and he might fancy another crack at Super League after a year with Leeds in 2010.
The player I’d dearly love to see at Hull is Martin Taupau. Strong as an ox, he’s got a bit of the devil in him and he’s a ferocious tackler, he’d really fit the bill of a pack leader that we desperately need. His teammate Lewis Brown would be a decent pick up for us too – a real workhorse and capable of playing in the centres or the back row. We should be going in for Anthony Gelling too – he’s wasted at Widnes and is a real strike player.
Unless Pearson is willing to really lash out, I can’t see us getting a big name – however from what I read, and from our abject display, maybe he will turn some heads and go for a real marquee signing, god knows we bloody need it.
Until next time, Up the Cream, Gerremonsard and Come on you ‘Ull.
Rich – Twitter @pommyrich