A new game of the year contender graced the screens in Round 8 as crowds returned to New South Wales venues and two coaches moved one step further down a greasy pole. Here are my talking points for the weekend.
Cameron Smith must remain at hooker for Melbourne
It’s been 48 hours, and yet the level of play seen between the Storm and Roosters on Thursday still doesn’t feel real.
It was possibly the best club game in years as two premiership powerhouses, who have been in 14 of the last 16 grand finals between them, put on a clinic of footy in Brisbane.
What made it even more special was the injuries and the disruption in the lead-up. It seemingly never fazed either side.
And while the Roosters had the better of the contest, things flipped when Cameron Smith was moved out of the halves and back to hooker.
I’ve previously questioned whether he was still the best in the game, but on Thursday, he proved it. Not only is his defence in the middle third a leading asset, but his creativity, ability to call the right play and have his teammates in the right position while playing dummy half is second to none.
The Storm’s performance visibly changed when he moved into the hooking role, and while the club still have things to get right, they won’t do it with Smith in the halves.
Parramatta’s forward pack is as good as they come
The Cowboys were no match for the clinic of rugby league Parramatta put on. Even without Mitchell Moses, they cruised to victory over the hapless North Queensland, who showed none of the positive signs from seven days ago.
But without their forward pack functioning as they did, it’s unlikely Jai Field and Dylan Brown would have had quite such good games.
Blake Ferguson, Maika Sivo and Clint Gutherson deserve their share of credit for the way they were able to put Parramatta on the front foot with their starts to sets, but it was the pack who carried that momentum and built the platform.
The Eels forwards have been good all season, and when the reformed Reagan Campbell-Gillard and ever-improving Junior Paulo both blast out more than 200 metres, combined with more than 100 from all of the back row of Shaun Lane, Ryan Matterson and Marata Niukore, the result just about sorts itself out.
The Cowboys would have needed three Jason Taumalolos to compete, and given the way the game has sped up, winning the battle of the middle third is one of the keys to winning games of footy.
Few packs do it as well as Parramatta’s.
Brisbane enter the spoon race
Six straight losses. Beaten by the Warriors without Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. Beaten by the Titans. Blown out by the Eels, Roosters and Knights.
Something has got to give in Brisbane.
Last week, Anthony Seibold was quoted as saying he “wasn’t looking over his shoulder”.
He surely is now.
It’s one thing to acknowledge the club is rebuilding, it’s another to have a side with as much talent as Brisbane losing to the Warriors without their best player.
And full credit to New Zealand. It was a gutsy, brave performance. But it’s even more concerning for Brisbane given they scored the first try.
Their attack had no direction despite scoring the opener, Brodie Croft’s signing is looking worse with every passing week, and their forwards are struggling for any sort of dominance.
The Broncos are to have a pair of wins from before lockdown. Even with them, they are in grave danger of winning the spoon.
Cronulla’s spine can be as dangerous as any
Ignoring the first half of Cronulla’s win over the Titans, when the men from the Shire looked half asleep, this round confirmed what we saw last week. A spine of Shaun Johnson, Chad Townsend, Matt Moylan and Blayke Brailey is dangerous.
After putting on seven try assists between them in the shock win over Manly, they put on a second-half clinic to run in 30 unanswered points against the Titans.
John Morris won’t be entirely pleased with the performance, but the second half has shown Cronulla can still mix it in this competition.
Premiership contenders? No. But this is a side with enough talent to make the top eight and give anyone a run for their money on their day.
Even though they had this spine last year, it was always going to take time to gel this season given the horror injury toll the Sharks faced in 2019.
That time now appears over, with the spine involved in six tries yesterday, the kicking game taking another step up, and the quartet finally working out how to control a match together.
Backed up by a dynamic forward pack, Cronulla are a side with the attacking might to turn it on in a hurry. Now it’s about doing it consistently.
The Raiders must play for 80 minutes
While it was a vastly improved performance from the Raiders on Friday night as they returned to their home ground against the struggling Dragons, Ricky Stuart won’t be entirely impressed with his side’s effort.
Pleased with the result? Sure. Their first 50 minutes? Yep. The improvement in the style of footy and minimisation of costly errors? Most certainly.
But not quite so happy with their inability to close the game out? Absolutely.
The Raiders needed the two points and a confidence boost. Let’s not get that twisted. The way they had been playing leading into their return to Canberra made them look like a side who were going to battle to make the eight.
It’s not often a grand finalist from the year before falls away so badly, but the Raiders looked to be doing just that.
Their return to form isn’t over yet, and upcoming games against the Storm and Roosters will tell us a lot more, but if they are going to compete, they need to play the full 80 minutes.
Apisai Koroisau is the buy of the year
Unfortunately, there is only so much you can write in this column, because I’d love to talk about the Tigers’ bravery and how they are outperforming all expectations.
But another topic demands attention first: After eight weeks, I’m ready to declare one award won.
In what was a firey seven-point victory for Penrith, gun hooker Apisai Koroisau again stood out from the pack.
At times last year, Penrith weren’t far away from challenging, but never had all the pieces of the puzzle together.
This year, they have an experienced, crafty, creative hooker who not only adds plenty to their attack, but leads their defensive line brilliantly. It seems to have brought Ivan Cleary’s project together.
The forwards are more organised and playing with intent, Nathan Cleary has taken ownership of the team and is working in tandem with his hooker, while the outside backs have all put their hands up.
We have seen it before at Manly with Koroisau, how his running game and brilliant rugby league IQ can bring all a club’s moving parts together into one smooth-running operation.
Smooth is exactly the word to describe Penrith, who are already only four wins away from qualifying for the finals. Koroisau is the key to that form continuing.
Dissenting to a referee is never okay
Was the decision wrong to not give Manly a chance at tieing up their game against Newcastle? Absolutely.
But were Addin Fonua-Blake, Jake Trbojevic and Daly Cherry-Evans in the wrong to go so hard at the on-field official, who had nothing to do with the final ruling? Most certainly.
Of course, perfection shouldn’t be expected from the players in a situation like that, but with Fonua-Blake sent off after full-time, the dissent was unacceptable.
Footage played on Fox Sports during the halftime break of the Rabbitohs-Bulldogs game suggested Fonua-Blake dropped multiple f-bombs at referee Grant Atkins, verbally abusing him.
It sends the wrong message to juniors, and indeed spectators at grassroots rugby league, about the treatment of referees, and it sends the wrong message to the rest of the competition, should the offending players get away without any sort of penalty in the coming days.
If Fonua-Blake doesn’t get some sort of suspension, the NRL have acted far too lightly. It’s simply not good enough.
It’s frustrating this, and the dodgy decision which brought it on, is what will be remembered from the game, given Newcastle’s outstanding bravery and defence to pull off the win at Brookvale.
The Knights are moving closer and closer to being a genuine contender with every passing week, while Manly’s issues without Tom Trbojevic continue.
South Sydney aren’t premiership material
This may not be turning new ground, but after Sunday night’s dour win over the Canterbury Bulldogs, who would frankly struggle to beat some reserve grade outfits, it’s time to declare the Rabbitohs officially in need of some serious work both on and off the field.
While the club isn’t being helped by speculation around who their long-term coach will be, as well as the media circus following Latrell Mitchell’s every move, they are simply not playing well enough to match it with the top teams in the competition.
Credit to the Bulldogs for the way they continually battle bravely week in, week out in defence, but the South Sydney attack looked, at times, lost at sea against the men in blue and white.
Adam Reynolds’ kicking game hasn’t been excellent, their collective decision making needs work, and their speed of play continues to be down, with the forwards unable to get the dominance they once did.
Since returning from lockdown, they have only beaten the Titans, Warriors and Bulldogs, with losses elsewhere against the Storm, Roosters and Panthers.
On talent alone, it’s hard to see this side, coached by a master, missing the eight. But the chance of causing any problems when they get there, with countless errors and poor attacking choices, seems unbelievably slim.
It may seem harsh to write so negatively about the Bunnies after a win, but it was just a win. They should have put 40 on the Bulldogs.
A good team would have.
Roarers, what did you make of Round 8? Drop a comment below and let us know.