The fallacy of pre-season form
Precious little notice will be taken of pre-season form in future following a series of dramatic turnarounds – for better and worse – from NRL clubs’ trial displays. The Warriors were touted as finals bolters after a cracking pre-season, routing a near-full strength Brisbane side 48-4 in one of the most complete trial performances ever witnessed. They now languish at the foot of the ladder after producing the two most disappointing team efforts of the opening two rounds, and appear to be on the brink of crisis.
In contrast, the Broncos – panned on the eve of the season proper following the heavy defeat in Dunedin – are riding high after back-to-back upsets of 2013 finalists Canterbury and North Queensland. St George Illawarra was similarly dismissed after a meek Charity Shield showing, but sit atop the NRL table after blitzing the Tigers by 20 points and the Warriors by 19.
The coaching crosshairs
What a difference a couple of rounds of football can make. Brisbane coach Anthony Griffin and St George Illawarra mentor Steve Price approached the 2014 season under immense pressure, reportedly having only a handful of games to save their jobs. But the Broncos and Dragons are both unbeaten after notching two impressive wins, and their coaches are looking more secure in their roles than they have for several seasons.
Meanwhile, Warriors coach Matthew Elliott is squarely in the gun after two diabolical performances by his side. Few NRL coaches are as honest and open in their appraisal of their own side as Elliott, and he seems as bewildered as the fans and media at the Warriors’ shocking start – but each subsequent loss will see the axe hover closer and closer to the former Canberra and Penrith mentor. One factor in his favour is the lack of a suitable immediate replacement.
Heavyweights bounce back with Grand Final rematch looming
Manly responded to its round one collapse against Melbourne with a character-laden 14-12 victory over Souths at Gosford, while the Sydney Roosters followed up their flat season-opening display against the Rabbitohs with a blistering 58-4 drubbing of Parramatta on a wet night at Allianz. A mouth-watering blockbuster between the 2013 Grand finalists is less than a fortnight away.
The send-off is dead
The decision to allow Parramatta firebrand Darcy Lussick to remain on the field after his flagrant high shot on Roosters rival Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was an indictment on all of the officials involved, particularly the video referee duo. A more obvious send-off offence won’t be seen this season, while Lussick should be looking at a six-week holiday for his nasty swinging arm. Ironically, Waerea-Hargreaves was marched for a much less reckless tackle against Manly last year.
Week to remember for
Melbourne’s ‘Holy Trinity’ stepped up to get the Storm home against a plucky Penrith outfit. Cameron Smith, making his record 263rd appearance for the club, and 250-game milestone man Billy Slater were typically outstanding (despite the latter spending a second half stint in the sin bin), while Cooper Cronk kicked two field goals in the final five minutes to clinch the heart-stopping 18-17 victory in his return from shoulder surgery.
Wests Tigers and Canberra joined Manly and the Roosters in the turnaround posse. The Tigers recovered from a big opening-round loss to thump the Titans 42-12 on a sweltering Gold Coast afternoon, with tyros James Tedesco and Luke Brooks outstanding, while Anthony Milford inspired the Raiders’ tense 26-20 victory at Newcastle.
Week to forget for
Parramatta plummeted back to earth following its stunning opening-round thrashing of the Warriors, given a 58-4 bath by the rampant Roosters. Gold Coast was equally poor against far less heralded opposition, crashing to a 30-point loss at the hands of Round one duds the Tigers – compounded by a shoulder injury to star forward Greg Bird.
Luckless Warriors utility Ben Henry has likely succumbed to another season-ending knee injury, hobbling off in his first NRL outing since undergoing reconstruction surgery last year.
Play of the week
Josh Hoffman may be taking time to adjust to the Broncos’ five-eighth role, but he produced a match-saving play in the shadows of full-time on Friday. Hoffman knocked the ball from the grasp of opposite number Johnathan Thurston, who was poised to reach out for a score-levelling try.
Blunder of the week
The video referees thrust themselves into an unwelcome spotlight this weekend, making a mockery of the referral system which gained such widespread approval in 2013. Roosters backrower Boyd Cordner and Tigers prop Martin Taupau both had their scoring attempts sent upstairs as tries, but the men in the box somehow came up with red light verdicts – despite minimal video evidence to overturn the on-field officials’ decisions.
St George Illawarra five-eighth Gareth Widdop is steaming towards ‘buy of the year’ honours, while he will be a strong Dally M Medal chance if the Dragons reach the finals. The classy Brit was the Saints’ best afield for the second week in a row and is developing into one of the NRL’s dominant playmakers.
Incumbent NSW halfback Mitchell Pearce made up some ground on Souths rival Adam Reynolds. Michael Jennings and Will Hopoate waged an intriguing battle at Allianz; they could end up being the Blues’ centre pairing. Tigers fullback James Tedesco has emerged as a NSW smokie.
Todd Carney has again been ruled out for Cronulla, compounding the loss of key forwards Paul Gallen (injury) and Andrew Fifita (suspension). Canterbury has plenty of work to do after a listless attacking performance first up against Brisbane, but the Bulldogs have to be favoured to get on the board for 2014. The loser will join the Warriors and Knights as the only winless clubs after two rounds.