Slow starters on the charge …
Several sides who struggled during the early rounds are beginning to build form and combinations, continuing their climb up the ladder with impressive round nine victories. North Queensland and the Sydney Roosters, languishing with two wins in the first six weeks of the competition, started the procession with rugged wins 2,000 kilometres apart on Friday night – 27-14 over Brisbane and 30-6 at the expense of Wests Tigers respectively.
On the ropes a month ago after the sacking of coach Matt Elliott, the Warriors are flying after backing up their Anzac Day win over Melbourne with a scintillating 54-12 defeat of Canberra, the club’s first success in six matches at Eden Park. The Storm themselves arrested a form slump of four losses in five games by downing depleted archrivals Manly 22-19, while Souths snared their fourth win in five games after an ordinary start to the season with a thumping 40-18 road win over the Titans.
… while early flyers hit the skids
On the flip side of the zany 2014 NRL coin, a number of teams who were quick off the mark are starting to feel the pinch. The Broncos’ disappointing loss to the Cowboys was their fourth in fifth games after racing out of the blocks, while St George Illawarra has lost five of its last six following a 38-6 hammering at the hands of Canterbury – the Dragons’ outright competition lead after three rounds is now a distant memory. Brisbane coach Anthony Griffin and Saints mentor Steve Price, under immense pressure coming into the season, have that familiar axe swinging perilously close after seeming safe a month ago.
The Tigers’ myriad injury problems are beginning to catch up with Mick Potter’s young, resurgent squad, dropping their second straight game by a large margin. Shock early-season leaders the Titans have lost two of their last three – a worrying decline on the eve of what shapes as a tough Origin schedule for the club.
The ladder has been given a major shake-up in the space of 48 hours, while just four points separate second and 13th places on the table. Some frantic jostling for positions looms as teams prepare to negotiate the representative period minefield.
Storm filthy despite thrilling victory
Melbourne overturned a 5-4 halftime scoreline and a nine-point deficit inside the final 10 minutes to post a heart-stopping 22-19 win over Manly, sealed by a brilliant try to Kurt Mann after the debutant latched onto a Cooper Cronk kick. But coach Craig Bellamy still didn’t attend the post-match press conference, seething after yet another controversial refereeing display.
In a video ref call to trump all other diabolical decisions already made in 2014, Manly’s Peta Hiku was awarded the opening try despite what appeared a fairly obvious knock-on and a preliminary ‘no-try’ ruling by the on-field officials. The baffling green light was another kick in the crotch to the edict of needing clear evidence to overturn the original decision. Bellamy’s no-show was prompted by a string of other contentious calls against his side, while Storm assistant Justin Morgan and captain Cameron Smith used the presser as a forum to push for a return to the one-referee system.
Benji snag compounds Dragons’ slump
St George Illawarra’s 38-6 thrashing courtesy of competition leaders Canterbury has left the joint venture’s season at a tenuous crossroads, now boasting just four wins in nine games after getting off to a cracking start. Meanwhile, the mid-season acquisition of failed rugby union convert Benji Marshall has hit a potential roadblock. Wests Tigers are demanding $200,000 in compensation as they look to activate a clause in Marshall’s release contract signed with the club last year before his ill-fated switch to the Auckland Blues. The $200k kicker to the Dragons’ big announcement on Friday may leave a nasty taste, given the club has already forked out $1.1 million for the fallen playmaker for two-and-a-half seasons. The Saints’ slump and subsequent rekindling of pressure on Steve Price may mean Marshall never plays a game under the coach who brought him to the club.
A week to remember for …
New City Origin centre Dylan Walker had not posted more than a single try in his previous 23 NRL outings for South Sydney, but he netted four tries – two in each half – in the Rabbitohs’ big win on the Gold Coast. A NSW guernsey may not be too far away for the quicksilver 19-year-old.
Meanwhile, powerhouse Canterbury centre Tim Lafai blazed over for a genuine hat-trick – three consecutive tries – on Sunday, dotting down in the 24th, 33rd and 44th minutes to help subject the Dragons to a heavy loss, suggesting domestic representative honours could be on the horizon for the Samoan Test star.
A week to forget for …
Canberra conceded 54 points for the second straight outing, again showing astounding disinclination for tackling and feeble ball control. The red-hot Warriors ran nine tries through the Raiders’ turnstile defence, while the visitors’ only imprint on the scoreboard in a 42-point drubbing was two Jarrod Croker tries from kicks. Highly-touted coaching saviour Ricky Stuart’s $1 million-a-season, seven-year deal now shapes as an enormous albatross around the neck of a club already struggling to lure top-line talent, while the recent thrashings will almost certainly convince star teenager Anthony Milford to honour his agreement to join Brisbane in 2015.
Play of the week
North Queensland’s ever-improving makeshift fullback Michael Morgan set the tone early on for an outstanding all-round individual display and the Cowboys’ brilliant defensive performance, producing a miraculous try-saver on rampaging Broncos backrower Matt Gillett in the fourth minute. Morgan’s effort will take some beating as the best tackle of 2014.
Blunder of the week
Jack Reed missed a gift-wrapped opportunity to peg the Broncos back to just four points in arrears in the 51st minute in Townsville, but inexplicably dropped a ball that had sat up perfectly for him in the in-goal after chasing down a pinpoint Ben Barba kick.
Best individual performance
Back-to-back stellar displays for the Warriors against Melbourne and for New Zealand against Australia appear to have unlocked Shaun Johnson’s confidence and consistency. The Warriors No.7 was at his effervescent best in the demolition of Canberra, scoring two runaway tries and kicking nine from nine for a 26-point haul, as well as providing dazzling touches in several other tries. Touted as one of the most prodigiously talented players in the NRL but often written off as enigmatic in the same breath, Johnson shapes as one of the key men in the 2014 premiership.
James Maloney returned early from a shoulder injury to produce his best performance of the season, simultaneously staking a major claim to retain his NSW No.6 jumper ahead of in-form challengers Josh Reynolds and Jarrod Mullen. But Maloney’s club and state halves partner Mitchell Pearce’s immediate future is clouded after being arrested on Saturday night. Another Rooster, winger Daniel Tupou, took another step towards a Blues debut with two tries against the Tigers, but Manly’s Jorge Taufua remained in the frame with a freakish put-down in the plucky loss to Melbourne.
Bottom-placed Cronulla welcome back injured international Luke Lewis – but he will be in the relatively unfamiliar No.6 jumper with Todd Carney again in the casualty ward. Resurgent reigning wooden spooners Parramatta are looking to arrest a two-match losing streak and remain in touch with the NRL’s front-runners. The Eels should be too strong at home as the club’s vie for the Jon Mannah Cup.