Blues contenders put their hands up
After Laurie Daley’s suspension- and injury-ravaged nightmare last weekend, several established stars eased the NSW coach’s nerves and a number of fringe candidates gave him more to ponder as a host of Blues contenders pushed their selection barrows during Round 9.
Greg Bird’s judiciary gamble backfired and incumbent five-eighth Josh Reynolds’ fate was all but sealed with another brain-snap during the representative fixtures, but their potential replacements came out of the woodwork to star at club level.
Sydney Roosters pairing Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney confirmed themselves as the Blues’ halves solution by spearheading Friday night’s 36-4 drubbing of Wests Tigers, producing exactly the type of cohesive and commanding display Daley craves from his playmakers.
Boyd Cordner, Josh Jackson and Ryan Hoffman proved backrow depth should not be a factor despite the absence of Origin staple Bird. Andrew Fifita’s blockbusting performance against the Warriors – including 21 runs for 192 metres, 37 tackles, and a stunning individual try that so very nearly snatched victory for Cronulla – surely sealed his return to a sky-blue jumper after a chequered 2014.
Meanwhile, Roosters winger Daniel Tupou made a compelling case for retention with a sterling hat-trick. The lanky flyer’s left-edge combination with club-mate Michael Jennings, along with Pearce and Maloney, is another major drawcard.
But arguably the standout NSW contender of the weekend is likely to be kept out by wily veteran Maloney and Daley’s desire for a club package deal when it comes to his halves. Canberra pivot Blake Austin followed up a blistering debut for City by slaying Gold Coast with two tries in a 56-16 walloping. Austin is receiving a groundswell of media and public support for a debut call-up, but convincing the selectors he is the man for the No.6 jumper will be more difficult.
Magic Johnson has NRL premiership at his fingertips
In the space of seven days, Warriors wizard Shaun Johnson has emerged as arguably the single most important player in the 2015 premiership. Johnson, following a sub-par start to the year, enjoyed a majestic return to form in the Kiwis’ emphatic Anzac Test defeat of the Kangaroos, before transferring his match-winning bag of tricks back to the NRL sphere in the Warriors’ vital eclipse of Cronulla on Saturday night.
It was far from a vintage 80-minute display from the halfback – several of his passes went to ground, while a baffling fourth-tackle kick out on the full in the latter stages put his side on the back foot – but the two pieces of brilliance he conjured in the final six minutes were simply beyond the capabilities of his rivals.
Johnson’s slashing break and mind-blowing pinpoint kick to lay on Solomone Kata’s try harked back to the buzzer-beater Darren Lockyer and Denan Kemp produced for the Broncos in 2008. But the will-o’-the-wisp No.7’s solo try with a minute remaining was as mesmerising as it was clutch – another dazzling highlight to add to a bulging reel.
In a premiership that is as even and unpredictable as this year’s, freakish individual brilliance – as it was with Benji Marshall in the rollercoaster 2005 competition – is the X-factor, and the likes of Johnson and Johnathan Thurston are on a different plane to their contemporaries.
Capital punishment: are Raiders the real deal?
Canberra made the rugby league world sit up and take notice with remarkable come-from-behind victories over Wests Tigers and South Sydney in the two weeks leading up to the representative break, but the unfancied Raiders must now be taken seriously as finals contenders after obliterating the visiting Gold Coast 56-16 on Saturday afternoon.
The revamped and revitalised Green Machine became the first team in 2015 to rack up a half-century – and it came against an in-form Titans outfit that had put 30-plus on their previous three opponents.
Besides boom five-eighth Austin’s top-shelf effort, rep forward Josh Papalii was in imposing form, captain Jarrod Croker notched 24 points, Edrick Lee and Jordan Rapana were superb on the flanks, and Paul Vaughan, Iosia Soliola and Shaun Fensom starred in the engine-room.
Oft-maligned coach Ricky Stuart’s mid-level recruits have all provided outstanding value and, along with making the tough calls like demoting Mitch Cornish and Josh McCrone for returning halfback Sam Williams, ‘Sticky’ has found an excellent balance in his 17.
The Raiders’ potent mixture of flair and starch suggest they will be a force to be reckoned with in this topsy-turvy premiership campaign.