The off-field action in the NRL is threatening to overshadow what happens on the field, with coaching and refereeing issues hogging the headlines only weeks before finals begin.
And all on a day in which Sydney Roosters lost the chance to move a game clear on top when they lost 14-12 to Canberra Raiders, and a 79th-minute Lachlan Lewis field goal sealed the points for Canterbury in a 27-26 win against the Warriors at ANZ Stadium.
After a weekend of upsets, one win separates first from sixth, the biggest jam at the top since the competition’s inception in 1908.
The only season that has come close in recent memory is 1999, when three points separated first from sixth with two rounds to play and the next two chasers were three points back.
A win on Sunday would have moved the Warriors into a share of fourth place with St George Illawarra, Penrith and Cronulla on 30 points.
Instead, they face the prospect of failing to break a six-year finals drought should they lose in the last two rounds against Penrith and Canberra, and should Wests Tigers win both its remaining matches.
“We knew it was going to be a hard job for us today. We were a little bit off in certain areas, which is pretty disappointing given what was potentially at stake,” coach Stephen Kearney said.
“Over the last three weeks it’s shown you’ve got to make sure you’re not taking short cuts. It’s a tough competition.”
After winning three of their past four to put some respectability back in their season, Bulldogs coach Dean Pay said Lewis was representative of the youthful enthusiasm coursing through the side.
“We’ve had our challenges this year and we’re a developing team,” Pay said.
“Over the last month we’ve played some decent footy and they’re learning each and every week and they’re getting better to compete the way we did today.”
Luck again deserted the Roosters in the nation’s capital, where they haven’t won since 2010.
Trent Robinson’s team had a chance to score in the final minute at GIO Stadium as it charged in attack, but a knock-on turned the ball over.
The Roosters came back from a 12-0 deficit at half-time as Victor Radley levelled the scores, but a fourth penalty goal from Sam Williams proved the difference.
The win kept Melbourne Storm, South Sydney and Roosters sharing top spot.
Fifita anger not good look for NRL: Lewis
Andrew Fifita’s outburst at Cronulla’s coaching staff during their win over North Queensland on Saturday night wasn’t a good look for the game or the club, Sharks veteran Luke Lewis admits.
Fifita apologised to teammates following the 28-16 win, when he got up from scoring a try and pointed and yelled at the Sharks’ box after spending half of the game on the bench.
“It’s definitely not the way to react and it’s not the thing we want to be sending out there to kids,” Lewis told Triple M.
“It wasn’t a good look for the game and it wasn’t a good look for our side either, which is very disappointing because we had a good win and really enjoyed it.”
Penrith and Knights fighters fined by NRL
Five players have been charged with contrary conduct after Saturday’s fight between Penrith and Newcastle, but none will be suspended.
Penrith’s Viliame Kikau, Tyrone May and Waqa Blake, together with Newcastle’s Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Danny Levi, were involved in the late brawl in Penrith’s 20-12 loss.
The loss to dropped the Panthers to fifth, equal on wins with fourth-placed St George Illawarra and sixth-placed Cronulla.
But the Panthers have a difficult run home on the road that includes the Warriors in Auckland and Melbourne at AAMI Park.
They have been far from convincing in a two-month period that claimed the head of coach Anthony Griffin.
“If they play this kind of football they are out of the finals series immediately. They were terrible,” Peter Sterling said on Nine’s Sunday Footy Show.
“Their defence has been awful for weeks and weeks, and yesterday their ball control was non-existent. They played like strangers.”
Coaches union needed more than ever
NSW State of Origin coach Brad Fittler has strengthened calls for a union to protect his club counterparts.
Plans were revealed to be in works for a coaches association last month, with former Gold Coast mentor Neil Henry spearheading the charge. The project is likely to focus largely on the education and welfare of coaches.
Wayne Bennett, Trent Barrett, Ivan Cleary, Anthony Seibold and Paul McGregor’s futures have all been thrown to the fore in the past week, in the same month Anthony Griffin was sacked by Penrith.
“The one thing that is obvious is that the coaches need a support base,” Fittler told Nine’s Sunday Footy Show.
“They need to find their own union or something. Because at the moment it’s just a farce what’s happened with the coaches and contracts and how they’re going.
“We’re two weeks away from semi-finals and no one is talking about semi-finals. They’re talking about coaches. It’s ridiculous.”
Fittler’s comments come after NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg said the league was open to bringing in rules to stop clubs from attempting to poach contracted coaches.
More sin-binning needed: Fittler
Fittler has urged the NRL’s referees to do away with warnings to captains before sin-binning players for repeated penalties on their own line, labelling the game “immature” for its current system.
More players have been sin-binned this year than any other in the NRL era – 99 in 2018 compared to 43 in 2017.
“The warning shows how immature our game is. It’s like we’re asking for permission to put someone in the sin-bin because they deserve it,” Fittler said.
“The fact you’ve got to warn them to say the next penalty you’re going to be sin-binned, to me is just absolutely crazy. You take away the whole (incentive not to offend).”
“We can stand up. If they’re doing it deliberately, sin-bin them.”
Fittler also called for the league to lengthen suspensions for dangerous crusher tackles, following Will Chambers’ contact on Jarryd Hayne in Melbourne’s win over Parramatta.
Chambers will miss three games even with an early guilty plea, while he’ll spend five games on the sideline if he contests the charge and fails.
“They need to look at these tackles a little bit heavier … The lightest a tackle like this should ever receive is three weeks,” Fittler said.
“It is just the worst part of the body to test and be aggressive with, is your neck and your spine.”